Monday, March 17, 2008

Contemporary music without tears


Free music is all the rage and a long-running series of free concerts is being used to boost audiences for contemporary music in London. Music of Today is an innovative eight concert series given by the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall before regular evening concerts of mainstream repertoire. The deal is you turn up for the free concert at 6.00pm which features an introductory talk by series director Julian Anderson plus a free programme (is the UK alone in having outrageously over-priced programme books?) before paying normal prices for the main concert at 8.00pm. You don't need to buy tickets for the main concert to attend the free one, you can simply enjoy the contemporary music and go home if you choose.

The 6.00pm concerts are not 'bolt-ons', but are meaty and challenging programmes with a different conductor specially booked for the event. Last Thursday we were in London to hear Diego Masson conduct Iannis Xenakis' Anaktoria and Thalleïn in the free Music of Today concert, an event that drew a gratifyingly large audience. The 73 year old Masson is one of the great champions of contemporary music with an incisive stick technique that is rarely seen today and which really fired-up the group of players from the Philharmonia. He is also a great speaker and worked with Xenakis and many other composers, he told how Xenakis struggled for performances in the 1950s, adding that Boulez didn't like his music. A quick cross-reference to Joan Peyser's biography of Boulez confirms this, there is not one mention of Xenakis in it.

In the days when Pierre Boulez was at the BBC the 8.00pm concert would have been Thalleïn in the first half with a Mahler symphony to follow, and the hall would probably have been full. But those days have gone and it was film music all the way with Mozart K467 in the first half and Mahler's Fifth Symphony after the interval. In the Mozart François-Frédéric Guy played very non-Elvira Madigan cadenzas by Marc Monnet - the CV says it all. One of today's hot 'box ticking' young conductors was on the podium. 33 year old Swiss born Philippe Jordan has ticked quite a few boxes already; he has conducted at Covent Garden, the Met and Glyndebourne, has ticked Parsifal in Munich, is signed with leading agency IMG Artists and has a Ring in Zurich and the directorship of the Paris Opera soon to be ticked. Thursday was London and the Mahler 5 box, and it was duly ticked with a performance as mannered and uninvolving as any I can remember.

But congratulations to the Philharmonia for programming contemporary music without tears. But just a couple of questions. Why didn't the 73 year old Diego Masson conduct the Mahler and Mozart, and the 33 year old Philippe Jordan the Xenakis? Could it be that there is no Xenakis box to be ticked on a hot young conductor's CV these days?

My header photo was taken a couple of weeks ago and shows Henry Moore's Reclining Figure in the grounds of Dartington Hall where Diego Masson will follow in the footsteps of Boulez, Stravinsky, Elliott Carter, Bruno Maderna and many other great musicians when he teaches there at this year's Summer School. See Stravinsky in another Dartington header photo here.

* I'm playing Xenakis' Komboi for harpsichord and percussion on Future Radio on April 13. Also in the programme are Scene 3 from Hildegard of Bingen's Ordo Vitutum and John Mclaughlin Williams' Grammy winning recording of Messiaen's Oiseaux Exotiques.

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1 comment:

Garth Trinkl said...

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony performed Iannis Xenakis's "A L'Ile de Goree" (On the Isle of Gorea [Dakar, Senegal], 1986) two months ago. I wish I could have heard it (or the delayed radio broadcast).

Here is Thomas May's extensive program note to the performance, as well as UNESCO's link "A Visit to Goree Island" (and its Slave House):

http://www.sfsymphony.com/templates/pgmnote.asp?nodeid=4377&callid=4386

http://webworld.unesco.org/goree/

*

[Don't try typing Xenakis or Ligeti -- both programmed this season -- into the Search feature of the San Francisco Symphony website. It won't help you find them or their works.]