Thursday, May 31, 2007

Glenn Gould - the ultimate download


My personal overgrown path is leading back to the radio studio, and that has set me thinking recently about how to create programmes that are distinctive, inclusive and personal.

Over in Holland the creator of Big Brother, Endemol, has its own formula for distinctive broadcasting, and this week launches De Grote Donorshow (The Big Donor Show) which gives three dialysis patients the chance to win a dying woman's kidney - or not.

Back in 1969 Glenn Gould took a different approach to producing great broadcasting when he created his 'contrapuntal radio documentary' The Latecomers. The main subject was the new Canadian province of Newfoundland, but there was a second subject of solitude, isolation and non-conformity seen from a cultural perspective.

The Latecomers, with its basso continuo of the ocean, is both a land-mark in twentieth-century broadcasting and a seriously neglected aspect of Gould's work. Now, thanks to reader Walt Santner, you can hear the whole documentary via an MP3 download. Walt contributed to previous features here locating downloads of historic, Stokowski and recording history MP3 files. He is now back surfing the net after some health problems, welcome back Walt.

Genn Gould's The Latecomers runs for 53 minutes, you can download it from this website, note copyright health warnings may apply.

Now view the 'score' for The Latecomers and read more about Glenn Gould's love affair with the microphone.
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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Elgar - the first of the new


Elgar was the first of the new. Since Purcell, England had not produced a composer for the European common market. Against -much against- the background of academicians who were destined to remain dilettanti, there emerged a self-taught amateur destined to become a master.

At the time of Elgar's birth Brahms was 24, Dvorák was 16, and Wagner 44. When he died, Vaughan Williams was 62, Walton was 32, Britten was 20 and Schoenberg 60. Elgar's musical fathers were far away; many, almost all of them were of the Austo-German tradition, with Brahms, rather than Wagner, as the most powerful influence; and none of them English.

In a penetrating article in the current issue of Music and Letters Donald Mitchell goes so far as to submit 'that to find Elgar today specifically English in flavour is to expose oneself as the victim of a type of collective hallucination.' Elgar's early success on the Continent, and with Continentals, was indeed striking. It needed a Continental - Hans Richter - to introduce the Enigma Variations, The Dream of Gerontius and the first Symphony (dedicated to him) to English audiences, and Düsseldorf heard Gerontius before London.


Hans Keller writes in Music and Musicians in June 1957, and contradicts the currently fashionable view that Elgar was not appreciated outside England.

Now playing ...

The Dream of Gerontius conducted by Benjamin Britten. The decision of the 'East Anglican' Britten (left) to record Elgar's Gerontius, with its hardline Catholic text by Cardinal Newman, was a surprising one. As a young music student Britten recorded in his diary in February 1931 that he listened on the radio to '1 minute of Elgar Symphony 2 but can stand no more,' and a few months later he condemned the Enigma Variations for their 'sonorous orchestration' which 'cloys very soon'. But in his sleeve note for the original LP release the composer William Alwyn described Newman's text as a 'Passion Play', and this may have appealed to Britten the composer of church parables.

Britten conducted an Aldeburgh Festival performance of Gerontius on June 9 1971, and the recording was made in the same month in Snape Maltings. William Mann described the concert performance as 'urgent, unsentimental and totally lacking in bombast', and Alan Blyth described the original LP release as 'a searing re-creation of the drama that I find at all times involving and convincing...Britten removes the veneer of sentimentality, even sanctimoniousness, that has for long come between us and Elgar's compulsive vision.'

The 1971 recording made by Decca, with the 'dream' cast including Peter Pears (left) and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, is one of the classics of the gramophone. In the section that leads up to the life affirming chorus Praise to the Holiest in the height Britten shows his masterly control of the large forces, and the pre-digital sound is outstanding both for the lower registers and the three dimensional sound-stage captured by the Decca recording team. Elgar was a master composer, and Britten a master musician, this Dream of Gerontius is now back in the catalogue, buy it before it is again deleted.

Inclusiveness is out of fashion in classical music today, which means if contemporary music is your scene late-romantics like Elgar are the musical equivalent of dead meat. Next month we will be at Yoshi Oida's new production of Death in Venice in Snape Maltings. We should all remember that Britten recorded Elgar's great late-romantic masterpiece, Gerontius, in July 1971 in Snape Maltings while he was composing one of the great twentieth-century operas, Death in Venice, for performance in the same venue.

I started by quoting Hans Keller's view that Elgar was 'the first of the new'. We should also remember that Keller (left) championed Britten's music from the 1940s when it was still viewed as 'new' by the establishment. He was joint author of a Britten symposium in 1952, and the composer's 1975 String Quartet No. 3, with its last movement quote from Death in Venice, is inscribed to him. Britten died on December 7 1976, and his String Quartet No. 3 was given its first performance by the Amadeus Quartet two weeks later in Snape Maltings.

Benjamin Britten and Hans Keller recognised the greatness of Elgar's music. They also recognised the importance of inclusiveness, and embraced composers from Purcell to their twentieth-century contemporaries. Two very important messages as the 150th of Elgar's birth on Saturday June 2 approaches.

The music of Britain, and Britten ...

Hans Keller's headline, the first of the new, is a wordplay on the title of a patriotic 1942 film that Elgar would have approved of. The First of the Few was a biography of R.J. Mitchell (left), the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire (the film was renamed Spitfire for US release). The title comes from Winston Churchill who used these words to describe the Battle of Britain aircrews: "Never in the face of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few." And this overgrown path leads us to another great twentieth-century English composer; the soundtrack of The First of the Few, including the famous Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, was written by William Walton.

Contemporary music was as bitchy in the early twentieth-century as it is today. Elgar was not a fan of Walton's music, and said about Walton's Viola Concerto that the composer had murdered the poor unfortunate instrument. Elgar and Walton only met once, according to Lady Walton it was in the lavatory at a Worcester Three Choirs Festival concert. After the Second World War Walton fell out with Britten and Pears, and supposedly said that the all-male Billy Budd should be retitled The Bugger’s Opera or Twilight of the Sods (original production shot above).

Another late-twentieth-century composer who was a surprising champion of Elgar was Michael Tippett whose overseas concerts often included Elgar's music. In his autobiography (Hutchinson ISBN 009175307) Tippett describes a "stunning" Enigma Variations in Brussels with him conducting his beloved Leicester School Symphony Orchestra, and tells how 'afterwards a Belgian composer came to me and said, "What an extraordinary work - more interesting than Brahms' St Anthony Variations!"', and Tippett describes another Enigma played by the Saint Louis Symphony in 1968 under his baton as "one of the best performances (of the work) in the USA I guess". Tippett (left) was inclusiveness personified and embraced everything from Tallis (he made the first-ever recording of Spem in alium in 1948) through Elgar to the blues. But he also shared some of Walton's reservations about Billy Budd. Tippett stayed at Britten's house in Aldeburgh while the opera was being composed and told the story of 'a marvellous remark in the libretto - I think it got changed - when they were going to clear the decks in order to let off the gun, and the wonderful order, given by Claggart or somebody, "Clear the decks of seamen" I roared with laughter!'

Walton may have been irreverent about Billy Budd, but when the chips were down he came to Britten's aid. In 1942, the same year as The First of the Few was made, Walton appeared as a supporting witness at Britten's successful appeal for registration as a Conscientous Objectors. Britten's pacifism, like Tippett's, was controversial, but if his appeal had failed Britten could well have joined young composers such as Ivor Gurney and George Butterworth whose careers had been cut short by the previous World War, and who were lamented in the elegiac 1919 Cello Concerto of Edward Elgar. Which is where this path started.

For more on Elgar read the excruciating boredom of pure fact.
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Winds of change at Glyndebourne


Rows at Glyndebourne are usually confined to polite disagreements over a picnic spot or the staging of The Magic Flute. But the organisers of the quintessential summer opera festival now find themselves at the centre of a planning dispute over a proposed wind turbine that would be higher than the face of Big Ben.

Lewes District Council will determine the fate of a scheme that has divided opinion in East Sussex. Glyndebourne Opera House wants to build a 70m (230ft) turbine in its grounds in the South Downs, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Park designate. It claims that, by using the 850kw turbine to generate electricity, the opera house will cut its carbon emissions by 71 per cent.

However a coalition of four environmental groups – the South Downs Society, the Council for National Parks, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the Ramblers’ Association – is determined to block the application, to Lewes District Council, which is expected to be heard on June 20.

They say that the turbine will ruin the surrounding countryside, destroying views over “hundreds of square kilometres”. While the organisations are in favour of renewable energy, they say they do not want a turbine on land due to become a National Park.


From today's Times. But there's better news on Glyndebourne in Britten's women.
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Since I believe ....


Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy...human life...The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation (being by profession a composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction...I believe sincerely that I can help my fellow human beings best, by continuing...the creation or propagation of music.

Statement sent to tribunal for the registration of Conscientous Objectors by Benjamin Britten in May 1942. Britten's War Requiem was first performed on May 30th 1962 in Coventry Cathedral.

Now read how men will go content with what we spoiled and we shall overcome.
Image credit from Prometheus, shows a rehearsal for the War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral. Britten to the right of the podium is talking to the principal conductor Meredith Davies. 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

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A little less boy please ...


'A bit more Mann and a little less boy, please' demands the Guardian headline over its review of English National Opera's new production of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice. A line of thinking that reminds me that the opera was banned from being shown to schoolchildren in Kent, England in 1989

In that year Conservative councillors forced Glynebourne Touring Opera to cancel performances planned for a school's festival. At the time the chair of Kent school's sub-committee said the decision was made because: 'It was felt that the question of homosexuality was not appropriate for all the schoolchildren who would attend.'

Elsewhere the ban was described as 'unbelievable', 'pernicious', and 'scandalous', and it was believed to be the first time any concern had been expressed about the opera since its 1973 premiere. Donald Mitchell of the Britten-Pears Foundation said the decision had been influenced by the controversial Section 28 legislation which prevented local authorities from promoting homosexuality. 'It is appalling that councils should ban a work of this stature by a composer who did so much for children. They have covered themselves in shame', he said."

A spokesperson for Kent County Council said children as young as ten would have seen the opera, and it was felt that its contents were just not suitable.
The Section 28 legislation was repealed in 2003, but Kent County Council retained elements of it in their schools curriculum by teaching that heterosexual marriage and family relationships are the firm foundations for society.

Now let's celebrate not one, but two new productions of Death in Venice with Britten's champagne moment.
Sorry, my photo isn't the new ENO production, it's from the Opera Company of Philadelphia, image credit Stevenrickards.com. 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

Super Size Me

While Lucretia was still on tour, Britten left for a brief visit to America - his first transatlantic journey by air - where Peter Grimes was at last to be staged at Koussevitzky's Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood, a vast event involving hundreds of music students, past and present. Three performances were given in early August by a young and enormous cast - enormous in every sense, for Eric Crozier, who had flown over to produce, recalls that in overfed America it was impossible to find a thin child to play the appentice.

The 1946 US premiere of Britten's Peter Grimes recalled in Humphrey Carpenter's book Benjamin Britten, A Biography (Faber ISBN 0571143253). The conductor was the twenty-eight-year-old Leonard Bernstein, his assistant was another musician who has featured here recently, Peter Paul Fuchs.

In 1945 Joan Cross had sung the role of Ellen Orford in the UK premiere of Peter Grimes conducted by Reginald Goodall, read more about Joan Cross here.
In my photo Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s holds a definitely not-overfed Apprentice in Opera North's 2006 production of Peter Grimes. Super Size Me is, of course, the title of Morgan Spurlock's 2004 feature film. 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

Monday, May 28, 2007

Holiday weekend - Aldeburgh


Mstislav Rostropovich relaxes against Benjamin Britten's Alvis in Aldeburg. The photo is undated but was probably taken in summer 1961. Now take a drive through Britten's Aldeburgh, but be careful, the composer was a notoriously speedy driver. Which prompts the question - is classical music too fast?

Photo from Humphrey Carpenter's book Benjamin Britten, A Biography (Faber ISBN 0571143253). 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

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Jet set maestro's swan-song

A reader in Paris tells me that Valery Gergiev (left) failed to conduct a performance of Lohengrin at the Opéra National de Paris at the Bastille last night due to travel problems. Dresden born Michael Güttler deputised at the last minute and made a big impact. Güttler is a very talented young conductor who is making a career out of picking up the ball in Wagner after Gergiev has dropped it - he first came to prominence when he deputised for Gergiev in the Ring and Parsifal at the Marinsky in 2003.

An apocryphal story tells how Herbert von Karajan gets into a waiting limousine in Vienna during his time with the State Opera there, and the driver asks him where he wants to go. "It does not matter", he responds, "I'm wanted everywhere." What a shame that forty years on maestros are still admired for the tempi of their travel arrangements rather than the tempi of their performances.

There is now legal protection which gives passengers a refund when a plane is late or cancelled in the EU. How about a similar refund to concert-goers for no-show conductors and soloists to focus attention on travel planning? Other examples from readers of jet-set musicians finding the boarding gate closed will be published here. Meanwhile I suspect Michael Güttler will be getting a lot more career opportunities courtesy of galloping Gergiev.

Now see Karajan's private jet and motor-bike
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Holiday weekend - upstate New York


Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland and Peter Pears in upstate New York during the summer of 1939. Peter Pears (right) is obviously thinking 'tis the gift to be free.
Photo from Humphrey Carpenter's excellent Benjamin Britten, A Biography (Faber ISBN 0571143253). 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

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Naughty but nice


What are your musical equivalents of chocolate cake? - the performances you know you really shouldn't be enjoying, but do. Here is my menu of 'naughty but nice' music dishes:

Uri Caine's Wagner E Venezia - yes, I know it is a serious taste crime to admit to enjoying the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg played in the Piazza San Marco by an ensemble that includes accordion, piano and acoustic bass. But I do. Quite appropriately the recording was made live at the Gran Caffé Quadri, Piazza San Marco, Venice, and is complete with authentic background café sounds which provide a splendid counterpoint to the Tristan Liebestod. If you've never sampled this lovingly crafted, and packaged, chocolate torte from Uri Caine (photo above) I warmly recommend ordering a portion.

Karl Münchinger's Art of Fugue and Musical Offering with the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester reminds us of how Bach used to be performed before musical scholarship moved on. As one reviewer said: "This lush performance of Bach's complex Art of Fugue is as emotional as Barber's Adagio for Strings." But these 1976 recordings still blow me away. Stunning playing recorded in classic Decca sound in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart by the legendary team of producers Ray Minshull and James Mallinson, and recording engineers James Lock and Martin Fouqué.

Wagner makes his second appearance on my ultimate 'naughty but nice' disc. This is Glenn Gould playing his own transcriptions of Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey and the Prelude to Die Meistersinger. This reissue is worth the price for these two transcriptions alone. The disc also includes Gould conducting members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a painfully slow Siegfried Idyll, which at almost twenty-five minutes outstays even Knappertsbusch's interpretation by several minutes. This conducting debut was the last thing Gould recorded before he went on tour with Bach, and it leaves us thankful that he didn't give up the day job. (Photo above shows a young Gould with one of his first teachers).

Bach sung in English may well be considered 'naughty.' But not only is my next nomination 'nice', but it is high up in my list of the greatest recordings ever made. Benjamin Britten set down his account of Bach's St John Passion in April 1971. With performers including Peter Pears, Gwynne Howell, John Shirley-Quirk, HeatherHarper, Alfreda Hodgson, Robert Tear, and the Wandsworth School Boys' Choir you know this is going to be something special. The English Chamber Orchestra reads like a Who's Who of instrumentalists. Kenneth Sillitoe is leader, Richard Adeney (flute), Cecil Aronowitz (viola) and Adrian Beers (double bass). Philip Ledger plays the harpsichord continuo originally prepared by Britten and Imogen Holst. And the 'naughty' English translation is made by none other than Peter Pears and Imogen Holst.

This recording of the St John Passion was made by Decca in Snape Maltings. It has to be said that if there is a weakness it is the engineering which falls somewhat short of Decca's signature Snape sound. Also watch out for the intrusive low frequency 'thumps' in the opening chorus which producer David Harvey really should have covered from alternative takes. But one factor places this performance in that stellar group of the greatest ever made - Britten's interpretation. Some of the tempi are surprisingly brisk, but this is one of those rare performances where musicality and humanity meet as equal partners. Naughty, but simply sublime.

Purists will consider any Bach transcription 'naughty but nice.' But my third Bach nomination comes just about as close to the spirit of the original as it is possible to get with a transcription. Paolo Pandolfo (right) was a founder member of early music group La Stravaganza, and is recognised as one of the leading exponents of the viola de gamba. His transcription of Bach's six Cello Suites (BWV 1007-12) on the enterprising Spanish Glossa label is really more of a re-interpretaion that a transcription. Four of the six keys are transposed, the well known G major Suite No. 1 is played in C major, the C minor Suite No. 5 is played in D minor, and so on. But this is done simply to make the most of the range of the viola de gamba, and it works beautifully allowing the warm tone of the gamba to really ring out. These are personal interpretations, and Pandolfo's reshaping of some of the lines will not be to everyone's taste, but this is wonderful music making.

To conclude with a 'naughty but nice' piece that I always find inexplicably moving - the finale to Bernstein's Candide, 'Make Our Garden Grow'. This is classic Lenny, over the top, superbly written, and absolutely heart on sleeve. One reviewer wrote of "its soaring sentimentality". I find it absolutely irresistible - just like chocolate cake. And if you want the recipe for the example seen in my header photo here it is.

Now read about my first classical record
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It is viewed as dumbing down ...

The BBC has suffered from lapses in impartiality in its coverage of business by seeking to popularise corporate stories and take the consumer's point of view, according to an independent report published yesterday. The Money Programme, Radio Five Live and the 10 O'Clock News are among the programmes singled out for criticism in the report on the impartiality of BBC business coverage. The study was commissioned by the BBC Trust from a panel chaired by the economist Sir Alan Budd.

Critics have accused the BBC of "dumbing down" its business coverage and failing to represent the shareholders' and employees' perspective on corporate stories. The report said that if companies record large profits, stories tend to focus on the negative aspects, rather than "examining the benefits to staff and society of a British company doing well".

"The need to attract and maintain an audience has led to some changes in the approach taken by business programmes towards a more popular style. In some quarters this is welcomed but in others it is viewed as 'dumbing down'. "We particularly noted this trend in the Money Programme. " Five Live was also singled out for focusing on consumer interests in business stories, and for presenters and reporters giving personal views.

The BBC is considering its response to the report. It was also warned to be careful over blogs. "We noted that the business editor made a scathing attack in his blog on the newly launched Microsoft Vista operating system. This appeared to be against the BBC's guidelines which state that blogs are subject to the same level of editorial care as other content," the report said.


Report from today's Guardian, full report via this link. Now will the BBC Trust commission a similar report on Radio 3?

For more on this read You are looking at the future of radio.
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Friday, May 25, 2007

My reputation is safe in your hands


Today's Lebrecht-style attack by Sakari Oramo - or was it his orchestra's spin-doctor? - on Sir Adrian Boult cannot pass unremarked. In the Guardian Oramo writes about the 'stoic stodginess' of Boult's Elgar. This is a surprising comment from the current principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as Sir Adrian Boult was both chief conductor of the orchestra from 1924 to 1930 and an acclaimed interpreter of Elgar's music. After a 1920 performance of the Second Symphony conducted by Boult the composer wrote to him saying: 'I feel that my reputation in the future is safe in your hands. It was a wonderful series of sounds. Bless you!'

I have not had the pleasure of hearing Sakari Oramo's performances of Elgar, but I am sure they are very fine. But I can assure him that I heard many live performances of Elgar conducted by Boult and 'stoic stodginess' are the last words I would use to describe them. But then I don't think Oramo would know about his live performances. The last time Sir Adrian conducted in the concert hall was on October 12 1977, when Oramo was 12.

After his last concert appearance in London Sir Adrian conducted several more ballet performances of Elgar's music (The Sanguine Fan and Enigma Variations). He also continued to record, and on December 20 1978 completed the sessions at EMI's Abbey Road Studios for an LP of Sir Hubert Parry's Symphonic Variations, Fifth Symphony and Lament for Brahms. We knew this was to be the last ever recording session for the 89 year-old conductor, and he kindly signed and dated my copy of his autobiography, seen above, after the session on that historic day.

Sir Adrian Boult was both a wonderful musican and one of the greatest-ever interpreters of Elgar's music. He was a conductor who built his reputation in the concert hall and on record, not by making silly comments in newspaper articles.

Now read an exclusive on the mystery of Elgar's Violin Concerto.
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Let's hear it for the advertorial


It's goodbye great music journalism and hallo 'advertorial'. For confirmation look no further than today's Guardian film and music supplement which devotes its front page and a full inside page to two Elgar stories. The main article is a reheating of the familiar story about Elgar not being appreciated outside England spiced-up with a few snide comments about authoritative Elgar interpreters.

The byline of this page 3 lead story is Sakari Oramo, principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO). But the copy, which plugs CBSO performances of the Dream of Gerontius and makes the case for a biennial Elgar festival (hosted by the CBSO perhaps?) is all too obviously written by the orchestra's PR department. At least the 'advertorial' source is transparent, the piece ends with the footer - The CBSO plays The Dream of Gerontius at Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121-780 3333) on June 1.

Below the CBSO puff is yet another Elgar 'reappraisal', this time by David Pownall, which reheats the critical rejection of the composer's Second Symphony. Again the advertorial source is obvious from the footer - David Pownall's Elgar Rondo is broadcast on Radio 3 on June 3 at 8.30pm. Details of Radio 3's Elgar programming are at bbc.co.uk/radio3/classical/elgar.

It's a pity that Guardian Arts Editor Charlotte Higgins didn't spend the money saved from journalists fees on copy checkers. The previous day's Guardian story about the newly published photos of Hitler at Bayreuth said: The photographer was hosted by the chairman of the Bayreuth chamber of commerce, who was a member of Hitler's inner circle - as was British-born Winifred Wagner, the composer's widow. Readers of my recent article Phantom of the Opera will know, of course, that Winifred was not Richard Wagner's widow, she was the wife of the composer's son Siegfried.

Elsewhere in today's Guardian Andrew Clements shows that music journalism can be more than toothless advertorials. In his review of ECM's new recording of Valentin Silvestrov's Sixth Symphony Clements writes -

Though the ECM catalogue embraces a huge range of contemporary composers, from Lachenmann and Kurtag to Steve Reich and Meredith Monk, it has a weakness for the composers of the post-Shostakovich generation from the former Soviet Union. One of those is the Ukraine-born (in 1937) Valentin Silvestrov, who in the 1970s seems to have flirted with compositional techniques imported from the western European avant garde before settling upon the limply anecdotal style of his later works. One of those is the achingly empty Sixth Symphony, completed in 1995, which takes up this disc. It's built in an arch form, with linked pairs of movements flanking the central 25-minute one that begins with a reminiscence of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Unfortunately, Silvestrov lacks Mahler's gifts as a melodist or as a musical architect, and like the other movements this lapses into posturing gestures. The over-heated essays in the CD booklet do Silvestrov few favours either.

Great music journalism from Andrew Clements, but the over-heated essays elsewhere in the Guardian do Elgar few favours either. Why not let the music critics write the features and the orchestras play the concerts?

Now read more about Guardian advertorials
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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Glenn Gould's love affair with the microphone

One Sunday morning in December 1950, I wandered into a living-room-sized radio-studio, placed my services at the disposal of a single microphone belonging to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and proceeded to broadcast "live" - tape was already a fact of life in the recording industry but, in those days, radio broadcasting still observed the first-note-to-last-and-damn-the-consequences synodrome of the concert-hall - two sonatas, one by Mozart [K.281], one by Hindemith [No. 3]. It was my first network broadcast...a memorable one...that moment in my life when I first caught a vague impression of the direction it would take, when I realised that the collected wisdom of my peers and elders to the effect that technology represented a compromising, dehumanising intrusion into art was nonsense, when my love affair with the microphone began.

Glenn Gould describes the start of his love affair with the microphone. My source is Kevin Bazzana's highly recommended Wondrous Strange, The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (Yale University Press ISBN 0300103743). The header image shows a page from Gould's score of Hindemith's song cycle Das Marienlebenwhich he recorded with the Ukrainian born soprano Roxolana Roslak in 1977. As is usual for Gould there are very few interpretive markings, but the page is covered in editing notes - left click on the images to enlarge them.

The graphic below is very interesting, and it is not a score for a contemporary music composition. It shows CBC technician Lorne Tulk's plan for the epilogue of Gould's radio documentary The Latecomers (1969). The documentary was commissioned to promote CBC's new FM stereo service, and the central line shows the movement of the narrator from right to left of the soundstage. Much attention has been given to Gould's work in the music studio, but his pioneering and innovative "contrapuntal radio documentaries" are sadly neglected. Time for reconsideration perhaps?


Gould was in love with the microphone, now read about the best damn record he ever made, and follow this link for audio recordings from the official Glenn Gould archive.
Both images from Glenn Gould Estate with full acknowledgements. 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

A good friend of the house of Wagner


BBC News reports ~ Photographs of Adolf Hitler - taken by a Nottinghamshire spy weeks before the start of World War II - have been made public for the first time. Charles Turner took the images at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany in July 1939. He was given unprecedented access to the Nazi leader, and toured the festival as part of his entourage.

The photographs have been released by Mr Turner's son David, 64, after he began researching his family history. Mr Turner, of West Bridgford, told the Nottingham Evening Post that his father had chatted to the German leader and other members of the Third Reich - including Joseph Goebbels and Rudolf Hess - as the party toured the festival. They assumed Mr Turner - a guest of a member of Hitler's inner circle - was merely a fellow music fan.

Mr Turner said: "My father regarded these photos as an extraordinary souvenir of a remarkable and fortuitous event. "They are very, very important to me and my family and for all this period of time - my father died in 1977 - I have regarded the possession of these photos as an intimate family matter. "My father never spoke to me about it. Only he could answer why. That's not to say I didn't know what happened but as a child your perception and awareness of things are very different," he said.

He said he made the decision to release the images to the newspaper, which were taken on a Kodak Eastman folding camera, when he began to trace his family's roots. Charles Turner sent a detailed report of his meet back to London. His son has been told by the Home Office that the document is still classified and may never be released.


From BBC News. My header photo is not one of the spy photos, but comes from Winifred Wagner, A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth by Brigitte Hamann which I reviewed in my article The Phantom of the Opera, and which also supplies my headline quote. Elsewhere read how Hitler said Wagner - I don't get to hear anything else. And view more extraordinary photos from the Third Reich discovered via An Overgrown Path.
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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

You are looking at the future of radio


Xfm, a UK alternative music station broadcasting in London, Scotland and Manchester to an audience of more than one million, is axing its daytime presenters in a radical move to a computerised playlist decided by listeners. The six-hour DJ-free "all music" daytime schedule is being marketed as "Radio to the Power of U", and will play songs programmed by listeners via text, phone and the Xfm website.

Human presenters are the latest casualty of the inexorable rise of the computerised playlist, and it is a trend that is affecting classical broadcasting as well as rock. In the UK computerised playlists were pioneered for classical stations by Classic FM who use GSelector playlist software originally developed for rock stations, and seen in my header image. The working of this software was described in a 1988 copyright court action:

"A detailed categorisation of each track of music in [Classic FM's] library fed as a data base into Selector enabled Selector to select the individual track for any hour of the day in accordance with any choice of programme made by reference to a combination of categories by a programme director. The particular advantage of the Selector system was that it enabled [Classic FM] to provide a balanced rotation of music, composers and performers and to reflect in the frequency of choice of track and in the choice of time when it was played its popularity and mood, and to avoid repetition or the personal preference of the presenter influencing the selection of the music played on the air." (Robin Ray v Classic FM Plc [1998] FSR 622)

Classic FM's use of the computerised playlist has been devastatingly successful in the ratings war. In the first three months of 2007 Classic FM reached an audience of 6.03m listeners, up from 5.71m the previous year, while during the same period BBC Radio 3's audience dropped below the important 2.0 million threshold, declining from 2.1m to 1.9m (source Rajar via BBC).

Ratings, and not quality, are now the primary focus of BBC management, and the success of Classic FM has been the driver for successive changes in Radio 3 in recent years. One of many knee-jerk reactions was the recruitment of Classic FM presenter Petroc Trelawny who has contributed to the BBC station's 9.5% audience decline by alienating most of Radio 3's core audience with his folky presentation style. Trelawny has been joined by a swathe of similar primetime presenters such as Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Sean Rafferty (photo below) whose role is simply to provide the aural laxative that maintains the flow of ratings-friendly programmes.


Radio 3's attempts to counter Classic FM have become increasingly desperate, ranging from 24/7 'Diana moments' such as the Beethoven Experience and Bach Christmas to giving away
unrestricted downloads of complete symphonies to the horror of the music industry. But as the ratings show none of these worked, and the biggest blow to the BBC has been that its massive investment in new technology has failed to translate into increased audiences. As reported here the BBC Trust recently blocked on-demand replaying of classical music, and questions are now being asked about the lack of return on the BBC's massive investment in new technologies .

The core problem is that the Radio 3 can't do ratings, and now very rarely does great radio. The ratings war is lost because Classic FM is a commercial station and can do ratings better than a public broadcaster. To do great radio you need to be distinctive, inclusive and personal, and Radio 3's strategy of chasing down Classic FM means it has lost its distinctiveness. Its bland ratings-driven schedules have no place for diverse music so it is no longer inclusive, and the challenging output created by visionary personalities such as William Glock and John Drummond has been replaced by ratings-chasing mediocrity devised by BBC apparatchik's such as Roger Wright and Nicholas Kenyon.

All this doomsaying about BBC Radio 3 gives me no pleasure at all. I once worked for the BBC, and Radio 3 and the Proms were a central part of my music education. Radio 3 can still do great radio, and I have praised here the work of Michael Berkeley and Iain Burnside and others, and this week there are live evening concerts from the Bath Festival including a recital by oud virtuoso Dhafer Youssef - albeit presented by the ubiquitous and egregious Petroc Trelawny.

But Radio 3 is now between a rock and a hard place. Classic FM is the rock against which ratings are judged, and new media is emerging as a hardplace on the other side of the network. The BBC bet the farm on new technology and lost. But the very new media which the BBC failed to leverage may well be the undoing of its classical music network. Webcasting, podcasting and the new third-tier of low power community stations in the UK will bring a new generation of boutique broadcasters that can ignore ratings and focus on being distinctive, inclusive and personal. Where does that then leave Radio 3?

* A great example of the new wave of boutique radio is Amsterdam based Radio MonaLisa, which I have written about previously. Each Thursday from 6.00 to 7.00pm Central European time presenter Patricia Werner Leanse proves that radio can be distinctive, inclusive and personal. Tomorrow (May 24) she broadcasts sixty minutes of vocal music from a composer featured here recently, Elisabeth Lutyens. On May 31 Patricia showcases Out of the Dark (1998) by Texan born Pauline Oliveros, who has already made one appearance on the path this week. Follow this link for Radio Monalisa. Across the Atlantic San Francisco based Other Minds also does great boutique radio via radiOM.org, their current podcasts include John Cage and David Tudor in concert in 1965, and Stravinsky in rehearsal in 1947.


Now read about what happens when BBC Radio 3 gets it right
Picture credits - header rcscz.com, mid BBC, footer On An Overgrown Path. 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

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Charles pushes the new music envelope

Prince Charles has commissioned a piano concerto in memory of the Queen Mother. It is a great time to commission new music in the UK with Mark-Anthony Turnage, Thomas Adès, Judith Weir, the Queen's own Master of the Music Peter Maxwell Davies and many other contemporary composers just waiting for the royal command. So who did our future king choose? Well .... Nigel Hess actually.

Here, from his publisher's website, is an extract from Hess' resumé: He has worked extensively as a composer and conductor in television, theatre and film. His numerous credits include A Woman of Substance, Vanity Fair, Campion, Testament (Ivor Novello Award for Best TV Theme), Summer’s Lease (Television & Radio Industries Club Award for Best TV Theme), Maigret, Classic Adventure (‘Music from the Movies’ Award for Best BBC Theme), Dangerfield, Just William, Stick With Me Kid for Disney, Wycliffe for HTV (Royal Television Society Nomination for Best TV Theme and ‘Music from the Movies’ Award for Best ITV Theme), and the BBC’s Hetty Wainthropp Investigates starring Patricia Routledge (Ivor Novello Award for Best TV Theme and Royal Television Society Nomination for Best TV Theme).

If my friends from Sequenza21 want to book their transatlantic flights for the royal premiere it is in July with Lang Lang at the well-prepared piano. Quite appropriately Lang Lang was inspired to become a pianist by seeing a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Now read how Charles said Alban Berg - you can't call that music
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Monday, May 21, 2007

Going Buddhist with Lou Harrison


'That Pope John Paul II took the trouble in his books to attack Buddhism suggests that there might be something valuable here. Why else would he see it as a dangerous rival belief system? It offers hope to those of us who are hurt by the speed and aggression of the modern world, willing to look within to try to moderate our own aggressive pace and notice that we often run the gauntlet of purely imaginary dangers; or inhabit a fog of no-feeling' ~ from Going Buddhist by Peter J Conradi (Short Books ISBN 1904977014). I've just returned from a few days at the Padmaloka Buddhist retreat centre here in rural Norfolk. The accompanying photos were taken by me at Padmaloka, and, believe it or not, the shrine room below is a converted Norfolk barn!


Now playing is Joanna MacGregor's recording of the piano concerto by a composer with a deep commitment to Buddhism. Lou Harrison was born ninety years ago, on May 14 1917, and died in 2003. Here is an interview with him by Dr Geoff Smith, Head of Music, Bath Spa University which explores some of the Eastern influences on the composer's music. The interview is republished from Joanna MacGregor's excellent SoundCircus website.

I'd like to start by asking you about living and composing on the West Coast of America as opposed to the East. What are the differences between the two, and why have you chosen the West?
Well, why would anyone choose the East? The division in the United States is no longer between North and South, it's the Rockies. As I like to point out, starlings and Lyme Disease (a very dangerous disease first found in East Lyme, Connecticut) have both made it to California from the East. The Rockies are the great divide. California is a very different part of the United States - it's a very special civilization. In between the East and California is, from my point of view, the real America, that is to say the four states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. That to me is America, the rest is peripheral - shore stuff.

How would you describe 'West Coast' music? What would you say is its essence?
Well, there's no one 'is' about it. I have defined it as being freer. We're not bound up with industrial 'twelve-tone-ism' quite so much as the East seaboard is, and also we're not afraid out here if something sounds pretty. I don't see that increased complexity is any solution at all. We also have a very strong connection with Asia. People in New York commute to Europe all the time, and that feels strange to me. I habitually go to Asia. This is Pacifica, that's Atlantica. They're different orientations. I don't think that there is a composer in the West who is not aware of that. We're all aware, from Seattle and Vancouver down to San Diego, that we're part of Pacifica. For some of us it feels more natural than for others. I came to my legal maturity (I've never really grown up) in San Francisco, where every week I went to the Cantonese Opera. I constantly heard Asian music. I heard my first gamelan in the middle of San Francisco Bay, and half of my friends go back and forth to Indonesia and Japan all the time. I mean, gee whizz, yesterday morning I finished one of my boxes of Kellogg's Ken Mai flakes. You can't get them in this country - my Japanese friends send them to me. So we have a regular transit across the
Pacific.


Going back to West versus East, how is your relationship with European tradition changed? Was it always so clear to you that you were looking East?
Well, I lived in Manhattan for ten years and had a breakdown at the end of it, which revealed to me that I was not a true New Yorker. So I moved back here, with an intermission of a couple of years at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which was very pleasant. After I got back, my parents wanted to give me a little place to work in. Just a couple of doors from here was a place they had looked at. I looked at it, and it was just like my studio at Black Mountain College, so I said, 'That's it.' That was I954, and that's why I'm here. Also, Harry Partch was in San Francisco at that time, and we stayed friends till he died in San Diego. John [Cage] was here for a long time too, but that was early on, in the late 1930's. But there's a tradition in California. For example, Mills College, the Centre for Contemporary Music has been going for a long time- Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, Terry Riley. Cal Arts has been a lively place, as has La Jolla in San Diego. There's a centre in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle is a hotbed. But it also goes along the whole coast and includes Mexico and Vancouver too.

What is it about living in the country that appeals to you?
Well, as I said, I 'did' ten years in Manhattan and finally had a breakdown. Three days in a city now and I'm quite flipped. There's too much noise. I just can't do with it. But these days a fax can come in from anywhere in the world, books and records can be ordered from anywhere. When I first moved here, to Aptos, there was very little: no real bookstores, the university was not here, neither was Cabrillo College. It was really rural. Then it gradually piled up, and now it's a classy metropolitan area. I used to go to San Francisco almost monthly, not only for sex but for books and galleries. Now there are lots of bookstores, galleries, craftsmen and intellectuals. There's a Shakespeare festival and the Cabrillo music festival every year. I see no reason why anybody has to live in depraved surroundings, in deteriorated air etc. Be yourself. If you want a calmer life then take it, for heaven's sake. The mind doesn't stop.


You studied with Henry Cowell first, then Schoenberg. What did they give you?
Lots. Cowell gave me an enormous amount of 'how to' knowledge, including how to write a serial piece before I went to Schoenberg. Also an immense stimulation about world music. He was an absolutely fascinating man, because of his knowledge not only of world music but also of how to do different things. His book New Musical Resources continues to be very stimulating, as does the symposium that he put out years ago, American Composers on American Music. From Schoenberg, oddly enough, I learned simplicity. I got myself into a corner one day, so I took the problem to him. He extricated me by saying, 'Only the salient. Only the important. Don't go any further. Just do what is going ahead and in its most salient form.' In short, no complications - strip it. I've sometimes wondered whether, when I write a Balungan for a Javanese gamelan for only five or seven notes, it might have something to do with Schoenberg's admonition. When I left he said that I was not to study with anybody, that I didn't need that. He said, 'Study only Mozart'. That was his admonition - simplicity. He was a wonderful man, incidentally, quite unlike the image a lot of people seem to have of him as some sort of German militarist. I mean, he was Viennese! His liquor bills were very high and he smoked too much. His fingers were iodine-coloured. But he also had a good sense of his own virtues and faults.

Could you tell us something about the American gamelan, and how it differs from the Indonesian gamelan?
Firstly, the shapes and forms are different, because for the most part we do not do bronze, which is a very difficult metal to deal with. We use aluminium and/or iron. On the West Coast, Bill Colvig pioneered the use of aluminium (he's built two very large gamelans) and on the East Coast, Dennis Murphy and his pupil Barbara Benary used iron in a more or less traditional way. This country is flooded with gamelans - about one hundred and fifty or so - and a fair proportion of them are American-built. Bill's first gamelan was pipes and slabs, and it was his discovery that an aluminium slab resonated with cans soldered together that first stirred the enthusiasm for building, both in Berkeley and San Jose.

So the main difference is in the material they're made of?
Also the tunings and the range. Some gamelans in the United States have wider ranges than the Balungan instruments; instead of six or seven tones, they have maybe two octaves. All Bill's gamelans have two octaves. They run from five to five in both pelog and slendro. Predictably, there are melodies that will not work unless you have those extra tones. That's why they're there and, sure enough, some of my best music requires them. So it's range and tuning- some of us use just intonation of various sorts. In fact, the slendro part of the gamelan C Betty (which is one of the gamelans that Bill made, dedicated to Betty Freeman) is, to our great surprise, tuned to a schema attributed to Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD in Alexandria. I thought I'd invented it, but it's hard to invent anything these days.


Was there a point in your career or a particular piece where you felt you'd found your own voice?
Well, some day I probably will!

Is your music performed in Indonesia?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I'm astonished to find that there may be a retrospective of my work in Jakarta. Well, what Western composer would have a retrospective in Jakarta?! So yes, I'm well-known. In fact, I am told that my Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Javanese Gamelan is required listening in the state conservatories.

How did Harry Partch inspire you?
When the first printing of Harry's book came out, Virgil Thomson was sent a review copy because he was writing for the New York Herald Tribune. He gave it to me the following day and said, 'See what you can make of this.' Of course I was utterly fascinated and within the week I'd bought a tuning wrench for the piano, and I've been doing it ever since. The piano in here, which used to be a favourite of Percy Grainger's and was given to me by the Cowells, is tuned in Kirnberger Number Two, as is my Piano Concerto, and I keep it that way. Harry and I had a very close relationship which went on for years. Betty Freeman was his patron. She set him up in houses, underwrote his work, and gave him money if he wanted to do a big thing, which he often did. There was a movement to make copies of Harry's work and put the original instruments in the Smithsonian Institute. That's been going on for ever. When I last saw Danlee Mitchell, a few years ago, he and some friends had reconstructed some of the dilapidated instruments but with new and more durable materials. They sounded better, as a matter of fact. Harry wasn't a luthière, you know. He was, as he said, a musician seduced into carpentry. So some of them could profitably be rebuilt in more resonant and more durable materials. He accepted a large psaltery I had built - it's part of that instrumental collection and he gave me a set of instruments too, bamboo things. So yes, we exchanged instruments, ideas, and pleasantries- and he made wonderful mint juleps too!

You're written some of your texts recently in Esperanto.
Yes, a few. It's a language I like. And I'm having the astonishing discovery that when I practise sign language now, occasionally in my head I slip into the Esperanto version. This morning I had an insight from reading this month's Scientific American, which is devoted to the brain and the linguistic centres. I suddenly realized that my recent interest in sign language is not only because Bill and George (a close friend) are getting deaf, but also because I had heart surgery three or four years ago and the first thing I noticed afterwards was that my linguistic centres were screwed up. I'd been doing spoonerisms like 'I don't want to work and work and die in my salad' instead of 'saddle'. Clearly, my interest in sign language is partly in getting into my linguistic centres again to try to remedy that.


Do you use European models for the structures of your pieces?
I'm mad for one European form, the medieval estampie. I've written too many of them, in fact; my latest symphony is the last one, and I'm not going to go any further. I like ABAs and rondos too. I'm particularly fond of the French rondo with no variation - not the Viennese rondo with its transposition of the subject, as in Mozart and Haydn. I also like some of the contrapuntal forms - passacaglias and things like that - though I use them less. I have quite a good historical background in European music.

Did your studies of Indonesian forms throw up whole new ways of working?
Indonesian forms are different from European forms. It knocks you numb when you first realize what the formal range is in Indonesian music. ABA would be simple-minded in Indonesia. There are forms whose first line lasts, say, eight counts and there are forms whose first line lasts, say, 385 counts. Then they go through a process known as irama, which is tempo layers. If you take a form of ten lines of 385 counts, for example, take one ten times that, and then shift it to the fifth irama - which means that it would expand by five geometric times - you get some idea where you're going. There's also the practice of using certain instruments to mark off where you are. It's a little bit like the chords: you know that you're not at the tonic when you're on V or IV- those are subsidiary cadences. Similarly, you know when you come to the great song, which is the equivalent of the tonic. So the shape, tonally, is very controlled, and it's instrumentally indicated. Its size, its interconnections and what you can do are breath-taking, that's all I can say. I will never, for the rest of my life, be bored as long as there are gamelans and players around. And writing too. If I write now, just out of my head, there are only two things I really like to do. One of them is harps and other tuned instruments playing modes, usually from the antique world but sometimes made up. And the other is gamelan compositions. I instinctively write Balungans now, which is the skeleton line for a gamelan piece. Up on Mount Hamilton, we just premiered my Gending in honour of Max Beckmann. It eliminates the pitch two in pelog, which makes a fascinating mode. The next one is in honour of Munakata Shiko - the other great artist of the century, I think.

Do you have any specific way of working, like so many hours per day or certain times?
They don't let me. The phone or the fax or visitors or whatever are happening all the time, and I do well if I get a half an hour in during the day. I have a load of work that I can never really accomplish. I've also been designing my own type fonts - I made four last year and my book of poems uses two of them. I now have a subsidiary career as a poet! I'm also sending slides of my paintings and drawings to the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art, which is originating an exhibition that's perhaps going around the world.



Many thanks to SoundCircus and Dr Geoff Smith for the Lou Harrison (photo above) interview. Now read about Lou Harrison's straw-bale studio
Photographs of Padmaloka Centre taken by Pliable May 19 2007 and (c) On An Overgown Path. And yes, I know that Padmaloka is run by the Friends of Western Buddhism, and I'm aware of the baggage. 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