Friday, May 29, 2009

There is music - and then there is Bach


Scott Ross died at the tragically early age of 38 on June 13, 1989. There is a wealth of Scott Ross material on YouTube. Other resources include my posts about his pioneering Scarlatti Sonata cycle and about Michel Proulx's engaging memoir 'An Unfinished Destiny - Scott Ross, Master of the Harpshichord'.

Wanda Landowska was born on July 5, 1879 and died on August 16, 1959. There is also some priceless footage of Wanda Landowska on YouTube. My appreciation of her, Music grows old if neglected, appeared here on the anniversary of Landowska's death last year.

The anniversaries of Scott Ross' death and Wanda Landowska's birth fall while On An Overgrown Path will be enjoying an unusually long summer break, which starts today. But, needless to say, the music continues, and I am sure the other fine music blogs will keep you informed and entertained while I am offline. So, what better to leave you with than the sleeves of recordings by those two great musicians playing, quite appropriately, Bach.
......'For me, there is music, and then there is Bach. Bach is transcedent. He is the sun, whose light blots out the feeble rays of other composers. There are many whose music I enjoy, but I would throw their entire opus on the bonfire to save one fugue of the divine Bach' - Anne Mustoe

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Performing outside the comfort zone

In 1968 acclaimed film director Seijun Suzuki was fired by the major Japanese studio Nikkatsu for making films that were "incomprehensible". A three and a half year court case followed. Although Suzuki won an out of court settlement he was blacklisted by all the major Japanese production companies, and was unable to make another film for 10 years. In 1980 he directed the first part of what became his Taishō trilogy, Zigeunerweisen. The film is a psychological thriller and takes its name from the gypsy violin music of Pablo de Sarasate used in the soundtrack.

Distributors declined to handle Zigeunerweisen, so its producer, Genjiro Arato, screened it in an inflatable mobile dome. The film was a major success, and went on to win awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Japanese Academy. It was later voted best Japanese film of the 1980s by the country's critics. My header image shows Tsunehisa Kimura's 1980 poster for Zigeunerweisen, the sleeve of the DVD release is seen at the foot of this article. Tsunehisa Kimura is best known as a political cartoonist. His portrayals of Hitler playing pachinko and Niagara Falls plunging through the canyons between New York's skyscrapers, which are seen below, are notable examples of art moving outside its comfort zones.


In the same year that Zigeunerweisen was made a chamber ensemble began giving performances in Britain and Europe in an inflatable geodesic dome. The ensemble took the name Domus from its Buckminster Fuller inspired portable performance space. Domus' pianist Susan Tomes (who was the first woman to read music at King's College, Cambridge in its 400 year history) records the history of the ensemble in her inspirational book Beyond the Notes. Domus made eleven CDs which range from the Gramophone Award winning recording of Fauré's Piano Quartets nos. 1 and 2 for Hyperion to a disc of Judith Weir's chamber music for the now defunct Collins Classics label.


In these today's difficult times, classical music is notably reluctant to move outside its comfort zone. The continuing obsession with new, mega-budget, purpose-built concert halls penned by personality architects is one manifestation of this reluctance. These projects ignore the fact that many more people listen to classical music on iPods in their own space than attend performances in conventional concert halls. Taking music to the people in innovative new performance spaces is surely more important than cutting the price of tickets in established venues? After music in an inflatable dome, try music on a floating stage and music in a circus ring.


Images 1 and 2 are (c) Tsunehisha Kimura. Beyond the Notes by Susan Tomes is published by Boydell & Brewer ISBN 1843830450, I bought my copy when it was first published in 2004. 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

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In search of the lost sleeve notes


Early music is providing some very tempting re-releases. After Erato Originals, which I wrote about a couple of weeks back, comes Archiv's al fresco series. I have been greatly enjoying the collection of concertos for four violins seen above from Reinhard Goebel directing Musica Antiqua Köln from 1992. Musica Antiqua Köln's sparkling playing of five gossamer light concerti by Torelli, Mossi, Valentini, Locatelli and Leo is matched by a wonderfully natural soundbalance. Worth buying for the Fuga: Allegro Moderato of the Leo concerto alone. Goebels enforced retirement in 2006, caused by a neuroligical disorder affecting his right hand, was a grievous blow to classical music.

Archiv's al fresco series comes in attractive cardboard packaging with stylish artwork, although at mid-price they are less of a bargain than Erato Originals. But one major moan. The Archiv's al fresco fold-out sleeve contains a brief excerpt from the original sleeve notes, surrounded by a lot of white space. But there is space to list two executive producers and a project manager, in addition to the usual recording producer and engineer.

If you want to know more about the music (what do you know about Giovanni Mossi?) you have to go online, click on texts and enter a password (which is archiv60) to read the full notes. It's all geared to downloads; then Univeral Music and other major labels wonder why people don't buy CDs anymore. What a contrast to the independent success story of Alia Vox, who specialise in adding value to the CD format, rather than taking it away.

Now, how about a reissue series of new music? Meanwhile, more from Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln here.

I paid £9.78 for Concertos for four violins from Prelude Records. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On your bike


Edward Elgar was a keen cyclist, and this photo shows him in Malvern with his trusty bike. Cycling technology has progressed a lot since Elgar toured the Malvern Hills in the early 1900s. An interesting story in the Telegraph updates us, and also contains a familiar name. And, quite appropriately, An Overgrown Path will be taking a prolonged break shortly - while I go cycling in France.

Photo credit Elgar Society. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

'One of the greatest recordings I know'


George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children was the subject of a very interesting comment left by composer James Primosch on my post Not quite Harmonium a while back. I have lightly edited James' comment and am publishing it as a separate post, as it provides some otherwise unavailable information on an important contemporary music recording. George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children was recorded by Nonesuch in 1971 and went on to sell more than 70,000 copies. On October 24th 2009 its composer (seen in my footer photo) celebrates his 80th birthday, and this has triggered a resurgence of interest in his music. This summer's BBC Proms season features three works by Crumb including Ancient Voices, and reader Daithí Mac Síthigh points out a George Crumb Total Immersion weekend at the Barbican in December. Here is James Primosch’s account of the Nonesuch recording:
For the recording Arthur Weisberg led the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, a group of New York free-lancers, who started working together in the '60s when such groups devoted to new music were exceedingly rare. (I believe they may have been the first such ensemble in the United States.) The very high level at which they performed is attested by their numerous recordings on Nonesuch, including works by Geoerge Rochberg, Richard Wernick, Lalo Shifrin, and Stefan Wolpe, as well as many others. The personnel included pianist Gil Kalish, a superb collaborative pianist (Jan De Gaetani's longtime accompanist - their Ives recordings have never been bettered) as well as an underrated solo artist, with wonderful Ives and Haydn recordings on Nonesuch. I remember Weisberg giving brilliant performances of works by Elliott Carter, Donald Martino and Earle Browne with a student ensemble when I attended Yale's summer program at Norfolk, Conn. in the early 80s.

The story of Nonesuch is incomplete without the name Teresa Sterne. It was her vision that made Nonesuch such a remarkable label during the 1960s and '70s. Nonesuch remains a valuable enterprise, but it seems a shame that the current management's taste does not encompass more of the kind of composers that were represented on the label during Ms. Sterne's tenure.

On a personal note: I once experienced a memorable elevator ride at Carnegie Hall, riding in the same car with Tracy Sterne and Issac Stern. (no relation.) Ms. Sterne took the opportunity to bring up the apocryphal review of Mr. Stern's violin playing, headlined "No tone left un-Sterned." There is a wonderful reminiscence by Ms. Sterne of the recording sessions for Ancient Voices, found in the C. F. Peters volume about Crumb, issued in 1986. The all-night session for Ancient Voices took place not in a studio, but in the unheated, freezing cold ballroom of a New York hotel. Incredible that one of the greatest recordings I know was made under such circumstances.

Thanks again for your stimulating writing.
James Primosch

Trivia, did you know the potato chip was invented by a different George Crum, who was an African/Native American? But back to the music, another classic Nonesuch recording here.
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Monday, May 25, 2009

Shuffling Kurtag's Ghosts


György Kurtág > Guillaume de Machaut > György Kurtág > Karlheinz Stockhausen > Olivier Messiaen > György Kurtág > Pierre Boulez > Modest Mussorgsky > György Kurtág > Domenico Scarlatti > György Kurtág > J.S. Bach > György Kurtág > Joseph Haydn > György Kurtág > Domenico Scarlatti > György Kurtág > Franz Schubert > György Kurtág > Bela Bartók > Ludwig van Beethoven > Bela Bartók > György Kurtág > Henry Purcell > > György Kurtág > Leoš Janáček > György Kurtág > Franz Schubert > György Kurtág > Frédéric Chopin > György Kurtág > Robert Schumann > György Kurtág > György Ligeti > György Kurtág > Franz Liszt
This is the extraordinary sequence of composers selected by Marino Formenti for his solo piano cycle Kurtág’s Ghosts, which examines how major composers from the fourteenth to the twentieth century have influenced the Hungarian composer György Kurtág. Formenti has performed the seamless cycle of seventy compositions live to considerable acclaim, and it is now available as a 2 CD set from the Vienna-based label Kairos.

A typical Kurtág’s Ghosts sequence is 46 seconds of Kurtág's Hommage à Stockhausen closely followed by 56 seconds of Stockhausen (Klavierstücke nr. 2) and 94 seconds of Messiaen (Ile de Feu 1), tailed by Kurtág's 75 second ...humble regard sur Olivier Messiaen. Clearly this is much more than the random output of an iPod in shuffle mode; Marino Formenti links the seventy short pieces together to form a logical and coherent single work. The result is a resounding success in every way. Kurtág's pianistic miniatures shine even more brightly when juxtaposed with the works that inspired them. Formenti's pianistic technique is formidable, the engineers of ORF Vienna have captured some of the best piano sound I have heard for a longtime, and the beautifully presented full price CDs are accompanied by an illuminating interview with the pianist. It is such an outstanding release I will even forgive the unattractive ECM-style cover seen above.

Last month I asked the question '... what is the Matthew Passion, or any other piece of music?' Kurtág’s Ghosts raises many questions related to this. Is it a sequence of seventy individual performances of works by nineteen different composers, or is it a single new work by Marino Formenti? There is also the question as to what artistic justification there is for extracting, for example, just 90 seconds from The Well-Tempered Clavier? I have always opposed the practice of breaking down complete works (e.g. Holst's The Planets) into audience-friendly samples (Jupiter). But Kurtág’s Ghosts has made me realise that, in the right context, the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole. This thought-provoking double CD has led me to question my own preconceptions, and a webcast project inspired by Marino Formenti's shuffling is under discussion. Watch this path.

* The Kairos website has audio samples. There are several excellent YouTube clips of Marino Formenti playing Kurtág’s Ghosts, including the one below.



A miniature celebration of György Kurtág here.
Kurtág’s Ghosts was bought at Prelude Records. It appears the US release date for the CDs is June 9, and I could find no sites offering downloads - more reports on availability are welcome. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

What were you celebrating this weekend?


Over the weekend Romas from around the world gathered in the town of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in France to celebrate the feast day of the black Saint Sarah. It is now generally believed that this Romani festival is linked to the ceremony of the Durga Pooja of India. This celebrates the Hindi Goddess Kali, who is seen above. More on that link here, and the story of my visit to Les-Saintes-Maries in 2006, and its musical connections, here.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Back at Snape by popular demand


'Unquestionably one of the highlights of the 2006 Snape Proms, their return promises ... colourful and exuberant performances' - from the 2009 Snape Proms brochure.
Gustavo Dudamel and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra were one of the highlights of a previous Snape Proms season. But no, it is not dancing brass players that are back by popular demand. In August the monks of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in southern India return for another week's residency at Snape. This culminates in an evening of Tibetan music and dance in the Maltings, as seen in the photos here. There are also Tibetan culture workshops, lunches prepared by the monks, and a sand mandala. But, alas, there is no complementary performance of Britten's Buddhist inspired church parable Curlew River.


Unlike today's made-for-mass-media BBC Proms, which take place at the same time, the Snape Proms still value the adventurous. Among the other highlights at Snape are Music from the Penguin Café with a band led by Simon Jeffes' son, Arthur, and Malian music featuring Madou Sidki Diabaté on the kora. Of course, there is also lots of excellent classical music, including appearances by the National Youth Orchestra (playing Lutoslawski's magnificent Concerto for Orchestra), the Belcea Quartet (performing Britten's Third Quartet, but a pity they are not also programming the Lutoslawski Quartet) and Marc-André Hamelin performing Alkan. And if Tibetan monks and Alkan are not hair shirt enough for you, there is always the main Aldeburgh Festival in June with its new Harrison Birtwistle double bill.


Cleansing the ears of the musically educated here.
More details of the Snape Proms and Aldeburgh Festival from the Aldeburgh Music website. We bought our tickets for the Monks of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery and other performances fromt the Aldeburgh box office. Photo credit Tashi Lhunpo Monastery website. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Both sides now

I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men had done, one should be able to accept his death very easily. However, we made safe landings every time ... I kept thinking, 'Bountiful life! Oh, how bountiful life is!'
Joni Mitchell's song Both Sides, Now was inspired by that passage from Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King. The evocative late 1960s photo of Joni is by Bill Smith, who has has wonderful pictures of many jazz musicians on his website. And Joni's own images of herself are here.

Joni Mitchell photo used with the kind permission of Bill Smith. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, May 22, 2009

If I was CEO ...

I had to smile when I saw this visitor on my site traffic log -
ip-167-167-XX-YYY.uswwp.umusic.com (Universal Music Group Inc) [Label IP Address]
New York, New York, United States, 2 returning visits

Date Time WebPage
22nd May 2009 16:37:47
www.overgrownpath.com/2009/05/if-i-was-ceo-of-major-corporate-record.html

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Classical music is the new classical

... says Philip Glass in conversation with Nico Muhly. But back in the early 1960s ‘the world of new concert music had reached a virtual dead end'. Joanna McGregor on Harrison Birtwistle is worth reading as well. Birtwistle's spirit of space below and here.


And Harry's cheesy private passions are here.
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Thursday, May 21, 2009

If I were CEO of a major record label

All the music on this CD is by composers who, in various ways, have been deeply influenced by profound religous or cultural encounters. Most of these encounters have concerned traditional Christian orthodoxies; but some have been syncretic in that they draw together traditions that are contrasting, and sometimes opposed. For each composer, the struggle with ideals of belief and art, and to find ways in which music can epitomise those ideals, has been a quest, often involving the reconciliation of inner contradictions. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966), the free-and-deep-thinking Catholic mystic, Thomas Merton (1915-68), wrote that "The wise heart remains in hope and contradiction, in sorrow and in joy ... the wise heart lives in Christ (p. 192)" - a place between.
1. John Tavener (b. 1944)- Ikon of Joy/Sorrow (First recording), Callino Quartet
2. Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) - Hymn to a Great City, Michael McHale
3. Alexander Knaifel (b. 1943) - O Heavenly King (First recording of version for soprano, string quartet, piano and celeste), Patricia Rozario, Callino Quartet and Michael McHale
4. Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937) - Ikon (first recording), Callino Quartet
5. Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937) - 25.X.1893 … in memoriam P. I. Tch(2004), a memorial to Tchaikovsky.No.2 Lullaby, Michael McHale and Ioana Petcu-Colan
6. Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) - Da Pacem Domine (first recording of version for string quartet), Callino Quartet
7 - 9. Henryk Górecki (b. 1933) - Good Night ( In Memoriam Michael Vyner) Op.63 (1990) I. Lento (Adagio)- Tranquillo II. Lento tranquillissimo III. Lento- largo: dolcissimo-cantabalissimo, Patricia Rozario, Vourneen Ryan, Michael McHale and Stephen Kelly
10. John Cage (1912-92) - In a Landscape, Michael McHale

My own words about the Louth Contemporary Music Society's new CD, A Place Between, will be brief. That opening quote from Martin Adams' excellent booklet essay shows that this CD is put together by people who know, and care, about contemporary music. If you are a regular reader you will know the type of music that features regularly on this blog; the track listing above shows you are going to find it on A Place Between. The quality of the music is, needless to say, outstanding. It is matched in quality by the performances, by the packaging (from which all my graphics are taken), and by the sound captured in St. Peters Church of Ireland, Drogheda. The folks at Louth Contemporary Music have their priorities sorted. No celebrities talking the music up, but instead well deserved photos and credits for producer Eamonn Quinn and sound engineer Peer Espen.

If I were CEO of a major corporate record label I would send a copy of A Place Between to every member of my classical division. And I would demand an explanation as to why an impecunious independent label can produce something this important, while my own staff continue schmoozing teenage opera stars at industry award events.


A Place Between is available as a CD for European purchasers from the Louth Contemporary Music Society website, where there are also audio samples. Purchasers outside Europe can buy from CD Baby. Or anyone can be listening in just a few minutes by downloading the music from iTunes.

Review copy of A Place Between supplied free of charge by Louth Contemporary Music Society at my request. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

The CD that nearly got away


For Ascension Day, the story of Armenia Sacra, the CD that nearly got away. I had read about the beauty of the Armenian Liturgy, but had never come across a recording of it until I was staying at the Benedictine L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine in Provence last December. The excellent shop run by the monks had the CD of Armenian liturgical chants on the French Jade label seen above , but it was a whopping 22€ for a single CD. So I didn't buy it, thinking I would find it far cheaper on the internet when I returned home. But I was to be punished for my infidelity. Not only wasn't the CD available at a lower price, I could not find a copy at any price. So I emailed one of the Brothers at the monastery and confessed my sin. He arranged for me to buy the CD, and it arrived faster than an Amazon delivery (Godspeed?).

In AD301 Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity. In the fifth century the Armenian Church broke away from the Orthodox Church, as did the Coptic Church and the Church of Ethiopia. Today 95% of the Armenian population are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and there is also a sizeable Armenian Catholics Church with a presence in many countries. The Armenian Church has a rich musical tradition, and the setting of the Divine Liturgy (Mass) by Makar Ekmalian (1856-1905) is most commonly used by both Orthodox and Catholic Armenians. It is this setting that is recorded on the CD by the Armenian Choir of Sofia in Bulgaria, directed by Bedros Paian. Unusually for a church that emerged from the Orthodox Rite, Makar Ekmalian's setting uses an organ and mixed voices.

Sometimes when I buy a CD like this 'blind', I find the music interesting but rarely return to it. This has certainly not been the case with Armenia Sacra. In fact the CD has been copied to my iPod and provides spiritual refreshment when I am travelling. There is a distinctive purity and beauty about this sacred music that reflects its Orthodox origins. But there is more than that; there is a sense of mysticism that may be explained by Armenia's land frontiers with Iran and Turkey, both countries with strong traditions of Sufism.

The excellent news is that you do not need to contact L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine in France to experience this wonderful music. Since buying the CD in January it has become available as an MP3 download from Amazon.com for just $9.99. There are also brief audio samples on the download page. Armenian liturgical chants may not be the music of choice for many readers. But randomness is a very special thing.

Armenia has many other musical links including:

* Alan Hovhaness, whose father was Armenian. Hovhaness was organist at an Armenian Church in Watertown, Massachusetts, where he was influenced by the Armenian composer/priest Komitas Vartabed. Read more in Alan Hovhanees - Mysterious Mountain.

* G.I. Gurjdieff, the mystic, spiritual teacher and composer was born in Armenia. Although he is most commonly linked with Sufism, Gurdjieff sung as a boy in his local Russian Orthodox Choir. It would take many posts to tell Gurdjieff's remarkable and unlikely story. But you can read about Keith Jarrett's ECM recording of G. I. Gurdjieff's Sacred Hymns, as well as a lot more Orthodox music, here.

But sadly Armenia is best known today for the terrible 1915 genocide in which more than one million Armenians were killed. The subject of that humanitarian tragedy came up when we were in Turkey in 2007.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Beans in my ears

Stephen Spender was conscious always of being a foreigner in Washington, with the guest's obligations. He none the less picked up some good insider LBJ stories. One of his favourites was from Abba Eban. The urbane Israeli ambassador recalled 'that when he visited the President on a mission for his country, Johnson greeted him with the words, "Ah was just scratchin' mah ass this mornin' when ah started thinkin' of your little country."'
From Stephen Spender - the authorized biography by John Sutherland. Another LBJ gem here.

Beans in My Ears is the title of a children's song that was reworked by Pete Seeger in 1966 as a satire on Lyndon B. Johnson. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

BBC Radio Free Is A Real Revelation


The continuing cultural genocide at BBC Radio 3 has forced me to experiment with alternative music sources in the car. My Overgrown Path company car (106,000 miles on the clock and about to make its twelth trip to mainland Europe!) doesn't have an auxiliary jack on the audio system, but it does have good speakers and a decent amplifier. So I bought the Griffin iTripAuto seen together with my iPod in the photo above. The iTrip concept is very simple; it takes the iPod output and broadcasts it as a low power signal on a vacant FM frequency to the tuner in your car stereo. Power for the little transmitter is supplied by the car cigarette lighter and it takes just a few minutes to get working.

My expectations were not high, after all the iTrip costs less than £12 in the UK. But the performance is surprisingly good, and is certainly far better than acceptable. Yes, there is low level background noise, and it is not ideal if you exist on a strict diet of clavichord recordings. But I am more than happy to accept a little background noise in return for being rid of BBC Radio 3's vacuous presenters and bland programming.

Life on the road with the iTrip has been a real revelation, although there are some relatively minor wrinkles. It does not recharge the iPod Nano, although other iPods are recharged; but given the exceptional battery of the Nano that is not a problem. You need a passenger to act as DJ on long journies unless you playlist your music in advance. But the shuffle mode is always there; on the trip back from the Bern Ballet at Snape it entertained us with a particularly felicitous sequence of Gregorian Chant from Solesmes, followed by Dylan, then one of Silvestrov's Stille Lied.

Probably the biggest problem is that the iTrip is not legal in all countries. No problem in the UK, but it is outlawed in FM frequency challenged France. We will be spending a fair amount of the summer away from the computer and in France with the car. So I should be able to report back first-hand on how strictly that particular law is enforced.

* Background to my header photo is The Envy of the World - Fifty Years of the BBC Third programme and Radio 3 by the much-missed Humphrey Carpenter. Given the title it is quite appropriate that the book is out of print. Read more on renaissance man Humphrey Carpenter here.

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It's not that important - it really isn't


This afternoon Michael Martin became the first Speaker of the House of Commons to effectively be forced out of office in Parliament's 300 year history. Martin's resignation follows widespread criticism of his handling of the MPs' expenses scandal.

Last week music journalist and pre-concert speaker Stephen Fry dismissed the revelations over Member's expenses, saying -
'It's not that important, it really isn't.'
I haven't read Stephen Fry's book on classical music. But I hope his views on music are more reliable than his views on politics.

Everyone knows, the speaker is the most important component in the system. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Howells that!


'In 1983, I was laid to rest in the north choir aisle (Musicians' Aisle) of Westminster Abbey next to Purcell, Stanford, and RVW'.
Reincarnation is alive and well on MySpace Music. Herbert Howells' tulku is posting and already has 425 friends. Heaps more Howells here.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

How spooky are your sponsors?



On his return from Israel in late April [1952], Spender was plunged into arrangments for the 'Festival of Twentieth-Century Masterpieces of Modern Arts' in Paris. Sponsored by the CCF [Congress for Cultural Freedom] and directed by Nicolas Nabokov, the festival aimed to demonstrate that Western culture - specifically American modernist culture - could be mobilized as ideological resistance to the Soviet Union's Kultura. The CIA's International Organizations Division, which had an annual budget of £250 million, clandestinely helped underwrite the operation. Nabokov serenely took the credit for raising the money from a (supposedly) private source. The programme was scheduled to last a whole month. A huge cast of speakers and performers was recruited. The main expense (costing a massive $160,000) involved transporting the entire Boston Symphony Orchestra to Paris, for an overture performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring ...

As Stephen Dorill records: 'Secret CIA funding came via nearly forty different American trust and charitable foundations - 'notional donors' as they were technically known by MI6 - with the principal conduit for covert funds being the Fairfield Foundation. Its philanthropic president, Cincinnati multimillionaire Julius Fleischmann, was a director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts in London'.
From Stephen Spender - the authorized biography by John Sutherland. Photo shows Igor and Vera Stravinsky with their friend Stephen Spender in Venice in 1958. The politicaly aware and left-leaning Spender co-edited the Congress for Cultural Freedom funded London based Encounter magazine for 17 years. But he claimed to be unaware that his sponsors were spooks.

At the 1952 'Festival of Twentieth-Century Masterpieces' in Paris Stravinsky conducted in addition to Pierre Monteux, the latter was on the podium for the Rite. Other composers represented included Britten (Billy Budd), Schoenberg, Berg and Boulez. A clearly biased article on The Modern History Project website alleges that:

The [Boston] Symphony was hitched tightly to CCF, and eight of the 11 board members of CCF's music project were associated with Tanglewood.
There is no evidence in the article to support this allegation. But, if it was true, it raises the delicous possibility that some of the fine Boston Symphony commissions from the 1950s, which included Martinu's Sixth Symphony, were funded by the CIA!
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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is the solution to blow up lean back art?


Two wonderfully invigorating and fulfilling evenings. Friday with Philip Glass in Norwich, Saturday with the Bern Ballet at Snape. Both superb examples of lean forward art in the way they engaged, challenged and rewarded the audience. What a contrast to lean back art, where the audience are passive observers never required to leave their personal comfort zones.

Modern dance is a miraculous combination of the visual, the experimental, and the musical. The Bern Ballet (seen above) is now under the dynamic artistic direction of Cathy Marston and the company is working with an eclectic group of young choreographers. Their Snape programme ended with Mission Eurohell, which was choreographed by the Swede Alexander Ekman to music by Bach and Vic Damone. At the end of Mission Eurohell the twelve dancers left the stage and made their way into the audience, a breaking down of barriers that took me back to 1968 and the original London production of the rock musical Hair.

While we were leaning forward with the Bern Ballet on Saturday evening, millions were leaning back with BBC TV's own version of Mission Eurohell, the Eurovision Song Contest. Back in 1968 we painfully learnt you cannot trust those in authority. In 2009 we have again painfully learnt you cannot trust those running the banks, the media, the government and the arts. A young Pierre Boulez made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that 'the most elegant way of solving the opera problem would be to blow up the opera houses'. Which suggests an elegant way of solving today's crisis of creativity in the arts. Can we find a non-violent way to blow up lean back art?

As John Drummond said, dance is not an inferior art form. Bern Ballets Snape performances were supported by Dance East, Pro Helvetia (Swiss Arts Council) and Arts Council England. Our £12 Bern Ballet tickets were bought at the Snape box office. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Such things get in the way

As it spread from country to country, it acquired a wide variety of cultural trappings; special clothes and hats, status, incense, gongs, bells, whistles - even peculiar architectural forms, icons and symbols ... In fact, all too often, such things get in the way.
Steve Hagen was writing about Buddhism, plain and simple. But he may just as well have been writing about classical music. Last night in the packed Theatre Royal, Norwich there were no bells or whistles. Just a Steinway slightly right of centre stage and a microphone in front of it for the seamlessly integrated links. Plus Philip Glass, dressed creative casual, delivering a ninety minute set unbroken by intermission or any other cultural trapping.

Nothing to get in the way of one of an evening that rose effortlessly above culturally defined music making. Philip Glass is more than a pianist, more than a composer. He is that most precious of beings, a free mind. The visual underlined just how free that mind is, particularly in the ever inventive Études. We could see these being driven by the motor of the left hand, while the right embellished in the treble and crossed sparingly to release those dark chords which underpin the music.

'Moving' is a word that has lost its true meaning. It has nothing to do with tears and pathos. It means transported to another plane. Last night Philip Glass showed how music, pure and simple, can still release us from an increasingly tawdry world and transport us to another plane. A remarkable and moving evening.

Philip Glass' recital was part of the 2009 Norfolk & Norwich Festival. Where a few years back Tippett could still empty a concert hall. We paid £20 each for our tickets. Header photo (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, May 15, 2009

Industry awards and natural justice


Much excitement elsewhere about two UK music industry award bashes this week. The Royal Philharmonic Society Awards are run 'in association with BBC Radio 3', while the Classical Brit Awards are 'supported by Classic FM radio and its sister publication Classic FM Magazine'. Both events allow the great and good of the music industry to indulge their passion for self-congratulation and rubber chicken while boosting radio audiences. One of the categories for the BBC supported RPS Awards is 'Creative Communication', which includes books.

That great composer, musicologist and BBC producer Robert Simpson, whose Ninth Symphony features on the CD seen above, wrote a very important book in 1980. The Proms & Natural Justice was highly critical of the BBC's music programming policies. It was an influential book that was admired by many, including long-time BBC employee Sir Adrian Boult, who provided the foreword. Let's imagine for a moment that Robert Simpson's book had been published in 2009. Would anyone like to speculate on its chances of being nominated for an RPS award?


Those Simpsons are cult classics.
My Hyperion CD of Robert Simpson's Ninth Symphony was bought at retail price. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

A crass and insensitive Peter Grimes?

I went to see Peter Grimes last weekend and hated yet another expressionist production where the director's vision took precedence over the work. (Production shot above.) How can the English National Opera, of all companies, mess up Peter Grimes? Peter Grimes and ENO is one of those combinations where tradition and context matter. The last version I saw there was gripping, but this one was just crass and insensitive. This gets me upset at two levels.

First, I'm so tired of the expressionist rut that the opera world seems to find itself in. We now have a tradition that's as hidebound as the old one, but without the advantage of history. I'm not actually anti-interpretation, I've seen plenty of weird productions that I liked (Richard Jones' Ring, for example), but if you're going to mess with the rules, you'd better be great (oh, and getting the singers pointing in the right direction is good too). In the meantime, I don't need every last sub-text to be telegraphed by writhing (we're not stupid, you know)--and I propose a ten-year ban on Nazi leather greatcoats.

Second, I'm wondering what happened to the spirit of Sadlers Wells? Solid productions at a price that "ordinary" people can afford? The ENO seems to be still trying to sustain its glory days in the '80s when it put Covent Garden to shame, but now the Royal Opera is doing great work, as are the regional companies. You can't be an iconoclast for ever, and I've been to too many ENO productions (e.g. Rheingold) where I had to stop watching. I think there is a remit for unpretentious, affordable opera that takes the work seriously--and that doesn't have to mean dull. If you can't make Peter Grimes gripping straight off the page, then you don't deserve to exist.

One final snipe. Most of the critics loved the production (and there were some good ideas, like the opening), but I think they should get out more. In particular, they should try sitting upstairs occasionally, to judge how well a production carries and the strength of the audience. The ENO audience is strikingly homogenous, and I think that's a symptom of something.

In the end, I can't tell if this is just me that's fed up, but I don't think it is.
This email arrived from Steve Freeman. It chimes with my own thoughts on the new English Touring Opera's Magic Flute which I saw, coincidentally, at Snape. But like Steve I am not anti-interpretation, and was very moved by Glyndebourne's new Hänsel und Gretel. The question 'Whatever happened to the original spirit of Sadler's Wells?' is particularly relevant as this company gave the premiere of Peter Grimes in June 1945. Reginald Goodall was the conductor, the story is here.

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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sea symphony


Sea Concert from the Panoramic Sea Happening, 1967 by the Polish artist and performer Tadeusz Kantor. The exhibition An Impossible Journey, the Art and Theatre of Tadeusz Kantor is at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich from June 2 to August 30. In 1965 Kantor mounted Poland's first-ever happening. Thirteen years earlier, when Lou Harrison was head of the music department at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, he staged what is considered to be the first ever multi-media happening. The participants included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson and David Tudor. Read the story here.

YouTube interview with Tadeusz Kantor here. Header image credit from Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, photo by Eustachy Kossakowski. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The holy atmosphere of concerts

In Christopher and his Kind, Christopher [Isherwood] admits to have been 'violently prejudiced against culture worship'. He hated 'the gushings of concert audiences and the holy atmosphere of concerts.' Stephen thought it was 'in some respects' like 'the Nazi attitude'. It was particularly painful when the brutal sarcasm was turned against figures like the pianist Artur Schnabel and the composer Roger Sessions, both of whom Spender had come to know, and revere, in Berlin. He continued to go to concerts (by Schnabel, Bruno Walter and Furtwängler), defying his friends philistine edicts.
From - Stephen Spender the authorized biography by John Sutherland. I am a camera in East Berlin here.

My montage shows Roger Sessions with Christopher Isherwood on the left and Stephen Spender right. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wagner dream


Vincent had discovered the laws of colour while he was living in Nuenen, and found them 'unutterably beautiful'. Around the same time, excited by the analogies he now understood between painting and Wagner's music, he took lessons from the organist of St Catherine's Church in Eindhoven, a man called Vandersanden. These were not a success: Vincent continually compared music chords with Prussian blue or cadmium yellow, so that the organist concluded that he was dealing with a madman.

It is true that synaesthesia, experiencing one sensation in terms of another, can be found in those suffering from mental problems and those under the influence of hallucinogens. But if Vincent was mad in this respect, so were many other artists and musicians. Gauguin claimed that when he looked at a Delacroix, he had 'the same feelings as after reading something'. When he heard a Beethoven quartet, 'I leave the hall with coloured images that vibrate in the depth of my soul.'

Cézanne, Gauguin declared, seemed to be a pupil of César Franck: 'He is always playing the organ.' His work wasn't just polychromatic, it was polyphonic.
A little known connection between Vincent van Gogh and Wagner's music uncovered in The Yellow House - Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles by Martin Gayford.

Wagner Dream is the new opera by Jonathan Harvey that, in a neat example of synchronicity, was highly acclaimed at the 2007 Holland Festival. The starting point of Jonathan Harvey's opera is Die Siegers (The Victors), Wagner's planned but unwritten opera which was to be based on a Buddhist legend about the love of a lowcaste servant girl for a monk.

The starting point of Martin Gayford's excellent book is the self-portrait that Van Gogh painted in Arles and sent to Gaugin in Brittany. The painting, which is seen below, is described as follows in the book:
Few observers would have guessed the guise that the painter took on in this picture. Vincent had, he wrote to Gauguin, 'aimed at the character of a simple bonze worshipping the eternal Buddha'. That is, he had painted himself as a Japanese monk.

The header painting is Van Gogh's Wheatfield and Cypresses, which was painted in June 1889 at the asylum he was confined to outside Saint-Rémy after threatening Gauguin. I visited the former asylum in 2006, read the story and see my photos here.

The Yellow House - Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles by Martin Gayford was borrowed from Norwich library. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Coup for classics?


I was disappointed to see the excellent Britten Sinfonia using Stephen Fry and Paul Gambaccini to introduce concerts in Cambridge and Peterboro' last week, a move described in the press as a 'Coup for classics'. I am aware the concerts were in aid of a deserving conservation project, and the programme included a commission from Associate Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival John Woolrich. But for many, including some who attend Britten Sinfonia concerts, overexposed media celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Paul Gambaccini are as much part of our current problems as bankers, and certainly have no place in the solution.

Stephen Fry (above) has given high profile support to chat show host Jonathan Ross, who last year was responsible for one of the most sordid incidents in the BBC's long history. Paul Gambaccini's presentation style while a BBC Radio 3 presenter was described variously as ingratiating, unctuous, schmaltzy, egregious, patronising and totally inane. Gambaccini was actually taken off the air by Radio 3 because of adverse reactions to his programme. Believe me, to be dropped by BBC Radio 3 is quite an achievement.

I am pretty sure posts like this do not make enjoyable reading. In fact I was going to let the story pass and spend time on something more positive. But today Stephen Fry has appeared in a video clip on the BBC website telling us that the current row in the UK over politicians expenses is "not that important, it really isn't" and that he himself has "cheated things and fiddled things". If this is what it takes to reach new audiences for classical music, surely we are better off finding fresh ways to work with existing audiences?

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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, May 11, 2009

Excellent new CD of creaky stuff


'I'd have got rid of the creaky stuff on the Early Music Show, which was neither by Felix nor very Felixcitatious ...'
writes the official BBC Radio 3 blogger about the network's Mendelssohn weekend. The creaky stuff was music by JS Bach, CPE Bach and WF Bach.

A different perspective is provided in Angelique Chrisafis' excellent interview with Cannes film festival jury president Isabelle Huppert in Saturday's Guardian. From the article we learn that, unlike the official BBC blogger, Ms. Huppert is a big fan of the creaky stuff -
'In 2001 she appeared on the [Cannes] red carpet with a tattoo across her back and arms, quoting the Romanian writer Emil Cioran, "God can thank Bach because Bach is the proof of God's existence."'
I know a lot of readers share my own and Isabelle Huppert's passion for the creaky stuff. So I am featuring a newly released CD that has brought me a lot of pleasure. Le Clavecin et Son Histoire is one in a series of re-releases by Warner of classic recordings from the 1980s. The creaks are provided Laurence Boulay and Robert Veyron-Lacroix playing keyboard works by J.S. Bach, Merulo, Frescobaldi, Byrd, Farnaby, Bull, Peerson, Couperin, Pasquini, Dandrieu, Froberger, Rameau, and 20th century composer Maurice Ohana. That last name justifies the price of the CD alone; the work is Ohana's rarely heard eight minute Carillons pour les heures du jour et de la nuit.

The good news is that Le Clavecin et Son Histoire and other Erato Originals come at super-budget price; I paid £5.99 in Prelude Records. The bad news is that the presentation of the CDs would seriously embarass a Marrakech pirate. No sleeve notes, plain white label, terrible typography and no artist biographies, although the instruments are identified. Warner Classics really don't seem too keen to sell these CDs as I could find no mention of them on their website. But why should they worry? I am sure they will blame any lack of sales on illegal downloads. No shortage of information on Maurice Ohana though, read more here.

Last year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner was Laurent Cantet's wonderful film Entre les murs (The Class) which had no soundtrack music. So no danger of creaky stuff there.
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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Playing in new music's sandbox


New music's sandbox went live last night with the Faster Than Sound contemporary music festival playing in the Britten Studio on Snape's new creative campus. Jon Hopkins and Tim Exile (photos 1 & 6) shaped cool sounds and played with Roland Olbeter's musical robots (photo 10). The Prometeo Quartet performed an Aldeburgh Music commission, Salvatore Sciarrino's String Quartet No 8 (photos 8 & 9); a work during which the composer's fascination with the higher registers of the violin was not shared by all the audience. James Weeks and Exaudi experienced no such problems with the world premiere of a challenging new choral work by Amber Priestley. The ever adventurous Exaudi also performed what was for me the highlight of the evening, Alvin Lucier's simple but sublime Unamuno. As if all this was not enough, visual artist Quayola's installation celebrating Rome's renaisance architecture was playing in the new Jerwood Kiln Studio (photo 5).


Remarkable things are happening at Snape under the stewardship of Aldeburgh Music. Dazzling new performance spaces have been created where every assumption about classical music can be challenged. Funding is in place to support Faster Than Sound until 2011, and its remit is being broadened to cover more new music residencies and commissions. There are very few venues where the music comes first, and where, as with the Sciarrino Quartet, the audience are treated as responsible adults and left to decide whether they want to follow the music or retire to the bar.


Aldeburgh Music, who manage Snape, are not blessed with a financial fairy godmother. They share the same financial pressures as other arts organisations. As my article in 2007 explained, 25% of their income comes from ticket sales, 25% from independent fundraising, and 50% from the Arts Council. But Aldeburgh Music differs from many other arts organisations in one important respect. They do not treat the audience as their master. The interesting thing is this refusal to simply chase numbers is resulting in very impressive audience figures.


More chilled new music here.
All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. We bought our £10 Faster Than Sound tickets at the aldeburgh box office. Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk