The Complete Chopin Mazurkas

Gramophone Magazine Diary: Mexico, George Crumb, Nina Simone and Adrian Mitchell

 

 To Mexico with Britten Sinfonia for a short tour – my first visit there. Last minute hiccups on the final master of Live in Buenos Aires – a previous master version seems to have got through under the wire – so I’m running through Terminal 5 at Heathrow trying to sort things out with my engineer and not set off the security alarms. The 11 hour flight is (comparatively) restful. We have one night in Mexico City before heading off early the next morning, so I and most of the orchestra head off to the Opera bar downtown – a fantastic old place with carved wooden booths and revolutionary bullet holes in the ceiling.

The next morning we travel 4 hours north through the mountains to reach Morelia, a jewel of a city with the most beautiful 18th century Spanish colonial architecture. We’re opening their music festival, considered to be the Salzburg Festival of Mexico – it’s a huge international programme. After a quick lunch I head off to the concert hall early – I’m directing a programme of Bach (two concertos), MacMillan (his dazzling 2nd piano concerto), some Dowland arrangements of my own, Gismonti and Stravinsky. The piano is in bits, and the (very good) piano tuner is on his hands and knees looking harassed. Is there another piano in Morelia? After a few false leads the answer is no, so we decide to quickly put the piano back together again, rehearse for three hours with the orchestra, and he’ll stay up all night.

By the next afternoon the piano is looking and sounding much better – not great, but OK. This opening night is a major cultural occasion: last night there were fireworks outside the cathedral, TV and radio are here, and I and the players are waiting patiently by the side of the stage while various politicians make short speeches. We’ve been told 15 minutes; 35 minutes later I’m slumped in the corner, violinists are improvising duets, others are lying on what was the TV station’s sofa backstage. Musicians are like racehorses, and if the race is this delayed we all start tearing the place up. Finally we’re off, and we have a lovely time: it’s not an obvious programme but the audience are really warm and receptive, leaping to their feet at the end of the MacMillan and giving us another ovation when we start playing Piazzolla encores. It’s a great start, and afterwards there’s a swanky reception in the town hall, clearly originally a 17th century palace. We are serenaded both by a Scottish bagpipes band (all Mexican) and a family of folk musicians. I have to emphasize not all our concerts are this glamorous.

I leave Morelia before nine the next day, but before we go I ask my driver to show me the carpet of flowers that’s traditionally created here every year by Indian women from the surrounding villages. They’ve stayed up all night and are gently making the finishing touches to a carpet that curls  through the street  for a third of a mile, made of rose petals, berries, leaves, and fruit, with images of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, the sun and the moon, local saints. It’s breathtaking and goes all the way up to a riotously decorated church, full of painted fruits, vines and vegetables. I’m so happy to be here.

Our next concert is in a completely different venue, the vast auditorium on the campus of Mexico City University. It’s got a glamorously resonant, sharp acoustic, rather like Birmingham Symphony Hall. Before the concert we wander up to the roof terrace and discover members of the Mexico City Orchestra having an impromptu salsa party. Aha! One of our second violinists is a demon salsa dancer and immediately joins in.  How can I resist? Tom the orchestral manager plucks us away 20 minutes before the concert begins. We’re playing slightly different repertoire here and again there’s a really warm reception from the audience. Back the hotel, this is the orchestra’s last night (I’m staying to do a solo recital) and Jackie Shave, the leader, decides she doesn’t want to stop playing. There’s a spontaneous play-through of Bartok’s first string quartet in one of the hotel’s conference rooms. I sit at the back and reflect on how brilliant, and dedicated, musicians are.

Before my final concert I decide to do some sightseeing. The Anthropological Museum is awe-inspiring, the Gallery of Contemporary Art cutting edge. But my heart is won by the much smaller Museum of Folk Art, in a refurbished old fire station; three floors of lovingly-curated ceramics and textiles, children’s toys and macabre, fantastical animals, Day of the Dead figures and Trees of Life. I admire how proud and passionate Mexicans are about their culture, and how the collection wittily mixes the domestic with the spookily surreal. Just like life.

I have one more date with Britten Sinfonia, in Madrid’s Auditorio Nationale. So I fly in from Mexico, and race along to the Prado. What a collection – Bosch, Botticelli, Vaslasquez, Zurburan, El Greco, Goya. I’m in heaven: it’s dark, menacing, powerful, like the best Schnittke score.

I arrive back in the UK and immediately go to Cambridge to play a recital of Bach and Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. I’m either sleeping 11 hours a night or two. I drop in on James Mallinson and listen through to a recording I made a while ago of Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi with the Dutch soprano Charlotte Reidijk. It’s planned for a box set release of Messiaen (with Vingt Regards and Quatour  pour la Fin du Temps) around the time I play Turangalila performances with Gergiev and the LSO. We gossip about the recording industry, orchestras, the usual thing. It’s always very calming working with James; I’ve learnt such a lot about recording from him.

It’s one of those weeks. I’m playing two big Crumb pieces as part of the BBC Total Immersion Festival at the Barbican, and as I come off the stage after the first one I’m told he’s in the audience, try and remember to give him a bow. Crumb actually here!!!  A direct link back to Ives, Cage and all my American pioneer heroes. I hope he doesn’t think my plucking, scraping, whistling and singing is too awful. His music is marvellous, meticulous, spiritual and damn difficult. Afterwards I’m dazzled by his kind, laid-back West Virginian voice, the lightly gracious way he carries himself. I also admire his decision to be a recluse.

The next day I start to write the brochure notes for Bath Music Festival; this is my fifth programme. Polly (my producer), the marketing team and I have been discussing the design and layout for weeks, but now is the time to write it all up. I love doing this, but it’s a conundrum: Kathleen Ferrier celebration, 150 words? Hugely complicated collaboration between English National Ballet and jazz trumpeter Arve Henriksen, 100 words? The jazz programme, folk, contemporary, chamber music – all have to be written about with passion, enthusiasm and brevity. I take a phone call from Irvine Arditti, on a crackly line from Minneapolis, to finalize the quartet’s rather exciting programme of Birtwistle, Beethoven and Dusapin. (Make a mental note to give Harry B. a ring.) Break off to go to the 100 Club in Oxford to play in Limelight, a new venture to promote classical music in this historic rock n’roll venue. It’s absolutely rammed and I play Bach, Crumb and Piazzolla to a completely attentive audience. Only the girl serving at the bar recognizes my encore, though: ‘That’s my favourite piece of Nina Simone!’ she exclaims as she hands me a pint.

Last concert this week: tribute to the late, great Adrian Mitchell, subversively witty poet and political agitator, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. His wife Celia has asked me to play some Satie (Adrian wrote a terrific play about him) and I’m sharing the stage with fantastic poets – Carol Ann Duffy, Brian Patten, John Berger, Roger McGough, Jackie Kay and many others – all of whom read one of Adrian’s poems and one of their own, and tell lovely, funny stories about him. It’s the most moving, rich, and emotional occasion. I resolve to be more like a poet, and see the humour, fun and mystery in everything.

This is me going home now, to my piano waiting for me, up in a tower by the sea. On it is my battered, much-loved and much-marked score of Vingt Regards. I’ll make a coffee, turn to movement no 6, set the metronome slow, and sigh with pleasure. This is what I live for.

(November issue, 2012)