Jessica Duchen in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My Music Talk interview guest today is music journalist and author Jessica Duchen. We met up at Steinway Hall in London earlier this week to chat about her career.

Jessica was born in London, where her parents settled after leaving South Africa.  She regrets that she can’t remember her encounter with JR Tolkein in  Oxford at the age of six, which has become a family legend. She first  tried to write a novel when she was 12 and her efforts soon found their  way into the hands of a distinguished author and a literary agent, who  both provided valuable encouragement. After studying music at Cambridge  and piano with Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama,  she worked as an editor in music publishing and magazines until going  freelance to develop her writing.

As a journalist, she writes regularly for The Independent and has interviewed most of the world’s finest musicians (see Archive). Her work appears frequently in BBC Music Magazine, Opera News, Pianist  Magazine, Classical Music and The Strad, among others, and she  contributes to BBC Radio 3.

She has given  pre-concert talks at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the Barbican, the  Wigmore and the Royal Festival Hall and served on the juries of the  Royal Philharmonic Society Awards and the BBC Music Magazine CD Awards.  Jessica Duchen’s  Classical Music Blog has frequently been ranked among the world’s top blogs of its kind.

Her novels focus on the tensions and cross-currents  between family generations, ranging from a painful exploration of the  effects of anorexia (Rites of Spring) and the rearing of a child prodigy (Alicia’s Gift ) to the long-term effects of displacement and cultural clashes (Hungarian Dances  and Songs of Triumphant Love). Music is also a recurring theme and in 2009 the celebrated violin and  piano duo Philippe Graffin and Claire Désert recorded a CD directly  inspired by Hungarian Dances and designed as a companion to the novel. It is available from Onyx Classics. Songs of Triumphant Love, was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2009 and has been acclaimed as ‘enthralling’ by Joanna Lumley.

Jessica’s first play, A Walk Through the End of Time, a one-act drama introducing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, was commissioned by her frequent collaborator, violinist Philippe Graffin,  the artistic director of the Consonances Festival, Saint-Nazaire, in  2007 and won her the Medal of the Town of Saint-Nazaire. She and the great tenor Robert Tear gave the play’s UK premiere in  2008. Further performances have included the Orange Tree Theatre,  Richmond, in the International Wimbledon Music Festival and at Chethams  Piano Summer School in Manchester; actors have included Dame Harriet  Walter, Guy Paul and Henry Goodman.

Sins of the Fathers is  Jessica’s first full-length play: a fantastical comedy about Wagner,  Liszt and Cosima, created for the International Wimbledon Music Festival in 2013, Wagner’s bicentenary year, and presented at the Orange Tree  Theatre, Richmond, starring John Sessions, Jeremy Child and Sarah  Gabriel.

Jessica frequently appears as narrator in concert versions of her novels Hungarian Dances (with violin and piano) and Alicia’s Gift (with solo piano). Hungarian Dances was devised for the Fiddles on Fire Festival at The Sage, Gateshead and King’s Place, London, in 2009. Alicia’s Gift, suggested by the pianist Viv McLean, launched in November 2013 and has  been touring extensively; performances in 2014 will include the Buxton  Festival and the Chopin Society, London, at Westminster Cathedral Hall.  Jessica’s earlier ‘literary concerts’ for musicians and actors have been performed in the UK, France, Australia and America.

Jessica’s first books were biographies of the composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Gabriel Fauré. She wrote the text for Inside London, Dorothy Bohm’s photographic  portrait of the city, and has published several short stories, notably Too Much Mozart, commissioned by Graffin for the booklet of his CD with  Nobuko Imai of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante. She lives in London with her husband and cat, and when not writing enjoys travel, cinema,  cooking, jogging and attending occasional ballet classes, despite  encroaching creakiness.

www.jessicaduchen.co.uk


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Hungarian Dances at The Musical Museum

Finding a new venue is always an exciting discovery; I had never visited The Musical Museum at Kew Bridge in West London, but it is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year and in addition to housing some interesting musical artefacts it also hosts a concert series as well as many other activities. The Museum’s concert hall is a delightful space, set with a high stage and beautifully ornate early Twentieth century grand piano; it’s akin to stepping back in time and provided an intimate setting for a Sunday afternoon of music making.

Hungarian Dances is a novel written by author and music journalist, Jessica Duchen. It was published in 2009 and traces the life of a Gypsy violinist and her family. Jessica has turned her highly acclaimed book into a concert which effectively incorporates extracts from the novel with Gypsy inspired music. Words and music are most certainly a winning combination, and the performance was a wonderful mixture of expressive narrative punctuated with music for violin and piano by composers from various genres and historical periods.

This format is becoming an increasingly popular feature in concert programmes. It’s a happy marriage of two eloquent art forms and is so successful because it bestows the perfect opportunity for storytelling. Jessica’s narrative was both powerful and poignant, and her delivery commanded total attention. The balance between words and music was very well judged, with neither dominating.

The heroine, Mimi, is taken from her Gypsy roots, and introduced to a different world through her intensive training as a classical violinist. The audience are taken on Mimi’s journey which is full of twists and turns; love, loss, displacement and personal transformation. Romance was juxtaposed with grittier topics such as references to concentration camps and inevitable death. At each stage an appropriate work was presented, nostalgically characterising the various landmarks in her career, family life and ultimately the life of her Granddaughter too; the music evocatively reflecting the mood of the story.

David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano) offset Jessica’s narrative exquisitely. They treated the audience to a veritable feast consisting of ten mainly Gypsy influenced pieces from Dohnányi’s Andante rubato alla zingaresca which opened the concert, to Monti’s ever popular Czardas, the piano part of which was imbued with some interesting chromatic (that’s jazz to you and me!) chordal additions and this rendition brought the house down. Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata closed the first half and really demonstrated their skill, both with regards to ensemble (they have quite clearly worked as a duo for years) and in creating a shimmering sound world of Impressionistic colour.

Mimi’s introduction to Professor Bela Bartók coincided with an account of the composer’s Romanian Dances which were delivered with gusto, rhythmic drive and total commitment. No self-respecting Gypsy music recital would be complete without Ravel’s Tzigane, which was, for me, the highlight; played with real panache and flare, and full of essential Gypsy inspired rubato. A couple of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances (arranged by Joachim) were choice inclusions, and less familiar but equally lovely were the Valse Triste by Franz Von Vecsey and Hejre Kati by Jenö Hubay. The selection was an eclectic, fragrant pot- pourri of different musical textures, styles and sentiments.

Hungarian Dances – The Concert was an impassioned, mellifluous and emotional voyage; a snapshot of human life and in a sense, of humanity too. The audience loved every minute and were totally absorbed by the enduring, compelling partnership of words and music.

You can purchase the novel, Hungarian Dances here.

Do visit www.jessicaduchen.co.uk and www.jessicamusic.blogspot.co.uk for more information on forthcoming performances.

www.musicalmuseum.co.uk


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.