Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What price the Simon Bolivar roadshow?


It is bittersweet that BBC Radio 3's Philippa Schuyler profile, with its connections to this blog, is being broadcast on Friday (Oct 14) in the interval of a concert by the Ulster Orchestra. Sweet because this is a notable orchestra, its first principal conductor Maurice Miles was profiled here in 2007 and JoAnn Falletta, seen above, has recently been appointed its first woman principal conductor. Bitter because buried in the small print of Radio 3 controller Roger Wright's statement about last week's BBC budget cuts is the news that "The volume of output broadcast from the Ulster Orchestra will be reduced."

Founded in 1966 with funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and based in Belfast, the Ulster Orchestra was increased in size when the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra was disbanded in 1981 as a result of BBC budget cuts - is this story starting to sound familiar? Past principal conductors have included Vernon Handley, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, and Thierry Fischer. Because of its broadcast and Proms appearance the Ulster Orchestra is sometimes mistakenly thought to be a BBC house orchestra. But its £3.5 million income comes from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast City council, and the box office as well as the BBC. However the orchestra receives, and I quote, "significant payments for a specified number of (BBC) broadcast recordings (an essential and vital part of the funding equation)".

No mention was been made in the BBC's national press statements about the reduction in broadcasts from the Ulster Orchestra, so I offer the following food for thought. The BBC's classical music output is already too London-centric; yet there will be, and I quote "additional funding for the Proms". This is due, I suggest, to the political value of the prestigious Proms to the beleaguered BBC in the 2016 charter negotiations. As the only full-time professional orchestra in Northern Ireland the Ulster Orchestra employs 63 musicians and 18 administrative staff. It has a full programme of education and outreach work aimed at improving access and participation. This includes working with education and library boards, schools, universities and individual students, and its initiatives with young people in deprived areas of Belfast date back to 2005.

I have no other information on the impact on the Ulster Orchestra of the reduction in its broadcast output. But I do wonder just how much money is being saved in total in Northern Ireland compared with the cost of just one visit of the Simón Bolívar road show to orchestra-saturated London.

* Here are details of the Festival of the Americas concert at 7.45pm on October 14th. The concert is being broadcast live by BBC Radio 3 from Belfast Waterfront with the Colour of Genius programme aired during the interval. I am sure Philippa Schuyler, wherever she may be, will approve of the conductor and soloist, while in a neat piece of synchronicity three of the featured composer appear in my original Philippa post:

Ulster Orchestra with JoAnn Falletta conductor and Joanna MacGregor piano

Bernstein - On the Town: Three Dance Episodes
Copland - Three Latin American Sketches
Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue
Gershwin - 'I Got Rhythm’ Variations
Piazzolla - Tangazo
Marquez - Danzon No.2
Copland - El salón México

Note that this repertoire list is the correct version - the Radio 3 website omits (or rather buries) Copland's popular El salón México

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1 comment:

Philip Amos said...

When you wrote that Philippa would approve of both conductor and soloist in the Americas concert, the thought, quite unbidden, "A black woman pianist?!" came into my mind. Just reflecting, I can think of not one living, but I can recall one who left us in 1983: Winifred Atwell. I think she deserves a mention in the context of this thread, for surely fewer and fewer today remember her, and hardly any know that, born in Trinidad and Tobago, she went in the early 40s to study with Alexander Borowsky in Boston. (As an aside, Borowsky's recordings very much need to be reissued.) In 1946 she went to London and was taken into the Royal Academy of Music, where she was the first female pianist to receive the highest grade for musicianship (a point relevant to what follows).

So much for Wiki plus a little surfing. Whether she did, as claimed, say that she "...starved in a garret to get onto concert stages",I'm not sure. However, what this bit of research certainly didn't tell me was whether my notion that Atwell recorded the Grieg Piano Concerto was correct, but I had only to search for her name and Grieg Concerto than I was looking at a site called Pristine Records and their remastered reissue of that very thing on the Pristine Records label, a label certainly new to me.

Atwell recorded the Grieg with the LPO conducted by Stanford Robinson on Decca (LF1026). It was released in 1955 in mono, but the Pristine site mentions that it was, in fact, one of the first classical recordings made in stereo in the UK. The site also provides a description of the system used (Roy Wallace's 'Decca Tree').

Trevor Harvey, I'm afraid, just savaged the performance in Gramophone. I can't find the outer movements on the net, but the Adagio may be heard on the Pristine site, and I have to say it moved me not a little. First, it was very obvious that the LPO did not regard this occasion as tantamount to accompanying Liberace in the first half of the first movement of the Tchaik with half the notes left out. Their playing in the opening is intense and contains some lovely sounds, notably from the first cello. Listening to Atwell in that one movement, no, this is not Solomon or Curzon or Bachauer, or whoever else TH mentioned, but here too is intense and serious playing and at certain points a quite lovely tone. TH wrote of a lack of preparation and some strange ideas in the performance, and re preparation, that may be a valid point. Atwell was staggeringly popular and, a truly lovely woman, much loved in the mid-50s, so how much time she could devote to the project is a question.

In regard to Atwell's popularity and how loved she was -- there was not an iota of the 'celebrity' about her, no side or airs or graces -- there was an exception: the United States. Her first US appearance was to have been on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. She was in New York ready to do her bit when she was told they had decided the segment wouldn't be recorded for fear of reaction in the South hurting Sullivan's ratings. She went back to London and performed at a private party for the Queen (who asked her to play Roll Out the Barrel, but still...). Funny old world, ain't it?