Friday, May 06, 2016

Good conductors make good orchestras


My photos show players from L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc performing al fresco in the medina at Essaouira, Morocco last weekend as part of the annual Printemps Musical Des Alizés festival. The orchestra and their choir had travelled 480km south from Rabat to give two evening concerts culminating in the Mozart Requiem. For those of us saturated in the celebrity merry-go-round of classical music in Europe expectations were not high. There is no strong tradition of Western classical music in Morocco, L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc is an unknown quantity and the concert venue was the town's sports hall dressed artfully as a Bedouin tent. But the orchestra's artistic director Olivier Holt neatly inverted Furtwängler's maxim that there are no bad orchestras just bad conductors, to prove that there are no good orchestras, just good conductors. Olivier Holt, whose mentors include Charles Mackerras and Leonard Bernstein, is noted for his operatic work in his native France, and his mastery of vocal forces resulted in a Mozart Requiem of a power and intensity that contrasted sharply with the polished and soulless 'London today Edinburgh tomorrow' jet set music making that dominates the European festival scene.

The Printemps Musical Des Alizés festival also provided some outstanding chamber music played by young European ensembles, including a notable Beethoven Quartet op. 132 from the Quatuor Arod. Essaouira is fortunate to have two acoustically outstanding chamber music venues: the principal venue Dar Souiri is a large traditional riad with enclosed courtyard that provided some of the best sound I have heard in many years of concert going, while the town's Catholic Church has a richly resonant acoustic. This was one of the few festivals where I did not pay for my tickets; for the simple reason that - quite unbelievably - all the concerts are free. With direct budget flights from Paris and London to Essaouira, the Printemps Musical Des Alizés should be on the radar of readers in Western Europe. Essaouira is a beautiful unspoilt seaside town just like Aldeburgh, and the Printemps Musical Des Alizés has all the appeal of the Aldeburgh Festival, with swimming in the morning and superlative chamber music in the afternoon. But, thankfully, there are no Ben and Peter cufflinks on sale in Essaouira, and obtaining tickets for the concerts is not a loaded lottery.



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Thursday, May 05, 2016

Spooky music


We can only speculate as to why an FBI agent was perusing a post about the admirable but neglected English composer William Wordsworth. My theory is that the spook had visited the 2016 BBC Proms website and deterred by the bland fare on offer there - six Mahler programmes plus the mandatory appearances by Dudamel, Rattle and Barenboim - was investigating On An Overgrown Path for something more nourishing.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Gone analogue

The moral is not 'less technology' but more 'other things'
Quote is by Huston Smith from his prescient pre-social media book Beyond the Post-modern Mind which was published in 1982. Sunset was photographed by me at Agadir, Morocco.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Will the world end if the master musicians stop playing?

Brion Gysin died in Paris in 1986. I remember he always used to say that if the Master Musicians of Jajouka ever stopped playing, the legend holds that the world will end. He often worried about the chronic poverty of the musicians, and the diluting effect of contact with the modern world upon the ancient music. But the Pipes of Pan survive to this day.
That is William Burroughs writing in the sleeve notes for Apocalypse Across the Sky, Bill Laswell's recording of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. The Master Musicians first achieved global recognition through Brian Jones' LP The Pan Pipes of Jajouka which was posthumously released in 1971. William Burroughs wrote his note in 1992, and the gloomy prognosis that if the master musicians stop playing the world will end has been the repeated message of the classical music industry in recent years. But just how true is that prognosis?


Almost half a century after Brian Jones brought their ancient music to the modern world, the Master Musicians from Morocco play on. As recounted in earlier Overgrown Path posts, the Jajouka musicians have survived commercialisation and an acrimonious split, and one of the Jajouka ensembles played at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival while the other is appearing at the Barbican in London in September. The technology obsessed modern world has certainly impacted on art music, but has it really diluted it? This month Paul Bowles' pioneering 1958 field recordings of Moroccan music have been made available to a global audience in an exquisitely presented 4 CD box Music from Morocco by the independent Dust-to-Digital, a label with the mission "to produce high-quality, cultural artifacts". Recent eloquent advocacy by Amanda Petrusich writing in the New Yorker and Adam Schatz in The New York Review of Books underlines the importance of this new edition of Morocco's ancient music. It is impossible to do justice in words to the presentation of the set - particularly the 119 page leatherette-bound booklet - and the remastered sound belies the age of the original masters captured by Paul Bowles' Ampex 601 reel-to-reel recorder. Photos 2 and 4 here are reproduced from the Music to Morocco booklet. The set includes Bowles' field recordings of gnawa and Jewish music made in Essaouira, and photo 3 below was an archive photo of Jewish cantors that I unearthed in Essaouira when researching my 2010 post Jewish music under the sheltering sky.


In a few days I return to Essaouira, and the mixed blessing that is the iPod means the music captured by Paul Bowles will return to its source and play on through the digital avatars of the musicians that performed it in Morocco more than half a century ago. So also in Western art music, with master musicians such as Bruno Walter - seen in the header photo - playing on for a new generation of listeners via lovingly curated CD reissues. New technologies mean the master musicians of the past will never stop playing, but what about today's masters? Claiming that the world will end if the current generation of Western master musicians stops playing is a convenient way for the music establishment to defend the damaging and stultifying status quo. The classical music industry has an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and the world will not end if the celebrity master musicians stop playing. But, despite this, we still need great art, and if classical musicians are to continue playing in our concert halls we need a a new breed of masters performing more adventurous repertoire, taking a far more positive approach to changes in listening habits, and working under a different and less divisive business model. Just as the Pipes of Pan from Jajouka adapted and play on, so the master classical musicians must adapt if they want to play on. Keep well while I travel.


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