Monday, August 21, 2017

Midnight's music

Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight’s Children portrays India’s tumultuous journey to Partition and beyond, and the children of the title are those born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 - the precise moment of Indian independence. It can be argued that the impact of Partition on contemporary Britain is at least equal to that of the Russian Revolution. But, despite this, the centenary of the Russian Revolution takes precedence over the 70th anniversary of Partition in the 2017 BBC Proms season. So there is a veritable glut of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, while works with links to the Indian subcontinent such as Olivier Messiaen's Turangal├«la Symphony, Gustav Holst's Savitri and Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream, John Foulds' Song of Ram Dass and Three Mantras, and John Tavener's Requiem are conspicuously absent.

But all is not quite lost. There are two Proms featuring music from the subcontinent; the New Age elevator music of the Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass collaboration Passages which was performed on August 15, and a much more chewy concert of music from the Indian Hindustani and Carnatic traditions together with Sufi music from Pakistan - see photo above - on August 25. That is the good news. The bad news is that both concerts are in the insomniac slot, with the August 25 concert starting at 10.15pm and ending at half past midnight.

Now late night Proms are not a new feature: for example the 1972 Proms performance of Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning which featured in yesterday's post started at 9.45pm. But a lot has changed in the four decades since then. Supposedly we live in more inclusive, more cosmopolitan and more multicultural times. So why is any music that is not in the mainstream Western tradition immediately consigned to the graveyard shift?

Preceding the Indian/Pakistani concert are Riccardo Chailly and La Scala Philharmonic playing at 6.30pm a distinctly pedestrian but definitely Western programme of Brahms' Violin Concerto and Respighi's Pines and Fountains of Rome. Of course, it is all about the box office. Brahms, Respighi and Chailly will put a lot more bums on seats than Canartic music. But the maths are not quite that simple: the fee for Chailly, soloist Leonidas Kavakos and the La Scala band is many times greater than that for ten little-known musicians from the subcontinent. So some empty seats for an Eastern music concert in the main evening slot would not bankrupt the BBC, which enjoys a legally protected annual license fee income of £3.7 billion. But if we leave that inconvenient truth aside, is the purpose of the BBC Proms or any other concert series simply to maximise ticket sales?

Consigning this or any other non-mainstream music to the late night slot is a huge missed opportunity. A concert of Indian and Pakistani music spitting its audience out into central London at half-past midnight will only appeal to the committed cognoscenti. The same concert starting at 7.30pm or even in the afternoon will tempt people to try the unfamiliar. And it is not simply a case of Sufi versus Respighi. There is little overlap between the audiences and the Albert Hall is the worst possible venue for intimate devotional music. The Eastern musicians could have played at the same time as the big hitters from Italy, but in a more suitable venue such as the smaller Cadogan Hall which is already used for chamber music Proms.

This is not just about two concerts of Indian and Pakistani music. It is about something much bigger. For years the BBC Proms have been no more than a box ticking exercise. Tick the Mahler box, tick the manufactured controversy box, tick the new music box, tick the Daniel Barenboim box, tick the Shostakovich box, tick the Simon Rattle box, and, above all, tick the cultural Health and Safety box. Integral to ticking the cultural Health and Safety box has been the establishment of a 10.00pm 'watershed', whereby challenging music has to be buddied up with an audience-friendly warhorse to be included in a pre-watershed concert - e.g. Anders Hillborg's Sirens buddied with Rimsky's conveniently Russian but not revolutionary Scherezade in a 7.30pm concert. This cultural apartheid means it is OK to break with the Proms convention of mainstream classical before the 10.00pm watershed with 'safe' innovations such as Oklohoma!. But anything suggesting that there is more to life than Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin' - whether Sufi or contemporary Western music - is marginalised in the late night ghetto.

For too long the Proms have been on auto pilot flying towards destination maximum audience. Root and branch reform is needed to disengage the auto pilot. The budget for the Proms is around £10 million of which two-thirds is guaranteed from the BBC license fee and is therefore independent of ticket sales. With that kind of fiscal safety net in place surely some comfort zone-challenging programmes could be scheduled in the 7.30pm slots in addition to the mandatory Mahler symphonies and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. But let's finish on a positive note. For those who like me do not consider the Circle Line at half-past-midnight to be a consciousness-enhancing experience, a recording of the Indian and Sufi music Prom is being shown on BBC Four TV on Sept. 2.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

When censorship of a BBC Prom was not fake news

As a counterpoint to the latest manufactured Brexit controversy it is worth retelling* the story of a BBC Prom that was actually censored. The Great Learning: Paragraphs 1 and 2 by Cornelius Cardew was scheduled for performance at a 1972 Prom. The work, which sets translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound, generated genuine controversy before its performance. What the BBC management did not know is that Cardew - seen above in proselytising mode - had revised the work in line with his hardening Maoist views. This meant the revised version came complete with his politically motivated programme note and banners for display in the Albert Hall with the message "Apply Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung thought in a living way to the problems of the present". A typically unsatisfactory British compromise was eventually struck between BBC controller of music William Glock who had bravely programmed the work and Cardew. This resulted in an emasculated twelve minute excerpt from The Great Learning: Paragraph 1 being performed without slogans or polemical programme note. In 1972 an audacious choice of repertoire generated the controversy. Today it is fake news which generates the controversy.

This post is based on a 2010 Overgrown Path article. Other sources include Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished by John Tilbury. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Don't shoot the conductor

Sakari Oramo's BBC Proms performance of Mahler's Second Symphony, which I heard via the Radio 3 broadcast yesterday, was unusually satisfying. My guides in appreciating the symphony were Klemperer on disc and Solti and Haitink in the concert hall, and Oramo's interpretation measured up well against those lofty benchmarks. The playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a reminder of how good this band can be if the planets are fortuitously aligned. And the commendable Radio 3 broadcast balance gave the music room to breathe, although it was slightly marred by the usual spotlighting of solo lines and some noticeable gain riding in the final pages. Thankfully the participation of the now notorious Proms audience was minimal, and there was even enough unsullied applause at the end to allow me to mute the sound before Petroc Trelawny gatecrashed the party.

That performance was evidence, if any were really needed, that the most powerful promotional tool at classical music's disposal is the music itself. Ironically Sakari Oramo was one of the principal figures in the latest manufactured Brexit PR stunt, and he has been involved in other silly promotional stunts including the 2014 BBC Proms photo shoot above. In fact his participation in silly spin goes back a long way to some ill-judged remarks about authoritative interpreters of Elgar during his tenure at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

It is probably unfair to put all the blame for these gratuitous exercises in spin on Sakari Oramo. He is managed by the Harrison Parrott agency, which together with Askonas Holt - home of Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle - is a leading proponent of the theory that musicians now need equal measures of skill and spin to reach the peak of their profession. Classical music does not need these silly PR stunts. Far from enhancing the art form they cheapen it by reducing it to just another tawdry entertainment. Anshel Brusilow was a student of Pierre Monteux, associate concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell and concertmaster of Eugene Ormandy's Philadelphia Orchestra. His book Shoot the Conductor: Too Close to Monteux, Szell, and Ormandy is a coruscating indictment of both the manipulative power of management agents and the opportunistic behaviour of celebrity maestros. But in Shoot the Conductor Anshel Brusilow is also optimistic about the future, and classical music's spin doctors and marketing experts should heed his valedictory thoughts:

I've been a little promiscuous about music, quick to enjoy tunes that make me want to dance or sing along. Almost any type of music can make me feel happy or sad. But it is classical music, with its intricacy and large structure, that plumbs the depths of human feeling. It's not a pretty house-it's monumental architecture. The shortsighted are always saying classical music is dying. It won't. It will never be set aside or forgotten. We will die, and a new generation of music lovers in another corner of the globe will discover it and add to its canon.
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Friday, August 18, 2017

More on the political posturing of celebrity musicians

Then there is the oft-heard, surely apocryphal story of a Glasgow U2 gig when Bono silenced the audience and began a slow hand clap, then whispered weightily: "Every time I clap my hands , a child in Africa dies". A voice cried out from the audience: "Well, fucking stop doing it then".
That quote comes from the highly recommended The Frontman: Bobo (In the Name of Power) by Harry Browne. My thanks go to Jayaprakash Satyamurthy for recommending it; the book that is, not the story.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Brexit is the new applause between movements

It is mid-August and BBC Proms attendances are struggling. Most genuine music lovers have abandoned the Albert Hall to the clowns of the one-ring music circus that pitches up there every summer. Most of the prized new young audience have given up on the concerts after realising that crowd surfing and laser lights are not on the bill. And most of the Radio 3 audience has been driven away by Petroc Trelawny's relentlessly patronising presentation. So it is time to bring in the spin doctors and serve up some juicy click bait. Last year's bait was applause between movements. But this year something far more appealing has been found - Brexit. So to keep the ailing Proms high on the media agenda yet another Brexit controversy is manufactured. Hopefully when the Proms have finished, the pro and anti-Brexiteers and the malleable music celebrities will move on to another platform. Then we will be able to concentrate once again on the one thing which really matters, the music.

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