Bad conduct

To be honest, my friendship with Michael Tilson Thomas hasn’t gone quite as I had hoped. It started in February 1990, when he chose a Tallis Scholars track for one of his desert island discs. This was a movement from a mass by Josquin des Prez, that he said (apparently impromptu) was music which ‘completely comforts me and brings me into a state of tranquillity’. I thought I might have found a new messiah. For many years now I have had the hope of meeting an orchestral conductor who is prepared to take on the challenges of performing a major work from the unaccompanied choral repertoire. Of course there have

The long goodbye

There’s been a clutch of middle-aged danseuses taking leave of life in one way or another recently. We’ve seen the abject (Mariinsky star Diana Vishneva’s solo show at the Coliseum) and the magnetic (Alessandra Ferri mournfully channelling Virginia Woolf at the Royal Ballet). A fortnight ago, the Paris Opéra’s aristocratic Aurélie Dupont retired from the stage in one of her great roles, as did American Ballet Theatre’s stellar women Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes in New York. For top ballerinas and their fans it’s a harsh act of killing, a flower cut off in its fullest bloom. Darcey Bussell has said she sank into depression when she retired at 38,

Can you ballet-dance to words?

Can you ballet-dance to words? How can choreography make any seriously worthwhile addition to a piece of music like Mahler’s vocal symphony Das Lied von der Erde? Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 ballet Song of the Earth, currently on at Covent Garden, is frequently hailed as a masterpiece, but just as often you read comments by people baffled by it, lost in its length and orchestral density, and in their incomprehension of the German/Chinese verses that provided both composer and choreographer with their narratives. The Royal Opera House authorities believed the exercise shouldn’t be attempted at all, and MacMillan, fresh in 1965 from the huge success of his new Romeo and Juliet

Even a perfect opera such as Don Giovanni improves with a good red

End of season is always bittersweet, the melting snows a bit like autumn leaves. But the days are longer and soon spring will chase away any remaining winter blues. The Eagle Club’s closing is a perennial festive day, with speeches by our president Urs Hodler, an almost teary goodbye to our very own Pino — who has seated and fed us for 44 years — and the Taki Cup awards, won the past two years by my son J.T. in record time: 34 minutes to conquer the highest mountain in Gstaad. (Charlotte Cotton was only five minutes slower, an amazing feat for a young woman.) It was a hell of

Birmingham Royal Ballet review: A Father Ted Carmina Burana

We ballet-goers may be the most self-deceiving audiences in theatre. Put a ‘new work’ in front of us and half of us go into conniptions because the classical palace is being brought down and the other half into raptures at not having to sit through some old-hat ballet-ballet. Twenty years ago, David Bintley was appointed artistic director at Birmingham Royal Ballet. For his debut creation there, having defined himself at Covent Garden as a well house-trained classical choreographer, he picked on Carl Orff’s bold, brash choral work about naughty medieval priests, Carmina Burana. The London critics’ reception was broadly (if I remember rightly — I was one of them) sniffy.

Mahler’s Fifth is the perfect soundtrack to a tooth extraction

Frantic chewing of sugar-coated nicotine gum had caused my left lower molar to go irretrievably rotten, and the dentist finally extracted it after a prolonged and heroic struggle. Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor was playing in the background and the extraordinary thing was that from start to finish the music exactly mirrored the vicissitudes of his battle to pull the tooth out. While we waited for the anaesthetic to take effect the music was gently soporific. As he applied his pliers to the tooth and carefully loosened it, the mood darkened and built to a turbulent climax until I gestured with an unhappy hand signal that I could

RIP Alice Herz-Sommer

The 110-year-old pianist and oldest known Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, who was imprisoned in Theresienstadt concentration camp, has died. Her extraordinary life, which included childhood encounters with Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka, latterly became the subject of several documentaries, the most recent of which, The Lady in Number Six, was this year nominated for an Oscar. A clip from it can be seen above. In a BBC interview with Judith Herman, Herz-Sommer chose some of her favourite recordings, many of which were made when she was in her 90s and are miraculous: More wit and wisdom and astonishing playing from the 105-year-old Herz-Sommer can be found in this clip from

How Claudio Abbado bridged old and new

Not long ago the great conductors of classical music were general practitioners. They expected to give satisfactory interpretations of music written from the beginnings of symphonic composition to the present day, and audiences took it for granted that, if they knew what they were doing with Mozart and Beethoven, they could be trusted with Handel and Stravinsky. Their orchestras adopted the same approach and, within a narrow definition that bespeaks a more innocent age, everyone was content. There was little concern that Handel would not have recognised the sound that the instruments of the modern orchestra was making; and no one was disturbed that the big hero figure out front

Goodbye, Claudio Abbado. You helped us glimpse eternity

Fellini’s credo ‘the visionary is the only true realist’ could also be applied to the life of Claudio Abbado, who died earlier this week in Bologna at the age of 80. It would be wrong to think of Abbado as a dreamer, for conducting at the angelic heights to which he ascended is a matter of serious thought, but he had the gift, rarer than is commonly supposed, of liberating musicians. Being liberated, they gave performances of such beauty and emotional power that those who heard them will consider their lives enriched; in many cases transformed. Milan-born, Abbado grew up musically in Vienna, where he studied with Hans Swarowsky, and

A world-class orchestra in the heart of São Paulo’s Crackland

São Paulo has a concert hall that London’s orchestras would kill for. It was originally a railway station, a mighty space bounded by Corinthian pilasters in the style of a French palace, built by Brazilian coffee barons. Now the tracks are buried beneath 800 seats on the main floor, plus another 700 on the balconies and mid-air boxes facing the stage. But it’s the ceiling that produces gasps, or, in the case of a children’s concert I attended, earsplitting squeals of wonder. You’d think Superman had arrived. You see, the ceiling is made up of 15 huge, lavishly decorated panels that match the walnut floor. And they move! Up and