Norman Lebrecht

Restoration man | 3 May 2018

As the curtain opens on the second act of Don Pasquale, I hear a rustle of discomfort. Donizetti’s opera has not been seen at La Scala since 1994. Its restoration, on the orders of a new music director, sets off a critical flutter and Davide Livermore’s new production, set in the Cinecittà film studio during

‘I was really, really scared’

‘Hi, it’s Jonas.’ When the great tenor rings from Vienna, I ask if there are any topics he wants me to avoid, such are his minders’ anxieties. ‘Ask anything,’ laughs Jonas. ‘I’m not shy.’ He is heading in from the airport to see a physio — ‘these concerts, you have to stand there all the

Sex, lies and conductors

I once knew a great conductor who claimed that he never boarded a plane to a new orchestra without a tube of lube in his pocket. Just in case he got lucky (which he often did). Conductors are migratory birds who fly where their agents point them, hopping from one hotel bed to the next.

The Chinese are coming

On a bullet train out of Shanghai, a nuclear family catches my eye. The father, weather-beaten and wearing an ill-fitting suit, is clearly a working man. His wife, younger and city sleek, is dressed to impress. Their son, an only child, is four or five years old. Curious, I get talking and discover they are

Rattle’s hall

Even in a Trump world where reality is what you say it is, the London Symphony Orchestra’s announcement of a new concert hall occupies a bubble of pure fantasy. New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro have been awarded a contract for a project that has no funding. Concert hall, what concert hall? The only

Director’s cut | 21 September 2017

Much fuss has been made of the title given to Sir Simon Rattle on arrival at the London Symphony Orchestra. Unlike his LSO predecessors — Valery Gergiev, Colin Davis, Michael Tilson Thomas, Claudio Abbado, André Previn — all of whom were engaged as principal conductor, Rattle has been named music director, a position that bears

Who is Kirill Petrenko?

Two summers ago, the BBC were offered a Proms visit by the Bavarian State Orchestra with its music director, Kirill Petrenko. The conversation went something like this. BBC: ‘Petrenko, isn’t he the chap that conducts Liverpool?’ Munich: ‘No, that’s Vasily Petrenko. This one is Kirill.’ BBC: ‘Well, we don’t really know about him over here.

Council of despair

Amid the general political turmoil, a flutter of hope has greeted the arrival of Sir Nicholas Serota as chairman of Arts Council England, an organisation of fading relevance. Sir Nick, grand impresario of the Tate galleries, started life as an Arts Council gofer in 1969, taught to hang pictures by the flamboyant David Sylvester, friend

In defence of Mahan Esfahani

Seven years ago I ripped the CD off the front of a music magazine and found myself in the thick of a Poulenc concerto that was being played as if life depended on it. Now Poulenc is the acme of laid-back and the solo instrument, the harpsichord, had been consigned to the junkshop before young

Secrets and spies

Spare a thought for Emil Gilels, still revered today by Russians as the foremost pianist of the Soviet era. The first to win a competition abroad (Brussels, 1938), Gilels was also first to be let out after Stalin died to reconnect cultural ties and earn hard dollars for the state coffers, of which he got

The decade the music died

For much of the past half-century, London has been the world’s orchestral capital. Not always in quality, but numerically without rival. Five full symphony orchestras and twice as many pint-sized ones kept up a constant clamour for attention. Each month brought new recordings with premier artists. Every orchestra had its own ethos, history and thumbprint.

Maestro maker

When Margaret Thatcher imagined perfect power, she thought of the orchestral conductor. ‘She envied me,’ said Herbert von Karajan, ‘that people always did what I requested.’ Power, however, is a mirage that fades as you get close. What Mrs Thatcher saw were the trappings, never the essence. Great conductors might get the glory, but someone

Two batons better

The morning after the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra failed to elect a music director, I took a call from Bild-Zeitung, Berlin’s most popular tabloid, seeking analysis. Later, they asked me to write a full-page op-ed. Now shut your eyes a moment and try to imagine any circumstance in which the Sun would ever shine an inch