Monday, 2 November 2015

Opera Looks Expensive

Opera is perceived as expensive, when actually it’s not. From out outreach perspective, it’s a lose-lose situation, and something the whole culture needs to address. Several bloggers have been writing on this subject recently, mostly in response to a television interview, in which Gavin Esler posed questions to Jonas Kaufmann based on the assumption of opera’s expense. @chaconato has done sterling work in demonstrating that opera tickets are not expensive, and that in fact they are relatively cheap. 

So clearly this is an image problem. Bob Shingleton agrees. He thinks one of the culprits is online streaming, especially when offered free. Opera tickets seem expensive by comparison with free, so his argument goes. I’m inclined to disagree with this thesis, but I’ll readily admit that is because I value and enjoy webstreams of concerts and opera performances, and like to think that I don’t associate their financial cost with their artistic and cultural value. 

That, of course, is where I’m deluding myself. The capitalist impulse to quantify value in material terms is innate. It’s not the only way we judge things, but it is always in the mix somewhere. This is where opera’s image and cultural status become a problem. Opera must defend a precarious position in the world of theatre, one that is predicated on the notion of “high art”. That is what separates it from the much larger, more profitable – and more expensive – world of commercial musical theatre. 

The distinction is fundamental to the survival of opera; it’s what justifies the public subsidy that keeps it afloat. Generic distinctions do separate the two art forms, but so too do the actual experiences of seeing and hearing them. Opera maintains its “high art” appearance by looking expensive - that basic equation between financial and artistic value. Just look at the décor of the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum. Then there is the dress code, something that few opera advocates have ever made any serious efforts to defend (John Christie’s explanation that it is out of respect for the performers a rare and tenuous effort). 

The fact is that opera needs to be seen as superior and special. It must present itself with the trappings of aristocracy, whoever its target audience might actually be. It’s an integral part of what makes opera distinctive – and eligible for subsidy on artistic grounds. The irony is deep and entrenched: that opera must look expensive to qualify for the funding that keeps it cheap.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Lebrecht, Sokolov…and Sokolov’s wife

Grigory Sokolov’s refusal of the Cremona Award, on account its having previously been presented to Norman Lebrecht, has generated much debate about the cause of their antagonism. Some have speculated that it’s a result of a blogpost Lebrecht wrote in 2013 questioning Sokolov’s greatness on the curious grounds of his not being willing to perform in the UK. But a reply to my previouspost on this story, from one ‘ADGO’, points to a more compelling reason. Here is the message in full:

“As Lebrecht refused to post my comment on his blog Slippedisc, I will copy-paste it here for all to read. He cannot bury his shameless actions forever.

Recall last year that soon after Sokolov's wife passed away, the pianist published a cryptic letter which began, 'To my astonishment, I have learned about some delirious inventions made on the subject of my wife's life'. This can be read in full on Sokolov's website or on AMC. The cause of that was most likely Norman Lebrecht's blog post in which he speculated about Sokolov marrying his dead cousin's wife, going into detail about the apparent Sokolov family tree. You can find this blog post still on Slippedisc, and the links at the bottom of it which lead to the old Sokolov website. Click any of those links and you'll see a message which states that Norman Lebrecht should not be believed. Lebrecht's rash and shameless speculation about Sokolov's recently deceased wife is most likely the reason why Sokolov refuses to associate with him. I want to make this clear as it is the only sensible public explanation for Sokolov's refusal. There may be private reasons no one can know about, but the public one is there for all to see.

On another matter....I've attended Sokolov's recitals for nearly 15 years and he is without doubt the greatest pianist I've ever heard. If you can't hear him in the UK--which I used to--then take a trip to Brussels or Amsterdam and it'll most likely turn into one of the great concert experiences of your life.”

And Sokolov’s response here:
As the earlier version of Lebrecht’s post on Sokolov’s site shows, “his wife was also his cousin’s widow” originally read “his wife was also his aunt”, a more lurid claim and, as it turns out, a false one. Lebrecht could probably have avoided this whole incident if he had issued an acknowledged correction and an apology, rather than the “update” we get instead. But, of course, that’s not how Lebrecht works.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Evidence Grigory Sokolov refused the Cremona Music Award

A fascinating document came to light this morning, a letter from Grigory Sokolov to the committee of the Mondomusica Festival, apparently turning down the Cremona Music Award on the grounds that it would mean he appeared on a list with Norman Lebrecht, a previous winner. His closing line is particularly incendiary “According to my ideas about elementary decency, it is shame to be in the same award-winners list with Lebrecht.”

But is it real? The website on which it appears,, has no official links with Sokolov or his management. From what I can gather, it is registered in Australia and hosted in Israel. Given the antagonism that Lebrecht generates, there could be no shortage of potential candidates for a forgery, although the handwriting is impressively similar to that on a Sokolov letter that does appear on his management’s website.

Well, here's proof at least that he was announced as a winner of the award, but that he had been removed from the list by the time they were actually presented. Here is the webpage announcing the winners today:

And here is how it looked on 12 September, four days before the date on the letter (courtesy of the Google cache).

No doubt the details will all become clear in due course, including the Lebrecht connection, for which I’ve no proof here. But it certainly seems that Sokolov turned down the award.

UPDATE (28/9/15): Gramophone Magazine confirmed the letter to be genuine today, after contacting Sokolov's General Manager, Franco Panozzo. For more on the story, please visit:

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Marsyas Trio Elena Firsova CD Launch

A Triple Portrait: The new CD from the Marsyas Trio presents chamber music by Elena Firsova. The Trio is made up of flute (Helen Vidovich), cello (Valerie Welbanks) and piano (Fei Ren), and they are joined on the recording by a violin, viola and two voices. So there is an eclectic mix of sound colours here, but Firsova’s style is focussed and distinctive, bringing unity to the programme. Firsova and the Trio have been working together for several years, and the work that gives the disc its title was commissioned by the ensemble in 2011. It has certainly been a fruitful partnership, with the young players making a real commitment to Firsova’s lyrical but often challenging music.

As a launch event, the Trio gave a recital on 6 May. This turned out to be just a few weeks after Firsova’s 65th birthday, to which the event was also dedicated. It took place at the Marylebone home of Bob and Elizabeth Boas, a fabulous Georgian townhouse which regularly hosts performances by up-and-coming performers. I was invited to give a presentation at the start of the event, a short conversation with the composer. Here we are:

Four of Firsova’s works were included in the concert. Night Songs, op. 125, is a sombre setting of Osip Mandelstam, a poet whose work permeates Firsova’s music. Lost Vision, op. 137, is a volatile piano piece, its composition triggered by a misdiagnosis suggesting that Firsova was about to lose her sight. Meditation in the Japanese Garden, op. 54, dates back to Firsova’s first months in the UK, when the family was based at Dartington, a time of great tranquillity it would seem. And to conclude, Tender is the Sorrow, op. 130, a reflective piece for a larger ensemble, with violin and viola, dedicated to the memory of Firsova’s aunt, but just as significantly, dating from 2010, at the start of the Trio’s collaboration with the composer.
Left to right: Valerie Welbanks, Patrick Dawkins, Elena Firsova, Helen Vidovich, Fei Ren, Morgan Goff

As a bonus, we were also treated to an exhibition of artwork by Firsova’s son, Philip Firsov. He was commissioned by the ensemble to create a piece for the cover of the CD and, given the group’s name, he came up with something suitably gruesome. His work is vivid, but finely nuanced in colour and texture. There is a strong Russian dimension too, I was reminded of Oscar Rabin, though Firsov was only a young child when the family moved to the UK. Check out his excellent website here.

An excellent evening all round, and the ideal way to launch the Marsyas Trio’s debut recording. (It's on the Meridian label: CDE 84635). Review to follow – watch this space.