Saturday, July 23, 2016

Go East young cellist

Alpesh Chauhan, who conducts two diurnal BBC Proms this weekend, started his career as principal cellist at the City of Birmingham Youth Orchestra. A friend in the industry tells me that the young British Asian - his parents were born in East Africa of Indian (Gujarati) descent - wants to be judged solely on his music-making, and not on his ethnicity, which is very admirable and refreshing. But there are connections between the cello and India which are worth exploring, so I hope Alpesh will forgive me for using him as the starting point of a path which leads East rather than West.

First up is a CD released in 2002 of cellist without frontiers Matthew Barley giving concert performances in London and New Delhi of two ragas, playing with sarodists Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash, supported by tanpura. Although purists may shudder, a raga played on a cello is not heretical. A raga is a loose and tight form that allows the musicians freedom to improvise within a strictly specified rhythm - taal - and an equally strictly specified note sequence (usually five, six or seven notes) that defines pitch. The music is freely developed within the defined parameters of pitch and rhythm in the gat segment of the raga, and as the music is not notated it can be argued that the use of a cello is acceptable if not conventional, provided that the structure of the raga is respected.

Another cellist to take advantage of the disciplined freedom of the raga form is Sakia Rao-de-Haas who has developed with violin builder Eduard van Tongeren an Indian cello which acknowledges the vital role of resonating strings in the sound of many traditional India instruments by adding ten resonating stings to the Western cello. Her double CD Making Waves captures the deep and sonorous tone of her Indian cello very truthfully; the discs, which were released in 2003, present three ragas played by various permutations of Indian cello and sitar with tabla - video here. Sakia Rao-de-Haas' double CD is only available as a download. Matthew Barley's CD is no longer available through the major retailer; however there are several samples on YouTube and copies still appear to be available for the bargain price of £4 direct from Navras Records.

More readily available is a recent release featuring a distant relative of the cello, the lyra-viol. On Captain Hume's Journey to India the viol virtuoso Philippe Pierlot takes the 16th century composer Tobias Hume on an imaginary journey to India, playing nine of Hume's compositions straight from the score before combining with Dhruba Ghosh on sarangi with support from tabla and tanpura in an exquisite ten minute improvisation. Captain Humes journey may sound unlikely, but it works magically. Unlike many contrived East meets West fusions, I return frequently to all the discs featured in this post, and it is for that reason I am sharing them with readers. But hopefully this path will also provide more musical nourishment than the recent story by an influential cultural commentator which led with the revelation that Alpesh Chauhan's father is a lorry driver.

* Staying with my Eastern theme, readers in the East of England who follow my numerous Indian paths may be interested in a recital in the Dhrupad vocal style by the revered Pandit Uday Bhawalkar in the Memorial Unitarian Church, Emmanuel Road, Cambridge at 3:00 PM on August 7th. Accompaniment is by pakhawaj and no cello is involved! No review samples used in this post. 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.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Digging beneath the diversity headlines

A puff for upcoming Proms in the Independent is headlined 'You don't need to be a white, middle-aged man to wield a baton' and it is very good indeed to see the immensely talented 26 year old British Asian Alpesh Chauhan on the podium in the Royal Albert Hall twice this weekend (July 23 & 24). Alpesh Chauhan - seen above - follows in the footsteps of Indian born Zubin Mehta who has conducted thirteen Proms, the most recent in 2011. But, despite that click baiting headline, it is still fiendishly difficult if you are a black man, yet alone a black woman, to wield a baton at the BBC Proms. In more than 2500 Promenade concerts there have been just three black conductors - all men - and the last one was back in 2003. It is also not insignificant that the 2003 Prom conducted by African American Bobby McFerrin was, like Alpesh Chauhan's two Proms this weekend, not the main evening concert but a daytime event. So sorry to spoil a good Indie headline, but the main events on both Saturday and Sunday in the Albert Hall have white, middle-aged men wielding the baton.

But let's be fair, there is progress. The BBC has a 'Black and British' season of programmes exploring diversity airing in November. One of the programmes with the working title of 'Young, Gifted and Classical' is about the 17-year-old black cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who won the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, and in October BBC Radio 3 is hosting a Diversity and Inclusion in Composition conference in Manchester. I just wish I could be more enthusiastic about these BBC diversity initiatives. But in today's BBC, altruism comes a long way behind brand building, and there is little reason to think that these new initiatives will be an exception. The BBC press release headline for the Sheku Kanneh-Mason documentary plugs the BBC Young Musician sub-brand relentlessly, while this weekend's concerts conducted by Alpesh Chauhan are part of a heavily BBC branded education project. Plus ├ža change...

It is wonderful that Alpesh Chauhan and Sheku Kanneh-Mason are in the limelight. But they have already been snapped up by super-agents Hazard Chase and IMG Artists respectively, and their careers are secure. Let's hope the BBC's diversity season also includes a programme about the less fortunate black classical musicians who face institutionalised discrimination. There is no better case study for this than Rudolph Dunbar, who was born in the then British Guiana in 1907, became the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1945 and went on to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra. However Rudolph Dunbar's career went into an unexplained decline in the decade leading up to his death in 1988. Dunbar's brief obituary in the Musical Times recounts how: 'He gradually withdrew from public life, and devoted himself to fighting racism and trying to increase black involvement in Western art music'. But there is compelling evidence that this is not the whole story. In his book Musical Life in Guyana Dr Vibert C. Cambridge of Ohio University recounts how in an interview six months before his death: 'Dunbar spoke about the particular vindictiveness of a producer/director of music at the BBC who derailed his musical career in Europe. Dunbar described that director of music as “despicable and vile” and the BBC “as stubborn as mules and ruthless as rattlesnakes”'.

Investigating these allegations, which have been independently supported, is much more than an academic exercise; because the alleged discrimination would have occurred contemporaneously with the abuse within the BBC that precipitated the Savile scandal. Uncovering the truth about the treatment of Rudolph Dunbar would aid the understanding of the management culture within the BBC, an institution that in the intervening years has increased its stranglehold on classical music in Britain. If the BBC mined its own archives we would finally know the truth about what really ended the career of one of the first great black conductors. What a valuable contribution that would be to the BBC's diversity season. But I'm not holding my breath.

Photo credit CBSO. 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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

What would Mahler have posted on Facebook?

The current paucity of truly great classical musicians is often lamented. To achieve true greatness requires an awful lot of talent and hard work, but it also requires the cultivation of mystique. A definition of mystique is 'a quality of mystery', and that essential and elusive quality of mystery is being destroyed by the petty revelations of social media. I now find it almost impossible to listen to the sublime music making of a certain young and very talented virtuoso without being distracted by flashbacks to the candid photos posted on Facebook of the lifestyles of the rich and famous summer vacation that the musician recently enjoyed.

Elsewhere on Facebook my enthusiasm for the music of more than one contemporary composers is being solely tested by the unremitting and uncritical self-promotion of those composers, while my respect for a leading conductor was seriously challenged when he publicly bit the hand that feeds him in order to achieve fifteen minutes of social media fame. And much that I lament Brexit, the unrelenting and unproductive Twitter outpourings on the subject by some musicians leaves me wondering how they find time to play any music. Moreover musicians who automatically re-tweet and 'like' favourable comments and reviews about themselves are, in my eyes, guilty of trading mystique for self-aggrandisement.

Whether we like it or not classical music is rooted in the past both in repertoire and conventions, which means we cannot totally discount the past. So if social media had been available, what would charismatic figures such as Britten, Toscanini and Mahler have used it for? Would Ben have posted home movies of himself cavorting with Peter Pears on the beach in Bali? Would Toscanini have kept the world informed via Twitter of his falling-out with the fascist regime at the Salzburg Festival? Would Mahler have instagrammed a daguerreotype of the Hotel Belvedere's tafelspitz and flowed exclusive updates on his deteriorating heart condition to Norman Lebrecht?

That classical music is undervalued is now a constant complaint of insiders. But value is a function of scarcity, and almost without exception every current promotional strategy involves increasing what is already an oversupply of classical music, with social media and streaming being the prime culprits. As Leopold Stokowski explained: 'A painter paints his pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence...' The rule of 'no silence means no music' applies just as much on social media as it does in the concert hall.

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Inevitably also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Love has fallen into difficulties

That shrine to King Mohammed VI of Morocco - the fifth richest man in Africa with a personal worth of $5.7 billion - was photographed by me recently in Marrakech. Others find the Moroccan ruler's regime less lovable; they include the forgotten Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara whose cause is bravely championed by Sahrawi musician Aziza Brahim - sample here. The photo below of a Sahrawi was taken by me in Guelmim on the edge of the disputed territory and comes from my 2015 photo essay. Morocco's latest request to rejoin the African Union 32 years after leaving in a dispute over the Western Sahara confirms that King Mohammed considers his country's illegal annexation of the territory is a done deal. In Morocco as in so many other countries - Muslim and otherwise - the words of the 14th century Persian poet Hafez now ring so true:
Love which once seemed so easy,
has fallen into difficulties

No comped goods and services used in this post. 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.

Monday, July 18, 2016

On the threshold of a dream

That is John Field above and a new CD from Decca of Elizabeth Joy Roe playing his Nocturnes is something to be cherished. Field is hailed as the father of the Nocturne, a musical form that has come to be associated with the demure etiquette of the salon. But as Elizabeth Joy Roe points out in her studious sleeve essay, for the Romantics nocturnal darkness unleashed dreams, hallucinations, nightmares and visions. A post here several years ago explored the links between hypnagogia and music. Hypnagogia is the transitional state between sleep and wakefulness during which lucid dreaming, hallucinations and out of body experiences occur, and Elizabeth Joy Roe's interpretation looks beyond the demure towards those states.

Universal Music takes a lot of stick on this blog, so it is pleasing to be able to recommend this CD so strongly. It is particularly pleasing at a time when recorded sound quality is too often sacrificed on the altar of streaming and download speed to commend the exemplary sound captured by tonmeister Philip Siney in Potton Hall, Suffolk. And for those aging dinosaurs who like me still collect music in physical formats, it is worth noting that improvements in CD mastering technology mean the complete Nocturnes now fit onto a single CD with a playing time of 86 minutes 8 seconds, whereas Michael O'Rourke's account on Chandos spans 2 CDs. Schubert's String Quintet and Schoenberg' Verklarte Nacht with Janine Jansen also on Decca has a playing time of 83' 11" and was a previous contender for the title of longest classical CD. At the risk of descending into response whoring trivia, has Elizabeth Joy Roe recorded the longest Red Book standard* classical CD? And again well done Universal Classics/Decca, because on both the the Field and Schubert/Schoenberg discs you can feel both the quality and the width.

* An overlooked benefit of the sadly neglected SACD format is the greatly increased storage capacity of the discs: for instance a now deleted BIS release of the complete Mendelssohn String Symphonies fitted more than four hours of music onto a single SACD disc. No comped goods or services used in this post. 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.