Friday, October 31, 2008

Alma - the loveliest girl in Vienna

And of course no item about Lehrer in a music blog would be complete without mention of one of his least political but most delightful songs - Alma. I first heard it when I was starting university and had just bought my first Mahler recording (the Cleveland/Raskin/Szell 4th). I remember being fascinated to discover that Alma only died the previous year.
Thanks Scott for that email, which sends us down another fascinating path. My header photo shows Alma and Gustav Mahler in Basle at the time of the performance of the composer's Second Symphony there in 1903. The photo below shows the couple walking between Toblach and Altschluderbach in 1909. There are very few photos of Alma and Gustav together, which may not be surprising once you've heard Tom Lehrer's song. Below are the lyrics for Alma together with the top and tail Lehrer gave it on his 1965 album That Was The Year That Was. Finally there is a recording of the great Tom Lehrer himself singing Alma.


Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary that has ever been my pleasure to read. It was that of a lady name Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel who had, in her lifetime, managed to acquire as lovers practically all of the top creative men in central Europe, and, among these lovers, who were listed in the obituary, by the way, which was what made it so interesting, there were three whom she went so far as to marry.

One of the leading composers of the day: Gustav Mahler, composer of Das Lied von der Erde and other light classics. One of the leading architects: Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus school of design. And one of the leading writers: Franz Werfel, author of the song of Bernadette and other masterpieces. It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years. It seemed to me, I'm reading this obituary, that the story of Alma was the stuff of which ballads should be made so here is one.

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well.
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You'd never be free of her spell.

Her lovers were many and varied,
From the day she began her -- beguine.
There were three famous ones whom she married,
And God knows how many between.

Alma, tell us!
All modern women are jealous.
Which of your magical wands
Got you Gustav and Walter and Franz?

The first one she married was Mahler,
Whose buddies all knew him as Gustav.
And each time he saw her he'd holler:
"Ach, that is the fraulein I moost have!"

Their marriage, however, was murder.
He'd scream to the heavens above,
"I'm writing Das Lied von der Erde,
And she only wants to make love!"

Alma, tell us!
All modern women are jealous.
You should have a statue in bronze
For bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz.

While married to Gus, she met Gropius,
And soon she was swinging with Walter.
Gus died, and her tear drops were copious.
She cried all the way to the altar.

But he would work late at the Bauhaus,
And only came home now and then.
She said, "What am I running? A chow house?
It's time to change partners again."

Alma, tell us!
All modern women are jealous.
Though you didn't even use Ponds,
You got Gustav and Walter and Franz.

While married to Walt she'd met Werfel,
And he too was caught in her net.
He married her, but he was carefell,
'Cause Alma was no Bernadette.

And that is the story of Alma,
Who knew how to receive and to give.
The body that reached her embalma'
Was one that had known how to live.

Alma, tell us!
How can they help being jealous?
Ducks always envy the swans
Who get Gustav and Walter,
you never did falter,
With Gustav and Walter and Franz.
I know some people feel that marriage as an institution is dying out, but I disagree and the point was driven home to me rather forcefully not long ago by a letter I received which said: "Darling, I love you and I cannot live without you. Marry me, or I will kill myself." Well, I was a little disturbed at that until I took another look at the envelope and saw that it was addressed to occupant.

Speaking of love, one problem that recurs more and more frequently these days in books,and plays,and movies on, is the inability of people to communicate with the people they love. Husbands and wives who can't communicate; children who can't communicate with their parents, and so on. And the characters in these books, and plays, and so on, and in real life, I might add, spend hours bemoaning the fact that they can't communicate. I feel that if a person can't communicate the very least he can do is to shut up.




Now read about Mahler's forgotten assistant.
My header image is from the archives of the Vienna Philharmonic, the footer is from Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildalchiv. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Gestures from a museum?


Incoming New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert divides music into 'museum' or 'laboratory' - meaning 'traditional' or 'contemporary'. I wonder where that puts, for example, The Art of Fugue or Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories? Coming to that, not all contemporary music is straight from the laboratory.

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A black humoured musical revue


Caught Northern Theatre Touring's tribute to Tom Lehrer in Norwich yesterday. The evening is described as 'a black humoured musical revue, with songs composed by American satirist Tom Lehrer. It looks at the social and political aspects of common culture, such as racism, pornography and war in a uniquely warped way. The songs of Lehrer are as relevant today as they were when they were first composed in the 1960s.' A magical evening that was also a timely reminder of the depths that today's BBC has sunk to with its so called satire. The highlight of the show was Tom Lehrer's priceless song Werner Von Braun.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dean Dixon - I owe him a huge debt


Dear Pliable, As a lonely youngster growing up in Sydney in the sixties, one of the great experiences I had was to hear Dean Dixon in many concerts with the SSO. I got to know the basic classical repetory at the old Sydney Town Hall. Dixon seems to have been forgotten, and I couldn't then judge how good a conductor he was, but I owe him a huge debt. Keep up the good work and remember Dean Dixon!!! Yours David Sudlow
David, thank you for that memory, and for the opportunity to make sure that Dean Dixon, who features in my photos, is neither forgotten nor underrated. He was born in 1915 in New York City and studied at DeWitt Clinton High School in Harlem, then at the Juilliard School and Columbia University. At the age of 26 Dixon became the youngest conductor to lead the then New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, and in 1941 he conducted the NBC Symphony in the orchestra's summer season. He made many recordings of American contemporary music including Henry Cowell's Symphony No. 5, Edward McDowell's Indian Suite, and Douglas Moore's Symphony in A with electronic resources for the the American Recording Society label. In later years Dixon worked with the Philadelphia and Boston orchestras.

From 1949 onwards Dean Dixon enjoyed a distinguished international career that included the position of principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden from 1953 to 1960, a post now held by none other than Gustavo Dudamel. Dixon was also principal conductor of the Hess Radio Symphony Orchestra (now HR Symphonie Orchester) in Germany from 1961 to 1970 where the present incumbent is Paavo Järvi, and he also guest conducted with the Israel Philharmonic.

It was a mark of Dixon's reputation that über-modernist William Glock invited him to conduct Mahler's Seventh Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the orchestra's 1963-4 season. This was way before the Mahler revival gathered steam; the first complete recorded cycle of Mahler's symphonies was not completed by Leonard Bernstein until 1968, with those of Georg Solti and Bernard Haitink following in the 1970s.

Dixon made a number of acclaimed recordings of mainstream repertoire for the Westminster label with European orchestras. His discs of symphonies by Schubert and Schumann have recently been transferred to the CDs seen at the foot of my article by the enterprising Rediscovery label. David Sudlow quite rightly praises Dean Dixons' work in Australia, and my header photo was taken in Melbourne Town Hall in 1962. Dixon was principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1964 to 1967. Other chief conductors of the Sydney orchestra have included Eugene Goosens, Louis Frémaux, Charles Mackerras, and, today, Vladimir Ashkenazy.


If that was the story of Dean Dixon's career it would be a notable one, even by today's standards when international conducting opportunities are the norm rather than the exception. But, to allow his music making to speak for itself, I have omitted one fact about Dean Dixon. It is the angle that almost every article about him takes. My photos give it away. Dean Dixon was an African-American born of West Indian parents.

When he was 13, a teacher told his mother to “stop wasting her money” and discontinue his musical studies. He had to fund his own 70 player Dean Dixon Symphony in 1932 to give him (literally) a platform for his talents. Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged him to pursue his conducting career, he went on to be the first African-American to conduct the New York Philharmonic, and his repertoire included the Afro-American Symphony of William Grant Still.

But doors remained shut in his own country and Dean Dixon left for Europe at the end of the 1940s in search of permanent conducting appointments. Opportunities were more equal outside America and his career flourished with the non-US orchestras mentioned above during the 1950s and 60s. He conducted the Orquesta Filarmónica de la Ciudad de México at the 1968 Mexico Olympics that were the scene of the black civil rights protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. From 1970 onwards Dixon worked once again in America and he guest conducted leading orchestras. But he died, poignantly, in Switzerland on November 4, 1976 at the early age of 61.

Reader David Sudlow's email prompted me to write this tribute during Black History Month. Dean Dixon used to say that as his career progressed he was first known as the American Negro conductor, Dean Dixon; then the American conductor, Dean Dixon; and, at last, as the conductor, Dean Dixon. Those simple words 'the conductor Dean Dixon' say it all. His musical achievements transcend everything else. David Sudlow is quite right; we owe him a huge debt.


Dean Dixon was the first African-American to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Now read about the Berlin Philharmonic's first African-American conductor and first woman conductor.

Additional Dean Dixon resources:
- Africanafrican.com
- Culturebus.com
- Mychurch.com
- The African American Registry
- Wikipedia
- BBC Symphony Orchestra by Nicholas Kenyon (ISBN 0563176172 out of print)

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

BBC - try this one for size

Readers who think I have a down on my old employer, the BBC, should try this one for size.
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Fifth symphonies reprised


Wonderful how far modest little posts can reach.

With thanks to Steve Smith, who blogs at Night After Night, for a refreshingly collegiate example of music writing. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Gustavo Dudamel's rattling deer hooves


It is a great shame that the exotic scoring, which calls for a range of instruments including a Yaqui metal rattle and a rattling string of deer hooves, means that Carlos Chávez's 1936 Sinfonía India is rarely heard in the concert hall. Fortunately this fine work, which is sometimes sniffily dismissed as 'folkloric', has fared better on record. The brilliant gatefold artwork seen here is from the original 1981 EMI LP release of Enrique Bátiz's account of Sinfonía India recorded with the Orquesta Filarmónica de la Ciudad de México and featured on the path last year. The early Soundstream digital sound of the Mexican recording lacks impact, but it is available as a CD transfer in a Brilliant Classics eight disc budget compilation. Also now on CD is Carlos Chávez's own recording which has the advantage of being captured in stunning Everest analogue sound using 35mm magnetic film stock.


Talking of the media of film but moving to the 21st century you can sample Sinfonía India in this 8 minute video of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, no less, in the closing pages of the single movement work. The film is from a June 2008 outdoor concert in Berlin in front of an audience of 20,000 - exactly the right venue for this music.



Carlos Chávez gave the first performance of Colin McPhee's pioneering minimalist work Tabuh-Tabuhan with the Orquesta Filarmónica de la Ciudad de México in 1936. Read the full story, and see my photos of Mexico in the 1970s, here.
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Monday, October 27, 2008

Why I will be returning my Gergiev tickets


Dear Pliable, Thank you for your article on Gergiev and the LSO. It’s time this was out on the table. Richard Morrison’s startling article in October’s BBC Music Magazine is a timely reminder that those who know, and those who care, should be taking stock of Valery Gergiev’s stewardship of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Why? My first concerts with the LSO reach back to 1962. I still have the treasured programme for Pierre Monteux’s 88th Birthday Concert (April 1963), at which he performed Beethoven’s 8th and 9th Symphonies - deeply moving, and anyone who owns recordings of Kertesz’s Dvorak and Solti’s early Mahler (I was there for his shattering Mahler 2nd) will have a very good idea of the orchestra’s sound at the time, its brilliance and its virtuosity.

Others will disagree, and I have heard wonderful performances from the London Philharmonic, Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras over the decades, but for me the LSO has always been the best band in town, even if I was not particularly inspired by Tilson Thomas and Abbado at the time. But the frequency of concert-going increased significantly over the last decade with Sir Colin Davis as Principal Conductor, and in order to guarantee my seats at unmissable events, I became, and have remained, a Friend of the LSO. However, we can already look back on Sir Colin’s tenure as a Golden Age, and his recent appearances, and those of colleagues such as Bernard Haitink, are a painful reminder of what has been.

Forty-six years of aural memory devoted significantly to the LSO is no small act of loyalty, but I am now finding it tested to destruction since Gergiev took over as Principal Conductor in January 2007. So what happened?

The courtship was full of promise, as anyone who attended Gergiev’s Prokofiev Symphony cycle and knows the recordings will recall. He brought startling intensity and steely brilliance to this uneven set of works, shocking and enthralling with the industrial soundscapes of the 2nd Symphony, for instance. It was very exciting and promised much.

Apart from the crass promotional stunts (video screens in the Hall), Gergiev’s honeymoon concerts in the Spring of 2007 demonstrated fascinating juxtapositions of repertoire, Stravinsky’s ‘King of the Stars’ set against Prokofiev’s ‘Scythian Suite’; Stravinsky’s ‘Concerto for Piano and Winds’ set against the ‘Firebird’. Here were both blistering brilliance and exquisite nuance. Similarly, Stravinsky’s ‘Symphonies of Wind Instruments’, Debussy’s ‘La Mer’, Prokofiev’s ‘Seven They are Seven’, Debussy’s ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ constituted a programme in which sparks flew in all directions. La Mer might have been too wild and storm-tossed, and the Prélude inhabited Scriabin’s fevered imagination, but it would be difficult to imagine a more shockingly primeval Rite.

However, I had already expressed my concerns about the potential of this relationship on a Gramophone blog at the start of Gergiev’s contract, citing the following reasons. During Sir Colin’s tenure, we had been treated to complete cycles or significant individual works by the following composers: Beethoven, Berlioz, Britten, Bruckner, Dvorak, Elgar, Handel, McMillan, Mozart, Sibelius, Smetana, Verdi and Walton in outstanding performances, supported by excellent recordings. My musical memory is full of wonderful occasions, with Sir Colin and the chameleon virtuosity of the LSO matching precisely the appropriate tonal worlds of this diverse range of music: brilliance and exquisite nuance in Berlioz, mighty Bruckner, slavic energy in Dvorak, profound nobility in Elgar. We know this. Add to this mix the inspirational visits of Bernard Haitink. Who could possibly forget his astonishing rethinking of the Beethoven symphonies, glorious Bruckner, profound Mahler and ravishingly refulgent Richard Strauss? This was the LSO as it had never been in the past. And consistently.

There will be some who may have felt that under the aegis of these conducting giants the old buccaneering LSO was no longer the gleaming, sharp-fanged creature of yore, but for those of us with a more mittel-europaisch sensibility and ear, the LSO was at its ripest, its most flexible and virtuosic, a master orchestra at the peak of its form, able to match the best in Europe. I heard Haitink conduct Bruckner’s 8th with the Berlin Philharmonic in October 2007 at the Philharmonie, and Haitink’s recent Strauss concerts, as well as Davis’s recent Bruckner 7 were at the same level. And how could it be otherwise with such outstanding principals as Paul Silverthorne, Tim Hugh, Andrew Marriner, Gareth Davies and David Pyatt – to name but a few?

Critical response to this opening season was surprisingly mixed, even at this stage, but it was nothing like the reaction to Gergiev’s Mahler cycle which formed the backbone to the 2007-2008 season. Divided opinion among professional critics was reflected in the comments from concert-goers on the LSO website, and it is worth looking back at all these sources in order to understand the vehement controversy which these performances, and Gergiev in particular, generated. Not wanting to take too big a risk, I booked two concerts, Mahler’s 5th and 2nd.

Having heard Gergiev give a searing performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Barbican Hall a few weeks before, I could not believe what happened in the Mahler 5th which was unremitting and heartlessly driven. In the first movement's second subject, and even in the great Adagietto, he never allowed sufficient space for the aching beauty of the music to breathe. We never caught a glimpse of the ironic subtext to the naive and sentimental aspects of the score. Rather, we were subjected to a consistently hectoring barrage from the brass who spent much of the evening playing at the extreme limits of their volume range, an effect that proved completely unproductive. It undermined any sense of structure within movements, reducing them to a succession of unrelated, blaring outbursts. Hence that wondrous moment of light and hope at the end of the tempestuous second movement, where the brass chorale rises out of the terror, went for nothing, as did its reappearance at the end of the work. Gergiev seemed utterly incapable of not whipping up speed and volume at the approach to each climax, so that, ultimately, Mahler's Fifth was harrassed to death. I was not alone in returning tickets.

Critical response to the rapidly appearing recordings is as divided as for the concerts, with some commentators regarding these interpretations as inspirational and revelatory. However, David Gutman, in reviewing the 6th, sums up my own experience: ‘…a trail is blazed for a visceral, even thuggish brand of music-making,’ while the Andante…'is soon being harried towards a climax that blares unmercifully’. Tim Ashley, reviewing the 7th, refers to: ‘…an exercise in orchestral virtuosity that primarily strives for effect rather than attempting to explore underlying substance. It’s thrillingly played, but Gergiev’s speeds are at times self-consciously extreme. A sense of garbled excitement pervades the outer movements…’ Quite.

The 2008-2009 season has started with a Rachmaninov mini-festival; it seemed unlikely that Gergiev would disappoint within his own specialism. However, at the end of two consecutive concerts on Sunday 21st September, featuring Symphonies 1 & 3, followed by the Fourth Piano Concerto and Symphony No. 2, I walked despondently away from the cheering crowds with chronic aural fatigue. It is difficult not to recall Sir Thomas Beecham’s famous quote: ‘The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.’

Critical opinion was, again, acutely divided: Edward Seckerson in the Independent suggested that … ‘these performances told us more about Valery Gergiev than about Rachmaninov. There was brilliance, energy, dynamism – but the overriding impression was of skim-reading these scores’. Referring to the Second Symphony, I, like him, ‘yearned for nocturnal half-lights’. His most telling comment was: ‘I longed for a real piano, not mezzo piano, or mezzo forte. But Gergiev was always impatient for the next climax and his nervy body language ensured that they arrived too soon. The finale had shot its bolt before the tumultuous coda.’

Alexei Volodin’s brittle performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto did nothing to generate a much-desired oasis between the symphonies, merely stoking the neurasthenic hysteria. Shrieking trumpets, blaring lower brass, coagulated string sound and overwhelmed winds – remember Svetlanov’s USSR Symphony Orchestra in its worst excesses? It’s ALL TOO LOUD, and I fear that the LSO’s wonderful tonal sophistication is being corrupted.

One week later, Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Sir Colin was as truly lovely, joyous, exquisitely nuanced and profoundly intelligent as the LSO’s support. Here we were, back in the real world. A few day’s later, at the RFH, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, with Ivan Fischer, was demonstrating its world-class credentials in Schoenberg and Mahler with a sophistication and culture totally unrecognisable in Gergiev’s work.

It is pointless expressing these views on the LSO website any more; not that opinions are censored; they certainly are not, but Gergiev-mania stalks the land, and negative critics are trashed as idiots and killjoys.

And Richard Morrison? Let’s remember he has written an excellent book on the LSO. He accuses Gergiev of ‘…a deep vein of cynicism…’ and considers him ‘…a masterly operator in the super-rich circles of St. Petersburg and Moscow...’ Like other commentators, he casts doubt on Gergiev’s motives for the infamous ‘Ossetian Concert’, and states that his relationship with Putin is ‘mutually self-serving’. Gergiev, he says, ‘…is up to his neck in politics…’, and suggests that Gergiev is tainted by ‘…aligning himself with a Russian leader whose methods many people consider morally dubious…,’ and thus jeopardising his position with supportive, but neutral British audiences. Gergiev is entitled to his political views, but not if they taint the reputation of the LSO, and I am horrified that Kathryn McDowell, the orchestra’s managing director, issued a statement supporting that Ossetian concert.

There has been much to admire in Gergiev’s work, a magnificent ‘War and Peace’ at Covent Garden, rare Russian Operas, a definitive ‘Eugen Onegin’ on HD from the Met. But to sustain the role of Principal Conductor of one of the world’s great orchestras requires a much broader range, and on the evidence of recent work, his more excessive musical traits are ossifying. The LSO should not become yet another notch on Gergiev’s musical bedpost.

I shall be returning my Gergiev tickets and am looking forward to the prospect of soon hearing the other Russian in town, Vladimir Jurowski, who is winning consistent plaudits for outstanding programming and performance. I would be saddened to end my support for the LSO, but all Golden Ages come to an end.

Regards 'Hedgehog'

Now read about Vladimir Putin's musical tastes.
I am sure my photo montages need no captions. But to keep the record straight from top to bottom they feature Valery Gergiev with Pierre Monteux, Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink, Colin Davis and Vladimir Putin. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Final approach to Berlin


Writing about Stockhausen et al being performed in the redundant Tempelhof Flugplatz in Berlin brought back memories of flying into that most extraordinary of airports. The first time I flew into Berlin was in 1973 and I was fortunate to be the only passenger in an executive jet. The views approaching Tempelhof was very similar to those seen in the two photos reproduced here. During final approach over the cemetery the plane was at the same height as the apartment blocks on the right, and I remember an early morning flight when eye contact was made with bleary eyed Berliners at their breakfast tables. By a quirk of fate I was in Berlin on 1 September 1975 when British Airways switched its flights to the new Tegel airport in the suburbs. This meant I arrived at Tempelhof and departed from Tegel. The glamour has certainly gone from flying. My first flight into Berlin was by executive jet into Tempelhof. My most recent visit, documented in I am a camera - Berlin, was by unglamorous Ryanair into equally unglamorous Schoenefeld in the former East Berlin.


The two photos are from the US National Archives and are reproduced in the newly published The Candy Bombers - The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour by US political commentator Andrei Cherny. It's a light read, but is most notable for its breathtakingly one-sided view of the Second World War and the years after. The title says it all. Great to know America won the war single-handed then saved Berlin from the Soviets. Shame that little ol' Britain and the other countries that also opposed fascism and then communism are hardly mentioned.

An exclusive photo from Cold War Berlin on the path here.
Review copy of The Candy Bombers borrowed from the wonderful 2nd Air Division Memorial Library, Norwich, UK. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Music for prepared organ

Dear Pliable - your recent pieces on John Cage prompted me to share the enclosed Guardianism ("typo" just doesn't do it justice) from more than 20 years ago.
Love your blog. Best wishes, JS

Size also matters here.
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Saturday, October 25, 2008

The quality of light and proportion


Benedictine Abbeys and music are inextricably linked. The great churches of the Romanesque period were created to send columns of plainsong soaring upwards and in the 20th century none other than Iannis Xenkais was project director for the monastery at La Tourette in France. The stunning images featured today show another great new Benedictine Foundation, the new Cistercian-Trappist monastery of Nový Dvůr in Bohemia. The inspirational building is the work of British architect John Pawson.


The design of Nový Dvůr combines references from the original baroque farm on the site with entirely new architecture. Although contemporary in style John Pawson's design follows St Bernard's twelfth century architectural blueprint for the Order, with an emphasis on the quality of light and proportion, on simple, pared down elevations and detailing.


Nový Dvůr is the only Trappist monastery in the Czech Republic and is a sister house of Sept-Fons Abbey near Marseille in France. This building speaks in words beyond conventional religion. As the monastery website says: 'These walls can pull us up above ourselves: they call for a presence, a meeting.'


Read about another Benedictine monastery in Pliable's travels.
Image credits monastery of Nový Dvůr. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, October 24, 2008

The essence of freedom


One evening we went to Emilio's on Sixth Avenue and Bleeker Street, a restaurant that was a fixture in what was then still an Italian neighborhood. It had a lovely outdoor garden in the back that compensated for the stereotypical food. Bobby [Dylan] was all fired up about the concept of freedom.What defined the essence of freedom?

Were birds really free? he asked. They are chained to the sky, he said, where they are compelled to fly.

So are they truly free?
From Suze Rotolo's essential memoir of Greenwich Village in the sixties 'A Freewheelin' Time'. See Dylan's art here.
Suze Rotolo is the lady with Dylan on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, October 23, 2008

You should occasionally look at the results


Valery Gergiev's politics are big news right now. Richard Morrison asks in BBC Music Magazine 'Should conductors play around with politics?' while Norman Lebrecht reveals that a Gergiev peace concert was sponsored by an ex-Soviet oligarch on trial for smuggling arms. It is all worrying stuff. But what is more worrying is the reaction of audiences to Gergiev's music making.

I have to be honest and admit I am not Gergiev's biggest fan. I praised his London Mahler 8 here recently. But when I listened to the BBC Radio 3 relays of his Rachmaninov symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra last month I thought them his usual soul-less, driven, jet set music making. But whatever Gergiev plays, and however he plays it, some of the audience for his London concerts will always behave as though their football team has just scored the winning goal.

Richard Morrison is on the side of the football fans and reports that Gergiev 'is idolised by many music lovers in Britain and America'. But word on the street is that other music lovers are voting with their feet and tickets for Gergiev concerts are being returned. Those who know the difference between celebrity and quality are making far from positive comparisons between the Russian and his predecessor at the LSO Sir Colin Davis. Others are saying that the distinctive sound of the LSO, which positively glowed under Sir Colin, is becoming indistinguishable from the steely tone of the other orchestras that Gergiev conducts on his global here today, gone tomorrow itinerary.

The LSO are, understandably, right behind their man. But the people who pay for the tickets seem to be less sure. Perhaps the orchestra should remember the words of that truly great politician, Winston Churchill - 'However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results'.

More problems with Rachmaninov here.
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What is it about Fifth Symphonies?


An email from a reader mentioning Valentin Silvestrov prompted me to listen to the now deleted 1996 CD of the Ukrainian composer's Fifth Symphony with David Robertson conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; the ECM-cloned artwork of the Sony disc is seen above. Listening to Silvestrov's remarkable symphony for the first time in several years started me thinking, what is it about Fifth Symphonies?

If you want to capture the essence of a composer's style you will find it remarkably often in their Fifth Symphony. Think of Beethoven, Bruckner, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Mahler, Martinů, Prokofiev, Nielsen and Tchaikovsky. Their Fifth Symphonies are not, necessarily, their greatest works, but somehow they capture the unique voice of those composers.

The magic number five also applies to lesser-known symphonists. If you want to understand Valentin Silvestrov, Edmund Rubbra, Hans-Werner Henze, Arnold Bax or William Alwyn, start with their Fifth Symphonies. Of couse it's fallible, even if we ignore the many composers who never reached number five. The Fifth of Malcolm Arnold is one of his least typical and least penetrable works, and the Fifth of 15 year old Jay Greenberg received the critical thumbs-down. But the 'golden fifth' rule does apply to a remarkable number of composers and testing it out is a fascinating game. Nominations for notable, or notorious, Fifth Symphonies are , as ever, very welcome.

Composers have always been fascinated by numbers. It has been suggested that Bach used Pythagorean mathematics to create the 287 different versions (and inversions) of the main re-la-fe motif that make up The Art of Fugue , Iannis Xenakis ported the golden mean from architecture to music, John Cage threw the the I Ching, and Mahler feared the number 9. Perhaps there is more to those fifth symphonies than mere chance?

Talkng of music and mathematics, there is a priceless little book titled Vivaldi and the Number 3. Sample it here.
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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Just Pärt of fiction


It had been performed in the great barn at Snape Maltings, of course ... Arvo Pärt, who was present only because his own work was being premiered the following day, sat in the row in front, dressed in a long, brown raincoat like a seedy French detective. He’d leaned forwards, a thumb buried in his huge dark beard, his balding head shining above the long hair, hunched and concentrated. He was all elbows, a lot thinner than Jack had expected, and kept nibbling the ends of his long fingers, too restless for an Old Testament prophet. His wife sat next to him, looking owl-like behind huge spectacles. She often spoke for him in interviews and Jack was more nervous about what she might say than of Pärt himself ...

Jack took a bow afterwards and then, once the clapping had subsided and the house lights had gone up, surveyed members of the audience from the side. Among the silvery, distinguished heads there was a lot of winking, a lot of confiding of patient fortitude and thin-lipped smirks, provoking a subtle mirth in the others.

In other words, they were laughing at it. At him. He preferred the old, limping dowager he overheard in the bar: ‘The usual awful tripe. Not nearly up to Messiaen. But one has to keep abreast of things, doesn’t
one?’

No sign of Pärt.
Another extract from Adam Thorpe's novel Between Each Breath which featured here recently and which is partly set in Estonia. Arvo Pärt seems to be the current composer of choice for the literary set and his music also features in Tim Winton's award winning novel Dirt Music which is set in Australia. Header image is one of the very few ECM CDs not to feature out-of-focus black and white photography. Alina is ECM's essential 1999 collection of Pärt's sparsely beautiful music for violin, cello and piano, and the title work Für Alina provides a leitmotif for Adam Thorpe's novel. Recommended listening if you still need proof of Pärt's revelation that 'I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played'.

Now read about Arvo Pärt's contemporary classic, Passio.
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National security and intellectuals


I say this with some confidence: No one in the Bush Administration cares about John Adams. He is an undeniably good composer, and that alone guarantees him a resounding yawn from the least intellectual government in recent memory. If he's on a list, it's not because the men and women into whose hands we have entrusted the Republic, but rather because, probably, of Klinghoffer or because he shares a name with some IRA terrorist from the late 1970s.

I've pointed this out before, and it still blows my mind: Angela Merkel has interesting things to say about Wagner and various directors, though the things are interesting, probably, because of the low standards for cultural awareness to which most Americans hold their leaders. George W. Bush would probably be hard-pressed to name one or two of Wagner's music-dramas. I'd even spot him Walküre. If one of the titans of Western music doesn't register on the Generalissimo's radar, then I doubt John Adams is even in the same universe.

That's the tragedy here. I don't ask that the First Magistrate be able to hold forth intelligently on Thomas Mann or Friedrich Nietzsche, but I would like him to know who Mann and Nietzsche were. Our leaders, regardless of innate intelligence, have been forced to pander to the base (take that how it's meant) to the point where you'd have a hard time telling them apart from barely literate teenagers.

John Adams might be under surveillance or an INS flag, but it's not because he's an intellectual. It's either because some Google-searching flack in the bowels of one of the government agencies managed to get a hit connecting "John Adams" and "Palestinian sympathies" (from Klinghoffer), or because some terrorist has the same name. Intellectuals don't matter in the current equation of the Republic. Thanks to Pliable for the point.
Posted by Patrick J. Smith on The Penitent Wagnerite and reblogged here. It's Patrick's post, so please copy any responses on his blog. Music from Palestine here.
Photo is, of course, from John Adams' Nixon in China. It is the English National Opera production, image credit MV Daily. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Talking of blacklists ...


In June 1950 the notorious report Red Channels: Communist Influence on Radio and Television was published by American Business Consultants Inc., a company established by former FBI agents. The anti-communist tract, which is seen below, accused 151 prominent Americans working in the arts and media of having communist connections, and created a blacklist which profoundly affected the careers of those on it. The musicians named included Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould, Marc Blitzstein and Pete Seeger. There was only one classical pianist among the famous names blacklisted, and that musician was a woman.

Ray Lev, who is seen above, was born in Rostov na Donau, Russia in 1912, and a year later moved to the United States with her father, a synagogue cantor, and her mother, a concert singer. After studying in London Ray Lev made her public debut there aged 17. She went on to became one of the leading American classical pianists in the 1930s and '40s and made a number of recordings. Ironically, these included Schubert's unfinished Piano Sonata in C Major, D. 840 in the now forgotten 1921 completion by Ernst Krenek, who had himself been blacklisted by the Nazis in 1933. In the Second World War Ray Lev performed for American troops and played in front of President Roosevelt.

After the war twelve leading Russian writers challenged communist sympathisers in America to confirm their political position. In response 32 U.S. writers, painters and musicians published an open letter in 1948 saying:
We want to share responsibility with you . . . Our enemies will see that our international solidarity for peace and democracy stands firm against their frantic writhing and thrashing. On this May Day we grip your hand . . .
One of the signatories was Ray Lev. Prior to this open letter the pianist's name had appeared in the transcript of the 1947 House Un-American Activitees Committee report into the Civil Rights Congress as a communist front (see Civil Rights Congress 25). The pedigree of American presidential candidates makes interesting reading; one of the members of that 1947 HUAC session was 'Richard M. Nixon - California'.

Being blacklisted in 1950 meant a lot more than having extended ID checks in the frequent flyer lounge. The denouncing of Ray Lev as a communist sympathiser effectively ended her career, and she died in 1968 an almost forgotten figure. But we are fortunate that Naxos has made some of the pianists recordings available. These include her Bach transcriptions and she also features on Naxos' enterprising Women at the Piano series.


Now read about the American who became the Berlin Philharmonic's first woman conductor.
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Conductors close to megalomania


I have seen conductors, more often than composers, close to megalomania. I once interviewed Karajan and he had the whole of the Berlin Phil on the stage at the Festival Hall waiting for a rehearsal. Our slot ended, but Karajan wanted to keep talking. After a while there was a rather tentative knock on the door and the leader of the orchestra poked his head round and said, 'Maestro, the orchestra are waiting on the stage.' Karajan literally shouted 'Raus! Raus!' and shooed this rather distinguished musician away.
Michael Berkeley in a Guardian interview about his new opera For You which has a libretto by novelist Ian McEwan. Raus is German for 'get out!' Another Karajan story here.
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Monday, October 20, 2008

The Russian Schoenberg


In October last year I revealed here exclusively that Hyperion were recording the Violin Concertos of the Russian Schoenberg, Mikolai (Nikolay) Roslavets, played by Alina Ibragimova. That CD is now scheduled for November 2008 release and the sleeve is seen above. For years the dated artwork on Hyperion CDs has been their only weakness, so the 'new look' for this release is particularly welcome. There is more on Roslavets claim to be the originator of serial composition in my earlier article. Judge for yourself whether he was the Russian Schoenberg by listening to the generous audio samples om the Hyperion website.

Hyperion and other independents continue to show the major labels how it should be done. In January 2009 Hyperion are re-releasing at mid-price a double CD of the complete symphonies of the French composer Albéric Magnard who was born in 1865. Magnard's compositions include the four symphonies, an opera (Guercoeur) and a string quartet. He moved from Paris to the peaceful Oise area of France to continue composing and was living there when the First World War broke out. As the German forces approached the area in 1914 he sent his wife and two daughters to safety. After shooting two German soldiers who approached his property he refused to surrender. His house was set on fire and the blaze consumed almost of all his manuscripts and art collection as well as Magnard himself. Something to reflect on, perhaps, for some of today's self-styled dissident composers?

I came to know Magnard's music through a 1983 EMI Pathé LP of the Fourth Symphony made by Michel Plasson conducting the Orchestra of the Capitole, Toulouse. The coupling is Magnard's Chant Funèbre Op. 9, a magnificent fifteen minute tone poem which is crying out for an enterprising orchestra to programme. Also in my LP collection is a French Decca LP recorded in 1969 of Magnard's Third Symphony by Ernest Amsermet with his legendary Orchestra of the Suisse Romande.

The Toulouse cycle of the Magnard Symphonies has also been transferred to CD. But Plasson's account of the Fourth Symphony in the original German Teldec DMM vinyl pressings plays on my Thorens TD125 turntable as I write, and it sounds pre-digital terrific. The work dates from 1896, and it certainly isn't proto-Schoenberg. But, as they say on Amazon, if you like the red-blooded romanticism of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Symphony in F, which was composed 50 years later, you'll like this. But decide for yourself via Hyperion's samples from all of the symphonies. The orchestra for both the Roslavets and Magnard releases is the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra who, like Hyperion, continue to show the big names how it should be done.

There is a final vinyl link in the Hyperion release schedule. November 2008 brings the new recording of Wilhelm Stenhammar's piano music seen below. I featured BIS' cycle of Stenhammar Symphonies on LPs in my recent post, Excelsior!


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Has the tide turned?


Now that's more like it - dumbing up.

Above Oblivion's Tide there is a Pier ...
Photo taken on Aldeburgh beach (where else?) (c) On An Overgrown Path 2008. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Adams family movie spins on


Oh please! Will someone explain to John Adams what being blacklisted really means.
Photo shows John Adams receiving the 2007 Harvard Arts Medal for his 'contribution to public good through the arts' from the university's president elect Drew Faust. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

You can't keep a masterpiece down


Leonard Bernstein's Mass is reassessed in the New York Times.
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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Presenting the instrument of the moment


The kora is the traditional instrument of the griots who have kept West African oral traditions alive over the centuries by combining the role of orator and musician. My photos show Gambian griot Seikou Susso performing this evening in Norwich's Millennium Library as part of Black History Month. Seikou is a cultural ambassador for The Gambia and has taken part in the acclaimed Carnival Messiah which presents Handel's oratorio in the style of a Caribbean street festival. Story telling is an important part of the griot tradition, so congratulations to Norfolk Library Services for bringing words and music into a public library with this free event.

The euphonius kora is very much the instrument of the moment. Back in May my post about the art and music of the Sahara featured kora player Toumani Diabaté's solo work The Mandé Variations. In an interesting example of world music meeting classical The Mandé Variations have been orchestrated, and Toumani Diabaté is performing them with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on Oct 21 and London Symphony Orchestra on Oct 29. The video below is of Toumani Diabaté performing in Spain, there is also a video of the solo Mandé Variations here.



More evidence that world music is the new classical?
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If it's baroque - fix it


Just listen to Berta Joncus surveying recordings of Bach's Partitas for Solo Violin on BBC Radio 3's Record Review (until Oct 25 on i-Player) for a perfect example of an intermediary totally destroying any connection between the music and the listener. Don't give up the day job Berta, or even better read John Tavener on mending things that are baroque.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Not so innocent ear


From the Friday afternoon Overgrown Path server log:
212.35.ABC.XYZ (The Barbican Centre) England, London, United Kingdom, 0 returning visit
Date Time WebPage
17th October 2008
16:07:59
www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&q=%22NICHOLAS KENYON%22 GOSSIP&start=10&sa=N
www.overgrownpath.com/2006_07_01_archive.html

Slightly more innocent ears here.
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The Innocent Ear 2.0


Daniel Barenboim's recording of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 and Choral Fantasy with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Vienna Academy Chamber Choir conducted by László Somogyi was released in 1970 on Westminster Gold. But the innocence didn't last long. A few years later the recording appeared in Version 3.0. Now intermediate your own way to Innocent Ear 1.0

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

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The innocent ear


These compelling images come from a lost age of musical innocence. When Christopher Nupen made his film of Jacqueline du Pré in 1967 he saw his task as putting as little as possible between the musician and her audience. The result is one of the most powerful advocacies of classical music ever made; an advocacy that sold thousands of recordings of the Elgar Concerto and introduced millions to classical music.

Disintermediation was the promise of the digital age. It happened in retailing when Amazon.com cut out the intermediaries. A direct relationship was established between online buyer and seller, and the customer became king. But the reverse has happened with music. In classical music today the commentator is king, and more and more filters are being interposed between musicians and their audience. Celebrity presenters force their way into the frame, continuity announcers explain why we should appreciate a particular work, myths and madness mean more than the score, and matching music to context is a new artform. Classical music YouTubified is the hot thing, spin is now mightier than the baton, and bloggers (including this one) position themselves as the new arbiters of what is musically cool.

I don't think anyone can accuse An Overgrown Path of being luddite, but I do think the music is being lost in explanation. Isn't there something to be learnt from the lost age of musical innocence? Do we really need all these intermediaries? BBC Radio 3 used to broadcast a series called The Innocent Ear which was presented by that polymath, Robert Simpson. In his biography of Edmund Rubbra (whose First Symphony was performed on The Innocent Ear) Leo Black describes how the programme:
... identified its constituent works only after they had been heard, so freeing the listener's mind of preconceptions.
The 'innocent ear' approach has also been used successfully in the concert hall, as was explained here last year by the composer Vanessa Lann, who co-founded the Newt Hinton Ensemble:
One of our practices was to hand out programme books/notes AFTER our concerts. That way the listeners would open their minds to the "experience" of a piece of music, without prejudging its merits because the composer happened to be male or female, young or old, living or deceased, famous or unknown, European or non-European, etc. It was amazing how the works on the programmes were appreciated for their intrinsic musical power, rather than for the biographical or historical contexts into which one otherwise might have placed them.
Countless blog posts have been devoted to ways of reaching new audiences. But surely it's as simple as 'opening their minds to the "experience" of a piece of music, without prejudging its merits'. Minimalism discovered that less music is more. Doesn't the same apply to commentary?

* The 2nd Amsterdam Cello Biennial, which runs from 17 to 25 October, offers some exciting experiences for innocent ears. These include a performance of the Elgar Concerto in the same programme as the Elliott Carter Cello Concerto (Oct 22), and the first performance of Vanessa Lann's new Cello Concerto Divining Apollo, which is given by Hans Woudenberg and the Schoenberg Ensemble (Oct 23). As well as the Vanessa Lann work there are world premieres of works for cello by Arvo Pärt, Oene van Geel, Dobrinka Tabakova and for ensemble by Toek Numan. This style of advocacy certainly works; as I write several of the concerts in the Amsterdam Cello Biennial are already sold out.

* The header images are original screen-grabs by me from Christopher Nupen's film Jacqueline du Pré - a portrait. The images are used for review purposes and the copyright resides with Allegro Films. All of Christopher Nupen's classic films are available from the Allegro films website.

Disintermediation -> Indeterminacy

And no, the irony of a 700 word post saying 'less commentary is more' is not lost on me. But nice pictures of Jackie. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk