Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Music and the spirit of place


Nicholas Kenyon has been Director of the BBC Proms from 1996 to 2007, he takes over as managing director of the Barbican Centre arts complex in October, and today delivers the Hesse Lecture at the 2007 Aldeburgh Festival. His subject is 'changing tastes and changing programmes over 60 Aldeburgh Festivals and 80 years of BBC Proms, the story of the post-war Festival movement, and the unprecedented changes that now challenge all aspects of classical music.'

Although tastes and programmes have changed, Aldeburgh remains a great international music festival. It is still personal, distinctive and inclusive, and those are the very characteristics that defined the seasons of the great Proms directors such as William Glock and John Drummond. Aldeburgh eschews fads and composer anniversaries, and instead challenges with the best new music. Aldeburgh ignores the touring brand-name orchestras with their jet-set maestros and tired war-horse programmes, and instead commissions innovative work such as Yoshi Oida's acclaimed production of Death in Venice, and the multi-media Elephant and Castle. And in Thomas Adès, Aldeburgh has an artistic director who refuses to trade in spin, who is internationally recognised as an artistic visionary, composer and performer, and who is a man of culture.

By contrast, at the BBC Proms Nicholas Kenyon has presided over a festival that has become increasingly anonymous, bland, and exclusive. In a July 2006 Guardian interview Kenyon listed the following among his achievements as Proms director - big screen TVs in Hyde Park, text-message information service, digital television relays, avoiding positive discrimination in favour of women composers (think about it), lots of guest orchestras from Europe and the US, and 'taking people with us'.

In his 1960 essay Landscape and Character Lawrence Durrell wrote 'the determinant of any culture is after all - the spirit of place.' This spirit of place in hugely important in music, and we find it in Bach's Leipzig chorales, Haydn's London Symphonies, the works of the Second Viennese, Manchester and Darmstadt Schools, and elsewhere. Aldeburgh has a very powerful spirit of place, and it has nothing to do with Suffolk fishermen and windswept beaches. It is about passion for new music, passion for inclusiveness, and passion for the visual arts, architecture and new media.

The BBC Proms no longer have a spirit of place. You can experience them at home on the radio, around the world via the internet, or anywhere, anytime - in a park near you. The Proms no longer offer a personal vision, instead they present the 'cookie cutter' programmes of the touring orchestras. The Proms are no longer a music festival, they are a global entertainment brand that stands for audience friendly and risk averse programming.

When you stand in front of Snape Maltings you see the place shown in the photo above. But you also feel the spirit of music from the Renaissance to the contemporary, of the visual arts from Barbara Hepworth to the latest video installations, and of culture from Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, through Mitslav Rostropovich to Thomas Adès, Mira Calix and Tansy Davies.

I hope Nicholas Kenyon feels that spirit today.

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2 comments:

Scott said...

An interesting item, but parts of it become entirely too mystical for my taste. Take a couple of specifics.

This spirit of place in hugely important in music, and we find it in Bach's Leipzig chorales, Haydn's London Symphonies,

I'm puzzled as to how this could be, as compared to Bach's other chorales and Haydn's other symphonies.

When you stand in front of Snape Maltings you see the place shown in the photo above. But you also feel the spirit of music from the Renaissance to the contemporary, of the visual arts from Barbara Hepworth to the latest video installations, and of culture from Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, through Mitslav Rostropovich to Thomas Adès, Mira Calix and Tansy Davies.

I doubt this, frankly. You may well have those associations based on your knowledge and experience of Aldeburgh, but I don't see that as any sort of "spirit of music" (whatever that phrase is intended to mean).

If I were to stand looking at that scene, I'd have quite different associations, based on what I know about Aldeburgh and what I've experienced remotely via recordings. Someone who had no experience of Aldeburgh at all would be very different again, and might well not have any experience of a "spirit of music" while standing there. ("Interesting buildings," he might say.)

I'm sure that such statements are intended to be largely metaphorical, but I find them just too disconnected from reality to mean very much to me.

Pliable said...

Quite so Scott.

And somebody could say of Bach's B minor Mass that closes this year's Aldeburgh Festival - 'Interesting notes'.