Jessica Duchen

We asked writer and music critic Jessica Duchen to tell us about a performance that has really stood out for her due to its imaginative programming. Here are her reflections, as told to Sean Dunn.


Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer; the most remarkable, creative, exciting musician.

Where and when?

The Proms at the Royal Albert Hall - September 2011.


The ‘Audience Choice’ concert [As the name suggests, audience members contributed actively to programming decisions. Elements of surprise and spectacle were present as ticket numbers were randomly drawn from the bell of a tuba (of course) then loudly endorsed or dismissed by the entire hall. The musical menu of 285 pieces from the orchestra’s library was printed in the programme. While librarians gathered the orchestral scores, various combinations of the BFO performed music from Telemann to Bartók violin Duos to body percussionists, and a didgeridoo.]

The concert was fresh and exciting; the programming concept and the orchestra itself created a wonderful atmosphere in the hall. All sorts of different things had a chance to shine, with spotlights on individual members of the orchestra.

Another Proms highlight 

Michael Barenboim playing a solo piece for violin and electronics by Boulez which involved electronic sounds coming from all sorts of samples, transformed with speakers all around the hall - a wonderful experience.

The West Eastern Divan Orchestra performed all of the Beethoven symphonies with Boulez’s music in the middle -  usually again for smaller ensembles, but it was a fascinating way to start exploring Boulez if you don't know his music, and for me it was an absolute revelation.

Handling space

Small scale works beautifully in the Royal Albert Hall - I can’t quite work out why that is but I’ve often found that the Proms I’ve liked best have been the solo ones, things like Andras Schiff performing solo Bach on piano. It’s kind of counter-intuitive but there's something about it that works.

Doing a programme that actually suits the space it's happening in - in a variety of ways - really makes a big difference.

Approaching the greats

Obviously people want to prove themselves, and they want to prove themselves in the pieces that everyone knows and will judge them by the highest standards, but it’s not always the best idea. In a field where it’s so competitive and so many people are playing the same stuff all the time, it's more important than ever now to actually play to your strengths and to do what really suits you as a personality and as an individual.

The performances I enjoy most are when someone plays something they really love that really suits their playing and that actually shines through.

I remember Andras Schiff playing the Goldberg Variations at Dartington when he was about 28, and I must have been 16 and this was a week that changed my life...the atmosphere came from the piano and from this complete devotion and overwhelming sense of love that came out of his playing.

The future...

I’ve been absolutely astonished actually this year by the amount of creativity and resourcefulness and determination that I’ve seen among people in the music industry, and the way that they’ve adapted at such speed to this really unprecedented situation - and I think it’s marvellous and admirable.

I would encourage people to really think about what they can offer, and how they can team up with other people to create something new, and which people will really respond to in this situation. I think there’s always a place for creative people like that.

There will be opportunities but you’re going to have to go and look for them, and if they don’t exist, you’re going to have to create them.

I think what works can be summed up with that wonderful Shakespeare quote that you can see in the Conway Hall, “To thine own self be true”. I think that is important, and I really believe that something that is sincere and meaningful to a musician will come through to an audience, and that’s what people really respond to.

Photo of Jessica by Corinna Desch 

Photo of Fischer and BFO by Chris Christodoulou 

Click here to sign up to the 21cMusician newsletter