Friday, October 02, 2009

All aboard the Martinu bandwagon


Depressing, but predictable, to see the mainstream media scrambling aboard the Bohuslav Martinů bandwagon as soon as BBC Radio 3 announces a cycle of his superb symphonies. Equally depressing, but a sign of the times, to see the Independent publishing an appreciation of the composer's symphonies by a writer who confesses elsewhere to never having heard a single note of them. As Norman Lebrecht famously wrote in the Evening Standard back in 2006:
‘... until bloggers deliver hard facts … paid for newspapers will continue to set the standard as the only show in town’.
Sadly the hard facts now show that Norman is no longer at the Evening Standard, and, as from next Monday, the Evening Standard will no longer be a paid for newspaper. But you can find pre-bandwagon appreciations of Martinů here and here.

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20 comments:

Pliable said...

The headline to the story about Norman Lebrecht leaving the Evening Standard that I linked to above reads:

Arts columnist Lebrecht departs to focus on Radio 3 series

This does raise more concerns about BBC Radio 3's strategy of getting as many music journalists 'on side' as possible, and the consequent impact on independent music journalism in the UK.

The recent BBC Press Office release about the 2009 BBC Proms season was as fine an example of corporate self-congratulation (or another word that rhymes with it) as you are likely to find anywhere - "... a value-for-money experience ... a rich contextual offering of daily pre-concert and participatory events, creative use of interactive technology ... etc, etc".

Not only did Norman publish the press release verbatim on his Slipped Disc blog under the headline Some more super stats, but he also gave the story a large type size.

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2009/09/some_more_

Gavin Plumley said...

What is truly depressing is the smug tone in calling the current praise for Martinů a bandwagon affair. On An Overgrown Path is always brilliantly ahead of the curve, but evangelism for these forgotten greats can appear in all guises. Keep up the fantastic work, but don't deride the rest of us.

P.S. But (to be hypocritical) as for quoting Norman Lebrecht as a paragon of arts correspondence... well, with friends like that...

Pliable said...

Gavin, the fiftieth anniversary of Martinů's death was August 28th. Try searching the Independent database for any mention of Martinů in 2009 other than in CD or concert reviews - there is not one other mention in a feature piece. If that isn't hitching a story to a bandwagon I don't know what is.

Is Martinů really a 'a forgotten great' who requires 'evangelism', and who, to quote Jessica Duchen, 'has always struggled for even a sliver of attention'? Or is that a scenario that conveniently meets the criteria to get a classical music story into today's mainstream media?

There have been excellent cycles of Martinů's symphonies available on CD for decades, including Bryden Thompson's on Chandos. A search on amazon.co.uk against 'Martinů symphonies' returns 163 results, all conveniently overlooked in Jessica's article.

I do not subscribe to the currently fashionable theory that any coverage of classical music in the mainstream media is good, no matter how fanciful or inaccurate it is. (Remember John Foulds' acclaimed without hearing 'forgotten great' World Requiem?)

I'm sorry, but if it has four legs, a tail and barks, I am going to call it a dog. Even if it does bark in tune to the life-affirming finale of Martinů's Fifth Symphony.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_ss?url=search-alias%3Dclassical&field-keywords=martinu+symphony

http://www.independent.co.uk/search/index.jsp?ecePage=1&eceExpr=martinu&eceSort=descending&eceField=all&eceMode=search&eceForm=simple&dateRange=all

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2007/11/world-requiem-giving-poor-thing-chance.html

Gavin Plumley said...

You are quite right about the presence of a number of recordings of Martinů's symphonies - hence David Nice's ability on Radio 3 this morning to do a Building a Library feature on the 4th. But even the mighty Chandos example can't break through the immovability of orchestral and operatic programming.

How long did it take to get THE GREEK PASSION into the conciousness, despite WNO's earlier attempt (recorded too)? And MIRANDOLINA? And JULIETTA? I suppose if we are to criticise anyone it should be the ENO, the ROH and the BBC for having ignore him. That the BBC Symphony Orchestra has come late to this rather than featuring the works in the Proms is typical. I think, ultimately, we agree... Ms Duchen was doubtless encouraged to cover the BBCSO cycle, but she, like this blog (and indeed my own) are laudably pioneering for the 'forgotten' corners of the repertoire, regardless of timing or glory.

Drew80 said...

An excellent post, Pliable, as always.

The Martinu symphonies are very well known. I find it amazing that someone who writes about music admits to never having heard them.

Chester said...

They are well known if you listen to Cds but they don't seem to show up often in concerts, except more recently, the 4th and 5th.

Pliable said...

It's a good point you make Chester. But I also do not think it is unreasonable to expect someone who writes about music for the Independent to listen to CDs.

Halldor said...

Pliable, hate to tell tales out of school, but when Mr Lebrecht published that Proms statistic puff-piece on his blog, I posted a comment along the lines of "Ah, BBC press releases - where's Pliable from OAOP when you need him?" (I think you were off on your travels at the time).

The comment was not posted, pending "approval by the moderator". As you can see if you revisit that blog, it looks like said approval was not forthcoming...

Pliable said...

Now there is a surprise.

But joking apart you have highlighted an important point Halldor. The power of the BBC, and the fear of that power by the large number of people - journalists and musicians - who depend on the them for some, or all, of their income, is truly terrifying.

I have no prospect of, or desire for, income from the BBC, although I did work for them as a salaried employee a long time ago.

The fact that I have no prospect of income from BBC Radio 3 means I am one of the few people in the classical music world who declines to suck up to them.

I quote that Independent article on Martinů -

This is where anniversaries come in handy. Full marks to the BBCSO and Belohlavek for helping to set the record straight.

What about Chandos, who recorded Martinů symphonies both with Belohlavek in Prague and Bryden Thomson in Glasgow twenty years ago?

David said...

It's a funny thing, this 'neglected composer' thing. Many of the above are right in pointing out the discrepancy between recordings and live performances. There were, as far as I remember, no Martinu symphonies performed in London in the centenary year of his birth. I've only heard two, in the BBC's 1998 weekend (yes, much longer ago than I thought it was). The Fantaisies symphoniques got some exposure in MacMillan's Anastasia, but do balletgoers often listen to the music?

It's bad to make generalisations on any side. Production-wise, Julietta did well by Opera North and, much earlier, ENO; it deserves to do even better. As do the symphonies. Saturday evening's performance convinced me that they're absolutely up there with contemporary masterpieces by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, though they say things in a very different, hard-to-get-hold-of way.

I, too, wouldn't claim Mr Lebrecht as a reliable colleague. The Martinu piece of his I read was ridden with factual errors. And I always get the sense that it's more about him than the music.

David said...

Lest you accuse me of Jessica's honest 'crime', I should have added 'live in concert' to 'only heard two' above.

And, also in JD's defence - quite apart from the fact that, without her, there probably wouldn't have been a word about it in the Indy - she is writing about setting the record straight live. Recorded cycles are a different matter, we keep saying. And who did the last big Martinufest in London? Oh, your bogey BBC.

Pliable said...

David, interestingly the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the UK premiere of Martinů's Symphony No. 6 (Fantaisies symphonique) more than fifty years ago, on 11th June 1955 to be precise. The conductor was Martinů's friend and fellow Czech Vilém Tauský, who is the dedicatee of the Field Mass. Sadly Vilém Tauský is categorised today quite wrongly as a 'lightweight' conductor.

The BBCSO gave three other Martinů UK premieres, although none were symphonies. Two of these premieres were conducted by Malcolm Sargent, a more unlikely exponent of Martinů's music would be hard to find.

So there was Martinů on the BBC long before Belohlavek, Roger Wright, and his spin doctors and 'on side' journalists were around.

Pliable said...

In fact I see that Vilém Tauský conducted a cycle of all six Martinů orchestras with BBC orchestras in 1955 -

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article1048321.ece

Such a shame that research is so 'yesterday'.

Halldor said...

Martinu has been a regular part of RLPO programmes ever since Libor Pesek's Liverpool tenure in the 80s and 90s. I remember hearing superb performances of the Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, and (under Petr Altrichter) the Fourth Symphony - and there were many more.

Of course, Liverpool was a 3hr train journey from London back them, meaning an overnight stay for the London (sorry, "National") critics; so it was all rather off the radar. London-based critcs having to stay overnight in (shudder) The North...the very thought, my dears!

David said...

The acrid tones here are a bit beside the point. Belohlavek is doing a complete cycle, now, not fifty years ago. I haven't even seen a single word on here from others about the extraordinary performance of No. 1.

Let's all rejoice that this music is being well served instead of carping over details. Enough from me.

Pliable said...

David - "carping over details".

In your otherwise informative and useful blog post linked to the feature you presented on BBC Radio 3 reviewing Martinů's Fourth Symphony on Saturday you wrote -

'Though I made no such claims for the BBCSO - I think I just corrected Ann McKay about the 'first to do a cycle in the UK' info because I knew about the Scottish one, and David Harman reminded me that London youth
orchestras had shared a cycle some years ago.'


It made be 'carping over details', but what you wrote was wrong. As pointed out above Vilém Tauský conducted a cycle of all six Martinů symphonies with BBC orchestras in 1955.

This could easily have been ascertained by consulting, as I did, Nicholas Kenyons' history of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a Google search.

You say 'I haven't even seen a single word on here from others about the extraordinary performance of No. 1'.

This is almost certainly because Belohlavek's performance of the symphony, which took place at the Barbican on Saturday is not being relayed on BBC Radio 3 until tonight (Monday). Most readers of this blog live outside London and are not in the privileged position of BBC presenters and on-side journalists with their free tickets, so they will not hear the performance of the First Symphony until it is broadcast tonight. Sadly, the intrusive presence of Petroc Trelawny (who receives a billing on the BBC Radio 3 website ahead of the composer and performers) as presenter of the broadcast means I will not be among the listeners.

If my own and other readers' frustration at the self-serving and shoddy content on today's 'paid-for' (and how!) BBC Radio 3 and in the Independent comes over as 'acrid' so be it.

http://davidnice.blogspot.com/2009/10/martinu-his-time-is-ours.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n1p8f

David said...

The 'first in the UK' thing wasn't raised by me; it wasn't part of the talk. If I'd introduced it, I would have been careful to check my facts. But being put on the spot like that, I could only correct as much as I knew at the time.

Even Jiri doesn't seem to know what's going on in Prague, since he claims that London is unique in presenting all six. And I'm pleased to learn from 'anonymous' about the Czech cycle. Even if it does bring an impossible Martinu interpreter, John Eliot Gardiner, into the picture.

As for missing a superb performance of the First just because of a presenter, what's that about? You know you can turn the sound down until the music starts...

I do feel a very important wood is being lost in the anger over certain stunted trees here.

Pliable said...

David, I am not the only one who, having been forced to pay an escalating annual sum to the BBC (currently £139.50) for quality broadcasting, is not prepared to wind the volume control up and down every few minutes to avoid the inanities of Roger Wright's favourite 'classical jock'.

Then of course there are the alternatives of CDs, downloads, internet radio, and (something the BBC increasingly ignores except for its house orchestras) excellent regional live music.

Thankfully the BBC is by no means the only show in town. Which is something that Mark Thompson and his many generously salaried and liberally expensed colleagues will eventually realise.

'I do feel a very important wood is being lost ... over certain stunted trees here' - oh how right you are. I could not have summed up today's BBC Radio 3 better myself.

Thanks4theadd said...

Bandwagons can be very nice. Often they are the very vehicles by which the band comes to town. There's nothing wrong with bandwagoneering per se, in my opinion, and more harm is likely to be done in trying to appear ahead-of-the-curve/beyond-all-that than in celebrating broader enjoyment of good music.

Pliable said...

'If you see the bandwagon, you've missed it.'