Archives for March 2010

No sleep 'til Istanbul

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Khyam Allami Khyam Allami | 20:41 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

01_Ehsan_Emam_Khyam-.jpgIt's been a month since the last blog and again... there's so much that has happened, the difficulty really is trying to remember what I've been doing! Thank time for chronology.

14 Feb: 'Ud solo mixed with a reading of an Iraqi love poem, Love Under the Rain by Abd al-Wahab al-Bayati to give a hint of Valentine's Day at a Stop The War Coalition fundraiser in Balham. Not quite sure which went down better, the 'Ud or the poetry. Either way, it was good fun.

24 Feb: Played an intimate acoustic show with Knifeworld (the band I play drums in) in Stoke Newington. Went down well and good fun to boot. We'll be back in full Rock form at the end of the month. Details below.

25 Feb - 3 Mar: Spent a week in (cold and snowy) Sweden between Gothenburg and Stockholm and finally had the chance to meet and play with Ahmad Al-Khatib. Such a wonderful person and an amazing 'Ud player. We met for three days and played as much as time would allow. Plans have been made for our project and the rest will be developed over the next few months. Ahmad's newest compositions and latest recordings with his group Karloma sound great. Can't wait to hear the final result!

Frantic emailing trying to organise a workshop and a show in London for the end of March. Many text messages later everything settled in its place and my dear friend Andrea Piccioni will be flying over from Rome especially. Details below.

4 Mar: Twenty minute live interview and performance with ustadh Ehsan Emam on BBC Arabic service. Very nerve racking but all went well.

6 Mar: Performed a selection of Cypriot Greek, Persian and Iraqi songs with Maria Rijo, Shahrzad Alonso Javdan and Nicoletta Demetriou accompanied by Elizabeth Nott on percussion in celebration of International Women's Day for an event organised by the Iraqi Woman's League UK. Wonderful feeling to hear the Iraqi community singing along and see us all working together so hard.

02_khyam_lucy_duran.jpg17 Mar: Recorded a full episode of World Routes dedicated to Iraqi music and the World Routes Academy. Can't tell you how much hard work went into choosing all the music and preparing for the programme. After some very last minute changes, all went smoothly and we are all happy with the results. Hope you enjoy the programme. It will broadcast on Saturday 27th March.

Now looking ahead..

Sat 27 Mar: 3pm
World Routes Iraqi music special broadcast on Radio 3

Sat 27 Mar: 11am-4pm
Andrea Piccioni frame drums workshop

Sat 27 Mar: Evening
Come and see Khyam rock the drums with Knifeworld at The Unicorn, Camden Town, free entry!

Sun 28 Mar: 2pm
Back to the 'Ud again - Khyam Allami & Andrea Piccioni + Cigdem Aslan Quartet at The Green Note, Camden Town

29 Mar: Istanbul... sleep!

  • The top picture shows Khyam and Ehsan Emam recording for the BBC Arabic Service
  • The photo above shows Khyam talking to Lucy Duran, presenter of Radio 3's World Routes. The photo below shows Khayam recording the music for the programme.


Charlie Gillett remembered

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 12:25 UK time, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Tributes to Charlie Gillett have been flowing in. Below are two blog contributions from BBC colleagues who worked with Charlie. 

charlie_gillett.jpgFrom BBC Radio 3 producer Felix Carey

I had the pleasure of working with Charlie for a couple of years as one of the producers of World on 3 and a session that sticks in my mind was from May 2009 when singer-songwriter Lhasa de Sela came in with guitarist Joe Grass to perform some new material.  In the rehearsal Lhasa warmed up with some of Sam Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come - something she had only ever sung to herself at home - and later, in the middle of recording the programme, Charlie asked her whether she would try a complete version of the song, as an experiment.  That moment - and her amazing performance - was the highlight of the session for me, and typical of Charlie's approach - he never scripted anything and always wanted to leave space for what might happen in the studio. I think it was this spontaneity combined with his understated, natural presentation style that made him such a compelling listen.

If the programme was pre-recorded he didn't like the idea of being 'de-ummed', or made to sound too slick - it always had to feel as real as possible.  If guests brought in CDs for his 'radio ping-pong' sessions he definitely wouldn't want to know what they were until he pressed 'play' on the CD player. Then there was his encyclopaedic knowledge, and the sheer range of music he could bring to a DJ set or radio programme - you might find Sidney Bechet making an appearance in between Tom Ze and Fat Freddy's Drop - and there was always an unexpected connection, or a good story.  He never had a problem with the term 'world music' - he firmly believed that if it led to airtime or some kind of platform for quality non-mainstream music from around the world that would otherwise be overlooked, then it was a good thing.  


From Late Junction presenter Max Reinhardt

charlie_gillett_sm.jpgCharlie has been on our radios for the best part of 40 years, part of the fabric of our lives, one of the great radio voices of our time. He was, I suppose, like a wise older brother to me even before I got to know him: an authoritative guide who took me down the byways of r'n'b and rock & roll, and deep into African music and onwards; whose The Sound of the City was the longest non-fiction book I'd ever read cover to cover at the time; who opened up a whole world of music and along the way, I discovered that that was the musical ocean in which I wanted to swim as a DJ.

About 20 years ago I got to know him, first as a guest on his Capital Radio show and then at various nights at which I DJ'd, sometimes alongside him. Any chat or gig with Charlie always felt like a privilege, because of the warmth of his charm, insight, wisdom, knowledge, energy, humility, musical integrity... and because he made such a difference. It's very difficult to imagine the evolution of this genre called World Music without Charlie's vision and advocacy.

Two Charlie gems that stay with me: Calming me down about some encounter I'd had on the radio, he told me something like, 'We're enthusiasts, not's always worth reminding people of that and if we make mistakes then the listeners put us right.' And at WOMAD last year we were talking about what could be played on Radio 3. 'Its all in our heads you know, there are no limits when it comes to music except for the ones we set for ourselves.' Thanks for everything, Charlie

  • The top photo (copyright BBC) shows Charlie broadcasting in the LP era ...

Radio 3 presenters in focus

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Andrew Downs Andrew Downs | 16:23 UK time, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

I've spent the best part of the last few weeks with director Paul Lucas making a series of short video profiles featuring Radio 3 presenters. Most of these we're publishing on the website this week.

To misquote Iain Burnside speaking in his video profile about presenting classical music: 'One of the things about making videos of radio presenters is that it's not all easy.'

One characteristic I soon encountered on this project is the reluctance of typical Radio 3 presenters to talk about themselves. Reasonably, one or two made the point that they had not gone into radio to be on video.

filming_01.jpgThe intimacy presenters can engineer on the radio between themselves and listeners is often a highly valued aspect of the job. The anecdotes and passion started to flow when I explained that this project would offer some insight for our audience into the human being behind the radio dial.

Each of us is a rag-bag of our history (most of it chaotic), aspects of which have catalysed our beliefs and passions and may have sent us on surprising trajectories through life. The Radio 3 presenters I worked with on these videos exhibit these facets richly. We challenged a handful of our station's talented yet unassuming presenters to share with us something personal. I hope with these videos we've done justice to their eloquent and spirited responses.

  • Andrew Downs is a Content Producer in the Radio 3 interactive team.
  • You can view the videos by clicking this link
  • The top image is a composite photo of the crew catching up on sleep on the late train home after shooting Tom Service's presenter video at Hartland Quay, Devon. Photo: Dave Tree
  • The lower image shows the crew filming with Sarah Mohr-Pietsch at Dartington Hall. Photo: Andrew Downs

Radio 3's Donald Macleod meets Stephen Sondheim

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Donald Macleod Donald Macleod | 12:13 UK time, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

stephen_sondheim_bbc_1990sm.jpgWhen it comes to interviewing living legends, I am something of a novice. But Stephen Sondheim, the master of music theatre and the great luminary of American showbiz, certainly is a living legend to those who admire his work - and they are legion.  One of the interesting things about Sondheim is how sharply he divides people. In the other camp from those who idolise him are those who think he's just too clever by half, and prone to sentimentality.

In my job I get to interview a good few awesome figures from the world of music, but this assignment had me worried, I have to say.  The last time I can remember being that wound up about an interview is when, as the most verdant of greenhorn reporters (very briefly!) for BBC News and Current Affairs, I was dispatched to interview Mrs Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. I was very nearly sick before having to face the Iron Lady! Fortunately it was only a local Finchley constituency matter and I emerged unscathed (and, I think I can honestly say, completely unnoticed). 

It's quite an intimidating business meeting a composer face-to-face and talking them through their entire working lives, from first steps to latest work, trying to remember every tiny detail I've swotted up on about them, as well as trying to keep all the music I've listened to over the previous week - that's how long I have to prepare - in my head. This often puts me on edge, I have to admit. But in Sondheim's case, my nerves went into overdrive.

Awaiting Sondheim's arrival, I stood in the reception of Broadcasting House, anxiously pacing up and down. This time there were no police outriders ahead of my interviewee, no security with ominous bulges in their jackets scouting the foyer. Out of the Mercedes sent to scoop Sondheim up from his habitual Covent Garden hotel when in London, steps a distinguished looking man, a little older than the last photo I'd seen of him, and carrying a few more pounds. As he came through the preposterously ponderous and slow-moving automatic bronze doors of Broadcasting House, everything about him was modesty and affability. He stuffed his newspaper in a much-travelled canvas shoulder bag. Comfortably dressed in chocolate-brown polo neck and matching trousers, carrying a mac over his arm, he smiled - I thought at the time a tad nervously - as he warmly shook my hand.

Sondheim rarely gives interviews, so this was a real privilege, for me and for the programme. He had made space in a very full programme of theatre-going in the four days he was in London, taking in a matinee and an evening performance every day. Not much sign of flagging energy for a man pushing 80. The big birthday is on Monday the 22nd of March - perfectly launching these five programmes of his music. 

In the studio, he was all business, very much concerned that his responses shouldn't sound routine or off-pat, just because he'd been asked virtually all of my questions - many times - before! Rather disconcertingly from my point of view, he was concentrating so hard on what he was saying, on getting everything precisely right, that he kept his eyes closed a lot of the time.

He was generally tolerant and forbearing of my clod-hopping ignorance and ineptitude, but if he disagreed with a line I took, or thought I'd made a mistake, he left me in no doubt whatever - and fair enough! You'll hear me get my knuckles rapped more than once in the course of the week, and beginning with my introduction to the entire week, which I had imagined was completely inoffensive.

Sondheim was remarkably generous with his time, giving me a full three hours out of his busy schedule, when there was no doubt that I had his entire attention and concentration. My equally exacting, thorough, ever-thoughtful and resourceful producer, Chris Barstow, had laid in some (very) light refreshments for a suitable break in the proceedings. Sondheim would not eat a crumb, did not have so much as a sip of water during all that time - I think I drank about two litres.

Sondheim was wonderfully focussed and engaging - and honest - in those three hours, particularly around such issues as the acrimonious break-up of his parents' marriage when he was only ten, which led to the opening of a door which would change his life.

I hope you'll enjoy these five programmes as much as I did making them, as I'm guided through the astonishing trajectory of Stephen Sondheim's life in musical theatre, by the ultimate authority of the man himself. 

  • You can hear Composer of the Week - Stephen Sondheim on BBC Radio 3 at 12 noon and 10pm, from Monday 22 to Friday 26 March. 
  • The picture (copyright BBC) shows Stephen Sondheim recording an interview for Omnibus in 1990.

Am I Drihming?

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 10:20 UK time, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Phil Hall is sub-principal viola of the BBC Symphony Orchestra

I probably shouldn't admit to this, but just occasionally there are times in concerts when, only for a nanosecond, something in me says: 'What on earth are you doing? You shouldn't be sitting here playing this stuff. It's way too difficult!' - and then concentration takes over and the voice in my head recedes. It happened fleetingly during some bars' rest in the first piece by Wolfgang Rihm in the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Total Immersion concert, Schwarzer und roter Tanz. To jolt my mind back I quickly glanced to my left at the front desk cello part. Unfortunately there was no reassurance to be had as the page was completely black with notes, and extremely complex rhythmically. It resembled one of those 'Magic Eye' pictures you used to buy, where if you stare at it for long enough, you see a rhinocerous or something. Then I remembered that the cellos had had their own special rehearsal on that passage, on their own, while the rest of us were allowed out of the studio to enjoy the delights of the BBC canteen.

steven_isserlis.jpgHonestly, some of the things composers these days ask you to play can make your hair curl! I wouldn't be surprised if Steven Isserlis's hair had been straight before he sat down and opened his part to Rihm's 3rd cello concerto, such are its finger-numbing complexities. It certainly had him flying around his 1740 Montagnana cello. But he threw himself into it with characteristic gusto. I lost count of how many hairs he broke on his bow; by the end it resembled a fishing rod.

These Total Immersion events at the Barbican always take a lot of planning and occasionally things don't go as swimmingly as they might: 'The soprano Gabriele Schnaut is unable to perform,' comes the message to the BBCSO office just a few days before our concert performance (and UK Premiere) of Rihm's one-act monodrama Das Gehege*.

rayanne_dupuis_wolfgang_rihm.jpgA soloist pulling out at the last minute is nothing new but it always ups the blood-pressure of artistic administrators, especially when the work in question is new and difficult, and not exactly sitting on the music stand in the boudoir of many sopranos. The BBCSO's management team must be thanking every star in the firmament that one of the few people in the solar system to have sung the role before happens to be free, able and willing. Step forward Canadian soprano Rayanne Dupuis. She not only acquits herself admirably in rehearsals but sings the whole thing from memory in the concert. 'Give Canada another gold medal,' say the voices in my head.

  • The picture above shows Rayanne Dupuis with Wolfgang Rihm, at the opening night of Das Gehege at the Basel Theater in September 2009.
  • Plot details of Das Gehege (courtesy of Munich State Opera) are as follows: 'The woman in this music theatre solo conducts a conversation with an eagle in a compound. She highlights with great concentration and in the expressive sound language of today her longings for strength and dedication and for individual self-realization and integration into society.'
  • You can hear Das Gehege in Hear and Now at 10.30pm on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 20 March, together with the String Quartet No. 5, performed by the Arditti String Quartet. The final broadcast from Total Immersion: Wolfgang Rihm is on 27 March.  




Inside Total Immersion - Wolfgang Rihm

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 17:07 UK time, Friday, 12 March 2010

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall resumes his blog, on the latest Total Immersion weekend ...


One of the attractions of playing in a band such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra is that two consecutive weeks are seldom the same. Take last week for instance: there we were playing Pergolesi's sublime Stabat Mater with early music magician Marc Minkowski, dutifully leaving our vibrato at home, and now here we are with several days of music by the contemporary German composer Wolfgang Rihm.


I guess being christened Wolfgang could be a mixed blessing for a composer but the Muse definitely sits on his shoulder: to date Rihm has written in excess of 500 pieces, almost as much as his 18th century namesake - there are literally reams of Rihm.


Now you might think that anyone who writes so much must be in danger of repeating himself but Rihm constantly seeks out different styles and moods, some of which have caused quite a stir. Ever since I first encountered Stravinsky's Rite of Spring my ears have pricked up at the thought of concerts creating a scandal. However in over 20 years in the profession I can safely say that barring one lone shout of 'Rubbish!!' after a Proms performance, I have never witnessed one at any of my concerts.


Of course there have been occasions when members of the public have walked out and I remember the first ten rows of the Vienna Musikverein audience demonstrably not applauding after we had opened our concert there with a particularly acerbic piece of contemporary English music. Call me perverse ,but I'd still like to witness a bit of rotten egg or tomato throwing just once before I shuffle off my mortal coil. Maybe British audiences are too polite.


Not so in Berlin's Deutsche Oper, for that's what happened at the premiere of Rihm's grotesque ballet Tutuguri in 1982. We are only playing a 16-minute extract from it but it's enough to make you see why the conservative Berliners were launching groceries and the original goes on for considerably longer. Think of 2hrs of Varèse or Xenakis at their most violent and you get an idea why the conservative burghers of Berlin were so upset. Alongside this we'll be performing Rihm's bizarre monodrama Das Gehege which involves a mad woman falling in love with and castrating an eagle. Don't worry, no animals will be harmed in the making of this concert.


kelsey_grammer.jpgNo signs of a violent person in the flesh however. Wolfgang Rihm enters Maida Vale Studio 1 hesitantly. A huge man (weirdly looking like a cross between Kelsey Grammer and Beethoven), he seems almost shy. He speaks quietly to the conductor and to Steven Isserlis for whom he has written his colourful 3rd cello concerto. At one point he approaches the orchestra and says poetically: 'You must change like the weather between these two bars... it is now Spring, no harsh sounds'. He thanks the soloist and orchestra profusely and leaves to do the rounds of interviews, university appearances and more rehearsals in preparation for his busy weekend. Maybe he'll check the Barbican's grocery supplies, just in case ...


  • Total Immersion - Wolfgang Rihm takes place at London's Barbican Centre on Saturday 13 March. For full details, click on this link.

What I've learned about Mendelssohn ...

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Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 12:27 UK time, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Jessica Duchen was Radio 3's Mendelssohn blogger in 2009. Her review of the year was held over for editorial timetabling reasons and is published, with our thanks, now.  

mendelssohn.jpgAll right, I admit it: I thought I knew something about Mendelssohn when the Mysterious Maestro who controls this website asked me to be Felix's blogger for a year. What I've learned is essentially that I knew next to nothing, and after the whole of 2009 I've still only scratched the surface of what made Felix Mendelssohn such a great composer, so influential a personage and such a sunny and generous-hearted individual who was adored by all who knew him.

I've found it especially fascinating to explore his cultural and religious background and its context, from his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn to his 4x great-niece Sheila Hayman, whose documentary on the subject featured prominently in these screens. I had not realised previously the depth and idealism of Mendelssohn's spiritual outlook; his was a genuine conversion, and for some of us who fancied we shared some of his roots, this can at first be uncomfortable to take on board. I found myself facing head-on the conundrum that some genuinely fabulous music, notably his oratorio Paulus, has fallen into obscurity largely because its power was put - and by its composer - at the service of sentiments about spiritual and cultural superiority that today we find unpalatable. But I will still stick out my neck and say that I feel that Paulus is a more exciting and inspired piece of music than Elijah - which, despite repeated attempts, I have not yet learned to love.

The issue of Mendelssohn's romantic sensibility and classical strictures is almost as fascinating - and mirrors his spiritual aspect in many ways, since one outlook is encased within the attributes of another. The formal structures of classicism, throughout Mendelssohn's works, are filled with the skittering shadows of the supernatural, deriving from the imagery of ghosts and fairies that he encountered in the poetry of Shakespeare and Goethe. I've learned that it's impossible to understand 19th-century German music without a thorough knowledge of Goethe, and have thus landed myself with a hefty project that may require several decades of reading and some intensive language courses to work itself out. Noticing that Goethe's cult classic of Romanticism, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was published as early as 1774 tends to cast all that followed in a different light. Every sentence or verse of Goethe is full of insight and wisdom - and this man was a formative influence on our Felix when the composer was just a small boy.

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