A Decade to Remember

The reviews of the decade are already beginning – just when I thought we wouldn’t have to do that until next year. Anyway. Tom Service in The Guardian has kicked off with an assessment of the Noughties in the music world that borders on the ecstatic: full marks to Covent Garden, ENO and a raft of orchestras for turning themselves around and producing fantastic results that draw increasing audience numbers.

This was the decade that brought us refurbishments at the Coliseum, the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall; Kings Place opened (great venue, shame about the location), as did the Cardiff Millennium Centre; and the South Bank as a whole is today wonderfully unrecognisable, a buzzing riverside hub with everything from bookshops and cafes to a becoming-frequent ‘slow food’ market. Now, too, there have been serious efforts to ‘democratise’ important musical events – we have big-screen relays from Covent Garden to outdoor locations around the country and opera has also gone into the cinema; sold-out concerts at the RFH are often beamed onto screens in the foyer for the overflow; and there are many more Proms on TV than there used to be (no excuse for neglecting the rest of the year, dear Auntie, but it’s still commendable).

The young artists who’ve emerged into the public eye include some incredible talents. Vladimir Jurowski, Jonas Kaufmann, Simon Trpceski, Paul Lewis and Alina Ibragimova are just a few I would single out as future greats – and with the results that Andris Nelsons and Vassily Petrenko are busy with now, the conducting field is growing rich indeed. Others may be less lucky. Rolando Villazon, one of the great voices of the decade, has offered a salutary lesson in how not to work towards sustaining a good long-term career.

Among sopranos, Anna and Angela have dominated – but it seems to me that none of the glitzy glamour-girls so beloved by the record companies are really up to the standards of the past greats…indeed, it is the mezzos who reign now, with Joyce DiDonato, Magdalena Kozena and, for some, Cecilia Bartoli at the top of the tree.

As for the older established artists, Daniel Barenboim has moved from great musician to idealised mythic hero; Maurizio Pollini seems to have relaxed a little and is consequently playing more wonderfully than ever; Krystian Zimerman, causing controversy with the occasional political outburst, is now such a legend that his RFH February recital next year, involving Chopin’s Sonatas Nos 2 & 3 side by side, apparently sold out in hours. Simon Rattle is on a roll with the Berlin Philharmonic – should we be asking why we underrate our own best conductors and import those with exotic names instead? Valery Gergiev is the podium’s perennial sky-rocket – both my best musical experience and my worst this year have been down to him. Among British musicians, Stephen Hough has become one of the pianists I most treasure on earth.  

This decade has of course elevated to stardom more musicians than ever before whom the great professors of music would have shredded alive had they turned up to class playing as they do. Let us please send them back to music college, ideally to an academy in which the professors include the ghosts of Leopold Auer, Hans Keller, Alexander Goldenweiser, Artur Schnabel, Carl Flesch and Zoltan Kodaly. I began to make a list, but it would take the entire website to name and shame the lot of them: suffice it to say that it includes competition winners who should not have won their competitions, those elevated for looks instead of sounds, those who have tried to blind (or deafen) us with supposed academic knowledge when it does not translate into practical and inspirational musicality, those truly talented individuals whose musicianship has been corrupted by fame and fortune, and those who inexplicably have careers when anybody with half an ear can hear that they shouldn’t, maybe pushed to the fore by money or lust from a powerful quarter. This year I’ve attended four of the worst musical events I’ve ever heard in prestigious venues. More of that anon.

Yet this was, too, the decade that proved why music can be a force for good in the world. The efforts of El Sistema in Venezuela have gone global, not least thanks to the figurehead of firebrand Gustavo Dudamel, and Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has become a symbol of everything that should be happening in the Middle East but emphatically is not. 

What next, though? Tom’s assessment was beautifully optimistic, but I can’t share his rose-tinted specs; the thing is, all this takes money. And money there is not. Not any more. It is not impossible that all that has been achieved could be swept away in a few sorry blows, depending on the direction of the next couple of governments. There are going to be fights and fisticuffs – not as bad as the Eighties, I hope, but you know what happens after seven years of plenty, let alone ten. 

More about 2009 soon – those familiar with my old JDCMB will be aware that on the shortest day of the year we always have our own virtual Ginger Stripes Awards ceremony, complete with cyberchampers. For those new to it, be warned: it is off-the-wall, non-objective, rather gingery good clean fun.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"