Friday, July 29, 2005

Critical Mass


I'm a big fan of Marin Alsop. But last night her BBC Prom performance with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing her own sequence of the suites from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet was strangely unsatisfying. Tempi were pulled around, and rather than adding to the tension the wayward performance weakened it. When it finished I wanted some 'in your face' music making that was over the top, but which really worked. So as Marin Alsop was a pupil of Bernstein's I put on his 1971 recording of his own Mass, a work I don't listen to very often.

Is Mass Bernstein's unrecognised masterpeice? Or is it a failed experiment in using the vernacular and exploiting street chic? (But wasn't the 'parody mass' a legitimate renaissance musical form which exploited contemporary music such as L'homme arme?) My view used to be that Mass was simply a failed experiment, but I have to confess I am slowly moving towards the view that it may be a misunderstood masterpeice. I would be interested in readers views, and guidance on what to make of it. Just post your views using the comments facility at the foot of this post.

And while you ponder those questions, here's a video of Marie-Adele McArthur singing A simple song from Mass. Whatever you think of the work as a whole this is beautiful music.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Raindrops are falling on my chant

In my rave review of Antony Pitts directing Tonus Peregrinus' on Naxos in medieval choral music from the Notre Dame School I commented that I thought you could faintly hear rain falling as Rebecca Hickey gave a ravishing account of Perotin’s Beata viscera.

I made contact with Antony after posting and asked him if I was correct. He is one of the switched-on musicians who understands the importance of music weblogs, and he came straight back with this helpful answer.

Pliable (in haste) - indeed it is. Beata viscera was recorded on our last morning in Chancelade Abbey, before a mad dash to the airport, so we couldn't wait for the rain to stop...
Antony


So now there are three excellent reasons to buy this Naxos CD. First, because you get seventy minutes of the most gorgeous singing you will hear for a very long time. Secondly, because if you are an audiophile you can test the resolution of your gear, and impress your buddies, with the Perotin raindrops test. And thirdly, because you can't hear the rain on low-res MP3 it gives you a great reason to keep supporting musicians by buying good old fashioned CD's. I must emphasise that the noise doesn't detract at all from the music. Listening intently on both my B&W Nautilus 803s and top end Sennheiser HD580 headphones I can just hear rainwater gurgling in downpipes. It is just a lovely touch which adds a unique sonic signature to a beautiful recording.

Antony also supplied useful information about his new work XL. It is a companion piece to Tallis' Spem in alium and has just been released on Harmonia Mundi. The scoring is for eight choirs, SATBarB, BBarTAS,BBarTAS, SATBarB, BBarTAS, SATBarB, SATBarB and BBarTAS, and the Faber published score gives three alternative layouts for the choir. It could be an interesting new option for programme planners who are scheduling the Tallis 40 part motet. .

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

San Francisco band's Proms debut, plus Shankar family celebration

The BBC Proms season so far has been strong on new music, with premieres already from John Corigliano, Henri Dutilleux, and James MacMillan. Early music gets some welcome attention this coming week with the first visit of Nicholas McGegan's San Francisco based period ensemble Philharmonia Baroque Ensemble in a Rameau and Handel programme.

Also on the 'don't miss' list is the Shankar family concert with father Ravi celebrating his 85th birthday. New music highlights include a rare chance to hear Luciano Berio's 55 minute protest song, Coro, and a UK premiere for Hans Abrahamsen. It's been a great Proms season so far, helped by the promenaders (almost) stopping their infuriating mannerism of applauding between movements, so don't miss this week's webcasts.

Mainstream Highlights:
Berloz, Romeo and Juliet complete; BBC Scottish Orchestra under their outstanding young conductor, Illan Volkov. Sunday 31st July, 18.30h
Mahler, Ruckert-Lieder; sung by Anne Sophie von Otter with Gothenburg Symphony under Neeme Jarvi. Friday 5th August, 19.30h

New Music:
Woolrich, After the Clock; lunchtime prom from elite ensemble of young players. Also includes Lutoslawski and Copland’s evergreen Appalachian Spring. Monday 1st August, 13.00h
Abrahamsen, Four pieces for orchestra; UK premiere. Monday 1st August, 19.30h
Berio, Coro; Rarelly heard choral masterpiece performed by London Sinfonietta players and voices under Diego Masson in a late-night Prom (note start time). It contrasts lines from the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda with folk-texts from the Americas, Africa, Croatia, Persian and Polynesia. Tuesday 2nd August, 22.00h
Ravi Shankar, Sitar Concerto No.1 played by the composer and his daughter Anoushka; Indian themed concert ends with a sequence of evening ragas. The concert is going ahead despite Air France smashing the master's sitars - see photo of Ravi and Anoushka Sitar. Interestingly both Ravi Shakar and Placido Domingo make their Proms debut this season. Wednesday 3rd August, 19.30h
Watkins, Double concerto for viola and cello; world premiere, plus Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Thursday 4th August, 19.00h

Early Music:
Rameau and Handel, including excerpts from early and late operas by Rameau, plus arias from two great Handel oratorios; with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque. Tuesday 2nd August, 19.00h

All the concerts above are being broadcast live by BBC Radio 3, and are available as live web casts. Many of them are also available for seven days after broadcast on the BBC Listen Again service but some aren’t. Check BBC listings for which are available via ‘listen again’ but as a rule of thumb high profile orchestras and artists are usually too expensive for the BBC to buy repeat broadcast rights.This is a personal, and fallible, selection of the week's concerts. The full weeks programmes are available through this link. Concerts start dates are given in British Summer Time using 24 hour clock (19.00h = 7.00pm) Convert these timings to your local time zone using this linkThe Guardian are reviewing every Prom this season. Access their reviews via this link.

This preview of the following week's Proms appears every week on an overgrown path. If you want to share an upcoming concert with a friend email the post to them using the envelope icon at the foot of the post.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Jerry Springer rebel grabs Gramophone accolade

Back in January there was quite a rumpus when BBC Television screened Jerry Springer – The Opera by Stewart Lee (writer) and Richard Thomas (composer). Almost 50,000 people complained about the 8000 obscenities in the opera, and there were protests by a number of religious groups. Among the objectors was BBC Radio 3 producer Antony Pitts who resigned his job in protest about the alleged blasphemous content in the broadcast. Among the programmes Pitts worked on was the highly acclaimed, and cutting edge, Late Junction.

But Antony Pitts didn’t disappear as a footnote in history. He has a flourishing career as a contemporary composer, and the new Hyperion recording of his choral work Seven Letters has been selected as Editor’s Choice in the August edition of the prestigious Gramophone magazine. And the story doesn't end there. The chamber choir, Tonus Peregrinus, that he founded and directs is gaining quite a reputation with its recordings of both new and medieval music.

Antony Pitts (see photo) was born in 1969, sang as a boy in the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, and was an Academic Scholar at New College, Oxford. His recent commissions include works for the Berlin Radio Choir, Cambridge Voices, the Clerks’ Group, the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, Oxford Camerata, Schola Cantorum of Oxford, and the Swingle Singers.

His choral music is jazz influenced (note the Swingle Singers connection), but retains strong links to traditional musical forms, and reflects his own personal beliefs. Antony Pitts seems to be having the last laugh on the Jerry Springer – The Opera affair as his highly acclaimed new work Seven Letters is a choral setting of St John’s damning indictment of the depravity of the first-century church in Asia Minor from the Book of Revelations. It was composed in 1998, and is scored for SSAATTBB. The writing is both contemporary and accessible, and all credit to Hyperion for investing in new choral music. The complete sleeve notes are available through this link.

Find out more about Seven Letters by listening to four minutes from the new recording using these buttons. Let us know what you think of Antony Pitts' music based on this short sample by adding a comment through this link. And why not share this exciting new music with a friend or colleague by emailing them a link to this post including the music by clicking here?

Seven Letters is sung by Antony Pitts' own group Tonus Peregrinus shown in the adjacent photo. (The name is from a form of plainchant). The group's repertoire spans 800 years, and they created a classical best seller with their Naxos recording of Arvo Part’s iconic Passio. But the recording I want to share with you is their new Naxos release of medieval sacred music from Notre-Dame Cathedral, including works by Leonin and Perotin. This budget priced CD is one of the most rewarding I’ve heard for years. It was recorded in Chancelade Abbey, outside Perigeux in France. The sound is atmospheric (including the distant sound of rain falling in some takes) and vivid, and the singing is both technically excellent and really moving. Try it, even if, like me, you may have found these medieval composers a little ‘hair shirt’ in the past. The opening track with Rebecca Hickey singing Perotin’s Beata viscera contains six minutes of the most ravishing sounds you will ever hear. I can’t link to the Naxos audio clip of this recording because registration is required. But take my word, for around £5 ($9) you just can’t go wrong.

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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Masses of early music in summertime Cambridge

Last night we were at a spell-binding performace of Christopher Tye's Missa Euge bone. Forget about MP3s, webcasts, CDs or vinyl, the only way to hear great music is live, and in as beautiful a setting as Trinity College Chapel in Cambridge, which dates from the same period as the music being performed.

Christopher Tye is a local composer here in East Anglia, but our paths never crossed as he died in 1573. His posts included lay clerk at King's College in Cambridge, and later choir master at Ely Cathedral before taking Holy Orders. He was an almost exact contemporary of the much better known Thomas Tallis, but sadly few complete works of his have survived, and information on his life is incomplete to the extent that his exact dates are uncertain. The Missa Euge bone is set for six voices, and is full of the defining features of the period with its rich textures, imitation and polyphonic writing. But the innovative cadences distinguish it from the works of his contemporaries. He composed two other masses which I don't know, but they must be worth exploring. The Missa Euge bone is exquisite.

As a taster here is the complete Benedictus from the Mass taken from the superb Hyperion budget re-issue (unmissable at around £5 - $9) with Winchester Cathedral Choir directed by David Hill. And share this wonderful music with a friend or colleague by emailing them a link to this post including the music by clicking here.

The performance last night in Trinity College Chapel was part of the Cambridge Early Music Summer Schools, and also included English Renaissance choral works by Tallis, Weelkes, Gibbons and Byrd (see end of post for the full programme) . The excellent choir was the Serlo Consort (see photo above). They are a young professional chamber choir who started working together while studying together at Exeter University, where their director and founder Kit Perona-Wright made a post-graduate study of English cathedral music. The Serlo Consort follows the accepted practice of using female voices to take the boy's parts (unlike Winchester Cathedral Choir in the excerpt above). They combine technical accuracy with youthful power and energy that distinguishes them from the 'cut glass' precision of established groups like the Tallis Scholars.

In my post Monteverdi in Cambridge I wrote about the pivotal role played by that wonderful university city in the early music revival. Cambridge is still very much a vibrant centre for early music making, and the Cambridge Early Music Summer Schools are one of the splendid institutions furthering performance practice and scholarship. The summer schools are short study courses in Baroque, Renaissance and Medieval music which have been running since 1992. They are designed for amateur, semi-professional, and professional musicians, and there is specialist tuition by leading professional musicians. Over the years those taking part have included The Hilliard Ensemble, Jan Garbarek, The Parley of Instruments, and Musica Antiqua of London.

Linked to the courses is a series of summer concerts. Details of this years are available through this link. They include The Parley of Instruments (see photo above) in Trinity College Chapel (26th July), Jacob Heringman playing Desprez on the lute (31st July) and Musica Antiqua of London (2nd August). Full details of courses, costs and bursaries are on the CEMSS web site.

The Serlo Consort's programme was: Alleluia, I heard a voice - Weelkes: Kyrie 'Orbis factor' - Tye: Gloria & Creed (Missa Euge bone) - Tye: If ye love me - Tallis: Sanctus & Benedictus (Missa Euge bone) - Tye: Sing joyfully- Byrd: Agnus Dei I-IV (Missa Euge bone) - Tye: O clap your hands - Gibbons.

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Friday, July 22, 2005

Download doomsayer

Now I appear to be the only person on the planet who doesn't consider the Beethoven MP3 project to have been a success. And here are my reasons. Just open this link, or this link for file sharing sites that are offering the Beethoven recordings. And if they have been taken down there are many, many other servers with these files which can be found in just a few minutes searching.

It is almost impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the radio in the UK without coming across another self-congratulatory story about the success of the BBC Beethoven Symphony downloads. But I beg to differ about the success of this project.

Creative artists, and that includes composers, musicians, producers, editors and arrangers as well as authors and artists, have only one currency - intellectual property. Beethoven's 9th Symphony is not a paper score, a plastic CD, or the bits and bytes of an MP3 file. It is the unique, original, and priceless, expression of a creative idea. Similarly Vassily Sinaisky's interpretation, and the BBC Philharmonic's playing of the symphony is another unique, and original, expression of an interpretative idea.

Copyright protects those unique and original ideas. This protection safeguards the interests of the creator, and allows, where appropriate, the creator to be rewarded for his work. Copyright laws originated in the 18th century to protect the interests of authors as printing became established as a fast, and cheap, method of producing multiple copies of books. If copyright laws did not exist there would be no incentive for creative artists to produce their masterpieces as financial reward would not be possible. It is no coincidence that creativity in western civilsation flourished after copyright laws were established.

Any new music (or book) distribution model must have embedded in it the ability to protect the intellectual property that is being distributed. This applies even if there is no charge for the distribution, as is the case in the BBC downloads. I posted a few weeks back about Naxos' music downloads from library web sites. There is no charge for these, but they are protected from onward copying by sophisticated (and expensive) digital rights management (DRM) software from OverDrive Inc which was available to the BBC.

The BBC let the Beethoven MP3 downloads into the market without any attempt at controlling their intellectual property rights other than some ineffective small print on the download page. The BBC didn't lose control of the copyright of these performances, they simply surrendered it. The evidence is out there on the internet, just open this link, or this link for file sharing sites that are offering the Beethoven recordings, and there are many, many other file servers which can be found in just a few minutes searching. Copy protection was both essential, and deliverable - see this link for discussion of how it could have been achieved.

I could understand all the baloney from the BBC if they had pioneered a new distribution model for recorded classical music. But they haven't. They've simply driven a coach and horses through an existing model. (New alternatives to copyright do exist, such as copyleft and similar admirable initiatives). Two truisms about new web business models come to mind. The first is that if something becomes technically possible, it doesn't automatically follow that it also becomes commercially viable. The second is that the internet is the world's most effective photocopier. I am not slamming the BBC for offering free classical music downloads, and I am delighted by any scheme that widens the appeal of serious music. But I am heavily criticising the BBC for not being professional, and ensuring that a copyright protection solution, from those readily available, was in place on these files before they were unleashed onto the internet. By their actions they have put the future livelihood of musicians and others at risk. And that is why I do not consider this exercise to have been a success.

The UK Government's controversial Hutton Inquiry castigated the BBC for acting first, and thinking second when reporting on the death of Government WMD scientist Dr David Kelly (see photo to right). The BBC have followed exactly the same sequence of acting first and thinking second with the Beethoven downloads. The Hutton Inquiry resulted in the resignation of the BBC's Director General Greg Dyke, and an apology from the BBC. It is particularly ironic that Dyke's replacement Mark Thompson is now maximising the positive spin from yet another action that was launched without being properly thought through. The horse has well and truly bolted on the Beethoven files and is galloping around the internet, so there is no chance of putting a lock on the stable door.

Never underestimate the power of the BBC. They have an assured income from a non-negotiable poll tax known as the license fee of nearly £3 billion ($5.5 billion) a year, and have one of the three most recognisable brands in the world. And they can afford to get it badly wrong. Official figures show that the BBC rolling news channel News 24, which has a budget of more than £50 million ($90 million), broadcast 472 hours in 2003 when nobody was watching at all; and the average spot audience was around 37,000 50,000 viewers (source The Road Taken, a book by BBC journalist and newscaster Michael Buerk, page 418). Let's hope they use their massive technology resources a little more responsibly when they start their 'Bach around the clock' marathon in the week before Christmas.

Regular readers who are fearing that on an overgrown path is morphing into another slash.org need not fear. My next two posts will be solely about the joys of live music making. But I just hope that the performers involved, the Serlo Consort and L'Orchestre Lyrique de Region Avignon-Provence and L'Ensemble Vocal D'Avignon still have the funding in future years to make live music. Or will the audiences simply be sitting at home listening to free BBC downloads of the works involved, the two Schumann Requiems, and Christopher Tye's Missa Euge Bone?

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Corigliano, Dutilleux and Elgar headline Proms week

After an impressive first week of the new Proms season which featured a moving Child of Our Time, and a stunning Walkure with Domingo et al the second week (starting 23rd July) has more riches. Highlights include Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, and premieres from Dutilleux and Corigliano (see illustration of John Corigliano by Carol Cleere).

Mainstream Highlights:
Elgar, Dream of Gerontius; Mark Elder conducts Halle orchestra and choir in a choral masterpiece. Sunday 24th July, 19.30h
Beethoven and Tippett;
Manchester Camerata under Douglas Boyd. Proms debut for an outstanding chamber orchestra which brought us the acclaimed Mahler-lite 4th symphony recording. Wednesday 27th July, 22.00h
Prokofiev Symphony No. 5; an all Russian programme conducted by Russion-born Vassily Sinaisly. Friday 29th July, 19.30h

New Music:
Messaen and Adams; lunchtime recital of music for violin and piano. Monday 25th July, 13.00h
Knussen and Glanert;
Oliver Knussen conducts his own Whitman settings and the world premiere of Detlev Glanert’s Theatrum bestiarum. Tuesday 26th July, 19.30h
Dutilleux, Correspondances;
London premiere with Sakari Oramo conducting City of Birmingham Orchestra. Wednesday 27th July, 19.00h
Corigliano, Violin Concerto
The Red Violin’; UK premiere with Joshua Bell playing and Marin Alsop conducing her Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra rather than the Baltimore refuseniks. Thursday 28th July, 19.30h

All the concerts above are being broadcast live by BBC Radio 3, and are available as live web casts. Many of them are also available for seven days after broadcast on the BBC Listen Again service but some aren’t. Check BBC listings for which are available via ‘listen again’ but as a rule of thumb high profile orchestras and artists are usually too expensive for the BBC to buy repeat broadcast rights.

This is a personal, and fallible, selection of the week's concerts. The full weeks programmes are available through this link. Concerts start dates are given in British Summer Time using 24 hour clock (19.00h = 7.00pm) Convert these timings to your local time zone using this link

The Guardian are reviewing every Prom this season. Access their reviews via this link.

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Download the slippery slope......

And so the download bandwagon rolls on. Latest on board is the Philharmonia Orchestra which has just launched a brand new online shop where the MP3 files on offer include.
  • Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting - £1 ($1.80)
  • Beethoven 'Emperor' Concerto with Emanuel Ax - £2 ($3.60)

There are also downloadable programme notes. And if those outrageous prices are too expensive for you there is even a buy 4 for the price of 3 offer.

Great to see the non-believers being tempted by more low cost classical downloads. But just remember folks, it is very difficult to turn sausages back into pigs.

Many thanks to UK brass player David Read of the excellent blog Hot Brass for flagging this story up. Hot Brass has an excellent interview with Philharmonia Principal Trombone Byron Fulcher pictured above.

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BBC Beethoven plays, and plays, and plays...

The hysteria over the BBC Beethoven MP3 downloads continues as the BBC PR machine works overtime on the story. Beethoven now has so much street cred that the new BBC Director General Mark Thompson even quotes the inscription "From the heart...may it go again to the heart!" from the Missa Solemnis score in his first annual report. Which should at least raise a laugh from recently ousted DG Greg Dyke.

And a page three Guardian story today screams.. "Beethoven (1.4m) beats Bono (20,000) in battle of the internet downloads."

I may be naive (although I have worked for the BBC, a major record company, and a digital rights management consultancy), but the following facts seem clear:

  • The cheapest set of Beethoven Symphonies available on Amazon.uk sells for £12.99 ($24 US) which is a pretty remarkable bargain for 5 CD's.
  • The BBC offered the same content over the internet for no charge.
  • Around 250,000 people (assuming the same people downloaded more than one symphony) were delighted to get free what they would otherwise have had to pay a minimum of £12.99 ($24) for. (Or £44.99 -$80 US - if they preferred Simon Rattle conducting).

The following fact has not been made available by the BBC, and would really help discussions if it was:

  • What additional payments (if any) were made to the musicians of the BBC Philharmonic for the use of the Beethoven recordings for MP3 downloads?

I am sure the 1.4 million downloaders thought they received 'value' from the music they received. But who was rewarded for creating that value? In any supply chain, if the creators of value are not rewarded, the chain will quickly break down.

My concern is not the lost sales for record companies, which the Guardian and others seem to identify as the main 'anti download' argument. I am afraid the major record companies are currently reaping what they sowed in terms of difficult market conditions, and I have little sympathy for them. My concern is for the interests of the composers, musicians, editors and producers without whom recordings cannot be made. Plus there is also problem of the lowering of price expectations for concert tickets with its knock-on effect on audience sizes.

I completely understand the compelling argument that free downloads such as these Beethoven Symphonies widen the audience for classical music. By the same token I look forward to attending the free concert performance that the BBC will be offering of Siegfried at next year's Prom season to bring Wagner to a wider audience. And if that is not financially possible, why do we have to pay a fair rate to the star musicians who sit with us in the concert hall, but not to those hidden away in a recording studio?

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Dresden 1945 - London 2005

Richard Strauss wrote the first sketches for his Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings on the day the Munich Staatstheater was destroyed by Allied bombs in October 1943. He saw the work as a lament for German art and culture, and wrote:

“The burning of the Munich Court Theater, where Tristan and Die Meistersinger received their first performances, where I first heard Freischütz seventy-three years ago, where my father sat at the first horn desk for forty-nine years—it was the greatest catastrophe of my life; there is no possible consolation, and, at my age, no hope.”

250 miles north of Munich lay another centre of German art and culture. Famed as ‘Florence on the Elbe’ Dresden was world famous for its glorious eighteenth century Baroque architecture. Its famous residents included Carl Maria von Weber, Schumann, Wagner, Caspar David Friedrich and Ibsen. In February 1945 the war in Europe had just four months to run, and the Russian Army was less than a hundred miles from Dresden. The city was largely undefended against air attack, and had totally inadequate protection for its civilian population which was swollen by thousands of refugees fleeing from the Russian advance. In six years of war Dresden had scarcely been touched by bombing, and its residents had concluded it had been spared because of its cultural importance.

On 13th February 1945 more than a thousand RAF bombers dropped over 4,500 tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the city, sparking a horrendous firestorm which swept through the centre. The two major RAF night raids were followed by smaller US daytime attacks. More than 25,000 inhabitants died in the bombing, and thirteen square miles of the centre were destroyed, together with priceless treasures and works of art. These included the Royal Court Theatre, the scene of premieres of operas by Richard Wagner, Carl Maria von Weber, and Richard Strauss himself.

For sixty years controversy has raged about the bombing of Dresden. Why was an effectively undefended city subject to such a colossal attack so close to the end of the war, and with Russian troops so near to it? Were the Allied commanders guilty of gratuitous violence in some sort of overblown reprisal raid? Was the sheer scale of the bombing a ‘don’t mess with us’ message to the Russian leaders as the Allies stated to flex their muscles for the post-was carve up of Europe?

British historian Frederick Taylor’s recent book Dresden, Tuesday 13th September 1945 has been accused of being no more than an apologia for the raids. After reading it I can see little substance in these criticisms. The book is extraordinarily well researched, and paints a balanced, and very moving, picture of the destruction.. Taylor’s thesis can be summed up in his own words, “Dresden was the raid that went horribly right.” He justifies the plan to bomb by the fact that the city was a key communications, administrative and intelligence centre linking the Nazi eastern and western fronts. Breaking these links certainly shortened the war. Allied intelligence was not sufficiently detailed to identify the lack of air defences or adequate civilian protection. But even if they had would this have been reason for not attacking?

By 1945 the technology and accuracy of bombing was such that raids of this type had become highly efficient killing machines. Navigation was assisted by the latest hi-tech radar, and unusually good weather and visibility allowed very precise bomb aiming. This was so accurate that the first wave of bombs levelled the designated target area. The ‘master bomber’ responsible for directing the second attack was flying low over the burning city in an unarmed reconnaissance plane. Rather than dropping more high explosives and incendiaries on rubble he took a spur of the moment decision to broaden the target zone for the second onslaught. This meant the bomb loads of approaching bombers dropped on residential areas, and onto the open spaces where refugees and the homeless were sheltering. Frederick Taylor does not attempt to excuse the slaughter that resulted. But his message is clear. The raid on Dresden was not an isolated aberration, but rather what happens when the killing machine fires on all cylinders. Dresden was the effect, not the cause. And when the machine becomes as efficient as it did at Dresden, horrors are certain to result.

By chance I read Dresden, Tuesday 13th September 1945 immediately following the horrendous terrorist bombings in London. We had spoken about the London bombings to a friend of our son, who is training to be a doctor. He was on duty at University College Hospital a few blocks away from the Tavistock Square bus bomb. He said he was struck by how efficiently the well rehearsed hospital disaster plan had swung into action as soon as the first bomb exploded. Thank God for all the dreadfully wounded that it did. But are we not replicating the efficiency of the Dresden killing machine? Just compare the photo above taken in London two weeks ago to the one above it taken in Dresden sixty years before. Isn't the similarity chilling? The London bombers also used high-tech explosives to kill unprotected civilians. Their fanaticism was doubtless fuelled by the knowledge that the resulting carnage would be efficiently captured and distributed by the wondrous technologies of mobile phone cameras, satellite TV, and yes, blogs. We all watched transfixed as the high-tech CCTV images showed the bombers at the railway station, calmly travelling to unleash death on London's transport system. And as soon as their vile deeds were perpetrated the streamlined efficiencies of disaster management and the media kicked in.

Dresden, Tuesday 13th September 1945 is about the terrifying power of a highly efficient killing machine. Sixty years later we are still tackling the effects of such a machine, without getting to grips with the cause. Pete Seeger said it all in his song……

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?

Update Dec 2005 - follow this link for inspirational photos of the rebuilt Frauenkirche

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Monday, July 18, 2005

Fairytales - an album beyond words


I’m a great fan of Swedish jazz pianist Esbjorn Svensson who was a recent guest on the excellent BBC Radio 3’s programme Private Passions (hosted by Michael, son of composer Sir Lennox Berkeley). Among Esbjorn Svensson’s eclectic choice of music was a CD by an artist that I had never heard of, which Svensson described as ‘one of the best records I have ever heard.’ So I had to find out more.

Radka Toneff (above) was a Norwegian jazz singer who died in 1982 at the tragically early age of 30. Her last studio recording was Fairytales with pianist Steve Dobrogosz. It is a mixture of standards (this is probably the last time an Elton John track will be recommended on an overgrown path!) and original compositions. The interpretations are quite straight, they remind me somewhat of Norma Winstone. But the singing (and piano accompaniment) are totally sublime. The producer was Norwegian bass legend Arild Andersen at an early stage of his career.


Esbjorn Svensson is spot on. This is an exceptional album, and is certainly a jazz classic. But here is the sting, how do you get hold of it? Fairytales was recorded for the Norwegian label Odin and is deleted. It is only available from the Japanese specialist label Bomba who have remastered it. The cheapest price I could find was 33 euros including shipping from the excellent Caiman USA via Amazon Germany. This translates to £24 or $42 for less than forty minutes music (it was recorded for LP, hence the short playing time).

But Fairtytales is quite simply one of the most musical albums I have heard for a very long time – and that includes jazz and all other genres. Forget the price, another jazz fan sums Radka Toneff up beautifully: "Her musical work is beyond words. If you see one of her albums, and you are interested in jazz – get it quick!"

Footnote: in one of those strange examples of coincidence which litter the overgrown path I typed this listening post listening to today's Private Passions with Scottish poet and guitarist Don Paterson. And one of the pieces of music he chose was from Fairytales, with Raka Toneff singing the title track from Kurt Weill's 1949 opera Lost in the Stars.

Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Mass haiku

Too many words, too many words..... an editor once told me. And I know what he means.

Haikus fascinate me with their brevity, and disciplined 5/7/5 three line, two part, construction. So as it's Sunday I thought I would write a haiku about Leonard Bernstein's Mass as a literary alternative to mangling something from the Bach 48 on the piano. I'm going down this overgrown path with considerable trepidation as I know there are some talented librettists and composers among my readers. But hey, you can only improve on this modest effort can't you?

Mass was Lenny's way
of doing radical chic -
just a Simple Song


Please add your Mass haikus in particular, or musical haikus in general using the comments feature at the bottom of this post. I'll try to put a post together sometime with the results if it grabs people.

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow morning with too many words, too many words........

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Friday, July 15, 2005

Holy smoke - what a lot of downloads!

The following story is on the BBC News website. I promise it is my last word about the BBC's extravagant claims for the number of MP3 files downloaded of their Beethoven symphonies.

Vicar stunned by sermon surfers

Thousands of people have downloaded a Suffolk vicar's sermons after he posted them on the internet last month. The Rev Leonard Payne, Vicar of St Nicholas' Church in Wrentham, said the response had been overwhelming after he posted them on the Apple iTune store. "We were stunned. Within a short period of time, over 2,000 people had downloaded one of them," he said.


At one point demand for the sermons was so great they had to change servers, Mr Payne said.


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Classic misunderstandings - Eastern tunings

The 85 year old Ravi Shankar's music making at his Proms debut last night was fabulous. It reminded me of a little story that goes back a few years...

The 1971 Concert for Bangladesh was the original superstars-saving-the-world event that predated Bob Geldof and all the others. Shankar and George Harrison put together the gig after Shankar, his musical mentor on the sitar, had alerted him to the plight of millions of starving and flood-afflicted Bengalis who were then locked in a short but bloody fight for independence from Pakistan.

When Shankar came to start his set there was rapturous applause for the first sounds from his sitar. "If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will like the playing even more" he told the audience in a deadpan voice.

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Magnificent Mahler-lite from Manchester

Orchestra controlled labels recording ‘risk averse’ subscription concerts are not the only way to keep classical recording alive in today’s tough market. There are still some great independent labels who understand that fundamental law of economics - profit is the return for risk. These labels are taking risks with innovative repertoire, and in the process they are making outstanding recordings.

A new CD that has spent a lot of time in my player recently is the Manchester Camerata's recording of Erwin Stein's arrangement for chamber ensemble of Mahler's 4th Symphony. This performance is much more than a curiosity, it is a really useful study aid. Reductions and arrangements of orchestral works are a wonderful educational tool. They separate the individual strands within the music, and help the listener get much closer to the composer without resorting to a score.

The arrangement was made for Arnold Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances in 1921. Stein was an early composition pupil of Schoenberg, and was an authority on Mahler. Subsequently the original parts were lost, and the Britten Estate commissioned a reconstruction from Alexander Platt in 1990. This was made from Stein's annotated copy of the full score in the Schoenberg Institute in Los Angeles. So what we actually have is a reconstruction, of an arrangement, of an original symphony...

The Manchester Camerata is expertly conducted by Douglas Boyd, and the excellent soprano is rising star Kate Royal. Nothing is lost in the reduction in forces, in fact the last movement with soprano benefits from the increased intimacy of the chamber scoring. The recording is on the innovative Avie label (who also brought us the arrangement for viols of the Byrd Mass that I recently praised), and was made at a concert in the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in November last year. This is a first class performance with demonstration quality sound. Engineering is by the respected producer Andrew Keener who produces a sound that manages to be both full bodied (real bass at the climaxes despite the small forces) and intimate.

The most excellent news is that this outstanding new release is at super-budget price, I paid just £5 ($9) in the UK. I assume the low pricing is to act as a spoiler for the well reviewed Linos Ensemble version of this arrangement recently released on Capriccio. (but the Linos Ensemble recording does contain a valuable bonus in the form of Schoenberg's arrangement of the Songs of a Wayfarer). The live recording on Avie does not compromise performance or sound, and certainly doesn't mandate the very low price.

The only real compromise is the inadequate sleeve note which gives no detail of the fifteen instrument arrangement (the cover photos are going to mislead many buyers, they show a full strength Manchester Camerata of near symphonic proportions). The original Stein arrangement was for the following forces: flute, oboe and English horn, clarinet, three violins, viola, cello, double bass, two percussionist, two pianos, and harmonium. In the absence of other information I assume the Platt reconstruction used on the Manchester Camerata recording retains Stein's original scoring.

Overall an excellent new release which gives a valuable and fresh insight into a symphonic masterpiece. Recommended at any cost, impossible to refuse at this price.

Footnote - the Manchester Camerata under Douglas Boyd make their BBC Proms debut in a late night concert on Wednesday 27th July playing Beethoven Symphony No 8 and Tippett's Divertimento on Sellinger's Round. It will be webcast by BBC Radio 3, links available in my weekly Proms preview.

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Philly's profit share fillip

The Philadelphia Orchestra, which was the subject of a recent post, announced a couple of months ago a new recording contract with the Finnish label Ondine. This ends a nine year recording drought for the world renowned orchestra. Although the story is not new, in the light of the debate about business models for classical recording it is worth reviewing briefly how the Philadelphia Orchestra put together its new deal.

The new recording contract was only made possible by several innovative departures from conventional contracts. The most important is that the orchestra players are not taking an up-front fee, but instead are participating in a profit share. The profit share compromise was achieved in defiance of union policy. If recordings are loss making, they will be underwritten by funding from the orchestra's endowment set aside for recording activites. The recordings are to be made live at concerts with later 'patching' sessions if required. And artistic approval of recordings is shared between Ondine, music director Christoph Eschenbach, and the musicians themselves.

Another important element of the new contract is that the orchestra retain full ownership of every recording produced. The CD's will be released on the Philadelphia Orchestra's own label "in partnership with Ondine." The Ondine deal will bring world wide distribution via Ondine, something that the other orchestra owned labels have struggled to achieve.

What about the music that will be recorded? It seems to be a mix of safe (Tchaik 5) with adventurous Czech (Gideon Klein's 1944 Partita for String Orchestra and Martinu's Memorial to Lidice Gideon). Here are the first two recordings:

First Release (November 2005):
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra
Bohuslav Martinů: Memorial to Lidice
Gideon Klein: Partita for String Orchestra (1944)

Second Release (February 2006):
Piotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Six Movements from The Seasons for Piano (January-June) (Christoph Eschenbach, piano, this will be the first solo piano recording by Christoph Eschenbach in nearly thirty years).

So what is the Philly deal really about? It seems to establish a hybrid model combining the LSO Live profit share and orchestra control with many of the distribution benefits that an established label brings. It is great to see a fine orchestra back with a recording contract. And it is great to see them finding a new busines model that doesn't simply ape the LSO Live model (which is what the London Philharmonic Orchestra has just done). But the terms of the deal for the musicians show just how tough it is to get classical recordings distributed these days. (Unless you follow the BBC Beethoven Symphony model, and give them away. In which case, surprise, surprise, you ship a million units) The profit share model is fast becoming the norm, even when the label is not orchestra run. The risk from the artistic viewpoint is that the profit share formula makes the programming risk averse. Let's reserve judgement until we see more programmes, but a search for Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony on Amazon does produce 250 results.

On An Overgrown Path has previously been critical of the low payments reportedly made to LSO musicians from LSO Live recordings. I am afraid that the Philadelphia players are not going to be on a much bigger earner from this deal. Orchestra president Joseph H Kluger has said "this is not going to be a source of net revenue" which I guess is at least realistic. But the good news for their many fans is the orchestra's recordings will be back on sale, and cutting a deal with Ondine is a smart way of getting the clout in the distribution chain which the orchestra owned labels currently lack.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A Child of Our Time launches BBC Proms webcasts

The BBC Proms start this Friday, 15th July, and there is a dazzling line-up of mainstream, new and early music over the summer. All the concerts are being broadcast live by BBC Radio 3, and are available as live web casts. Many of them are also available for seven days after broadcast on the BBC Listen Again service but some aren’t. Check BBC listings for which are available via ‘listen again’ but as a rule of thumb high profile orchestras and artists are usually too expensive for the BBC to buy repeat broadcast rights.

Each week on an overgrown path will be publishing a guide to highlights from the coming week’s programme. This is a personal, and fallible, selection. The full weeks programmes are available through this link. Concerts start dates are given in British Summer Time using 24 hour clock (19.00h = 7.00pm) Convert these timings to your local time zone using this link.

Mainstream Highlights:
Tippett, A Child of Our Time. Sir Roger Norrington conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Coming just eight days after the London terrorist atrocities, and given Tippett’s pacifism (for which he was imprisoned) this is going to be a very moving evening. Friday 15th July – 19.00h
Gilbert & Sulivan, HMS Pinafore. And now for something completely different with G & S specialist Sir Charles Mackerras conducting. Saturday 16th July, 19.30h.
Wagner, Walkure. Domingo as Siegmund, Terfel as Wotan, and above all Waltraud Meier as a fantastic Sieglinde. Antonio Pappano’s interpretation matures as his love affair with the TV camera diminishes. Unmissable. Monday 18th July, 17.00h.
Mahler Symphony No. 5, Christoph von Dohnanyi conducts Philharmonia Orchestra. Can he produce a memorable performance of this symphonic war-horse? Friday 22nd July, 19.30h

New Music:
Michael Berkeley, Concerto for Orchestra, world premiere. Tueday 19th July, 19.00h
Thea Musgrave, Turbulent Landscapes, London premiere. Wednesday 20th July, 19.00h. James MacMillan, A Scotch Bestiary, London premiere. Thursday 21st July, 19.30h

Early Music:
Purcell
, The Fairy Queen. Gabrielli Consort with Paul McCreesh. Sunday 17th July, 18.30h.
Haydn, Missa in angustiis (Nelson Mass). Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists and Sir John Eliot Gardiner celebrate Nelson’s two hundredth anniversary. Wednesday 20th July, 22.15h

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Monday, July 11, 2005

Now Naxos downloads from library web sites

See below an interesting development which introduces 'time limited' classical music downloads from library web sites. News story is from Playbillarts.com and doesn't seem to have spread outside the librarian community yet. Will it expand the market for classical music, or will it undermine the 'pay to listen' market further?

Naxos Recordings to Be Made Available for Download Through Libraries

"Thousands of classical recordings from the Naxos catalogue will be available for download through library web sites under a new program announced yesterday at the American Library Association conference in Chicago.
The downloads will be provided by OverDrive, Inc., which already provides digital downloads of audio books and electronic books to libraries in New York, Cleveland, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and elsewhere.
Under the system, library patrons will be able to download digital music files at any time of day from the web site of their local library and play the files on a computer or transfer them to a portable digital music player (it is not clear which players will be compatible with the system). At the end of a "lending period" of two or three weeks, the files will stop working and will made available to another listener".

This is a new business model for music over the web. It appears to involve 'lending' music in the same way as books are lent, although details are still scarce. On An Overgrown Path is concerned that the financial interests of musicians, composers and producers are adequately protected as new internet distribution platforms emerge.

The driver in this development is OverDrive Inc, a leading provider of Digital Rights Management solutions, and a pioneer of e-books. (See this link for more details of their Naxos project). It is fair to assume that OverDrive Inc are going to offer a secure distribution platform. But secure doesn't mean financially rewarding for the musicians. Don't forget Naxos are partners in this, and they have already radically rewritten the royalty rules for classical musicians with their world dominating budget pricing policy for CD's.

So watch this space for more details.

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