Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Words on twentieth-century music


Norman Lebrecht's book may may have bitten the dust. But there is always Alex Ross' new magnus opus and much more beyond if you are looking for words on twentieth-century music. My header image shows a personal favourite music, Michael Nyman's Experimental Music - Cage and Beyond (CUP ISBN 0521653835). It was written in 1974, and although the 1999 edition didn't update it there is a new, and valuable, discography.

Elsewhere Mark Grant recommends Albert Glinsky's Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, (University of Illinois Press ISBN 0252025822) while on these pages composer and violinist Elaine Fine argued the case for Peter Conrad's Modern Times, Modern Places (Knopf ISBN 037540113X). I have recommended Paul Giffiths' A Concise History of Western Music (CUP ISBN 0521842948) to several readers, and fellow blogger Garth Trinkl bought it, and confirmed that the chapters on twentieth century music are thought-provoking.

Nicholas Kenyon's excellent 1981 book The BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC ISBN 0563176172 OP) is the best guide to the golden age of new music in 1970s London under William Glock and Pierre Boulez. The appendix listing first performances is a who's who of twentieth-century music. How ironic that it was Kenyon himself, as director of the BBC Proms, who later masterminded the transition from the riches of Boulez to the wretchedness of Ball.

William Glock was controller of music at the BBC from 1959 to 1972, and his autobiography Notes In Advance (OUP ISBN 0198161921 OP) paints wonderful portraits of musicians from Igor Stravinsky to Elliott Carter. I have quoted him here on Bruno Maderna. Glock championed the music of Elisabeth Lutyens among others, and she features in the invaluable 1994 The Pandora Guide to Women Composers by Sophie Fuller (Pandora ISBN 004409362), together with Elizabeth Maconchy, Judith Weir, Thea Musgrave and other path regulars.

The very positive response to my recent post on the British music champion Maurice Miles, and to my webcast of Gerald Finzi's Cello Concerto, confirmed that interest in twentieth century composers extends well beyond the fashionable few who now feature at the BBC Proms and over on Sequenza21. If you want to explore beyond the fashionable few, here are two titles that you won't see mentioned elsewhere. Both are out of print, but well worth searching out.

Peter J. Pirie's The English Musical Renaissance - Twentieth Century British Composers & Their Works (Gollancz ISBN0575026790 OP) does what it says on the can, but doesn't bang on it. It was written in 1979, and takes the story up to Peter Maxwell Davies. Good coverage of composers who should be better known, including Frank Bridge (who was a major influence on Britten), Percy Grainger, John Ireland and Peter Warlock.

My other recommendation is The Music Makers - The English Renaissance from Elgar to Britten by Michael Trend (Weidenfeld ISBN 029778403 OP). This covers the same period as Peter Pirie's book, but read it for portraits of characters such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Rutland Boughton (I feel a path coming on - see below), Ethel Smyth and Lord Berners. Their day will come, meanwhile other book recommendations are very welcome.

Now playing - the original Hyperion vinyl LPs of Rutland Boughton's opera The Immortal Hour. This magical work is a 'choral drama' in the style of Wagner. Everything about it is extraordinary. It became a major commercial success in London's West End between 1922 and 1932. The libretto is by William Sharp (1855-1905) who transcended his gender and wrote under the name Fiona Mcleod. The first performance of The Immortal Hour was at Boughton's newly founded Glastonbury Festival in 1914, and the Festival went on to become a preeminent rock event. Most extraordnary is that, despite this high profile, The Immortal Hour has been swallowed in the mists of time. But thankfully the Hyperion version lives on in a budget priced CD re-issue. If you don't know it, you are missing something very special.

Now read about a classical label whose owner DJ'd at Glastonbury.
The letters OP after an ISBN denote Out of Print. But copies are usually available from second-hand dealers. 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, October 30, 2007

Berlin Philharmonic's first woman conductor

In 2005 the appointment of a woman music director by a major American orchestra caused a storm of controversy. So, it is surprising to find that it was back in 1930 that the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was first conducted by a woman, and even more surprising to find she was an American. But the story doesn't have a happy ending. Despite receiving critical acclaim, Antonia Brico found doors closed to her when she returned to the US, and was forced to form her own orchestras to continue her conducting career. She is seen above conducting in New York in 1945. (Image credit Dr. Ralph Weizsäcker).

Antonia Brico was born Wilhelmina Wolthus in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1902, and emigrated to California with her foster parents in 1908. She attended high school in Oakland where she gained experience as a pianist and conductor. She went on to study liberal arts at the University of California, Berkeley, and also worked at the San Francisco Opera as an assistant to the director, Paul Steindorff. After graduating she studied piano under a variety of teachers, most notably under Sigismund Stojowski.

In 1927 she travelled to Europe to study at the Berlin State Academy of Music and was the first American to graduate from its master class in conducting. She then studied for three years with Karl Muck, who was conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. While studying with Muck she had the distinction of working as a coach at Bayreuth. In 1930 Antonia Brico became the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. This was not a token appearance. After her debut the critic of the influential Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that she "possesses more ability, cleverness and musicianship than certain of her male colleagues who bore us in Berlin."

But this positive press did not help her when she returned to the US after her Berlin debut. She was well received when she conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but was not appointed to a vacant post there. Following a tour of Poland and the Balkans, she returned to the US where she appeared as guest conductor of the Musicians' Symphony Orchestra in many major citiies. However, she failed to win an appointment with any of the established orchestras.

Rather than accept defeat Antonia Brico formed her own Women's Symphony Orchestra in 1934, with backing from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In a wonderful example of reverse equality the orchestra changed its name to the Brico Symphony Orchestra in 1939 when it opened its ranks to male musicians. This review in Time of their concert in Manhattan Town Hall in March 1935 illustrates the prejudices that the Women's Symphony Orchestra faced:

Miss Beatrice Oliver played the oboe as if she had never heard of the doctors' treatises which warn all oboe-players against congestion in the head. She sounded A. The other players took the pitch. Conductor Brico appeared in a severe black jacket, bobbed her bushy head and the concert was off. The strings played soundly and vigorously through Beethoven's Egmont Overture, his Second Symphony, a Chopin concerto in which Pianist Sigismund Stojowski. once Brico's teacher, soloed academically. Brico conducted with force but not affectation. The strings were rarely delicate but they caught her determination. The trumpets were strident, too, but knew their notes. Only the French horns soured continuously. The women who played them seemed completely baffled.


The photo above was taken and shows Antonia Brico in 1938 with Mayor La Guardia of New York and Mayor Angelo Rossi of San Francisco. (Image credit NARA/SPB). In 1938 she had became the first woman to conduct an opera performance by a major New York company when she took the baton for the New York Hippodrome Opera production of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel". And in 1938 she added another male scalp to her collection when she became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. But she was sanguine about these achievements, saying in an interview "I do not call myself a woman conductor, I call myself a conductor who happens to be a woman"; words which were later echoed by a great woman composer.

Antonia Brico went on to conduct the Federal Orchestra at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Her programmes included contemporary American music, and among the premieres she presented was Elinor Remick Warren's The Harp Weaver at Carnegie Hall in 1936. She also taught, and her pupils included the child prodigy pianist and composer Philippa Schuyler for a short time in 1939. Brico resigned as Schuyler's teacher before the child's notoriously ruthless mother could fire her. Perceptively, in view of later events, the teacher wrote the following about her pupil: "Too many highly gifted childrem disaappear into oblivion because they play too many concerts during the formative years".

European tours continued for Antonia Brico, both as a pianist and a conductor, and she was invited by none other than Jean Sibelius to conduct the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra. The photo below shows her conducting the San Francisco Bay Region Symphony Orchestra in 1938. (Image credit NARA/SPB)


In 1942 Antonia Brico moved to Denver, Colorado. Again she founded her own ensembles, a Bach Society and the Women's String Ensemble. She also conducted the Denver Businessmen's Orchestra. In 1948 this unfortunately titled ensemble was renamed the Brico Symphony Orchestra. In the same year she was appointed conductor of the Denver Community Symphony (later the Denver Symphony Orchestra), and continued to guest conduct orchestras around the world, including the Japan Women's Symphony.

She also became a respected teacher in Denver. Her students there included the folksinger Judy Collins. In 1974 Judy Collins made a documentary film with Jill Godmilow about the life of her teacher titled "Antonia: A Portrait of a Woman". This film created considerable interest. In 1975 Brico was scheduled to conduct a single concert at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. But this sold out so quickly that a second concert was hastily arranged, and CBS recorded the concerts for release on LP. She made her last New York appearance in 1977 conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonia. Antonia Brico died in 1989 in Denver, Colorado.

* Antonia Brico's Mozart LP is still available on a Sony CD.
* Another classical connection with Judy Collins is Joshua Rifkin. He wrote orchestral arrangements for three of her Collins' albums, In My Life, Wildflower and Whales and Nightingales. It was Rifkin's 1972 recording of the B minor Mass that pioneered the 'one voice per part' approach to Bach. In My Life includes a setting of Francesco Landini's Ecco la Primavera that uses sackbuts, viols, and a harmonium. Her 1967 version of Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now on Wildflower was a major chart hit for Judy Collins. On it Joshua Rifkind conducts his own arrangement and plays harpshichord.

Now read about the Berlin Philharmonic's first black conductor.
Sources:
- Trust Your Heart by Judy Collins, Houghton Mifflin ISBN 0395412854
- New York Times, August 5 1989
- Sony/BMG
- Time, March 5 1935
- Time, Feb 4 1935
- Music Web International, Elinor Remick Warren
- Composition In Black and White by Kathryn Talalay, Oxford University Press ISBN 0195113934
- New Deal Network
- DBH cultural event newsletter, June 26 2007
- Wikipedia entry
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, October 29, 2007

Staying at home with Couperin


"My ideal day would be staying at home and playing the harpsichord works of Couperin - new inspiration on every page" said Thomas Adès, and François Couperin is a major influence on the music of Adès, including his Sonata de Caccia, a trio for baroque oboe, horn and harpsichord.

If you don't have a harpsichord at home all is not lost. Michael Borgstede (photo above) has recorded the complete harpsichord music of Couperin. The performances are excellent, and the the sound captured by engineer Peter Arts in three different Dutch churches is very good. The 11 CD box is on the Brilliant Classics label, and that means it's at budget price - I paid £30 ($62) in the UK.

Michael Borgstede's background is interesting. He lives in Tel Aviv, and is the Middle East correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung as well as being a highly regarded harpsichordist and organist. Follow this link for a wide range of MP3 downloads from his website.

No excuse now for not staying at home with Couperin. And follow this path for
another big harpsichord box.
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, October 28, 2007

More on Norman's pulped fiction


The UK press (and some bloggers) have been strangely reluctant to cover the Norman Lebrecht versus Klaus Heymann case which I reported here more than a week ago. But today's Independent on Sunday reports:

"This week Penguin agreed to pulp all copies of Lebrecht's book, which criticised Mr Heymann. Behind the scenes the victory has been greeted with glee by figures in the classical music world who have yearned for Lebrecht's wings to be clipped.

Mr Heymann said yesterday ... "The book made me look like a shit, so something had to be done," he said. "When Lebrecht talks to people he doesn't take notes so he confuses and confounds what people say."

(Lebrecht's) polemics on the music industry have also made him many enemies, which is why this humiliation has been met with glee. Such is his power as a critic that few are willing to speak publicly against him. One of the world's leading conductors, however, told the IoS that Mr Lebrecht has, "for years, been getting away with "pompous, preposterous judgment" and "inept research".

Lebrecht said he could not comment on the Naxos case, but added: "The book contains a handful of minor errors, as most books do. They are being corrected." He also denied not taking notes or confusing his facts.".


But while we are on the subject of errors and confusing people a couple of points for the Independent On Sunday.

Their headline - 'Music critic's book is pulped as Penguin loses defamation case' - is confusing. Penguin didn't lose the case, it was settled out of court.

And it is an error to say on Oct 28 that 'This week Penguin agreed to pulp all copies of Lebrecht's book.' The pulping announcement was made ten days ago, on Oct 18, and was reported on this blog more than a week before the IoS ran the story.

Which is, presumably, why I received this email last week:

..........................

Lebrecht v Naxos‏
From: A.Johnson at independent.co.uk
Sent: 24 October 2007 16:46:38
To: overgrownpath at hotmail.co.uk

Hi there. I'm a reporter for the Independent on Sunday and I'm writing an article for this week's paper about the Lebrecht book on Naxos being withdrawn. I'd really like to speak to someone (off record if necessary) about the rights and wrongs of the row, the standing of Naxos in the classical music world, and the standing of Lebrecht. My numbers are below.


Everything in confidence of course.

Thanks for reading this. Please do not post.

Andrew Johnson
The Independent on Sunday

................................

Sorry about posting Andrew. But as a journalist famous for his polemics once blustered -"Until bloggers deliver hard facts … paid for newspapers will continue to set the standard as the only show in town".

Follow the Lebrecht paper trail here.
Image credit KMX Shredding, who are doubtless rubbing their hands. 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, October 27, 2007

More than Player Piano Studies


Conlon Nancarrow (above) was born ninety-five years ago today, on October 27, 1912. Why does everyone, including me, always write about his Player Piano Studies? His String Quartet plays as I write in the Kronos Quartet recording. Happy birthday music.
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

The sound of silence


Tip to contemporary composers. If you want your music broadcast beware of the sound of silence. I've been running into problems with extended low level passages on my Future Radio programme. The culprit is the station's silence detector which monitors the studio output. If it senses silence the smart circuitry assumes there is a fault somewhere between studio and the transmitter/web stream, and reroutes the output to a secondary distribution circuit. This then drops the internet stream, and if the silence continues the whole process repeats itself in a loop. In a word - problems.

The silence detector is standard issue in the new breed of automated radio stations which operate with minimal staffing. While I was presenting my programme last week I was the only person in the studio complex, and the previous programme was pre-recorded and played by automation. And this kind of automation will become the norm as the long tail of radio grows longer.

The silence detector thresholds are variables set by the station staff. The team at Future Radio have tweaked the settings to a generous 30 second threshold. But even with this I was very surprised to find it kicking in last week in the not very silent Duruflé Requiem, despite judicous manual compression. The real problem is that the technology that runs these stations is specified for heavily compressed rock music, and contemporary music is way outside the standard deviations. I'm trying not to let this problem influence future programmes. But I have put Paul Hillier's new Stimmung on hold until I'm satisfied it won't be censored by the silence police.

Tomorrow's programme comprises forgotten cello concertos from the baroque composer Leonardo Leo and the late-romantic Gerald Finzi. The graphic plot of the two recordings (from BIS and Chandos respectively) shows very different energy levels. The Leo should be fine, but the Finzi, with its beautiful thirteen minute Andante quieto movement, is likely to cause problems. These will be compounded by the programme being pre-recorded, as I will be listening to some reassuringly quiet live music at Snape while the programme is on-air. The Snape concert has Masaaki Suzuki conducting the Academy of Ancient Music in Handel and Bach (Lauchzet Gott in allen Landen). Thank heavens that the Maltings doesn't have a silence detector.

So apologies if the audio stream plays up on tomorrow's Overgrown Path radio programme. And if you are a contemporary composer, not too much Andante quieto please. Or, perhaps, you should just follow a very good example, and ignore the dictats of technology.

* Listen to the Finzi and Leo cello concertos, uninterrupted I hope, via the audio stream here on Sunday Oct 28 at 5.00pm UK time. Convert Overgrown Path radio on-air times to your local time zone using this link. Windows Media Player doesn't like the audio stream very much and takes ages to buffer. WinAmp or iTunes handle it best. Unfortunately the royalty license doesn't permit on-demand replay, so you have to listen in real time. If you are in the Norwich, UK area tune to 96.9FM.

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

Friday, October 26, 2007

The art of the bad review

Long Road Out Of Eden
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Give me digital - but not BBC Radio 3


Technology is changing the way we listen to radio, but classical network BBC Radio 3 is struggling in the brave new digital world. 15% of all radio listening in the UK is now via a digital platform according to research for the quarter ending September 2007 released yesterday by RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research Limited). The data also shows that digital listening showed a big increase over the previous quarter, and that 1.6% of all radio listening is now via the internet.

The number of adults who claim to have listened to the radio via a mobile phone also showed a marked increase, up to 9.2% in the last quarter. Unsurprisingly radio listening via mobile phone was most common in the younger age groups, with 23% of 15 to 24 year olds listening this way. 2.8 million adults used their mp3 player to listen to radio podcasts in the last quarter, up from 1.97 million in Q3 2006. Listening to digital only services (radio stations which are only available on a digital platform) also increased, up from 4.8 million listeners in Q3, 2006 to 6.2 million in Q3, 2007.

Analysis of radio audiences showed that both BBC Radio 3 and the commercial station Classic FM gained audience in the quarter ended September 2007, up to 1.938m and 5.844m respectively. But these figures are not as good news as they may seem at first glance. This quarter is historically strong for classical listening, with Radio 3 reaching an audience of 2.214m in the same quarter in 2003. The quarter ending September covers the BBC Proms season when the network benefits from huge amounts of free promotion, with virtually every programme in the schedules devoted to plugging the Proms. Charging the monetary value of that on-air advertising back to the Radio 3 cost centre using John Birt's 'internal market' formula would be a very interesting exercise.

Despite the massive 'Proms effect' Radio 3 only increased listener share from 1.10% to 1.20% from Q2 to Q3, whereas Classic FM, without the cross-benefit of the 'world's biggest music festival', increased listening share from 4.00% to 4.30%. The classical audience are not particularly heavy listeners either. Average hours per listener of 6.30 for Radio 3 and 7.30 for Classic FM compared with 10.20 for the the BBC's rock network Radio 1, and 12.30 hours for the talk based Radio 4.

Surprisingly the average hours per listener for Radio 3 did not increase in the last quarter despite the 'Proms effect', and actually showed a significant drop from 6.90 hours in the same quarter the previous year. Sadly this data simply confirms what has already been said here; the Radio 3 schedule changes are missing both the popular and serious music audiences, and the network is increasingly vulnerable to the long tail of internet radio and applications like the Radeo internet player.

RAJAR website is here, and the data tables are here.
Image credit Tom Scarff. 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

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Blogs - the new wisdom of crowds?


Music blogs go respectable next Monday (Oct 29) when I give a talk at Cambridge University. My subject is Blogs - the new wisdom of crowds? and I will look at why music blogs are so successful, and what their impact really is. The conflict between traditional journalism and the new bloggers will be considered, and new media opportunities such as webcasting will also be discussed.

I will be explaining how On An Overgrown Path started, present some readership data, and give inside tips on how to create a successful blog. And, of course, no presentation from me would be complete without a scholarly mention of Norman Lebrecht and BBC Radio 3.

Full details of the talk at Pembroke College are available on the Cambridge University website, and there is limited space for visitors. Any other organisations interested in a similar presentation please contact me via overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk.

Now read how blogging is doing it for our time.
Wisdom of Crowds is a book by James Surowiecki - recommended. Picture credit Rocky Music. 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

Weaving the Web Wider


Diversity is the lifeblood of music. I was reminded of this when reading the following in Robert Maycock's thought-provoking, but opinionated, book Glass - A Portrait:

"Unfortunately the dream of twentieth century music became corrupted. With hindsight the corruption was inevitable, because there was never enough money for everyone who wanted it. The system required selection and the exercise of power. These were the factors that brought about the rise and fall of 'the twentieth century music' that became so familiar during the century's final decades, because in narrowing the field down to one that was financially supportable, it also narrowed down the musical options.

Judging the claims, making the choices, redirecting the money: traditionally these would be grounds for exercising a Solomon-like wisdom, purified by detachment from the circumstances. The trouble was that it was becoming hard for non-specialist officials or members of committees to grasp the musical issues, particularly when it came to new music as it burgeoned off into the intricate and unfathomable realm of post-war modernism. They needed guidance. They went to the people who knew this world best, the people it had trained. Experts in new music were invited into the system. And that was how the system came to be run by those who benefited from it."


Is Robert Maycock right? Just a few years into the new century is the cycle repeating itself? Are the musical options narrowing? Are the experts running the system?

If music blogs are an indication the answer is yes. The Blognoggle elite are getting bigger, and are now part of the system. And sure, I include On An Overgrown Path in that statement. I am frequently contacted, via the blog, by journalists wanting background on music news stories. Flattering, but also frightening.

Where are the new blogs? Where are the musical options? Where is the risk-taking? Where are the young Turks ready to challenge the so-called experts? Where is the diversity on the musical web? Please email me with more newcomers like this one, this one, and this one.

Photo credit Spiderz Rule! - diverse but definitely not for arachnophobes. 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

Understatement of the week

Norman Lebrecht has written a big piece about Korngold.
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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A pilgrim's final progress


Ursula Vaughan Williams died on October 23 2007 aged 96. She married Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1953, and contributed to several of his later works, including the magical Serenade to Music which sets words from The Merchant of Venice. The photo above was taken at the 1971 sessions for Vaughan William's Pilgrims Progress, and shows Ursula Vaughan Williams on the extreme left.

The Guardian obituary reminds us that, as well as contributing to her husband's work, Ursula Vaughan Williams provided librettos to a veritable who's who of twentieth century composers including Gerald Finzi, Alun Hoddinott, Herbert Howells, Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy, Anthony Milner, Alan Ridout, Phyllis Tate and Malcolm Williamson.

So ends an important chapter in the history of modern music. Although, sadly, it may not be recognised as such everywhere.

... Soft stillness and the night
Becomes the touches of harmony.
The Merchant of Venice, Act V

Here's a topical mix of Vaughan Williams and Norman Lebrecht.
Photo credit Godfrey McDominic/EMI. 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

Serial music - exploring the labyrinth


Several interesting points came out of my 'In Conversation' event with Alina Ibragimova before last night's Britten Sinfonia concert. One of them was that, following her CD of Karl Amadeus Hartmann's music, Alina's next recording will be the two violin concertos of Mykola Roslavets. In his excellent A Concise History of Western Music (CUP ISBN 0521842948) Paul Griffiths writes that 'The past is not a path we and our predecessor's have travelled but a labyrinth, and a labyrinth forever in flux', and Mykola Roslavets is an excellent example of how we are still exploring the labyrinth that is serial music.

Received wisdom tells us that Arnold Schoenberg originated serial composition, but did he? Mykola (Nikolai) Roslavets (left) was born in Ukraine in 1881. Although he was influential in the early years of the USSR as a champion of progressive Western composers, his music was politically suppressed at the end of the 1920s. Due to this he spent most of the remainder of his career as a ‘non-person’, and died in Moscow in 1944. But post-perstroika his music is having something of a renaissance.

Roslavets is of more interest than the many minor Russian composer of the period. He used a form of serial composition, and it may have pre-dated Schoenberg. The two composers approached the new tonal landscape from very different directions. Schoenberg used serial techniques to create a horizontal thread through his compositions, whereas Roslavet aggregated them vertically in a manner influenced by his countryman Alexander Scriabin. Roslavet's output included orchestral. chamber and piano music, as well as the two violin concertos that Alina Ibragimova is recording.

But Nikolai Roslavets is not the only pretender to the serial music crown. The Austrian Josef Matthias Hauer (below) was indisputably working ahead of Schoenberg. In 1919 he devised a proto-serial composition technique using twelve-tone rows with variable tone sequences. Hauer lived from 1883 to 1959, and his compositions were branded 'degenerate art' by the Nazis. In a link to another path Hauer is thought to have been a model for characters in both Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus and Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. There is much unpublished music by Josef Mattias Hauer, and all his compositions after 1940 are described by him as Zwölftonspiel or Zwölftonmusik - twelve-tone song, or twelve-tone music. A recording project there perhaps?

Another piece of received wisdom worth revisiting is that serial techniques were the sole preserve Central European. In 1956 the English composer William Alwyn (below) developed his own take on the new tonalities in the Allegro of his Symphony No. 3. This uses an alternation of eight note and four note groups in a pattern suggested to the composer by Indian classical music quite sometime before Philip Glass and others made such fusions fashionable. William Alwyn may not have the cachet of his American and Central European peers, but his music certainly deserves greater recognition.

But in the end it doesn't really matter who invented serial music. As Paul Griffith explains history is not linear, but is a labyrinth where change is constant. Within the labyrinth several composers independently developed their own serial languages, and they are all worth exploring. Alina Ibragimova's CD of Nikolai Roslavets' violin concertos is being recorded with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and will be released by Hyperion in 2008. And there is more on William Alwyn here.

* I am aware that 'serial techniques' and 'twelve-tone music' are terms that may not be familiar to all my readers. Here is a wonderfully lucid explanation from A Pilgrim Soul by Meirion and Susie Harris. Which also gives me an opportunity maintain the gender balance by linking to another English pioneer of serial techniques, Elisabeth Lutyens:

'Serialism, the twelve-tone method was a logical extension of the abandonment of tonality (the key system) which had begun long before the end of the nineteenth century. As music progresses towards dissonance and away from tonality, it became obvious that some other source of coherence would be needed, some alternative means of organising the material as effectively as the key system had done.

The key system gave automatic priority to certain notes in the scale; but to those using the serial method, all twelve notes of the octave, black and white, were equally important, and all were used as the basic material of any composition. In serial music the fundamental idea of the composition was presented in a series of the twelve notes in a characteristic order, with no note repeated until all the others had been used, to ensure that none had precedence. The whole piece was to be evolved from this basic set, by a process of continuous variation and development, so that every part of the work could in some way be related to the original idea.

Both the horizontal and the vertical dimension of the musical 'space' were penetrated by the basic idea, so that not only the melodies but also the harmonies were regulated by the order of notes within the series and the relationship between them. For variety, the series could also be played upside down, back to front, and transposed up or down the scale, as long as the order of the notes was preserved.

Those who used the serial technique felt it vital to explain that it was no more mechanical, no more a formula than the key system with all the rules it possesses. It was not a prescription, but a tool to help different composers express themselves differently, adapting the method to their own ends. 'I do not compose principles,' wrote Schoenberg angrily, 'but music'.'



Main images are, of course, by M C Escher. The header is Convex and Concave, the lower is Day and Night. 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, October 23, 2007

Remembering a forgotten maestro


Last Friday's BBC Radio 3 broadcast of Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony, played by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by John Lubbock, contained more beauty in one bar than was to be found in the whole of Riccardo Muti's recent London concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Why do we focus so much on a few 'star' conductors and orchestras? And why do we consign to oblivion the forgotten maestros and musicians who work away from the limelight, and who contribute so much?

The Ulster Orchestra was created as a full time professional orchestra in 1966, and its first principal conductor Maurice Miles (above) is one of those forgotten maestros. He was born in 1908, and was principal conductor of the Yorkshire Symphony from 1947 until 1954. The orchestra played many twentieth century works, including more than thirty by British composers in his first season alone. His repertoire was eclectic, and he gave a rare performance of Arthur Honegger's oratorio King David at the 1950 Leeds Triennial Musical Festival.

But the star system was setting the musical agenda more than fifty years ago, just as it does today. In 1954 Maurice Miles was replaced as conductor in Leeds 1954 by the mucher higher profile Russian Nikolai Malko, who had given the first performances of Shostakovich's First and Second Symphonies.

Maurice Miles' specialities were never likely to become fashionable. Arnold Bax, and Arthur Butterworth were among the composers he championed. He gave the first performance of Gerald Finzi's beautiful Dies Natalis in the Wigmore Hall in 1940, and conducted Geoffrey Bush's Symphony No. 1 at the Proms in 1958. As well as his work in Northern Ireland Maurice Miles was a frequent conductor of the BBC Welsh and Scottish Symphony Orchestras. He spent decades advocating unfashionable composers with unglamorous orchestras, before, finally, turning to teaching conducting at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

In the early 1980s my wife and I bought our first house outside Dorking, in the shadow of Ralph Vaughan Williams' beloved Leith Hill, and we were living there when our first child was born. The house was modest but nice, and it was on the kind of housing development that young people with families lived on. But a charming old gentleman moved into the house opposite, and lived there on his own. He travelled on the train to London several times a week, and kept himself to himself much of the time. But my brief conversations with him told me that he knew a lot more about my musical heroes than I ever would.

Our son was young, and we were preoccupied with those transient things that preoccupy young parents. To my eternal regret I did not spend more time with our neighbour Maurice Miles before he died in 1985, aged 77. Today he is just one of many forgotten maestros. But the wonderful music that the Ulster Orchestra continues to make means I will not forget him.

* This Sunday (Oct 28) I will play Gerald Finzi's forgotten Cello Concerto from 1955 on my Future Radio programme at 5.00pm UK time, together with another forgotten cello concerto from an earlier time by Leonardo Leo.

* He may have hit the spot with Shostakovich, but not all of Nikolai Malko's repertoire became fashionable. He also conducted the first performances of Nikolai Myaskovsky's Symphony No. 5 and Vagn Holmboe's Symphony No. 7 - where are they now? In fact Owain Arwel Hughes, of all people, recorded a cycle of the Vagn Holmboe symphonies for BIS some fifteen years ago, and I have the Symphony No. 2 playing as I write. It was what my late, and lamented, EMI colleague Douglas Pudney would probably have described as 'a justly neglected masterpiece'.


* But do listen to the Finzi Cello Concerto via the audio stream here on Sunday Oct 28 at 5.00pm UK time. Convert Overgrown Path radio on-air times to your local time zone using this link. Windows Media Player doesn't like the audio stream very much and takes ages to buffer. WinAmp or iTunes handle it best. Unfortunately the royalty license doesn't permit on-demand replay, so you have to listen in real time. If you are in the Norwich, UK area tune to 96.9FM.

Photo credit Discovering Leeds. 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, October 22, 2007

Now playing - the Hallelujah Chorus


'Hang on a minute, and take a deep breath. Now take another. The Rest Is Noise is a great book, with loads of insights and a unique way of joining musical history to cultural history to political history, and I've said so. Ross is an exceptional writer, and his blog is the hub for a great deal of classical activity on the web and in the blogosphere. But "He is the answer to all the lamentations about who will build the new audiences"?

No one can live up to that, not even SuperAlex. It's a bit of a conceptual leap to believe that people with only a passing interest in classical music up till now will become avid concertgoers, or even occasional concertgoers, once they've read The Rest Is Noise.'


Thank you Marc Geelhoed.

Picture credit Northeastern State University. My preferred version of the Messiah is Christopher Hogwood's with the Academy of Ancient Music and Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, but it is now deleted I fear. 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

The Well-Tempered Concert

J S Bach Violin Concerto No 1
J S Bach arr. Tansy Davies Prelude and Fugue No. 20 in A minor (first performances)
Hartmann Concerto Funèbre
Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht

This programme is being given in Cambridge, Norwich and London this week by the Britten Sinfonia. The 22 year old Russian born violinist Alina Ibragimova (left) is soloist in the Bach and Hartmann concertos, and directs all the works. She has just released a CD of Hartmann's music on Hyperion.

Before the concert in Norwich Cathedral tomorrow, ( Tues 23 October) there is an 'In conversation' event at 6.30pm. In living proof that youth is not a time of life but a state of mind, this event features Alina Ibragimova in conversation with me. As well as discussing the two concertos with Ms. Ibragimova I will be following some recent paths with her. These will include the challenges of a programme spanning baroque and contemporary music, and how composers such as Karl Amadeus Hartmann are victims of music fashion.

I will also be asking Alina about her project with British rap star Lethal Bizzle, and how far she, Tansy Davies and their contemporaries can push the boundaries of classical music. If any of my far flung readers have questions for Alina Ibragimova, email them to me and I will try to include them in our discussion.

Now read about the Britten Sinfonia's inspirational work with new music. And the orchestra is also an inspiration on equality. After this week's concerts, which have Alina Ibragimova as soloist/director and a commission for Tansy Davies, their next two concert series have Imogen Cooper as soloist/director in one, and their leader, Jacqueline Shave, as soloist/director in the other. It's no longer jobs for the boys in this part of the world.
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Lebrecht is right - Naxos is not in same league


Thought-provoking email about the Naxos v Lebrecht case:

'Lebrecht is right in so far, as Naxos product is not in the league of a fine opera recording of the 60 to 80s with top cast, recorded by DECCA or even DG, Philips or EMI. Their product will still sell in 50 years, whereas Naxos product does not have this unique quality, neither sonically nor artistically. A recording with a top approved cast with a conductor like Karajan (above) is still a seller today, even if recorded "only" in Stereo. The 5.1 surround sound format is no quality asset, for classical music this is not the decisive feature. That is the great difference to Naxos or other label products.

Sincerely, L. Ruschin'


Now read another reader suggesting that Naxos dumbs-down production standards.
Header image shows Herbert von Karajan with Christa Ludwig during a playback at the 1969/70 sessions for Götterdämmerung, which, as L. Ruschin says, continues to sell today. 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, October 21, 2007

Hommage à Pierre Boulez

Entre 1952 et 1955, Pierre Boulez composait " le Marteau sans Maître ", une pièce pour voix d'alto et six instruments, sur un poème de René Char, qui allait révolutionner le monde musical. Plus de cinquante ans après sa création, je peux enfin vous prouver que le marteau a bien trouvé son Maître.


Reblogged from Le regard de James. Anyway, what's in a name?
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Brand new music for harpsichord


Jean-Philippe Rameau - Suite in D
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach - Fantasia in A minor
Franz Joseph Haydn - Sonata No 31 Hob XVI/46
Vicent Rodríguez Monllor - Sonata XXVII in C minor
Interval
Jeremy Peyton Jones (photo above) - In Memoriam Gát and Brodsky - first performance
Johann Sebastian Bach - Sinfonia No 8 BWV 794
JS Bach - Sinfonia No 9 BWV 795
György Ligeti - Passacagli ungherese
JS Bach - Invention No 13 BWV 784
Toru Takemitsu - Rain Dreaming
JS Bach - Invention No 14 BWV 785
G Ligeti - Hungarian Rock
G Ligeti - Continuum

This was the programme for last night's risk-taking harpsichord recital by Jane Chapman at the King of Hearts in Norwich. What a delight to see so much contemporary music in a thoughtfully compiled programme, and it was an even greater delight to attend the world premiere of a brand new work for harpsichord. Jeremy Peyton Jones (photo above) was born in Devon in 1955, and has worked with John Cage, Christian Wolff and the British pianist John Tilbury who is a leading exponent of Morton Feldman's music. Here are Jeremy Peyton Jones' programme notes for the new work:

In Memoriam Gát and Brodszky - When it was suggested that in order to fit with the rest of the programme this new piece for Jane Chapman might have a Hungarian theme, I was at first at a loss to know how to make the connection. However the combination of Hungary and the harpsichord led me to János Sebestyén's (right) fascinating brief history of the harpsichord in Hungary in which two of the key players are the pianist and harpsichordist József Gát, one time student of Béla Bartók, who taught piano and methodology at the Academy of Music and became interested in early instruments, and the eccentric Hungarian music scholar Ferenc Brodszky who owned one of the only two harpsichords in Hungary in the 1930s.

One of my main preoccupations in the creation of new music is how music both connects us to the past and also, as with any new creative endeavour pushes us forward into the future. A precedent of my approach here is Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin in which he both makes a homage to the sensibilities of the Baroque French keyboard suite while at the same time specifically making dedications in the music to friends and fellow sodiers who had died in the First World War.

In evoking the memory of József Gát (photo below) and Ferenc Brodszky (two people I know very little about) I am not so much evolking a personal memory of them as making a connection with two of those who have been closely connected with the harpsichord, its music and its history and who are therefore two links in the chain which connects us both across our cultural landscape and to our forebears. My piece is actually about the process of memory and connection in general, and could be dedicated to the memory of any person who is no longer with us through the specific connections of keyboard vituosity and the regular shapes and forms of much baroque keyboard music.

A programme such as tonight's is all about links - the links between baroque music, the music of Ligeti in Hungary, the history and legacy of harpsichord music in Hungary, which join periods and locations of creativity and human artistic activity.

My piece explores our relationship with the Western musical heritage through the use of virtuoso harpsichord techniques achievable by the simulataneous use of the two keyboards along with references to more contemporary contemporary music styles. There is another connection to József Gát who acquired an Ammer harpsichord and, assisted by an engineer friend, tried to install a discrete anplier that touched the strings - similar to the guitar - so that there was no need for a complicated solution with microphone.

In Memoriam Gát and Brodsky is in three sections. I Fast and Furious; II Calm and Measured; II Rocking and Rolling.


The János Sebestyén website really is worth visiting, there are music samples and wonderful photo albums. And take this path for a harpsichord recording I could not live without.
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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Norman Lebrecht and unchecked trivia


'For years, the British critic Norman Lebrecht has been throwing firebombs in the world of classical music, denouncing what he sees as industry evils in a provocative style that has sometimes been described as accuracy-challenged. On Thursday, in an unusually crushing act of contrition, his publisher agreed to recall his latest book, destroy it, say “Sorry” and promise not to do it again — all over a few pages discussing Naxos Records and its founder, Klaus Heymann. The book, “Maestros, Masterpieces & Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry,” was released in Britain in July. Mr. Heymann sued the publisher, Penguin Books, in the High Court of Justice, saying the book wrongly accused him of “serious business malpractices” based on false statements. He cited at least 15 statements he called inaccurate. Despite the suit, Mr. Heymann said he did not think the book had a “negative impact” on his reputation. “But,” he added, “I don’t think somebody like Lebrecht should get away with 20 or 30 errors in a five-page article" ' - Reports today's New York Times.


'Until bloggers deliver hard facts … paid for newspapers will continue to set the standard as the only show in town ... that is the real scandal and it could have been exposed had the blogger taken the trouble to check his scoop ... the supposed fraud shows up the flaws of a classical blogosphere that trades in unchecked trivia ... online blogs won't become required reading until they start focussing on the facts’ - wrote Norman Lebrecht in the Evening Standard on 8 November 2006.
Don't say I didn't tell you.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

New music with a Benedictine habit


My love of Gregorian Chant started years back when I first stayed in L'Abbaye Sainte Madeleine at Le Barroux in France and heard the Benedictine monks singing the Holy Offices according to the scholarship of Solesmes. Once you've heard plainsong at 3.30 in the morning during Matins you never forget it! The two photos here were taken by me a few weeks ago when I visited the monastery again.

On this Sunday's Overgrown Path programme on Future Radio I will be playing a twentieth century Requiem which is closely based on the Gregorian original. Composers from Victoria to Ligeti have set the Requiem Mass, but the non-restored Gregorian funeral chants of the Roman Rite are rarely heard. To rectify this I am starting my programme with the Introit, Kyrie, Dies Irae, Sanctus and Agnus Dei from the Gregorian Mass for the Departed sung by the monks of l'Abbaye de Fontgombault in central France.

The recording I am playing is on the invaluable Art & Musique label. Unfortunately, their CDs are very difficult to find outside France. My copy was bought in the wonderful Abbey shop at Le Barroux the day I took the photographs here. You can buy the recording online from the shop. This is my sort of CD - the sleeve notes say the following: 'The recording sessions took place in the 12th century abbey church of Fontgombault on the cold and windy days of March 12-14 2001. One can hear a little of the windstorm in the background.'

Maurice Duruflé wrote his Requiem Op. 9 in 1947 for full orchestra and organ, and it is is closely modelled on the Gregorian original. In 1961 Duruflé made a revised version for reduced orchestra and organ, and it is this version I will be playing to give continuity from the austerity of the opening plainchant. In fact the transition from the plainsong to the Duruflé is so seamless the linking announcement almost seems an intrusion.

The programme will be broadcast at 5.00pm UK time on Sunday 21 October. Listen online in realtime only via this link. And after that windstorm in Fongombault it must be raindrops falling on my chant.


Listen to the Future Radio audio stream here. Convert Overgrown Path radio on-air times to your local time zone using this link. Windows Media Player doesn't like the audio stream very much and takes ages to buffer. WinAmp or iTunes handle it best. Unfortunately the royalty license doesn't permit on-demand replay, so you have to listen in real time. If you are in the Norwich, UK area tune to 96.9FM.

All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2007. 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

Thursday, October 18, 2007

More of Martinu's music please


Very successful mixing of old with the new at Norwich's King of Hearts last night in a concert by the quartet of musicians who make up the London Handel Players. The programme included J.S and C.P.E Bach, Handel, Leclair and Barry Guy's admirably uncompromising 1985 "Whistle and Flute" for flutes and eight track tape which was played by the flautist it was written for, Rachel Brown.

But the highlight of an outstanding concert was Bohuslav Martinů's 1940 Promenades for flute, violin and harpsichord, with its angular rhythms and sparkling writing for the harpsichord. A little known gem, and one that had me revisiting some of the many Martinů recordings in my collection.

My love for Martinů's music was sparked by Václav Neumann four LP set of the symphonies with the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon which dates from the late 1970s. When the CD age dawned I bought Bryden Thomson's Chandos set of the symphonies (now deleted) with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. But sadly that set doesn't have the Slovak 'edge' of the Neumann records, or is that wonderful analogue sound on the Czech LP pressings?

There is much other wonderful Martinů. The Cello Concertos are under-rated, while the Field Mass and opera The Greek Passion are both masterpieces. (The Greek Passion is based on Christ Recrucified [1951], a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, which opens up another path). Two personal favourites among Martinů's orchestral output can be found on an Erato double CD, the Double Concerto for string orchestra, piano and timpani, and the sublime Frescoes of Piero della Francesca. The Erato CDs are now deleted (which is probably a measure of how far Martinů has fallen out of fashion) but you can still find them.


2009 brings the fiftieth anniversary of Martinů's death. Hopefully this will mean more Martinů and less of some other composers. Meanwhile the King of Hearts' innovative Autumn Festival continues in a few minutes with more Bach, and on Saturday evening Jane Chapman's harpsichord recital includes music by Ligeti, Takemitsu and Jeremy Peyton-Jones, as well as by Rameau, W.F, Bach and Haydn. Thank goodness some concert promoters are still prepared to take risks.

My photo shows Martinů (right) with the American composer Frederick Jacobi and comes from an excellent article by Anton Wagner.

Now download some other Czech delights here.
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Echoes of Soft Machine


Profile in today's Guardian of Robert Wyatt. He was drummer with Soft Machine until he was fired in 1971. Soft Machine (above) played at the Proms in 1970 when risk taking was still in fashion, and I wrote about them disturbing my sleep here.

Photo of the Softs in 1967 from Hulloder. 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