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The ‘implicit danger’ of a violin concerto



Daniel PioroImage copyright
Hugh Carswell

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Daniel Pioro will premiere a new violin work by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood at this year’s Proms

The concerto is the ultimate display of musical virtuosity – pitching a soloist against the orchestra as they alternate, compete and combine in a constantly changing dialogue.

Those dynamics are crystallised in the word concerto itself, which has two, apparently contradictory, meanings: Competition and agreement.

But the tension explains why these pieces have become such a favourite with composers and audiences alike: It’s a thrill to see performers pushed to their limit, generating astonishing displays of dexterity and musicality.

Some performances have even higher stakes: Beethoven only finished his violin concerto on the day of its premiere in December 1806, forcing soloist Franz Clement to sight-read parts of his performance (according to legend, Clement was so annoyed that he interrupted the performance to premiere a composition of his own, played on one string, with the violin held upside down).

Tchaikovsky’s sole violin concerto, meanwhile, was so demanding that it was called “unplayable” – or “unviolin-able” – when it was first published.

“It’s a feat of stamina,” admitted Nicola Benedetti before performing it at the Royal Albert Hall this summer, “no other concerto comes close”.

This year, the Proms has shone a spotlight on the violin concerto with 10 works, old and new, peppered throughout the season. So what’s it like to perform one of these pieces at the world’s biggest festival of classical music?

We spoke to three soloists – Nathaniel Anderson-Frank, who led a tribute to Proms founder Henry Wood on 31 August; Stephanie Childress, who’ll play at Proms in the Park in Glasgow on 14 September; and Daniel Pioro, who premieres a new violin work by Radiohead star Johnny Greenwood, Horror Vacui, on Tuesday night.

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Press release / Charles Leek

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Nathaniel Anderson-Frank and Stephanie Childress

Why are violin concertos such a big draw?

Daniel: “I’m not sure that they are. Beautiful music is a big draw. Music that means something, that provokes, that births new ideas. Music that is sentimental too, and stirs memories. Some of these precious ingredients are found in violin concertos and I think that is what is loved, not the violin concerto in itself.”

Nathaniel: “But there’s also the implicit ‘danger’ in the concerto format, to which audiences respond: A lone soloist is pitted against the massed forces of the orchestra. The violinist is like a high-wire tightrope walker, totally calm and concentrated, while executing astonishing feats with grace and beauty. “

Tchaikovsky’s concerto was originally called “unviolin-able”. How have you approached it?

Stephanie: “It was actually was one of the first concertos I ever played with an orchestra and I’d agree with the idea it’s ‘un-violinistic’ in its writing, particularly the semiquaver passages in the first movement. Structurally it also seems quite unbalanced, with a very long, repetitive first movement. However, I don’t think indulging in every single phrase – as many performers do – is wise in this case. The piece has so much energy and life in it, it should not be held back!”

Daniel: “It’s just the most beautiful piece of music. Living with the work will make it yours, and this is definitely a piece worth living with.”

How do you keep familiar pieces by Mozart, Brahms and Stravinsky fresh and spontaneous?

Stephanie: “I find that listening to interpretations other than your own can be very enlightening, if not troubling!”

Nathaniel: “I also find that time spent away from the instrument can provide musical rejuvenation – walks in the woods, swimming in the sea. For me, that connection to the natural world is vital.”

Daniel: “It’s not my job to play music, I do it because I love it. Spontaneity is very easy this way. There are no patterns to replicate, and no context in which I cannot change my mind or see things differently.”

Stephanie: “Being ‘in the moment’ during a performance can also lead you through different versions of the same phrase.”

Do you find your interpretation changes when you play with different orchestras and conductors?

Stephanie: “Every time you play with an orchestra, you have the power to establish a dialogue unique to that time and place. My fundamental thoughts about a piece might not necessarily change, but the way I achieve a joint interpretation with a group of players will inevitably be different on every occasion.”

Nathaniel: “Yes, certainly. Every ensemble has a slightly different interpretation of where the beat falls in relation to the conductor’s gesture. As a leader I am especially aware of these differences, and you have to remain flexible to adapt as required.”

Daniel: “It’s a beautiful thing when you can learn from your collaborators, but it’s not the key to creativity. That key is only within you. Actually, as I think on this, the question itself becomes quite strange. Imagine if you had so little sense of self, or such a limited idea of the music you want to make that it changed depending on who you played with. It’d be like changing your mind every single time you spoke to a new person.”

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Media captionRadiohead star Jonny Greenwood prepares for his first Prom

What’s your favourite concerto to play?

Nathaniel: “I have always been drawn to the Beethoven Concerto for it’s depth of emotion and expression, achieved with such extraordinary economy of musical material.”

Stephanie: “Currently, my favourite concerto is Bohuslav Martinu’s Second Violin Concerto, although I’ve never performed it! It’s not often played which is a shame, but the solo line weaves a very complex narrative, which I think breaks with a lot of other more ‘traditional’ approaches to the concerto. The orchestration is also incredibly rich which is one of Martinu’s trademarks.”

Daniel: “Thomas Adès’ Concentric Paths: a work that somehow manages to encapsulate life cycles and time. I don’t even know where to begin as I can’t fathom how he wrote it in the first place, but it’s satellites and astrophysics and discovery in a single piece of music. So much happens in the stillnesses; and in the fastest, most complex passages, time stands still.”

Finally, what can you tell us about the violin you’re playing at the Proms?

Daniel: “It’s a violin by Christoph Götting, a true master of modern violin making. It is modelled on the Viotti Strad, as I requested when I met him.”

Nathaniel: “I use two different instruments at the moment. One is a 1682 violin from Turin by Giofreddo Cappa; the other is a 2019 instrument made in London by Alexandre Valois. Both are beautiful and inspire me in different ways. Listeners just have to guess which one I’m using at the Proms!”

Stephanie: “I’m playing a gorgeous violin made by Francesco Gobetti in around 1710, which I came across in 2014 after many years of searching for a new instrument. It’s very important to find an instrument which matches your level whilst pushing your standard of playing. I fell in love with it the moment I played it and have never looked back. My bow was made by François Nicolas Voirin, one of the most celebrated French bow-makers of the last 300 years – it’s honestly the best bow I’ve ever played so I hope to never part ways with it!”

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Liam Gallagher on how his feud with Noel upsets their mum




Former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher has told BBC Radio 5 Live how he thinks his feud with brother Noel upsets their mum.

Speaking to Nihal Arthanayake, he said: “If, God forbid, something happens to my mam, and we haven’t made up by then, then there will be war.”

Click here to listen to the full interview on BBC Sounds.

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Michael Jackson estate calls Leaving Neverland’s Emmy Award a ‘farce’




Michael Jackson and Wade RobsonImage copyright
Channel 4

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In Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson (pictured) says he was abused by Jackson in the 1990s

Michael Jackson’s estate has called the decision to give Leaving Neverland the Emmy Award for best documentary a “complete farce”.

Leaving Neverland, which first aired in March, focuses on two men who claim the pop superstar abused them as children.

“For a film that is a complete fiction to be honoured in a non-fiction Emmy category is a complete farce,” the estate said in a statement.

It said there was “not one shred of proof” to support the show’s claims.

Leaving Neverland earned a total of five nominations ahead of the weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys, and it went on to win outstanding documentary or non-fiction special.

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Getty Images

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Director Dan Reed said his film had “launched many important conversations”

The controversial film, directed by Dan Reed, includes interviews with Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who were aged seven and 10 when the singer befriended them and their families.

When the Emmy nominations were first announced, Reed said the recognition meant a great deal to all involved.

“Since Leaving Neverland aired in March, it has launched many important conversations about child sexual abuse and the grooming that accompanies it,” he said. “This was why James Safechuck and Wade Robson and their families spoke out, and why we made the documentary.

“We’re delighted that the Academy has honoured that purpose.”

But after the win, the Jackson estate said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter: “Not one shred of proof supports this completely one-sided, so-called documentary which was made in secrecy and for which not one person outside of the two subjects and their families were interviewed.”

After Leaving Neverland’s premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, Jackson’s estate called the project “a tabloid character assassination” and insisted it “isn’t a documentary”.

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Muna: Saving the world, one breath at a time




MunaImage copyright
Isaac Schneider

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Muna (L-R): Naomi McPherson, Katie Gavin and Josette Maskin

“If you don’t mind, I’m just gonna take a breath.”

Muna’s lead singer, Katie Gavin, is speaking to a packed audience at London’s Village Underground to request a time out.

It’s not because she’s got jet-lag (although she has); or because she’s exhausted from leaping around the stage (she is). Instead, she’s recognised the looming symptoms of an anxiety attack.

Her bandmates Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin rally around and, for the next 60 seconds, they slowly inhale and exhale under the spotlights. The audience joins in, too, transforming the gig into a sort of mass yoga session.

“It felt really good,” Gavin tells the BBC a day later. “I’m glad we did it – breathing is something that’s helped me with my anxiety around singing.”

Her vocal insecurities began when Muna toured their first album, About U, two years ago. Gavin developed “obsessive thinking,” fixating on unconscious mechanisms like breathing and swallowing as panic took hold.

Relaxation techniques helped her tackle the problem – hence the pause in Monday night’s show.

“It felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, except the issue is I don’t want to be out of my body, I want to be there, and breathing is something that helps me re-centre,” she explains.

McPherson, the band’s producer and musical polymath, suggests breathing exercises should henceforth become compulsory at all their gigs.

“I think it’s hard for everyone to stay in the moment at a rock show, especially now with social media and stuff, because you’re filming a lot of it. Taking a breath is like taking a moment to be present,” she says.

“I mean, music is cool, but have you tried breathing?”

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Getty Images

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“We’ve had moments of silence at shows before,” says Gavin

The band dissolve into laughter. They laugh a lot, especially when the conversation threatens to get too earnest. But they’re also in stitches as they discuss cult comedy Derry Girls (McPherson does a terrible impersonation of the accent), and Maskin’s morbid fear of zombies.

“I absolutely hate them,” she protests. “I think about when I used to play tag or hide and seek: When the other kids came to get me, I would freeze. So if the zombies came to get me, I’d be rooted to the ground.”

“So you’re actually thinking about your own reflexes,” McPherson teases, “and that’s what scares you the most!”

‘Solidarity in difference’

That self-deprecating humour is present in the title of their second album, Muna Saves The World – simultaneously embracing their role as a queer-identifying, politically-progressive band, while recognising the inherent absurdity of that.

Gavin’s lyrics don’t serve up recipes for world peace, either. Instead she navigates weighty topics like addiction, alienation, romantic desolation and cycles of abusive behaviour.

“It’s called Muna Saves The World but it’s really about saving yourself,” she explains.

Released last week, the album has received rave reviews across the board.

“Muna’s music wonders what pop might sound like if it was made by punks, and what relatability could feel like to people who have always felt different,” wrote NPR’s Catherine Whelan. “It soars and sinks, questions and answers. Like the band who makes it, the music itself seems to find solidarity in difference.”

But the album almost never happened.

The band were still students at the University of Southern California in 2014 when they made their debut album – 12 tracks of empathetic, sinuous synth-pop that eventually caught the ear of floral trouser enthusiast Harry Styles.

The former One Direction star invited Muna to tour Europe with him, amplifying and echoing their messages of tolerance and queer acceptance at every show.

“He’s using us as a way of saying something without actually saying it,” McPherson told the BBC at the time, “which is actually very smart”.

When the tour ended in Milan, Styles gave them Gucci shoes, and they hung around in Italy to take cookery classes before heading back to LA to start their second record. And that’s when things started to go wrong.

‘Second adolescence’

Gavin fell into a long post-tour depression, while her bandmates were forced to move back into Maskin’s parents’ house. The songs weren’t coming together, either. A planned concept album about Joseph Campbell’s concept of The Hero’s Journey, was eventually abandoned.

“It was very emotionally challenging,” remembers McPherson. “I cried a lot.”

“It was hard, really frickin’ hard,” Maskin agrees. “There were points when we thought, ‘Can we do this at all?'”

Eventually, the trio realised they’d rushed into the studio too soon. The first album had changed their lives and they’d formed an inseparable bond but, emotionally, they were the same teenage students who’d recorded About U in McPherson’s bedroom. It was time to grow up.

“It was like a second adolescence kicking in,” says McPherson. “In your mid-20s you have to go through the icky growing pains all over again.”

“I think we all had to separate from each other, so we could better understand ourselves and our position in the group,” adds Maskin.

Gavin sums it up best: “It’s like, if you’ve been in a long-term relationship, eventually you realise that other person can’t be the solution to all your problems.

“You’re like, ‘I’m in love but I still hate myself – what’s up there? I’ve got to go and fix that’. So you’ve still gotta stick up for you, and then show up in the studio with love to give.”

Six months in, a break-through. Driving through California, Gavin came up with a fantastically deadpan lyric: “So I heard the bad news/Nobody likes me and I’m gonna die alone in my bedroom/Looking at strangers on my telephone.”

It became the opening verse of Number One Fan, a throbbing, Robyn-esque dance track, that’s really about battling those destructive inner voices and loving yourself. It is the story of Muna’s crisis of confidence distilled into three minutes.

The rest of the album is just as raw. Stayaway finds Gavin locked in her bedroom, avoiding anything – friends, music, drink – that might tempt her back into the arms of an ex (“every moment is a fork in the road and every road leads back to you,” she sighs).

On Taken, she’s furious with herself for tempting someone into an affair, then furious with them for agreeing to it – because it reminds her of how her father cheated on her mum: “I hate you ’cause you’re just like him.”

The idea of the hero’s journey hasn’t been completely abandoned, either. Gavin opens the album singing: “I want to grow up/I want to put away my childish things/I think that I’m ready”. By the closing track, she’s reached some sort of resolution.

Over six minutes of percolating synths, she documents her life so far – flirting with casual sex and communism, smoking cigarettes, cutting off her hair, having suicidal thoughts, forming and nearly losing a band – before looking in the mirror and declaring: “It’s gonna be ok, baby”.

“You cut so close to the bone on this record,” marvels Maskin.

Gavin prefers to recall another piece of feedback, from McPherson’s mother: “This album has a lot less pretence”.

Image copyright
Sony Music

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The band are back in the UK for their first headline tour this winter

“I think about that a lot,” laughs the singer.

“I didn’t know there was stuff I was leaving off the page on the first record. Like, I don’t think I was necessarily aware of the mask I had on.

“I think that’s part of your journey as an artist, you’re just consistently sloughing off layers. And that was the hope, making this record, that I’d be able to be more honest than I was before.”

Will it save the world? Probably not. But Muna’s willingness to gouge out those deep, unwanted emotions and insist on self-preservation gives hope to anyone who, like them, has felt alone and aimless.

“I’m not the kind of person to believe in fate, but I do believe that some things are supposed to exist,” says Maskin, “and I’ve always felt that way about Muna specifically: Everything we’ve done, we were supposed to do.”

One breath at a time.

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