Sunday 28 March 2021

Heavenly conversations in a year of Zoom classes

Ian Page, inspirational founder of what was originally Classical Opera and now goes by the collective vocal/orchestral heading of The Mozartists, wondered if his e-mail comment wouldn't look a bit pretentious out of context when I asked him if I might quote it. I'll still do so because it expressed what I've felt about those especially magical Zoom classes where musicians who haven't seen each other for some time - or even decades - find themselves together in the class and start conversing. Ian was referring to meetings with that wonderful mezzo Jean Rigby and her husband, the director Jamie Hayes, whom he hadn't seen for a quarter of a century, then with Mark Wigglesworth and Linda Esther Gray in the last Fidelio class, and added 'I've never been a particularly religious person, but it was almost like a vision of the afterlife, being able to chat about music with loved and respected friends and colleagues in a haven of timelessness!' Above, Mark (second from the right in the bottom row) is making us laugh. Ian is at the right next row up, Linda is on the left on the row above that and of course that's me second from left at the top (click if you want a bigger image).

The other three-way (four if you count myself as interlocutor) 'heavenly conversation' that brought us so much joy was between director Richard Jones and Wagnerian sopranos Sue Bullock and Dame Anne Evans. It was originally supposed to be spotlight on Richard, to talk about Act 2 of Götterdämmerung, but Sue and Anne had said they wanted to come along to see him. Sue was ready to speak, Anne had been wondering whether Zoom was for her and had asked to be a silent observer, but the other two shouted 'C'mon, Annie', so she did - and was still there at the very end as we were still shaking from emotion at her performance in Kupfer's Bayreuth Act 2. You can get a sense of the fun that was had from the below screen shot (Richard top left, Anne with a bit of husband and distinguished writer John Lucas top right, Sue centre of the second row).

So many connections made with the great and good in what now amounts to nearly a year of Zoom classes, starting out of pure necessity, have been serendipitous and charmed. I asked Ian to the Fidelio/Leonore classes because he's just released two superb CDs of 'Sturm und Drang' music familiar and obscure, and I wanted him to comment on Pizarro's raging. He then said that he'd been thinking the night before about scores he really wanted to conduct, which he was thinking about studying with a view to that, and Fidelio was at the forefront. So he came for the next four sessions. Similarly a New Best Friend made as a result of all this, the conductor (and top bassoonist) Catherine Larsen Maguire, based in Berlin, was recommended for my fourth class on the symphony, to talk about Schumann 2 and Brahms 1, and has been with us, on and off, ever since. Sometimes one of her cats, Lily, makes an appearance, though I confess the golden shot below isn't from one of our encounters.

It seems hard to believe that coming up to a year ago, I was grappling with the implications of taking my Opera in Depth class on to Zoom (we managed to reach the top of the mountain with Siegfried at Pushkin House on 9 March 2020). I was surprised and impressed by the number of students, especially the senior members, willing to give the format a try. The first class was bedevilled by poor sound quality for the excerpts, but I got some help before the second in finding how to do it perfectly. YouTube and DVD clips fell into place at a later date. The symphony course got more takers than I'd expected - after my 'Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra' course at Morley college ended because the BBC doesn't support private classes, it had been difficult to drum up numbers for orchestral music. I'm eternally grateful to Dale Bilsland of the Wagner Society of Scotland for suggesting that, since the usual Gartmore House Ring adventure was out of the question in September, I should repeat Siegfried on Zoom. Many of the new visitors not only joined me for Götterdämmerung but have also signed up for other operas and the Russian music course which will enter its fourth term in mid-April. so we've been hitting the 60-students mark. A special debt of thanks to Kirk Davis of Southern California, who rises at 6am to join us at 2.30pm UK time: a born giver.

And so we've reached the Easter break, going out on a high with the second of my extra classes on Prokofiev's War and Peace, which ran to three hours and 40 minutes thanks to the unstinting and ceaselessly fascinating presence of Graham Vick (now a 'Sir', knighted in January) who stayed with us as I ran scenes from his 2014 Mariinsky production. He'd also been responsible for the 1991 Kirov experiment, again with Gergiev, and so was a witness to history - the new adventure beginning in the 1990s, which I also witnessed on my first visits to Leningrad as it transitioned back to St Petersburg, the shutdown well under way by 2014, when Putin invaded Crimea and an amazingly radical production had to jump through all sorts of hoops to reach the stage (I'm still surprised it did). Graham told us, among other things, that the manager of the Louis Vuitton shop below where he was staying told him that their prices were higher than any other store in the world. The Russian kleptocrats expected to pay more. Needless to see, this found its way into the 'Frenchified', corrupt world of Helene and Anatol. What I hadn't realised was that the 'retreat from Moscow' was supposed to represent the exit of western values in 2014.

It looks like boasting, but actually the below list is just a record for my own benefit of the astonishing number of visits we had from musical stars. All were happy to feel part of something at a time when isolation was the norm.

The Symphony

Class 1: Haydn with Jonathan Bloxham and Ian Page

Class 2: Mozart's 'Jupiter' and Beethoven's ‘Eroica’ with Mark Wigglesworth and Jonathan Bloxham

Class 3: Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with Nicholas Collon

Class 4: Schumann's Second and Brahms's First with Catherine Larsen-Maguire

Class 5: Brahms's Fourth and Tchaikovsky's ‘Pathetique’ with Vladimir Jurowski

Class 6: Mahler's Third with Paavo Järvi

Class 7: Mahler's Ninth and Elgar's Second with Vasily Petrenko

Class 8: Sibelius's Fifth and Nielsen's Fifth with Kristiina Poska and Andres Kaljuste

Class 9: Martinů's Third, Prokofiev's Sixth and Vaughan Williams's Sixth with Mark Elder

Class 10: Shostakovich's Fifteenth with Elizabeth Wilson and Peter Manning

Class 11: Adams's Harmonielehre with Catherine Larsen-Maguire

Russian Music 1: Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with Samson Tsoy; Tchaikovsky piano music with Pavel Kolesnikov

Russian Music 2: Stravinsky’s Petrushka with Gergely Madaras; Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with Andrew Litton; Scriabin with Alexander Melnikov and Peter Jablonski (Peter was driving to a recording session at the time but made a beautifully produced short film from his home in Sweden).

Russian Music 3: Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with Elizabeth Wilson; Prokofiev ‘War Sonatas’ and Shostakovich Second Piano Trio with Steven Osborne and Boris Giltburg; Prokofiev’s violin sonatas with Alina Ibragimova and Benjamin Baker.

Opera in Depth Summer term: Strauss’s Elektra with regular commentary from Susan Bullock, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with three separate visits from Ermonela Jaho, Antonio Pappano and Mark Elder

Wagner’s Siegfried (Wagner Society of Scotland) with John Tomlinson

Opera in Depth Autumn term: Wagner's Götterdämmerung with Susan Bullock and Richard Berkeley-Steele, John Tomlinson, Anne Evans and Richard Jones

Opera in Depth Spring term: Beethoven's Fidelio/Leonore with Elizabeth Watts, Jay Hunter Morris, Ian Page, Linda Esther Gray and Mark Wigglesworth

Prokofiev's War and Peace, two extra classes: Graham Vick

These wonderful people have all come along for the love of music. I do like to send them various thanks, preferably books. My good Estonian friend Kaupo Kikkas could be called upon to supply the book of his Ansel exhibition to three contributors I knew would appreciate it. I won't mention the third yet because it needs to be a surprise, but the first two delighted recipients were Jay Hunter Morris, mighty Met Siegfried, whose YouTube film of the amazing Souper Jenny Kindness Tour he undertook with wife, son and friends around America showed me they'd visited the big natural wonders, and Boris Giltburg, who's a talented photographer as well as a great pianist. Kaupo sent me shots of the notes and dedication - this one to JMo.

And now, time to gather forces again, and enjoy what looks like it might be a rather clement Easter break. We return on 19 April to begin the summer term of Opera in Depth with Britten's Albert Herring and Mozart's La clemenza di Tito (coinciding with a new production at the Royal Opera: director Richard Jones and conductor Mark Wigglesworth have promised to visit us - hopefully together). Russian Music 4 begins with the shadow of the Zhdanov trials of 1948 on 22 April. If you'd like to join, drop me a message here with your email; I won't publish it but I shall respond.


Sarah Fletcher said...

I have felt so spoilt over the Zoom classes you have given us and thank you so much. It was wonderful to see all those wonderful artists giving their time to talk to us and colleagues with such insights and humour. They are all such a lovely bunch! No wonder we all love opera and thank God I have some tickets for Glyndebourne after far too long without live performances.

Susan Scheid said...

A cornucopia of riches, both in the brilliance of the guests AND the brilliance of our host (meaning you). These courses have been the high point of my week every week. As one example, I hope you won't mind if I put here what I wrote to you about the latest Russian Music "bonus" class on War and Peace with Graham Vick:

An extraordinary class, David—as I know you know already. Graham Vick is not only fiercely knowledgeable, but also deeply humane, extending not only to his rich understanding of Tolstoy, Prokofiev’s opera, and the character of Russia in all its manifestations, but also to his insights into his own relationship with Russia over time. The historical “accident” of mounting the second production while Russian descended again into authoritarianism, including invading the Crimea, offered a chilling undercurrent to contemplation of War and Peace. His response to Kirk that he would give anything to go back to Russia, “but I would have to go back with my own voice,” offered a poignant reminder of what Russia has become.

You and he made a tremendous tag team. There are innumerable examples of this—the way you wove in Grossman, the stunning reading by Dame Harriet and, as always, your wonderfully chosen excerpts from the opera to illustrate Prokofiev’s compositional range. Both your observations in conjunction with the Council at Fili scene offered a powerfully resonant case in point. As Vick said, the whole opera is critical of the French, with the idea that the French version of “civilization” is superficial, but he then turned any easy acceptance of that idea on its head by noting that anti-gay laws and other repressive measures are the other side of the same coin. As one of you noted, there are no new beginnings, everything remains the same—to which Vick offered the resonant parenthetical that “perhaps that’s more Lampedusa than Tolstoy.” As I believe you each concluded, it’s both, hence the timelessness of these great works. That Prokofiev had not only the audacity, but the talent, to successfully create an opera out of War and Peace—particularly given all the obstacles he had to overcome to do that—is all the more astounding when thought of in that light.

Thank you again, so much, and I look forward to what comes next.

David said...

Your reports after you've watched the videos have been a highlight of each week, too, Sue - not just because I feel stroked, but also because you always hit on what I value. I think that epic was a good point to follow with a break. We all need to digest what we've been giddied with.

And thank you, Sarah, for your loyalty over the years, and all the events you've drawn my attention to. See you in Loxford...

Willym said...

As you know I have longed wished to tap into both your company and knowledge more frequently than I have the opportunity to do - trips to London being sporadic at best. I honestly don't know why I didn't sign on earlier but when Laurent asked me what I wanted for Christmas the day after your teaser on the Nutcracker arrived in DropBox I knew immediately what I wanted from Father Christmas. And He came through.

I know I don't put in my two cents worth frequently but we'll put that down to shyness and being a bit overwhelmed by the knowledge that is in the room. But silence does not mean being unappreciative.

I'm very much looking forward to the continuation of the Soviet course. I am not terribly familiar with Albert Herring so that will be a voyage of discovery and Clemenza is a work I love dearly so it will be another adventure to see it through your eyes.

David said...

You more than make up for that with your e-observations between classes - and your comments here. I'm surprised Laurent doesn't ever want to join you, though (partners go free!). So glad, anyway, that you're now a regular.