Concert review: Alicia’s Gift

“What a magical evening!”

“The combination of prose and music worked very well……a unique evening’s entertainment”

What does a family do to a talented child? What does the presence of a prodigy do to the family? And how on earth can she find the right teacher? The topics at the heart of Jessica Duchen’s acclaimed novel Alicia’s Gift hold a perennial fascination for countless music-lovers.

Its story follows the piano prodigy Alicia Bradley and her embattled parents from the revelation of her talent aged three through to her adulthood and her participation in the Leeds International Piano Competition. The process leaves none of them unchanged and ultimately forces Alicia to face harsh truths about herself, her guidance and her gift.

Author Jessica Duchen and pianist Viv McLean

Conceived by Jessica Duchen, and performed by Jessica and pianist Viv McLean the Alicia’s Gift concert explores its heroine’s story with the help of some of the music in her life, alternating extracts from the book with a variety of engaging illustrative piano works. The extracts from the book, read by Jessica, chart a story that is by no means unique, but is told with a sensitivity to the subject matter and an inside knowledge (Jessica Duchen is an acclaimed classical music journalist and blogger) which make Alicia’s musical and personal journey all the more riveting and poignant. The prose extracts are short, offering the listener just enough to keep the story alive throughout the performance and engage the listener’s attention: there is humour and tears, tantrums and triumphs (and not just Alicia’s), and the book closes with an important message for all musicians, or indeed anyone who pursues something with an all-consuming passion: be true to yourself.

Descriptions of the music Alicia plays and loves are founded on Jessica Duchen’s wide knowledge, yet they are not dry programme notes nor couched in the language of the musicologist: Chopin’s Third Ballade becomes a rollicking, romantic tale of people riding across the moors, the music of Debussy suggests nature in all its vibrancy, and Messiaen’s piano works are rich with vivid colours (Alicia, like Messiaen, has synaesthesia).

Interspersed with the readings are performances of some of the music mentioned in the book: sparkling and passionate Chopin, earthy de Falla, atmospheric Debussy, spiritual Messiaen and the frenetic Jazz-age New York cityscape of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, given a bravura reading by Viv McLean. The musical interludes throw light on the narrative, amplifying the emotional content. The concert ends with a tender duet by Jessica and Viv of Le jardin féerique (The Fairy Garden) from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite.

This is not the first words and music event Jessica Duchen has created (her Hungarian Dances, with Viv McLean and violinist David le Page, has been performed in London and beyond this year), and I have also heard Viv in Divine Fire, the story of Chopin and Sand, written and read by actress Susan Porrett. The format is highly engaging, and offers an alternative to the traditional concert presentation that will appeal to music and book lovers alike.

The premiere of Alicia’s Gift took place at the Musical Museum in Kew, west London, home to a quirky collection of self-playing instruments and the world’s largest collection of piano rolls, not to mention the Mighty Wurlitzer, which joined the performers on the stage. With a small audience of mostly invited friends and guests, the event turned into a delightfully social and friendly occasion, with a chance to meet and talk to the performers after the concert.

The next performance of Alicia’s Gift is on Wednesday 13th November at Leighton House Museum, Kensington. Further details and tickets here

For a taster of Viv McLean in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and details of upcoming performances of Alici’s Gift click here