Sunday, October 31, 2010

Just trying to mimic baroque practices

One of them, stone by stone, followed me across the Atlantic a score of years later, and got itself set up within convenient reach of me when I most needed to see what a cloister looked like, and what kind of place a man might live in, to live according to his rational nature and not like a stray dog. St. Michel-de-Cuxa is all fixed up in a special and considerably tidy little museum in an uptown park, in New York, overlooking the Hudson River, in such a way that you don't recall what kind of city you are in. It is called The Cloisters. Synthetic as it is, it still preserves enough of its own reality to be a reproach to everything else around it, except the trees and the Palisades.
That is Thomas Merton writing in his early autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. He was born in the Catalonian town of Prades a short distance from the Abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, which is seen in my accompanying photos. During the French Revolution much of the Romanesque abbey, including the cloisters, was destroyed and the materials were used for building local houses. Substantial parts of the cloisters were purchased by the American sculptor George Gray Barnard in the 1930s and shipped to New York to become the centrepiece of the Cloisters Museum, now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are important musical connections to the Abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. It was abandoned as a ruin until 1950 and Pablo Casals played his first public concert in the then roofless abbey church after leaving Spain as an exile. His Bach Festivals were held there in 1952 and 1953 and the tireless efforts of the Catalan cellist were largely responsible for attracting the funds for the building's restoration.


There are are also important musical links to the portion of the Abbey of St. Michel-de-Cuxa that followed Thomas Merton to New York City. In 1958 the The Play of Daniel was premiered in the Cloisters Museum by the pioneering early music ensemble Pro Musica. This piece of creative scholarship was the brainchild of early music champion and political activist Noah Greenberg. The Play of Daniel had no aspirations to authenticity and featured a Lincoln Kirstein staging complete with prancing lions and fire eater, and the modern edition of the medieval score was linked by an English verse narrative by W.H. Auden delivered by an actor dressed as a monk. But The Play of Daniel was box office and went on to become a best selling record and was performed many times in America and overseas by Pro Musica.


Those magic words 'box office' take us from the past to the future of classical music. Pablo Casals' music making reached millions because of its passion rather than its authenticity and this was also the case with Noah Greenberg's The Play of Daniel. Just yesterday an email arrived from someone who combines a passion for classical music with the ability to question its often silly conventions. Fellow blogger Antoine Leboyer did not write the email for publication, but it raises such an important question that I am quoting from it with his permission:
When you think about it, the classics have always rebounded because of advancement in aesthetic conceptions. In his time, Karajan’s legato was a controversial novelty, same for “objective” readings by the likes of Boulez (and before him Klemperer ?) …

The equivalent for these days should be baroque players but I feel that there is a difference in their contribution. Most of the players are very very dogmatic and tend to apply their principles too much beyond baroque composers. Interpretation is subordinated to strict adherence to certain performance principles, no vibrato (glassy string sound …) , fast tempi with lots of rubato, … Baroque contribution should have been a more theatrical feeling to instrumental music or certain different harmonies and inner voices, not what we have. These days, the Berlin Phiharmonic and others are just trying to mimic baroque practices. This just does not make any sense.

Do not baroque players have their share of responsibility for classical music's current problems?
This typically discursive path takes us from Thomas Merton to the Berlin Philarmonic with the basso continuo supplied by a Romanseque abbey in France. But it is an important path that links to recent debates about amplification and sound shaping, and even about funding, because Pro Musica received a Ford Foundation grant of $465,000 dollars to continue its work.

Classical music often reaches its largest audiences when it combines impeccable scholarship with interpretative freedom. Is Antoine Leboyer right in saying that musicians today are too dogmatic? Do we need more of Noah Greenberg's style of creative scholarship? Do we have the balance between authentic and synthetic wrong? Can classical music learn from Thomas Merton's words about the Cloisters Museum? - "Synthetic as it is, it still preserves enough of its own reality to be a reproach to everything else around it."


* Harry Haskell's The Early Music Revival (ISBN 0486291626) was used a source on Noah Greenberg's The Play of Daniel.

** Hear Bach without baroque practices in a podcast of my musical homage to Catalonia which includes Pablo Casals' 1950 recording of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto complete with piano solo and other delicous examples of creative scholarship. Listen here.

*** A new recording of The Play of Daniel by the Dufay Collective was released in 2008.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010 Any other 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). I have made some minor edits to the extract from Antoine Leboyer's email to add clarity. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Composing yourself


Opportunities to hear a leading contemporary composer discussing the composition process are rare. Hearing the composer discussing a new concerto with the soloist it was written for are even rarer. So my latest Britten Sinfonia pre-concert podcast brings something a little special - James MacMillan (above) and oboeist Nicholas Daniel giving the inside track on the composer's new oboe concerto. They also give their views on whether classical music should be amplified and the links between spirituality and music: the latter subject is particularly topical in view of James' controversial comments about the musical tastes of those orchestrating the recent Papal visit to Scotland. The 30 minute discussion takes a few minutes to load, but I think you will find it worth the wait to listen.

Other Britten Sinfonia podcasts hosted by me include:

* Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich talk about Elliott Carter's music - listen here.

* Composer Eriks Esenvalds talks about culture, education and religion in Latvia, both under the Soviets and since independence - listen here.

* Britten Sinfonia co-leader Tom Gould talks about violins, seasons and what it takes to get a Canadian audience on their feet - listen here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. 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 29, 2010

Beyond cool


Dylan is cool and Simon and Garfunkel are not. But in the days when file sharing meant copying LPs onto reel to reel tape the folk duo were most definitely cool. I still cannot listen to Old Friends on CD without missing the wow and flutter from the Elizabethan 1/4 inch tape machine that was my student equivalent of an MP3 player. Much wow of a very different kind on the free jazz improvisations on Paul Simon's Old Friends by pianist Marc Copland and his five piece band on the 2003 CD above. Other masters who receive the improvisation treatment include Miles Davis/Bill Evans, Charlie Parker and Herbie Hancock. Next to my CD player is a shelf where I keep music I return to time after time: there are seven Marc Copland discs there. Marc Copland And.. is on the Swiss label Hat Hut Records which also brought us Lou Harrison's Fifth Simfony (yes, that's right) for percussion.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Marc Copland And... was bought at retail. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Same difference


What is the difference between a presenter and a promoter?

More same differences 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 broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Audience Scrabble

Discussions about reaching new audiences only have value for me if they also talk about the music. So I was delighted to read an article on BBC Learning - Scotland titled Classical music with youth appeal in which a 'doubter' explains:
Heck, I even started listening to Radio 3 for inspiration and discovered a piece of music by Arvo Part, Spiegel im Spiegel, which I would now proudly make part of my Desert Island Disc playlist (I think it would sit right fine next to Prince, the Afghan Whigs and the Rolling Stones). There were lots of other gems I discovered along the way, and many of them appear in the series. For example, James MacMillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, Elgar's Symphony No 1, Reynaldo Hahn's beautiful À Chloris and an absolutely enchanting rendition of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' Farewell to Stromness, performed by the Caliban Quartet of bassoonists.
I will say no more than this article is essential reading and one of the most regularly read posts On An Overgrown Path remains my 2005 Farewell to Stromness.

* Trivia quiz - what is the connection between this post and El Sistema, other than the very obvious one of music education?

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What price a top arts administrator?

As arts cuts announced today start to bite, few people are aware that the Royal Opera House pays its two top people more than £630,000 and nearly £400,000. Although Covent Garden is refusing to identify them, it is likely that they are chief executive Lord Hall and music director Antonio Pappano -from The Arts Desk
It is interesting to apply some quick and dirty maths to that £630k figure. Let's assume it is Tony Hall who is earning the big bucks, and let's say that the average audience at Covent Garden is 2000 and there are 200 performances a year. That means £1.58 from every ticket sold at the Royal Opera House is going to the CEO as salary. At the risk of repeating myself...

* My crude calculation ignores the cost of pensions and other non-salary benefits which could add another 50p to that £1.58. The calculation is illustrative and, of course, the CEO's salary is funded from sources other than ticket revenue. But if, hypothetically, the cost of the CEO was removed and other funding was unchanged, ticket prices could fall by at least £1.58.

** The Arts Desk should be congratulated on providing facts instead of opinions on arts funding. These facts confirm that in the arts world, as elsewhere, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

** 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 Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Rearranging the geometry of heaven


Familiar faces can be seen in the photo above which was taken at the recent thanksgiving service for Raimon Panikkar in the Basílica of Montserrat outside Barcelona. Raimon Panikkar, who died on August 26th, 2010, was best known as an authority on comparative religion. But his advocacy of inter-religious dialogue was also an important influence on one of the great visionaries of 21st century classical music, Jordi Savall.

Raimon Panikkar was born in Barcelona in 1918, the son of an Indian Hindu father and a Spanish Catholic. He studied for his three doctorates in Spain, Germany and Italy and his thesis at the Lateran University in Rome titled The Unknown Christ of Hinduism compared the teachings of Thomas Aquinas with those of a canonical Hindu scripture. Panikkar's first visit to India in 1954 started his life-long exploration of how core Christian convictions could be expressed in Hindu and Buddhist forms.

In the early 1940s Raimon Panikkar met Escrivá de Balaguer, the founder of the controversial Opus Dei and it was at Balaguer's urging that he was ordained as a Catholoc priest in 1946. Panikkar was a close friend of Balaguer; he did not distance himself from Opus Dei until the early 1960s and later said he did not regret his involvement with the organisation.

After breaking with Opus Dei Raimon Panikkar's advocacy of intercultural dialogue and links with the polytheistic religions was very much at variance with the position of traditionalist Catholics. He held professorships at Harvard Divinity School and the University of California, Santa Barbara and for some years split his time between academic work in the West and research in India. In 1987 he moved to Tavertet near Barcelona, where he founded the Raimon Panikkar Vivarium Foundation for intercultural studies.

He later famously said of his first visit to India:
I left Europe, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian.
Raimon Panikkar's path from orthodox Catholicism to inter-religious dialogue is reflected in the music of his fellow Catalan Jordi Savall. From his roots in Catholic Spain and an early album for EMI Reflexe of devotional songs from the manuscripts music from the Abbey of Montserrat, Jordi Savall's music making has progressed to a sequence of multicultural projects that have looked to the East.


First in the sequence in 2007 was Francisco Xavier. There are clear links between this project, which follows in music the journey of a Jesuit missionary east from Rome to India and on to China, and Raimon Panikkar's spiritual path. One of the most moving passages in the live performance we attended in Paris in November 2009 was the raga based on the plainsong O Gloriosa Domina performed by Prabhu Edouart on tabla and Ken Zuckerman on sarod. That is Ken Zuckerman in the header photo flanked by Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall.

Jerusalem, which followed in 2008, was Jordi Savall's next major project. This turned from the polytheistic religions of the Far East to the three great monotheistic faiths of Europe and the Middle East. Then in in 2009 came The Forgotten Kingdom which returns to Jordi Savall's native Catalonia and uses a humanist theme to chronicle how the multi-cultural kingdom of Occitania was destroyed by religous fundametalism.

Parallels with the thinking of Raimon Panikkar can be found in these three great Jordi Savall projects and also in other releases such the bridge-building Diáspora Sefardí (1999) and Orient-Occident (2006). But the most striking evidence of the collabaration between musician and religous scholar comes in the 2007 Le Concert des Nations CD and DVD release of Haydn's Seven Last Words from the Cross. For this Raimon Panikkar provided an accompanying essay which was also one of his last written works.

Raimon Panikkar's thinking permeates this sequence of groundbreaking projects from Jordi Savall and his fellow musicians and their significance should not be underestimated. These great intercultural CD and book projects have created a new and very successful genre, the classical concept album which transcends the single composer classical convention and looks instead to the heydays of the rock LP. Today, Jordi Savall projects are consistent best sellers for beleaguered independent stores and their book and disc format has created an added value package that defies the remorseless shift to downloads. The success of his independent and musician run Alia Vox label is the envy of the men in suits at the corporate labels and the acclaim which greets each new project is much needed confirmation that creative activities are inseparable from everyday life.

The photo below shows Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras with Raimon Panikkar during their collaboration on their Haydn's Seven Last Words from the Cross. Here is their tribute:
The outstanding thinker and philosopher, that great champion of intercultural and humanist dialogue between all forms of spirituality, our Teacher and friend, Raimon Panikkar, has left us. The Memory of his teachings will forever be an inexhaustible source of humanist and spiritual inspiration and an indispensable reference in the apprenticeship of the art of living in harmony and plenitude... Those who had the good fortune to know and receive his teachings now have the privilege and responsibility of keeping alive his witness in favour of understanding, dialogue, harmony, Peace and Justice between peoples of all cultures.
Raimon Panikkar gave the Thomas Merton lecture at Columbia University in 1982. Merton, who was himself a great intercultural champion, uses the phrase 'the geometry of heaven' in his translation of a poem by the Nicaraguan Alfonso Cortés. I am sure Thomas Merton would have approved Raimon Panikkar's efforts to rearrange the geometry of heaven.


* My sincere thanks go to Catalan blogger Neus Pinart for giving permission to use her photo taken in the Basílica of Montserrat seen at the head of this post. Neus has an article on her blog with more photos about the thanksgiving service for Raimon Pannikar. Her blog is in Catalan, there is an online translation tool here.

** My 2008 post about another intercultural pioneer, Bede Griffiths, continues to attract a lot of readers. There are many links between him and Raimon Panikkar. They met when Bede Griffiths stayed with Panikkar in Bangalore on his first visit to India and the two became close friends. Read more in This man is dangerous

*** Thomas Merton's translation of the poem by Alfonso Cortés, When You Point Your Finger, provides the title for this post. It is one of the Merton poems set by John Jacob Niles that is on the exquisite albume by baritone Chad Runyon and pianist Jacqueline Chew titled Sweet Irrational Worship, the Niles-Merton Songs.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All resources mentioned in this post were purchased by me. Lower photo credit is Alia Vox. 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 26, 2010

Talking Tallis


Janet Cardiff's Forty Part Motet installation opens at the Lincoln Center, New York.

You read it here first.

* As the funding scews tighten are classical music multi-media projects and collaborations with art galleries and museums, which in the UK have been cut less savagely, the way forward? The audience composes the music here and there is new music for bells here. Photo was taken in Perpignan, France Sept 2010 and is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. With apologies for mislocating the Lincoln Center in the first version of this post. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sleeping with the enemy


Eric Whitacre is top of the UK specialist classical chart.

You read it here first.

* Photo was taken by me at Visa pour l'Image, the 22nd International Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan, France in September 2010. The Festival is spread across eight city centre venues including several deconsecrated churches, and the organisers refreshingly describe their selection policy as being driven by "making choices and taking a stance". For me the Festival of Journalism was one of the most absorbing and moving arts events I have attended for many years. In 2009 187,000 visitors viewed the Festival exhibitions, proving that art can disturb and appeal at the same time. Classical music can learn a lot from Visa pour l'Image. Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Reporters without borders are here. Our visit to Perpignan was self-funded. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Salvador Dali's lost opera


An opera scored by a pupil of Olivier Messiaen for voices, orchestra and rock group that features the librettist as God, Brigitte Bardot as an artichoke and Marilyn Monroe doing a striptease. Sounds too good to be true? Well, read on....


Salvador Dalí created Être Dieu: opéra-poème, audiovisuel et cathare en six parties (Being God: a Cathar Audiovisual Opera-Poem in Six Parts) from a libretto by the Catalan author Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939-2003). The score is by the French composer Igor Wakhévitch (b.1948). His teachers included Pierre Schaeffer and Terry Riley as well as Messiaen and among other influences on his music are guitarist Robert Wyatt and the music of Soft Machine. An album of Être Dieu, which is scored for speakers, singers, orchestra and rock band, was recorded on 3 LPs for the now defunct Spanish Dolor Del Estamago label (cover art here) and was subsequently transferred to CD by the German Eurostar label but is long deleted. I can find no information on live performances of the opera although a 2004 article mentions a forthcoming production at Montjuïc, Barcelona which was to be followed by a world tour. There is also a listing for a 2002 Spanish TV documentary about Être Dieu.


The official Dalí biography gives a publication date of 1985 for Être Dieu while other sources confirm the recording date as 1974. At least two sources say the libretto was started by Dalí in 1927 in collabaration with Federico Garcia Lorca. Copies of the CD transfer can be found at premium prices. Surely this is a re-issue opportunity? - even if one commentator described the opera as "Pretty much the same as Wakhévitch’s other work, with the added bonus of the Surrealist master declaiming and frequently shrieking over the music". Igor Wakhévitch discovered the ragas of Pandit Pran Nath while studying with Terry Riley and he moved to Auroville in South India in 1980. Auroville is named after the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo whose ideas inspired the experimental community.


Dalí's art has many musical subtexts. Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Bizet's The Pearl Fishers and the medieval liturgical drama Misteri d'Elx regale visitors to the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain. This high class muzak was chosen by Dalí himself and the sub-texts are interesting. His paranoiac ballet Mad Tristan to Wagner's music was created for the 1939 New York World Fair, but the relevance of the distinctly non-surrealist Pearl Fishers is unclear, although Dalí was known to be a fan of Carmen. The link to the Misteri d'Elx comes from a performance that the artist attended in 1973. The sacred music drama, which dates from 1625, is performed in the southern Spanish city of Elche in August each year and is a UNESCO masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. A recording of the music by the Ensemble Gilles Binchois is available as is Jordi Savall's 'homage' which breaks from performance tradition by introducing female voices.


The Dalí Theatre-Museum sprang from the ruins of the Municipal Theatre in Figueres which was accidentally destroyed by fire in 1939 shortly before the end of the Spanish Civil War. The creation of the Theatre-Museum was Dalí's last major project and its first exhibition opened in 1973. Dalí lived adjacent to the museum for the last five years of his life and he is buried in its crypt. The 'hot wax photos' accompanying this article were taken by me during a recent visit to Figueres. Thanks go to Jordi Savall whose The Forgotten Kingdom project sent us to Catalonia and put us on the path of Salvador Dalí's lost opera.


* If any reader can make available the CDs for Être Dieu: opéra-poème, audiovisuel et cathare en six parties I will see if Future Radio are up for an overnight broadcast of the opera so we can judge Salvador Dalí's lost opera for ourselves. Contact me at overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk.

** Igor Wakhévitch moved to Auroville in India. The chapter on the experimental community in Living Lightly, Travels in a Post-Consumer Society by Walter and Dorothy Schwarz (ISBN 1897766440) is recommended.


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Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Bartok effect


The BBC Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 80th birthday and this post starts from my thread about chief conductors of the orchestra. Above is the LP Antal Doráti made in 1975 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of fellow Hungarian Béla Bartók's masterpiece, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Doráti was chief conductor of the orchestra from 1973 to 1976. He was an outstanding conductor and composer, but his contribution went far beyond the purely musical.

Antal Doráti's written testament 'For Inner and Outer Peace'* dates from his last years and takes its title from Beethoven's own annotation over the first appearance of the 'Dona nobis' theme in the Missa Solemnis. I have previously written of the links between the ideas in 'For Inner and Outer Peace' and those of intercultural ambassador for the European Union Jordi Savall, but the links extend much further. For instance, the message of Antal Doráti's book and the thoughts expressed by Jordi Savall in the closing section of his 2008 interview with me resonate with the concept of inner peace that is central to Tibetan Buddhism, a faith that informs the music of composers including Philip Glass, Jonathan Harvey and Lou Harrison. And 'For Inner and Outer Peace' also resonates with the ecstatic music of Islam which achieves inner peace through trance rituals.

But the search for inner peace takes us beyond belief systems to an even more important human need - health. In the past theories linking music and health from French ENT specialist Alfred Tomatis, Don 'Mozart Effect' Campbell, neurologist Oliver Sacks and others have lacked academic credibility. But very recent work from Dr Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin's Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience is providing hard evidence of the beneficial effects of increased brain activity and could be the precursor to establishing a credible link between classical music and both physical and mental health. At which point the work and funding of a whole raft of practitioners from music therapists and music thanatologists to music educators, youth orchestras and 'scratch' orchestras will be seen in a new light.

This path started with a 1975 LP, but it does pose questions that are remarkably relevant to classical music in 2010. Has classical music painted itself into a corner by positioning itself as one of the entertainment arts? Does this explain why it is seen today as being, to quote Andrew Wilson-Dickson, "decorative, perhaps enhancing, but inessential?" Is the way forward for classical music to make itself more relevant and less dispensable by abandoning its media driven celebrity culture? Should classical music instead be following the example of Eastern cultures where creative activities are inseparable from everyday life?


* For Inner and Outer Peace seems to be completely unavailable. It was published in 1991 by the Swiss publisher Araqua Verlag and my copy, which was bought from IPPNW, does not carry an ISBN. But Maestro Doráti's recording of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is still available from BIS and a recording of Doráti's Second Symphony has just been released on the IPPNW label.

** Two little known books tell us more about classical music's current dilemna that all the current outpourings of our highly paid arts administrators put together. One is The Story of Christian Music by Andrew Wilson-Dickson (ISBN 0745951198), which is not the 'happy clappy' tome that the title may suggest. The first chapter, The Power of Music, is a salutary reminder that funding is not all that is missing from much Western classic music today and it also supplied the quote in my concluding paragraph. Another book that influenced this post is The Benedictine Gift to Music by Katharine Le Mée (Paulist Pree ISBN 0809141787) - a classical Christman number one anyone?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All books and records mentioned in this post were bought at retail. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Frequency response helps audience response

I know that with my little group, the minimal audio system I've put together to balance our sound by reinforcing weaker parts of the EQ spectrum has made all the difference in audience response.
From a comment by music therapist Lyle Sanford on Beethoven's grand slam. As Lyle says later in his comment - Looking forward to seeing where this path will lead.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Image is, quite appropriately, from the Cardiff School of Computer Science and Informatics. 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 22, 2010

Selective cuts


In a lengthy piece about the Dutch arts cuts American blogger Matthew Guerrieri labels my post Classical music must put its house in order as "disingenuous or, I think, missing the point". But Matthew disingenuously fails to mention a 'tweet' which is linked from my follow up article. It comes from a certain American blogger who also seems to be missing the point. Here is Alex Ross' 'tweet' verbatim -
Wise words from @overgrownpath on how the classical community should respond to Dutch music cuts and other crises: http://tiny.cc/cf9h6
As expected the UK government also announced massive public spending cuts on Wednesday (Oct 20). At this early stage the mainstream media is the best source on their possible impact. That is the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band above. As they famously sang - No matter who you vote for the government always gets in.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Image credit Adventures in High Fidelity Audio. 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

A classical Christmas number one?


Recently I wrote and podcast about Universal Music's plans to chart a CD by the Benedictine nuns of L'Abbaye Notre Dame de l'Annonciation at Le Barroux in France (seen above) this Christmas. Chant from Avignon will be released on November 8th and there is a useful video (and audio samples - listen to that reverberation!) on Amazon. The video includes footage of recording sessions in the Abbey, complete with a male conductor. But unsurpisingly it makes no mention of past links between the monastic community at Le Barroux and the traditionalist Catholic Society of Saint Pius X and its ultra-right-wing founder Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre. In a fascinating twist it was a chart topping artist on the Philips label, now part of Universal Music, who also had interesting links with Monsignor Lefebvre and traditionalist Catholics in France back in the 1960s. Read the story here.

* More on the political background to Voices - Chant from Avignon here.

There are a number of articles about Le Barroux On An Overgrown Path. A good starting point for a brief history of the monastic community there is this article. Header photo was taken by me on my most recent visit to L'Abbaye Notre Dame de l'Annonciation last December and is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Beethoven's grand slam


An ace performance by the Britten Sinfonia and James MacMillan at their Norwich concert last night provided much food for thought. Centrepiece of the programme was James MacMillan's new oboe concerto which confirmed that having something to say is more important than conforming to a fashionable musical 'ism'. A forward looking yet sombre central slow movement was followed by an extrovert finale that could only have come from the composer of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. The new work was passionately advocated by Britten Sinfonia co-founder Nicholas Daniel who has done so much to extend the oboe repertoire. It was illuminating hearing members of the audience talking about the concerto after the performance. Most of them were there for the Beethoven rather than the MacMillan. But the consensus was that new music can be true to itself without making the audience run a mile.

However, it was the second half performance of Beethoven's Second Symphony, superbly conducted by James MacMillan incidentally, which really set me thinking. Regular readers will know I am a big fan of the Britten Sinfonia. But that is not going to stop me enthusing about the quality of the sound they produced last night. The Britten Sinfonia is an ensemble of outstanding musicians who combine exemplary technique with an absolute respect for the score, and this was small band Beethoven, six first violins and four cellos. But the sound, oh the sound... there was a precision, an attack, but above all a visceral quality and slam which is so rarely heard these days in live classical music. The Britten Sinfonia played precisely what Beethoven wrote, but the tightness of the sound was reminiscent of a very good rock band. Which takes us to the subject of younger audiences.

Sound quality may just be the Holy Grail that will lead young people back to classical music. Sound quality matters: Jeff Harrington's provocative proposition here that classical music needs more bass generated a massive readership and was linked by influential sources such as NPR in the States. It may just be semantics, but last night left me wondering whether classical music needs more slam rather than more bass. Which takes us to amplification and acoustics.

The Britten Sinfonia's concert was in the Theatre Royal, Norwich and I have previously mentioned the 'Carmen' electro-acoustic sound enhancement system developed by the French research centre CSTB that was installed in the multi-use auditorium in 2007. Only three venues in the UK currently have this system which uses digital technology to create reverberation in naturally dry halls. At this point one thing should be made very clear. The Britten Sinfonia do not need sound enhancement to make glorious music. But that does not stop us learning lessons from last night's concert.

From my seat last night in the second row of the circle the sound was glorious. But to my well trained ears it was also a slightly larger than life. But wait a moment, what does the word 'life' mean in that statement? What exactly is the 'natural' sound' we should be using as our reference point?

What we hear in any concert hall is a mix of direct sound from the performers and a large amount of reflected sound bouncing off the structure, furnishings, audience and everything else in the hall. Each hall's unique sonic 'signature' is created by the reflected sound which is an integral part of the performance experience. But those reflections change the quality of the sound as well as delaying it. Some materials, particularly human bodies and furnishings, absorb certain frequencies while other harder surfaces simply reflect them. Which means every single hall changes the sound of the performers to a noticeable extent and way beyond simply adding reverberation - for concert hall think graphic equaliser with the sliders randomly adjusted.

There are only two places that the 'natural' sound of performers can be heard: in an anechoic chamber and in the open air. These are totally 'dry' venues because there is no reflected sound. And everyone knows that acoustically dry venues are unpopular with audiences. Which is why enhancement systems are being installed in venues such as the Theatre Royal, Norwich.

The science (or art?) of concert hall acoustics has gone through three phases. Until the mid-20th century chance, in the form of available construction materials, determined a hall's sonic signature. From the mid-20th century until very recently architectural design and choice of construction materials were used to acoustically tune concert halls, with mixed results. We are now entering the third phase, where tuning the sound using bricks and mortar is being replaced by digital tuning, as in the Theatre Royal, Norwich.

The importance of this third phase cannot be underestimated. Acknowledged masters of the second phase of concert hall acoustics were Arup Associates, whose work included creating the legendary Snape Maltings acoustic. Arup Associates are also responsible for the just completed acoustic reworking of the Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury. And how did Arup transform that venue's acoustic? With bricks and mortar? No, with a custom CSTB electro-acoustic enhancement system.

Elsewhere I have written about how digital reverberation is an integral part of ECM's acclaimed 'natural' sound. We accept it on disc, and, whether we like it or not, it will become standard in the concert hall. It is also important to note that Britten Sinfonia audience research at the Theatre Royal, Norwich gives a unanimous thumbs-up to the 'blasphemous' new sound enhancement system, even from older concert goers.

Jonathan Harvey's proposal for amplified classical music needs closer examination. He did not mean stacks of Grateful Dead-style bass bins. He meant leveraging digital technology to provide the slam that young audiences want. At this point let's head off some of the comments. Yes, great recordings playing through great audio systems provide slam without digital processing, as do great performers in great halls. But how many can listen under such conditions? Classical music can learn a lot from the brave use of new technology at last night's Britten Sinfonia concert. Digital sound enhancement tools applied to concert halls could be the key to bridging classical music's audience gap.

* Judge the Britten Sinfonia yourself this evening without any digital enhancement. BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting the Shostakovich/Barshai, MacMillan and Beethoven programme, recorded in Birmingham Town Hall, tonight (Oct 21) at 7.00pm UK time.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. I received two complimentary tickets for last night's concert and also led the pre-concert talk which should be available soon as a podcast. Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

So where is the birthday boy?


My life has been enriched by the music making of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, as these LPs from my collection show, even if we have had our ups and downs. So I want to join in congratulating the BBCSO on its 80th anniversary. It is fantastic to see that the orchestra is performing a birthday concert of largely contemporary music in London on Friday (Oct 22) under the baton of its chief conductor Jirí Belohlávek.


Except there is one small problem. Surprise, surprise, Jiri Belohlávek is not conducting at the birthday party, chief guest conductor David Robertson is. The irony free zone known as the BBC website tells us that "the concert will also feature film footage of chief conductors past and present". Watch the screen closely for a rare glimpse of the orchestra's present chief conductor.


* Also on the screen at the Barbican concert should be Colin Davis, who was chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1967-71, and Pierre Boulez who followed him from 1971-75. Jirí Belohlávek took up the position in 2006.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Scotland's intoxicating musical export


Seen above is BIS' recording of James MacMillan's trumpet and clarinet concertos. This week the composer's new oboe concerto is being premiered by Nicholas Daniel and the Britten Sinfonia. At a pre-concert event at the Norwich performance on Wednesday Oct 20 I will be talking to James MacMillan and Nick Daniel about the new concerto, and I will also be asking them if classical music should be amplified.

The concert is one of those gems of Britten Sinfonia programming. James MacMillan is conducting, and his new oboe concerto is preceded by Rudolf Barshai's chamber orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet. In the second half a masterpiece in the form of Beethoven's Second Symphony is quite rightly moved from its usual position of concert opener to concert finale.

If you cannot get to Norwich or the other concerts, a recording of the London performance is being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Thursday evening (Oct 21). My pre-concert talk should be recorded and available later as a podcast on the Britten Sinfonia website. Other interesting talks already available include one with Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds, more on Erik here.

* More on the concert here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. I have received two complimentary tickets for this concert from the Britten Sinfonia. 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

A tale of two youth orchestras


A very talented Venezuelan youth orchestra comes to a prestigious British venue. The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra (left) plays its socks off in a Russian symphony, receives rave reviews from all the leading London critics, is broadcast on primetime BBC Radio 3 and receives more sticky buns from the programme's presenter than can be comfortably digested.

A very talented English youth orchestra comes to a prestigious British venue. The Suffolk Youth Orchestra (right) plays its socks off in a Russian symphony, no leading London critics are present.

Advice to Philip Shaw and the Suffolk Youth Orchestra - change your name to the Felipe Seguro Youth Orchestra, invest in some national costumes and ink a deal with Askonas Holt.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. 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

Monday, October 18, 2010

Does anyone remember Joyce Hatto?

On An Overgrown Path, May 2008

Telegraph website, October 2010

On An Overgrown Path has championed the work of the visionary arts administrator Sir William Glock over the years, as can be seen from my 2008 post above. I have also featured Leo Black's new book BBC Music in the Glock Era and After several times in the last few months. As can be expected other stories have appeared on Sir William Glock and on Leo Black's book. These include the recent article seen above on the Telegraph website by BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny which was linked to a Radio 3 Music Matters programme on the same subject.

There are only so many ways to present an article and the photo used in both articles comes from a third party source. So the visual similarities between the two pieces are, of course, coincidental. But the coincidences run deeper. The image file name in my article uses the standard naming convention which identifies every image On An Overgrown Path. Here is the HTML code from my article with the file name highlighted:

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_FPpiWNARTt4/SB7QWPrVQ5I/AAAAAAAAEO0/SuWUzgFrtgg/s400/Glock1.jpg

By a complete coincidence the image used in Petroc Trelawny's article has exactly the same file name. Here is the HTML code from the Telegraph website:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/files/2010/09/Glock1.jpg

Sir William Glock was a great supporter of aleatoric music. I think the two articles would have amused him. For anyone that does not remember Joyce Hatto here is a link.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. The source of the Sir William Glock photo is Sunday Times/Thomson Regional Newspapers. This is acknowledged in my 2008 article but not in the Telegraph's. 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

Building classical music's viral loop - 2

I will close with the highest 'praise' the old Quakers ever used when someone spoke or did well they fixed him with a serene gaze and said 'Friend, thee has been used'.
Words from The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott. Alex's so rewarding post is here, the Con Moto first movement of Edmund Rubbra's Fourth Symphony which it showcases is music to die for. Building classical music's viral loop - 1 is here and more on Rubbra here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. 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

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Beyond the Planets

Now Gustav Holst, Jupiter from his Suite The Planets. Let's just listen and let our imagination travel skywards...
That was presenter Rob Cowan's link on his BBC Radio 3 breakfast programme yesterday morning. If the quest for inclusiveness involves piecemeal classical music, so be it. But Rob, do the pieces really need to be so Classic FM? Could not the link have led to the first movement of the life-affirming Fifth Symphony of Holst's pupil and fellow mystic Edmund Rubbra? I can guarantee it would not have lost a single listener; instead it would have sent the imagination of many listeners already familiar with the The Planets travelling towards a wonderfully rewarding discovery in the form of Rubbra's symphonies.

* Chance Music on July 7, 2010 paired contemporary American composer Kyle Gann's vision of the planets with Holst's own four hand piano arrangement of his suite. The moving piano arrangement of Holst's Jupiter, which can be heard at the end of Chance Music, would have been another way of avoiding the Classic FM synodrome without risking a single listener. Read more about the alternative Planets here and listen to them here.

** Header image is my 1980 Chandos LP of Rubbra's Fifth Symphony in a quite magnificent performance by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler. The recording has been transferred to CD (plus Tippett's Little Music for Strings) but, alas, the striking LP cover art has gone. CD or download are £4.99 on Amazon UK. It will be the best 'fiver' you will spend for a long time.

*** More on Rubbra in Leo Black's invaluable Edmund Rubbra, Symphonist. (ISBN 9781843833550)

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All recordings mentioned were bought at retail. I note that I bought the CD transfer of Hans-Hubert Schönzeler's Rubbra 5 in the Virgin Megastore in the Manchester Arndale Centre on December 12, 1996 for £7.99. Classical music has never been so cheap as it is today. Edmund Rubbra, Symphonist was a requested review sample. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, October 15, 2010

An inside view of the Dutch arts cuts

It was with much interest that I read your blog on the cuts in Holland. Mostly also because I live in The Netherlands and am as a free-lancer often employed by one of the ensembles of the Radio (btw: you forgot to mention Dutch Radio Choir one of the best professional big/symphonic choirs). But your post reminds me a lot about the joke when an economist is sent to a classical concert and later writes a report saying most of the instrumetalists should be sacked since they do exactly the same job as their neighbours or should be doing more stuff at the same time, like the harpist could also play another instrument since she only played a few times in the whole symphony but is paid for the whole period...

What I dislike about the cuts is not their existence but the fact that they are entirely non-transparent. Nothing was said why the whole MCO (ie Radio) was to be abolished. Not one word, not one justification. They only said we need 200 million €, and this is how we will save them. Well, I suggest they sell a Rembrandt or two from the Dutch museum and they will earn more then 200m €. And as much as I realize how ludicrous this suggestion is, so is theirs.

On the other hand it is being invested in animal police and more police in general. While they will put more than 1000 people on the street without work, they want to protect the animals. How odd does that sound!? They also would like 3000 more policemen, pretending Holland is a dangerous place to live in. Well it's not! And it's a complete fascist policy: scare the people and they will follow you wherever - look at the USA.

I don't mind patronage but the problem is, Europe does not have the amount of rich people the States have, that would donate 100.000 € a year for a cultural event. I'm the first one to say: let's save. But then we must ALL save and not just some at the expense of the others. And the new government does not get that message. It's not as if they will lower the wages: they will abolish them. With a single stroke of pen. And as we know we build the sound and quality of classical ensembles through decades not weeks and once they are gone, they are gone. For ever.

Comment posted by Ambala.
I am not going to disagree with Ambala, but some clarification may be helpful. I wrote my post about the Dutch arts cuts for two reasons. First, because the coverage of the cuts outside Holland was both sparse and superficial, and secondly because I thought the classical music community was not helping its case by the way it communicated its reaction. My own position was made clear - "the cuts inflicted on the arts in Holland are truly terrible ... the ripple effects... threaten music, dance, and theatre throughout the country... all of which has been imposed without notice and selectively by a right-wing government with racist links".

Readership figures for my post, sympathetic articles elsewhere and tweets by respected commentators confirm that it helped raise awareness of the cuts. It has also sparked valuable comments, such as Ambala's. But, love it or hate it, public expenditure cuts are inevitable and they will be made by politicians who are masters of spin. So I still hold the view that classical music needs to be much more convincing in its response.

For instance Simon Rattle spoke out in the Dutch press yesterday against the cuts. Rattle is a fine and high profile musician. But his estimated salary of £700,000 at the Berlin Philharmonic (before guest conducting fees and recording royalties) comes largely from public funds (including 50% from the Berlin Senate) topped up by sponsorship from Deutsche Bank. So he may not be the most convincing independent expert on this subject.

Of course rank and file musicians are not so fortunate as the celebrities. But classical music must be seen to be changing as well as shouting. It needs to be less exclusive and must learn from world music, which combines increasing popularity with exemplary inclusiveness and low levels of public funding. Classical music must better explain why, as an increasingly celebrity, media and entertainment oriented artform, it still needs substantial levels of public funding.

Classical music also needs to be more transparent in its use of public money. Should top artists fees be disclosed when paid from public funds? Can the remuneration of senior arts administrators be justified and do they exert too much power? Should the role and fees of artsist's agents be more transparent? Do flagship events receive disproportionately high levels of funding? These questions should be debated within classical music before they are asked by the Daily Mail and its equivalents elsewhere.

I totally agree with Ambala - we build the sound and quality of classical ensembles through decades not weeks and once they are gone, they are gone for ever. But classical music also needs to put its house in order.

Notes:

1. A number of the links in the last paragraph point to articles about the BBC, which is license fee rather than State funded. The reason is that these articles provide much needed statistics and other support data which is lacking from other sources. In a 2009 Guardian interview BBC Radio 3 controller and Proms director justified his salary and expenses by saying "But I have been in and out of the BBC and know of other benchmarks". So my data on the BBC should be a pretty good benchmark as to what goes on elsewhere.

2. Estimated salary for Simon Rattle is arrived at by taking his reported BPO starting salary of £500k in 2002 and inflating by 5% pa.

3. I have made some slight changes to Ambala's post for the sake of clarity. The unchanged original can be read here.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Different trains


Elsewhere the big news is that Deutsche Grammophon are moving offices from Hamburg to Berlin. Well, that's the future of classical music sorted. Any questions? More on DG/Polydor and geography here.

The Smith Quartet's recording of Steve Reich's Different Trains featured here. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Make our garden grow


We're neither pure nor wise nor good;
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house, and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow.

Any questions?
Leonard Bernstein died on October 14, 1990. Those lines are a fitting epitaph for the composer, conductor, animateur and great human being: they conclude Candide, which, for me, is his puzzlingly neglected masterwork. Am I the only reader of this blog that can remember both where I was when I heard the news of JFK's assassination and of Lennie's death? Another masterwork, Bernstein's Mass, was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy in honour of the slain President. Read about candid Bernstein here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. My 2 CD set of Bernstein's Candide was bought at retail. Current price is £6.99 UK delivered on Amazon UK, if it not in your collection act now. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk