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 considerable 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.
No review samples used. 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.

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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Lit up with sound

That photo was taken by me at Thiksey Monastery in Ladakh looking across to the Himalayas. In the programme note for his orchestral Body Mandala Jonathan Harvey wrote:
The score is headed "...reside in the mandala, the celestial mansion, which is the nature of the purified gross body". I was in North India recently where I witnessed purification rituals in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. This work is influenced by those experiences. The famous low horns, tungchens, the magnificently raucous 4-note oboes, gelings, the distinctive rolmo cymbals - all these and more were played by the monks in deeply moving ceremonies full of lama dances, chanting and ritual actions. There is a fierce wildness about some of the purifications, as if great energy is needed to purge the bad ego-tendencies. But also great exhilaration is present. And calm. The body, when moved with chanting, begins to vibrate and warm at different chakra points and 'sing' internally. As it were, 'lit up' with sound.
Below senior Tibetan Buddhist monk Kenrap-la is seen hearing Jonathan's Body Mandala for the first time. He is listening on my iPod as we approach his monastery at Thiksey at the end of the arduous 800 km drive from Kalka on the edge of the Ganges plain over the western end of the Himalayas to the alpine desert of Ladakh on the border of India and Tibet*. When I took the photo we were more than 1000 km from the nearest concert hall and in a culture where the Western classical music tradition is totally alien. Despite this Kenrap-la was 'lit up' with sound.

* In deference to my readers in Pakistan I should qualify that sentence by adding that Ladakh is in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. 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.