Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The problem is obvious - there is too much classical music

In a glowing review in the Guardian Andrew Clements describes the Freiburg Opera's Parsifal at the Norwich Theatre Royal - see production shot above - as "a show that almost any British company would be happy to have in its repertory". Yet despite the production's obvious quality, the four performances by the Freiburg company of Parsifal and Tannhäuser attracted lamentably small audiences. A London based critic blamed low profile promotion by the Norwich theatre for the poor attendance, and given the limited budget of the provincial venue, which has charitable status and no material public funding, there is some truth in that explanation. But the glib analysis of poor publicity is typical of the blame culture that is so prevalent in classical music today - blame elitism, funding cuts, antiquated concert conventions, piracy, in fact blame anything other than the self-harming behaviour of the music industry itself. All the fashionable conspiracy theories miss the obvious point that there is simply too much classical music available. We live in an age of Martini Wagner, where the master of Bayreuth's music is available any time, any place, anywhere. During the 2013 Wagner anniversary year there was a global glut of live performances of his music dramas and a deluge of re-releases of CDs and videos. As a result of this oversupply a musically acceptable complete Ring from Badische Staatskapelle on 14 CDs is currently available from Amazon UK for £11.38. If it is Parsifal you want, Barenboim's acclaimed interpretation is yours on 4 CDs for just £8.45; which is, of course, considerably less than the cheapest seat for the Norwich Parsifal.

This glut of classical music on legacy recorded formats is matched by a torrent of free streamed content: with the promise that BBC Arts Online "will be offering deeper, richer engagement online with a wealth of new material, streaming performances and events, live and on-demand at some of the best events across the country", while Amazon Prime offers unlimited instant streaming of opera videos. So is it surprising that people will not travel from Cambridge (63 miles) to Norwich to hear Parsifal, yet alone from London (115 miles)? And what chance in a time of oversupply does a Parsifal that Andrew Clements astutely identifies as "a company achievement, without stars, of the kind we rarely get to hear in Britain" stand without a Kaufmann, Baremboim or Pappano to give it celebrity credibility?

Wagner shared his anniversary last year with Benjamin Britten. It is now generally accepted that there was an oversupply of Britten's music in 2013, and, as a result, if you shop around the composer's own definitive recordings of his operas for Decca can be picked up for less than £1.50 a disc. Which is particularly ironic, as Britten told us that:
Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts.
Classical music is one of the glories of our civilisation, but it is not exempt from the fundamental law of economics which states that when supply of a commodity outstrips demand the value - both real and perceived - falls. Forget the conspiracy theories, and forget the canard that growth is always good. Indisputable data shows that audiences for classical music are shrinking, yet, equally indisputably, the supply of music is increasing exponentially. You do not have to be a so-called industry expert to see that this is a disaster waiting to happen. A combination of new digital distribution technologies and avaricious media corporations has produced a perfect storm in which an oversupply is driving down the value of classical music to an all time low. Without value an art form has no future; so when will the classical music industry wake up and start tackling the problem of oversupply? And when will it finally confront the dead moose in the room - the considerable overcapacity in both the recorded and live music supply chains?

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Max Hole is right, classical music is an elitist club

Universal Music ceo Max Hole has used the launch of the Bristol Proms to once again denounce classical music as "an elitist club". And he is right, classical music is an elitist club, and there is no better example than the Bristol Proms. This new concert series, which is hailed in the Guardian as "revolutionary", is managed and promoted by U-Live in conjunction with the Bristol Old Vic". U-Live is part of an elitist club otherwise known as Universal Music which controls, among other things, more than 50% of the recorded classical music market, and U-Live is simply a vehicle for giving Universal Music artists maximum exposure on concert platforms. Which means that almost all the leading musicians at the Bristol Proms are signed to Universal Music labels - Bryn Terfel (Decca), Lisa Batiashvili (DG), Daniel Hope (DG), Avi Avital (DG), and Valentina Lisitsa (Decca), while two of the other artists/ensembles, Ji Lui and the Sacconi Quartet, record for a label owned by co-promoter Classic FM. So, despite what Max Hole says, if you are a musician and want a gig at the Bristol Proms, joining the elitist club of a top classical label is highly recommended.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

On the road to enlightenment

Éliane Radigue's electronic paeans to Tibetan Buddhism, Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila featured heavily in my iPod playlist for a recent road trip from Kalka to Leh in the north of India. As my photos show, the road climbs from Kalka on the edge of the Ganges plain over the western end of the Himalayas to reach the alpine desert of Ladakh - 'Little Tibet' - seen in the final photo. En route the road crosses some of the highest passes in the world: three are over 15,000 feet with the highest, the Taglang La pass reaching 17,480 feet. The 500 mile drive took three long days on the road plus one rest day to acclimatise. For the final 300 miles between Manali and Leh the average altitude of the road is 11,000 feet, and it is only passable between May and October. Due to the altitude there is no permanent habitation for 200 miles from Jispa until the road enters Ladakh; the only services are temporary dhaba - road side eateries - such as the one seen in photo 10. This is the only overland route into Ladakh, and it carries a continuous stream of petrol tankers and military vehicles as the region is of strategic importance as it borders both Pakistan and China. Many glacial streams cross the road (see photo 8), and for much of the last 300 miles the road is unsurfaced and just one-and-a-half carriageways wide, with no barriers to stop errant vehicles plunging down the mountainside.

For anyone who, like me, suffers from vertigo and dislikes being driven, the distraction of a well-stocked iPod is highly recommended for this journey. Unfortunately the only alternative way to travel in and out of Ladakh, which is a narrow plateau bordered by the Himalaya and Karakoram mountains, is flying; this is how I returned and it is only slightly less nail biting than the overland journey. Leh is one of the highest airports in the world and, because of nearby mountains, has one of the very few unidirectional runways. This means planes can only take-off and land in one direction irrespective of the wind direction; this compromises the ability of aircraft to climb quickly, which is somewhat disconcerting when taking off from an airport surrounded by the world's highest mountains. On top of this the airport can only be used in the morning due to the strong mountains winds later in the day - some bloggers will do anything for a good story!

Rusting wrecks below the road are salutary reminders that altitude sickness is not the only health risk on the overland route into Ladakh - 250,000 people die every year on India's roads. Kailasha, the second section of Éliane Radigue Trilogie de la Mort, was written following the death of her son Yves Arman (her husband was the sculptor Arman) in a car crash in Spain in 1989. The work is a homage to Mount Kilash, the sacred mountain that in Tibetan cosmology is at the centre of the universe; pilgrims to Kailash are said to be able to enter the Buddhist 'pure land' of Shambala from the holy mountain. The Tibetan saint Milarepa, who inspired Éliane Radigue's Jetsun Mila, described how in the vast empty spaces of the Himalayas there is a benign market where the the vortex of everyday life can be exchanged for boundless bliss. I travelled to Ladakh to experience the Kalachakra teaching by the Dalai Lama; this is a Tantric initiation that uses visualisation and meditation to plant the seeds for practicioners to achieve enlightenment by being reborn in Shambala. For those unable to make a pilgrimage to this magical and mythical region great art - including great music - can be the door to fleeting, if not boundless, enlightenment. But, despite received wisdom, that door does not open easily. As Rabindranath Tagore explains in his poem Journey Home:

The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds
to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

* Those wishing to experience the fleeting glimpse of enlightenment offered by Éliane Radigue Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila will find samples online. Of particular interest is a short video of an al fresco performance of Trilogie de la Mort in 2011 at the Villa Arson contemporary art museum in France. This is an excellent illustration of how classical music can attract new audiences by knocking at what Rabindranath Tagore describes as alien doors, instead of pursuing the discredited dogmas of Universal Music's Max Hole - presenting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with disco lighting - and the BBC/Aldeburgh Music's Roger Wright - reinventing contemporary music as a medley of the Pet Shop Boy's greatest hits. Audiences can cope if given the opportunity...

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Any other copyrighted material n these pages is included for review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). My travel arrangements in India were made by the Tahi Lhunpo Monastery UK Trust, but any views expressed in this post are strictly my own.