Like a Chemist from Canada: when Isaiah met DSCH

A new play by Lewis Owens

In 1958, at the height of his artistic ability and reputation, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich was invited by Oxford University to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Music, along with fellow musician Francis Poulenc and other dignitaries. From the initial invitation by Oxford to Shostakovich in Moscow, the story is a fascinating, humorous and poignant portrayal of the clash of two distinct, and distinctly insular, worlds: the Byzantine rituals and orotundity of Oxford University and the unsmiling officialdom of Soviet Russia. When Shostakovich finally arrives in Oxford for his three-day stay, hosted by Sir Isaiah and Lady Berlin, we are presented not only with a unique insight into the inner personalities of Shostakovich, Poulenc, Berlin, Trevor-Roper and others, but also a searing reminder of the value of art in the Cold War period.

The play is based on the official correspondence and telegrams surrounding the visit, first published by Dr Lewis Owens in 2004, including Berlin’s astonishing ruminations on the significance of Shostakovich’s visit.

This story has never been staged before and includes the music of Shostakovich and Poulenc (including performance by internationally acclaimed pianist Colin Stone – see interview below).

Pianist Colin Stone talks about significant teachers, influences, recording and performing:

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I was only four when my mother started giving me lessons, I don’t think I had a great deal of choice in the matter. I always loved the sound of the piano and I was certainly inspired by her playing but equally I remember many family rows caused by my reluctance to practise and eventually I was sent to the junior department of RCM.
Who or what are the biggest influences on your career as a pianist?
I believe we always owe more to our teachers than we realise. Norma Fisher in particular was pivotal in helping me acquire some mastery over the instrument. Later, when I went to Oxford I was extremely lucky to be introduced to André Tchaikowsky, the most prodigiously gifted musician I have ever met. His death in 1982, my last year at Oxford, was not only a huge loss to the world of music but a personal tragedy as well. My last teacher was Edith Vogel. All three of them made deep and lasting impressions on me as a musician.
What has been the greatest challenge of your career so far?
Anyone who tries to make a career in music is facing a huge challenge. The biggest challenge can be simply planning one’s time. If you accept too many commitments, in the form of students or concerts, and you have a family as well, you suddenly find that there are not enough hours in the day. In terms of specific musical challenges I would put my performance of the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich somewhere near the top. Without doubt the most nerve-wracking performance was a live broadcast premier with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Rob Keeley’s piano concerto. I still don’t understand quite how it came together with so little rehearsal. A real testament to the amazing skills of that particular band of musicians and the conductor Grant Llewellyn.
Which recordings & performances are you most proud of?
I’ve made a number of solo piano recordings some of which I find difficult to listen to with the passing of the years. I prefer to listen to my collaborations with other musicians.
I am very proud of the duo with my dear friend Rustem Hayroudinoff. The CD we made for Chandos of Shostakovich’s fourth symphony in its version for two pianos was a real highlight.  Similarly, the recordings I made with the London Mozart Trio, in particular our recording of Smetana’s trio, give me cause for optimism.
Which works do you think you perform best?
I have no idea what works I perform best, I think that is for others to judge. I will say that I am most happy playing music with strong contrapuntal interest.
Favourite pieces to listen to? And to perform?
There is so much wonderful music, I have always thought that compiling a list in the manner of Desert Island Discs would be a complete torment. I find that I have occasional cravings; perhaps to hear a late Beethoven string quartet or a Bruckner Symphony or perhaps something played by Oscar Peterson but appetites change.
In my mind a number of performances have merged together. I have a very vivid and special memory of playing Schuberts B-flat trio. Vivid in the sense that the physical place was not important but the atmosphere in that glorious slow movement has somehow distilled itself into my mind. Without wishing to sound unduly pretentious that music really does transport one to another place.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
I have been trying to write a book about the numerous things I wish my students knew. I think my biggest concern is that there is a YouTube culture that interferes with the process of students learning how to read a score. I have to beg my students not to rush out and listen to random performances of the pieces they are about to learn. I have nothing against them listening to other performances after they have studied the score but I do find it a problem when they treat the process of learning music as an aural tradition. I think the imagination is best served by discovering the music afresh, direct from the score.
Tell us more about working with Lewis Owens on his new play?
Lewis is a remarkable man. His erudition on the subject of Shostakovich is well known but I was surprised to discover that he has such gifts as a dramatist. It has been very easy for me to work on this with him, he had a very clear idea of what he wanted and in those few areas of uncertainty he was brilliant at finding the solutions by picking the brains of his colleagues.

“The life of Isaiah Berlin contained several episodes that cry out for theatrical treatment, and Lewis Owens here dramatises one of them, co-starring Shostakovich, with intelligence and flair.” Dr Henry Hardy, Isaiah Berlin’s editor, Wolfson College, Oxford

“A very imaginative and unusual play.” Peter Bien, Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Dartmouth College, USA

“The play portrays, in sharp focus and with an immense attention to detail, not only the visit of Shostakovich to Oxford but, and as significantly, the various machinations that lay behind the apparent success of the visit. There are surprises too, both musically and politically speaking.” Alan Mercer, DSCH Journal editor

Performances include the play in the first half and a recital of music for piano and ‘cello by Liszt, Poulenc and Shostakovich in the second half.

13th June, 7pm – Lilian Bayliss Studio, Sadlers Wells Theatre, Roseberry Avenue, London EC1R 4TN. Tickets

14th June, 7pm – The Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5HT. Tickets

3rd July, 7pm – The Sheldonian Theatre, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AZ. Tickets

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