Sunday, February 27, 2011

Louis Andriessen in the sky with diamonds


Ecstatic illumination is the goal, the paths to it may include the spiritual, physical, chemical or, as at Snape on Friday, the musical. The video installation seen above inspired by Matthew Welton's poem Virtual Airports was the vehicle for an open session by Aldeburgh Young Musicians (8-18 year olds) curated and conducted by cellist extraordinaire Oliver Coates. Two semi-improvised works created by the young musicians framed a performance of Louis Andriessen's Workers Union. Except it was more ecstatic illumination than performance, with Andriessen's twenty minute exercise in interpretative freedom constrained by ensemble discipline played with a commitment, precision and sheer slam that totally belied the age of the musicians. Such was the clalibre of the playing that everyone I spoke to in the audience after the concert reported the same Louis in the sky with diamonds experience. Friday's ecstatic illumination was the culmination of a week's intensive work by Oliver Coates and the Aldeburgh Young Musicians and it proved resoundingly that education is not about the teacher reaching down to the pupil, but rather about the pupil reaching up to the teacher. Repeated at Southbank Centre, London on March 20 and not to be missed. More ecstacy inducing young musicians here.

Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. My ticket for the Snape concert was bought at the box office. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Disintegrate the divisive - integrate the diverse


That heading is the strapline of the Charming Transport Band. Led by sometime Loose Tubes and London Philharmonic tuba player Oren Marshall the cosmopolitan band play a syncretic mix of jazz, Afro-beat, traditional Ghanaian, Sephardic and European free-improvised music on tuba, reads, guitar, piano, keyboards, atenteben bamboo flute, djembe, congas and gome drum. They have just mentored a week long Snape workshop with Aldeburgh Young Musicians; this culminated in an hour long open session that truly integrated the diverse and proved that music education is alive and kicking in Britain if the experts would but leave London to find it.

* Featured CD is the Charming Transport Band's divisiveness disintegrating Family Connections. Released on the F-IRE Collective label it is available from the usual sources with tuba and percussion providing bass to die for.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. CD and tickets for the Snape open session were purchsed. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Music that sets one or two things straight

'Time, tide, and the accident of what the statisticians call birth have conspired to provide us with a tradition barely ours and hardly its own. Music, if it has a mind to, can sing about things like that, and maybe set one or two of them straight, yes?' from Richard Fariña's notes for Celebrations for a Grey Day
From Phil Ochs the path leads to a little known treasure from 1965. Richard Fariña married Joan Baez's sister Mimi in 1963 and Celebrations for a Grey Day was their first album. The vocal tracks are Dylan-lite, which is not a problem, but the real beauty of the album lies in its six instrumental tracks scored for autoharp, dulcimer and guitar. Richard Fariña died in a motorcycle accident a year after Celebrations for a Grey Day was released. Read about his novel It Looks Like Up to Me here, and more on Richard, Mimi and Dylan here. The autoharp and dulcimer are members of the zither family as is the kithara and there is new music for the kithara on another path.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Found in transcription


A recent mention of Dmitry Sitkovetsky's transcription of the Goldberg Variations leads us down the path of unusual takes on Bach. Jennifer Micallef and Nigerian born Glen Inanga, seen above, are the pianists on Hyperion's recording of Robin Holloway's endlessly entertaining thirty new variations known as the Gilded Goldbergs after J.S. Bach. Staying with the keyboard, György Kurtág's Bach transcriptions interleaved with his own piano miniatures Játékok on ECM are not to be missed. Finally from miniature to muscular Bach. Pascal Vigneron uses organ, brass and woodwind to realise Jacques Chailley's Gnostic re-ordering of the Art of Fugue which sequences the fugues using a digitally correct binary progression. My 2006 post about what was then a new release generated a lot of interest in the double CD which is seen below and the article is well worth reading for its background on this little known but very rewarding example of 'found in transcription'.


An earlier version of this post had a link pointing to the biography of a different Jennifer Miccaleg. My apologies and here is the correct link. All CDs were purchased at retail. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot ukAlso on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Classical music needs a touch of genius


PR spin has devalued the word genius to mean no more than a hashtag attached to the latest musical wunderkind. It was not always so, as a remarkable DVD of harpsichordist Scott Ross reminds us. Newly released by Harmonia Mundi, the video was recorded in Rome in the late 1980s when Scott Ross was terminally ill. The screen grab above comes from the DVD and an extraordinarily moving three minute extract can be seen below, double left click to make it full screen.

Scott Ross resources On An Overgrown Path include a profile centred on his masterly Scarlatti recordings, a review of a suitably quirky biography, a pilgrimage to the French church where he recorded the two Couperin organ Masses, an account of his final Aids-related illness, and his contribution to pushing the classical music envelope. All timely reminders that genius refreshes the parts Facebook and Twitter cannot reach.



With thanks to reader TMcC. My copy of the Scott Ross DVD was purchased 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A voice and message so beautiful

Phil Ochs - a voice and message so beautiful that the CIA couldn't let it continue.
Comment left by Jonathan Holloway on my Facebook link to Protest Music. While on this thread it is worth remembering that Elliott Carter’s music was championed in Europe in the 1950s by the CIA funded American Congress for Cultural Freedom and the CIA was also heavily involved in the development of LSD with André Previn among the experimenters. And staying with unlikely alliances, if Benjamin Britten and Pete Seeger sounds improbable follow this path.

Double left clicking on the video image makes it full screen. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Classical music needs new tipping points


Bernard Haitink's LP of Mahler's First Symphony was repackaged in 1972 by Philips to tie in with a prime time BBC TV profile of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. As a result a substantial new audience was created for the music of Mahler, Haintink and the Concertgebouw. Other classical music tipping points have included Ken Russel's Elgar film, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey which did for Richard Strauss and György Ligeti what Amadeus did for Mozart, and Leonard Bernstein's TV broadcasts in the States and David Munrow's radio programmes in Britain.

Writing my recent post about the Mahler tipping point created by Visconti's 1971 film Death in Venice took me down the path of music marketing. Today's classical music marketeers have only two tools in their kit, namely celebrity and social media, and neither have not been particularly successful at hitting the all important tipping points. L.P. Hartley may have told us "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there", but I see little in the promotion built around the current Mahler anniversaries to match the joined up marketing seen in the two accompanying images. Undertaking case studies of what worked before YouTube and TV talent shows were around might just help classical music find that elusive new audience.


* The joy of syncretic blogging - days after posting lamenting the neglect of Gustav Holst's music and just before uploading this post I learn that BBC TV is screening a new Tony Palmer profile of Holst on Good Friday (April 22). It would be nice if Universal Music moved quickly and repackaged their wonderful 2 CD Holst set as a tie in, but I am not holding my breath. More on Holst and that set here.

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Protest music

'In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty' - Phil Ochs
More on Orient-Occident here. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The three greatest composers who ever lived

'The three greatest composer who ever lived are Bach, Delius and Duke Ellington' - Percy Grainger at a New York University lecture in 1932.
Four of Percy Grainger's Bach transcriptions, including the mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor, feature on Pier Lane's CD of Bach transcriptions seen above. Angela Hewitt has also recorded a disc of Bach transcriptions for Hyperion which is seen below, although this does not include any of Grainger's. Angela Hewitt is directing the Britten Sinfonia from the keyboard in Bach's Keyboard Concerto No.5 in F minor BWV 1056 in concerts in Cambridge, London and Norwich on April 1, 3 and 4. Also in the programme is Dmitry Sitkovetsky's rarely heard transcription for chamber orchestra of the Goldberg Variations, with Tom Gould leading and directing the Britten Sinfonia. Before the Norwich concert on April 4 I will be asking Angela Hewitt and Tom Gould the save 64 million dollars a year question - who needs a music director?. There is a lot of fine and little known Delius waiting to be discovered including his double concerto for violin and cello and his concerto for solo cello. Sir Charles Mackerras made a notable EMI recording of those two concertos with soloists Tasmin Little and Raphael Wallfisch. It is still available, but move quickly. And completing Percy Grainger's trio of the greatest composers, there is a straight talking Duke Ellington here.

+ Percy Grainger died on 20 February 1961.


This is an early heads up for the April concerts as posting will pause in March while we travel in the Mahgreb, the political situation permitting. Header quote from Percy Grainger by John Bird (ISBN 0571117171 - OP). 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.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sadomasochism in an English country garden

At no time in his life after the age of about fifteen did Grainger abandon his sadistic and masochistic pleasure-seeking. Blood-letting was often part of his activities and he nearly always laundered his own shirts because of the telltale bloodstains. With the possible exception of Mimi Kwast, all his girlfriends were to be drawn into his particular form of lovemaking and there is ample photographic evidence of this. Several photographs exist which he took himself after one of his bouts of auto-flagellation. An indication of his extraordinary mentality can be detected from the fact that as he stood before the camera lens with bleeding wounds he also held up a notice which gave details not only of the exact time of day, location of session and number of lashes with what kind of whip, but also the type of film used in the camera and the exposure and aperture. Whenever he went on tour he took a selection of several dozen whips with him.
From Percy Grainger by John Bird (ISBN 0571117171 - OP). Photo is my European LP pressing of the classic 1959 recording by Frederick Fennell and the Eastman-Rochester "Pops" Orchestra of Grainger's music. It still is available as a CD transfer coupled with a 1965 recording by Fennell of Eric Coates' The Three Elizabeths. It is worth noting that the stunning sound on the 1959 Grainger sessions was produced by a woman, Mercury's legendary Wilma Cozart Fine. She also produced Antal Dorati's still-unbeatable Firebird for Mercury; more on that here.

+ Percy Grainger died on 20 February 1961.

Reblogged from April 2009. 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 Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

I am a virtual camera


Compelling real time tracking of a nascent pro-democracy movement here.

Listen to the soundtrack here. Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Grammy winner's surprising monastic past


Kora master Toumani Diabaté won a Grammy for his new album recorded with the late Malian blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure and there is a surprising link between the photo above and his award winning Ali and Toumani CD. I took all the photos accompanying this article at the Dominican Monastery of Notre-Dame de Beaufort in Brittany, France and in the centre of the photo above is a kora. But the kora is not there for a concert, it is an integral part of the liturgy celebrated at Beaufort by the Dominican Sisters.


There is a tradition of the kora accompanying the Holy Offices of the Catholic Church which dates back to 1963. In that year the Abbey of Solesmes in France, which is a centre of Gregorian chant scholarship, founded the sister Benedictine monastery of Keur Moussa in Sénégal in west Africa. In the absence of the usual organ and in the light of Vatican II's contemporaneous exhortation to embrace the vernacular, the kora was introduced to accompany the liturgy at Keur Moussa and the monastery's choir master Brother Dominique Catta became the first Westerner to compose for the instrument.


The kora became an indispensable part of the liturgy at Keur Moussa and to make it more practical for everyday use the traditional leather tuning rings were first replaced by wooden pegs and then by metal guitar style tensioners as can be seen in this article. Instruments using the wooden tuning pegs are known as Keur Moussa koras and Toumani Diabaté is seen playing one on the cover of his best selling Mandé Variations CD, while the kora seen in my header photo at Notre-Dame de Beaufort is the more modern version using guitar mechanisms. Others have continued to update the traditional griot instrument and there is even an electric kora developed by Foday Musa Suso whose collaborators include Philip Glass, Herbie Hancock and the Kronos Quartet.


There are some excellent musical resources on the Keur Moussa French website including details of CDs and many audio samples which can be heard by clicking on the CD covers and there is a wonderful video here. The Monastery of Notre-Dame de Beaufort also has kora resources in French and own label CDs with audio samples again accessed by clicking on the album covers. Jacques Burtin, who studied with Brother Dominique Catta of Keur Moussa, is a notable French composer for the kora who has written dance and theatre pieces for the instrument and can be seen and heard in this video. His compositions, which number St John of the Cross and Hermann Hesse among their influences, embrace the spiritual and therapeutic and his contemplative 3 CD set Le Jour de Merveilles (Day of Miracles) is recommended.


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Friday, February 18, 2011

Does the Devil have the best tunes?

'The history of the church is the history of cruelties and horror... Every church with its doctrines of redemption and salvation, above all the Orthodox Faith with its idolatory, excludes the doctrine of Christ' - from Leo Tolstoy's classic of Christian Anarchism The Kingdom of God is Within You
If Tolstoy was right and the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Devil reincarnate then the Devil definitely has the best tunes. Sergei Rachmaninov's 1915 setting of the All-Night Vigil is justly celebrated but that of Alexander Grechaninov, composed three years before Rachmaninov's, is unjustly neglected. But perhaps that will change, Grechaninov's All-Night Vigil featured here in a 2006 post about a Brilliant Classics recording and Hyperion has now re-released an interpretation by the Holst Singers directed by Stephen Layton on a budget CD. Among other important works by Grechaninov (1864-1956) is his Missa oecumenica (Universal Mass) which was written in 1936 and anticipated the syncretic works of John Tavener, Philip Glass and others by more than half a century. Stephen Layton is something of a all-night specialist (no comments please) as he also directed the recording of John Tavener's syncretic All-Night Vigil The Veil of the Temple that featured in my recent epically convoluted Gnostic path. The problem is these paths keep getting diverted and the following syncretic sentiments from conductor Vladimir Jurowski are a sure-fire invitation to convolution:
'If you read Tolstoy, a lot of his writings coincide with Buddhist thought, and I think the most Buddhist aspect of Russian culture is its passivity. Now, Shostakovich cannot be counted as passive, but this passage in the Sixth Symphony is completely static. I discovered the Tao Te King of Lao Tse about five years ago. It's one of the most important books in the history of mankind. We were never able to have a Bible at home, but this was 1987, so Gorbachev's glasnost was beginning to have its effects, and there were unofficial booksellers on the streets. It was a Bible in Russian, and I still have it. My parents thought I was losing my mind. The way yoga changes your perception of the world is amazing. It's another kind of ecstatic experience.'
But back to the current path; if you want another kind of ecstatic experience and are in travelling distance of Cambridge, UK do not miss the performance of Grechaninov's masterpiece Passion Week in the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs by the Cambridge Chorale on March 12. If you cannot get to Cambridge read about Passion Week here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All CDs mentioned were bought at retail. I have no connction with the Cambridge Chorale and will, sadly, be out of the country on March 12. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Classical music station turns the clock back


Just three days after BBC Radio 3's hidden audience loss was exposed the station has announced a U-turn in its music programming policy. So what's new?

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That's the way God planned it


Another much needed move towards equality in classical music comes with the appointment of African-American Thomas Wilkins (above) to the post of Youth and Family Concerts Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A few nights back we saw Genius Within: The Inner life of Glenn Gould, aka 'the Foss family movie'. Glenn Gould's "we could be looking at thousands of dollars" radio documentary about Petula Clark gets a mention in the movie but her groundbreaking pressing the flesh with Harry Belafonte on prime time American TV in 1968 does not, so here is the link.

Photo of Thomas Wilkins with San Diego Symphony at the Salk Institute credited to PeteOnline.net Thanks for heads up to Antoine Leboyer. 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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

New music nourished by the forgotten past

Political epochs have dates, but cultural change is less tidy. Animist, Buddhist and Hindu elements persisted into Muslim times, not merely as leftovers but as ways of thinking, handy symbolic forms. Each civilisation was built over the last, layer upon layer, but the old ways remained too useful to discarded - like the Hindu-style split-gates of the first mosques; so the past, even the forgotten past, continued to nourish the present. Village feasts still used a colour symbolism in their offerings that mimics the iconography of fifteenth-century Hindu Java (though the villagers do not know it); mystical practices blend Sufism with tantric yoga; the ancestors whisper through Muslim rites
Andrew Beatty writes in his story of encroaching Islamist orthodoxy A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java. The island of Java is Islam's eastern frontier, and it looks across the Pacific towards the west coast of America. Although Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation its religion is syncretic and draws on diverse traditions. This attracted American composer Lou Harrison and he developed a syncretic composition style that combines western instruments with the Javanese gamelan.

My header image shows the recently re-released 4 CD Nimbus box of Lou Harrison's music for orchestra, ensemble and gamelan. The recordings were originally issued on the MusicMasters label in the 1980s and 1990s and feature many leading exponents of Lou Harrison's music with a guest appearance by the composer himself and Virgil Thomson as narrators in the Suite from the 'Marriage at the Eiffel Tower'. Lengthy advocacy is unnecessary. Instead I will say just two things. The first is that the set is currently retailing on Amazon.co.uk for £17.99 and the second is buy it. Lou Harrison followed Colin McPhee's lead in his exploration of the music and culture of Java. Read more in Colin McPhee - East collides with West.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. The Lou Harrison box was bought online. 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

The Snape Mistake


Spot the mistake in the first sentence of this Independent story and judge for yourself if it affects the thrust of the first paragraph.
The other day, public booking opened for this year's Aldeburgh Festival. Helen Hayes, who runs a recording studio at the nearby Potton Hall with her husband, dashed to her phone, hoping to book seats to take their small son to hear the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. It wasn't to be. "I've just tried to book for the CBSO Rattle concert and it is sold out – before public booking opens!" she declared on Facebook, adding: "Talk about access to music... and they get most of the public funding for music in this area. Elitist? Classical Music?"
To help you spot the mistake here are two clues. The first is that the story ran on 11 February. The second is this copy, which was one click away from the story's author and the Independent sub-editor on the Aldeburgh Festival website.
We are currently accepting bookings from Friends (from 31 January). Advanced Booking opens from 22 February; General Booking will open on Tuesday 8 March.
As Norman Lebrecht told us "until bloggers deliver hard facts … paid for newspapers will continue to set the standard as the only show in town". More on the Independent's standards here.

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Meetings with remarkable musicians


Do not miss a rare opportunity to add several of the classics of syncretic music to your collection. Collaborations is a 3 CD + 1 DVD set paying tribute to the musical partnership of Ravi Shankar and George Harrison. It opens with the 1967 Chants of India which has been out of the catalogue for five years and comes with a 64 page book containing original sleeve notes plus a foreword by Philip Glass. It appears Collaborations is a 10,000 unit limited edition exclusive to Amazon and is available from both the UK and US sites and also as an MP3 download. Interesting in the week that Jordi Savall's lavish Dinastia Borja 3 CD set wins a Grammy to see the physical CD fighting back and proving that there is more to the listening experience than a computer file.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. With many thanks to reader TEMcC for the heads up. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, February 14, 2011

Grammy Savall and friends


Congratulations on their Grammy awards go to Overgrown Path regulars Jordi Savall, John McLaughlin Williams and Lady Gaga.

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

Do the arts need wide or deep audiences?


The latest UK radio audience figures provide food for thought far beyond the British Isles. At a superficial level the trend for BBC Radio 3 seems to be good news for classical music. Using the headline measure of total number of listeners, which measures the width of the audience, BBC Radio 3 has increased its listeners from Q4 2008 to Q4 2010 by 11.9%.

But this increase, which prompted the BBC press office to spin a typically disingenuous "Radio 3 continues strong performance" story, masks a more important underlying trend. Over the same period, which is when many of the popularising measures were introduced at the station, the average hours per listener declined by 14.1%. The average hours per listener figure is a measure of the depth of the audience and is a significant indicator of audience engagement and loyalty.

The answer to the question does classical music need wide or deep audiences? is, of course, it needs both. What matters is the total mass of the audience which is calculated as [width x depth], or in the case of a radio audience [audience size x average hours per listener]. When this calculation is made the total mass of the Radio 3 audience has declined over a two period by 3.9%, which is an interesting definition of a "strong performance".

A memorable lesson in the importance of the balance between the width and depth of an audience is provided by the financial services market. A few years back mortgage lenders famously chased width of audience, represented by number of home loans, at the expense of depth, represented by quality of the loans, with the result that the market imploded.

There is more food for thought when the audience data comparison is extended to commercial station Classic FM. Many of the popularising measures, see photo above, at BBC Radio 3 result from a strategy of trying to take audience from Classic FM; in fact some former Classic FM presenters have been recruited for this very purpose. But over the same two year period (Q4 2008-10) Classic FM achieved a hat trick by increasing its audience width, depth and most importantly total mass, the latter measure up 1% compared with a 3.9% decline for BBC Radio 3.

Personally I am not a fan of Classic FM. But I have to admire the way they manage their audience franchise. Not only do they have a very large audience, but their 7.2 hours per listener for the latest quarter compares with 5.5 for Radio 3. If we look at total audience mass, Classic FM's 41.0m listener hours for the quarter compares with 12.2m for BBC Radio 3. Or putting it another way, if Radio 3 not only reversed its current decline in audience mass but also achieved the totally impossible by doubling it, the station's total listener hours would still only be slightly more than half that of its commercial rival. Which raises the question of what on earth is Radio 3 trying to achieve by attacking Classic FM instead of gap spotting?

The folly of Radio 3's current strategy is self-evident and needs no further discussion. But hopefully this post may draw attention to important and wider points. Audience width, aka bums on seats, is now the international currency of the arts. Nowhere is this more evident than in the BBC press release quoted above which makes not one single mention of the depth of the audience as measured by hours per listener, despite this being an integral part of the RAJAR data. Audience depth (hours per listener for radio or return visits for concert goers) is a vitally important measure which is in danger of being forgotten in the rush to achieve top level volume targets to satisfy PR departments and funders. In the final analysis it is audience mass [width x depth] that matters. But the BBC and many others seem to be overlooking a crucial point: it is almost certainly more cost efficient to increase audience mass by boosting depth (hours per listener or return visits to concerts) through improving the quality of the experience, than by hiking the number of people exposed to it.

Finally Radio 3's futile and self-harming battle with Classic FM provides an important lesson to any arts organisations tempted to abandon its core competencies in order to chase market share. As Genghis Khan said "Never fight a battle you can't win".

* All RAJAR data quoted is available online. There is an excellent explanation of the RAJAR methodolgy here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo credit BBC Radio 3 blog. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I ask whether there can be any hesitation?

There are two positions available to us - either crime which renders us happy, or the noose, which renders us unhappy. I ask whether there can be any hesitation, lovely Thérèse , and where will your little mind find an argument to combat that one? - D.A.F. Sade: Justine
That is the epigraph from the first of Lawrence Durrell's tetralogy of novels The Alexandria Quartet which presents four perspectives on a single set of events in Alexandria, Egypt, at the time of World War II. Moroccan-born composer Maurice Ohana's Signes for flute, piano, percussion and two zithers (one tuned chromatically, one tuned in micro intervals) played by Ensemble "Ars Nova" de l'ORTF directed by Marius Constant is the soundtrack for this post. More on Lawrence Durrell here and more on that Erato recording and Maurice Ohana here.

Background image of Maurice Ohana is from the unofficial blog of the Analog Arts Ensemble. 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.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Is syncretic music the future?


Western classical music's search for a new more inclusive paradigm has led it to world music. Many, including Philip Glass, leading critics and this blog, have said the world music is the future. But so many east meets west project sound like awkward forced marriages. Yet beyond world music the path leads onwards towards a destination which may be a mirage or may be the future.

Syncretism is the process of reconciling contrary beliefs and involves melding practices of differing schools of thought. Syncretic music has been around for many centuries, notably in the blend of the three monotheistic religions in Moorish Spain, as captured by Jordi Savall and many others. The Middle East is also home to musical syncreticism and the recent budget re-release of Sister Marie Keyrouz and L'Ensemble de la Paix performing Hymns from Lebanon, which sets Christian texts in Arabic using early Eastern music scales is an excellent example.

More recently French gypsy musician Titi Robin, an artist who rejects the world music concept, has shown the power of syncreticism. His music embraces differing music and belief systems and is never far from mysticism. Sufism is a highly developed form of mysticism which has at its core the idea that all belief systems are united in a single religion of love.

Syrian composer and singer Abed Azrié, whose Arabic setting of the Gospel of John has already featured here, has developed a syncretic musical style that has found a huge audience in the Middle Eastern diaspora. His 2007 album Mystic, seen above, sets Sufi texts for voice backed by oud, violin, accordion, string base and percussion. There is no contrived authenticity, just a contemporary and accessible folk idiom which embraces differing music styles. This post is about the future of Western classical music yet not one example of syncretic music is drawn from that genre. Time to wake up and smell the soup?

* Syncretic music from India here.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

On hearing the first Bruckner of spring

At these concerts I also first listened to a symphony of Bruckner. Beyond its "heavenly length" I can remember nothing of it except its conclusion. The finale was cast in the shape of a formidably dull fugue, and as it showed signs of reaching its peroration I thought to myself that seldom or never had I heard any orchestra pile up such a prodigous volume of sound. It was at this precise moment that an army corps of brass instruments, which must have been crouching furtively behind the percussion, arose in their might and weighed in over the top with a chorale, probably intended as an invocation to "Der alte Deutsche Gott." The crash of silence at the sudden cessation of this din was as shattering upon the ears as the blow of a sandbag.
Arnold Bax writing of musical life in Dresden in 1906. It is surprising that given Mahler's current media profile we are not hearing more Bruckner. And talking of Mahler, the use of the Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony by the great Italian director Luchino Visconti in the 1971 film Death in Venice was the tipping point for the composer's popularity. Could the Epilogue of Bax's Third Symphony be his tipping point?

* Quote is from Arnold Bax's long out of print memoir Farewell My Youth. Bax the brazen romantic is here.

With thanks to Anna Joubert and John McLaughlin Williams for their Facebook comments. The inset cover is my 1972 Lyrita LP of Sir Adrian Boult conducting Bax. It is superimposed on the original 1966 LP release of Karajan conducting Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. My view on Bruckner or Bax is guided by St. Thérèse of Lisieux who, when she was four, was offered a handful of ribbons to choose from. 'I choose all' she said. 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
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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Herr Mahler has been forced to withdraw


Alex Ross has quite rightly highlighted the absence of any women composers in the New York Philharmonic's 2011/12 season. That programming faux pas is a reminder that Nicholas Kenyon famously created an entire BBC Proms season without any music by women, for which he received a knighthood three months later. Elsewhere there has been some, but not enough, progress towards gender equality in classical music. But, with a few notable exceptions, the symphony has remained an all male preserve.

One of those notable exceptions is the muscular Second Symphony of the Welsh composer Grace Williams. This was recorded by Vernon Handley, who never received a knighthood for championing women composers, and the (then) BBC Welsh Orchestra for the long defunct BBC Artium label and the recording was issued on the 1980 LP seen above. This important 20th century symphony has proved its enduring merit by living on in recorded form under license to the Lyrita label where it is available on the CD transfer seen below.

Grace Williams (1906-77) studied under Vaughan Williams in London and under Egon Wellesz, who was a pupil of Schoenberg, in Vienna. She is remembered today for her Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes and the Sea Sketches. But her severe and uncompromising Second Symphony from 1956 is a very different animal and is clearly influenced by Vaughan Williams' aggressive and masterly Fourth and Sixth symphonies. At the risk of perpetuating sexist narratives I will quote an Amazon reviewer who sums up Grace Williams' Second Symphony rather well:
... do not be taken in by the fact that she may look like a sweet little old lady, who would'nt say boo to a goose! Her music is beefy, masculine, very passionate, and packs a fair old punch. Recommended with all possible enthusiasm.
It is quite common for conductor's and soloists to cry off at the last minute due to illness, so why not composers? Wouldn't it be nice to see the following announcement:
The New York Philharmonic regrets to announce that Gustav Mahler has been forced to withdraw from the concerts featuring his First Symphony on April 12-17, 2011 due to over-exposure. However the orchestra is delighted to announce that Grace Williams has agreed to take Herr Mahler's place at short notice with her Second Symphony. The rest of the program is unchanged.

* The BBC National Orchestra of Wales continues to champion Grace Williams' music and performed her Sea Sketches at a BBC Prom as recently as 2008. The adventurousness of the BBC orchestras increases in direct proportion to their distance from the Radio 3 offices in London and I do wonder if the abrupt departure of the immensely talented Ilan Volkov from the post of chief conductor of the equally immensely talented BBC Scottish Sympony Orchestra was because he programmed Jonathan Harvey and Morton Feldman instead of his centrally allocated quota of Mahler and Shostakovich symphonies.

** Now, who was the New York Philharmonic's first woman conductor and who was the first woman to conduct a BBC Prom?

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Meetings with remarkable women


Musical celebrations are now everyday events, but musical concelebrations are still rare enough be be newsworthy. Last night saw a noteworthy premiere in Norwich Cathedral with two remarkable women and a collective force of more than three hundred young musicians as the concelebrants .

Composer June Boyce-Tillman, who is seen in my header photo conducting last night's premiere, was one of the women celebrants. She has pioneered the introduction of composing and improvisation into school classrooms, she is an authority on Hildegard of Bingen, is active in promoting the role of women in music and leads composing workshops for women. The link between music and theology is another of her special interests and for some years she has used music to encourage interfaith dialogue. Her community music making focuses on spirituality and music, and she is the founder of the Hildegard Network which brings together healing, the arts and theology.

Julian of Norwich, one of the greatest English mystics, was the other remarkable woman celebrant last night. Born in 1342, Julian survived a near fatal illness during which she received a series of mystical visions. Following this she became an anchoress in a small cell in the city of Norwich where she meditated on the meaning of her visions. While an anchoress Julian was inspired by her visions to write The Revelations of Divine Love which is thought to be the first book written in the English langauge by a woman. The strength of Julian's visions has radiated far beyond the established churches. An edition of The Revelations of Divine Love published in 1901 brought her writings to popular attention, their importance was confirmed by a Penguin edition in 1966 and the book has never been out of print over a 110 year period. The Revelations of Divine Love is now regarded as a global spiritual classic, it has been an important influence on feminist theology and is quoted in the last of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets.

Last night's premiere was Enfolded in Love, a musical pageant celebrating Julian of Norwich composed by June Boyce-Tillman to a commission from the Friends of Julian of Norwich. The performers seen in my photos were the other concelebrants, a chamber orchestra and large choir, all drawn from Norwich schools with ages 8 upwards, plus a soloist and a group of three folk singers acting as narrator, all female. Now I am well aware that the appearance of words such as schools, pageant, and feminist theology means I will have been hemorrhaging readers in large numbers over the last few paragraphs. Which is a great pity, because June Boyce-Tillman has long ago taken on board the lesson that Benjamin Britten taught so well; music written for children does not mean music written down to children.


Enfolded in Love is not compromised by being written for performance outside the usual "serious music" environment. It uses daring harmonies and challenges the performers and audience with thematic juxtapositions of plainsong, traditional secular tunes and Lutheran chorales. It introduces non-classical elements such as improvisation and follows Bach and Britten in dismantling the barrier between performer and listener with congregational hymns. And it uses the unique performing space of a magnificent Norman cathedral to deploy spacial and theatrical effects. With no interval and a duration equalling Mahler's longest symphony Enfolded in Love could have been a very long listen for an audience drawn by the performers rather than the music. But not a bit of it. Like musical celebrations, standing ovations are now everyday events. But, despite this, the ovation received by the young performers, by June Boyce-Tillman and by Julian of Norwich is still newsworthy.

Which is a great note to end on. But... last night's performance was not a regional or local event. June Boyce-Tillman lives in London, she is professor of applied music at the University of Winchester and her books have been translated into Dutch, Japanese, Portuguese and Polish. Yet, despite this, I looked in vain at last night's performance for any of the mainstream music journalists who repeatedly pronounce on the future of music education from nearby London. It seems a woman composer/conductor travelling from Winchester to Norwich with a little help from a medieval mystic is not as newsworthy as a male conductor travelling from Venzuela to London with a lot of help from the commercial/intermediary complex.

But we should not let the mainstream media's obsession with stereotypes spoil a unique musical concelebration. One of Julian of Norwich's best known sayings, which is set in Enfolded in Love, sums up the message of last night's premiere perfectly:
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

* The remarkable musician who was the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra can be met here and there is another youth orchestra in action here.

My photos were taken under the almost impossible constraints now imposed by schools on photographing their pupils. Although untypically distant I hope they convey something of the atmosphere in Norwich Cathedral while meeting the myriad and frankly sometimes baffling requirements of the schools and others. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Monday, February 07, 2011

Music and malice in Britten's shadow

...the only ever time I ever heard [Sir Arthur] Bliss really angry was when he was talking about Bill [William Alwyn], who at that time had not yet received a single performance at Aldeburgh in spite of living so near. I have been told that Britten was personally responsible for having the careers of possible rivals ruined if he could; those who suffered from his jealousy (all of course normal married men) included Walton, Finzi, Howells, Berkeley and a number of other genuine composers. With his works framed in nothing but avant-garde Britten was able to shine - and went to his death a millionaire, complaining that he didn't get enough performances.
That is the pugnacious Ruth Gipps writing to Doreen Carwithen, widow of the composer William Alwyn and a fine composer in her own right. Ruth Gipps (1921-99), seen below, was a concert standard pianist and oboeist and her output as a composer included five symphonies. Early in her career she was a victim of gender discrimination and despite being a leading candidate was passed over for the permanent post of conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra because the appointment of a woman chef conductor was considered "indecent".


Ruth Gipps' views on Britten were, for understandable reasons, extreme. But there is some truth in her assertion that the careers of William Walton, Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells, Lennox Berkeley, William Alwyn and other what she terms "genuine" composers suffered under the shadow of Britten in the post-war years. If we look to America for a comparison, Aaron Copland was in a position similar to Britten as senior national composer, but Samuel Barber, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein and David Diamond did not suffer the same eclipse as their English peers, although others such as Paul Creston, Vittorio Giannini and William Grant Still were marginalised.

But there are reasons beyond those alleged by Ruth Gipps why these composers struggled to emerge from Britten's shadow. In 1945 the premiere of one work changed the direction of contemporary music in Britain and there was no American equivalent to that first performance of Peter Grimes. Not only did Britten become his country's senior composer but the success of his masterpiece meant that the output of several generations of British composers from Vaughan Williams to Gerald Finzi would be forever labelled regressive. Malice was inappropriate but also inevitable and Finzi wrote to a friend after the Peter Grimes premiere saying "It's beyond me, the Britten boom".

Gerald Finzi is an interesting case study as his reputation has struggled for more than a half century to emerge both from Britten's shadow and from genre stereotyping. In a typical programme or sleeve note Finzi is cast as a quintessentially English composer whose melancholic output was shaped by his rural childhood and isolation from the musical mainstream.

In fact Gerald Finzi was born in London in 1901 of wealthy parents of mixed European Jewish descent and he was very aware of his Jewish lineage. Until he was 21 he lived in urban Harrogate while studying music. From 1926 to 1933 lived in London where he studied with R.O. Morris, whose other students included Michael Tippett, before teaching at the Royal Academy of Music.

Like both Britten and Tippett, Gerald Finzi was a committed pacifist, he followed the rise of National Socialism closely and was distressed by the increasing anti-Semitism in Germany. During the Second World War he worked for the Ministry of War Transport and on his own account assisted German and Czech refugees. Finzi was encouraged in his composing by his close friend Benjamin Frankel who was born in London of Polish-Jewish parents and studied serial composition with Hans Keller. Frankel, seen below, was for some years a member of the British Communist Party and his Violin Concerto is dedicated "in memory of 'the six million'", a reference to the Jews murdered during the Holocaust.


Of course there was the bucolic Finzi who finally settled in the country where he saved strains of English apples trees from extinction . But Finzi's biographer Stephen Banfield suggests that the pastoral style which became increasingly evident in the composer's later works was more a reaction against what Ruth Gipps called the "avant-garde Britten" than the result of natural development. Finzi's pastoral style reached its apogee in his final work, the evocative Cello Concerto, which has sylistic similarities to Elgar's iconic concerto for the same instrument. Finzi composed his Cello Concerto in 1955; this was the same year that Stockhausen started composing Gruppen for three orchestras.

Thankfully, despite the musical style police, we do not need to choose between Stockhausen and Finzi and today the Cello Concerto is deservedly finding a place in the repertoire alongside Gruppen. But there is no doubt that Finzi's style is far more distinctive both in his earlier works and when he is writing for the voice. Nowhere is this more so than in Dies Natalis, his setting for tenor or soprano and string orchestra of texts from Centuries of Meditation by Thomas Traherne which was given its first performance in 1940.


Finzi, seen in the photos above and below, composed several Traherne settings and his passion for a recondite 17th century metaphysical English poet is sometimes invoked as evidence of the composer's melancholy and conservative nature. But in fact Traherne's poetry appears in some surprising places. For instance his verse appeared in the lyrics of the 1960s psychedelic folk group The Incredible String Band, in the 2006 film Amazing Grace about the abolition of slavery, and in a 1992 science fiction novel by David Zindell. Traherne's poetry was also a strong influence on Thomas Merton, who cites him numerous times in his journals and essays.

Many of Finzi's compositions evolved over long periods and Dies Natalis, which translates as Day of Birth, was actually started in the mid-1920s. But it was only in response to a commission for the 1939 Three Choirs Festival that Finzi completed it. Dies Natalis, which despite its title is sung in English, is a celebration of childhood innocence which is often heard at Christmas. There are five movements opening with a lyrical instrumental Intrada and the structure follows that of a Bach cantata. Although Dies Natalis was completed on schedule, the 1939 Three Choirs Festival was cancelled due to the outbreak of war and the first performance was delayed until January 1940 when it was given by the soprano Elsie Suddaby, one of the sixteen original soloists in Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music, with Maurice Miles conducting his own string orchestra.

Fortunately Dies Natalis is well served in the CD catalogue. The 1964 recording by tenor Wilfred Brown and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer's son Christopher Finzi that started the Finzi revival is still in the EMI catalogue and must be the first choice. Also recommended is the Hyperion disc with John Mark Ainsley and the Corydon Orchestra conducted by Matthew Best while at budget price there is a Naxos release sung by James Gilchrist. An audio sample of Gerald Finzi's incredible string cantata can be heard here.


* Tenor Mark Padmore and the Britten Sinfonia are performing Finzi's Dies Natalis in Cambridge Feb 7, in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Feb 9 and in Norwich on Feb 13 and I will be presenting the pre-concert talk with Mark in Norwich. The Cambridge concert is being recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Feb 11 and after the concert tour Mark Padmore and the Britten Sinfonia will be recording Dies Natalis for release by Harmonia Mundi. Also in the Britten Sinfonia concert is music by another composer identified by Ruth Gipps as being in Britten's shadow, William Walton's Sonata for Strings. Mark Padmore is singing the role of the Evangelist and directing the Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra and Choir in performances of Bach's St John Passion at Snape over Easter.

* Shedding some light rather than heat on Ruth Gipp's comment about 'millionaire' Britten may be helpful. When Peter Pears died in 1986 his and Britten's estates were constituted into the Britten-Pears Foundation which supports Aldeburgh Music and the Aldeburgh Festival, and the Britten-Pears Libary, Archive and Red House complex. The Foundation also supports the recording and publication of Britten's music, the work of young composers and human rights and pacifist causes.

* Ruth Gipps is correct in asserting that William Alwyn's music was neglected at the Aldeburgh Festival under Britten's curatorship. But in 1985, nine years after Britten's death and while Aldeburgh was under Peter Pears stewardship the Festival commissioned and gave the first performance of Alwyn's Third String Quartet in Blythburgh Parish Church, a few hundred yards from Alwyn's home. The Quartet was the composer's last major work and he died just three months after the performance. If you do not know Alwyn's three magnificent String Quartets, and you should, here is a hot tip. The Rasumovsky Quartets outstanding 2005 recordings of the Quartets for Dutton are available new from Amazon resellers in Britain and the States for £2.43 or less plus delivery. Need I say more?

* Christopher Finzi achieved some prominence in other areas after his father's death as biographer Stephen Banfield tactfully describes:
Church Farm in any case saw radical change as Christopher married Hilary du Pré (Jacqueline's sister)in 1961, started a family, ceased to be a professional cellist, took up chicken farming and eventually divided the house, which he had extended, for the use of several families in the 1970s mould.
* Header quote is from the recommended The Innumerable Dance, the Life and Work of William Alwyn by Adrian Wright (ISBN 978184383412). Other sources include Gerald Finzi, an English Composer by Stephen Banfield (ISBN0571195989)

* Maurice Miles conducted the first performance of Dies Natalis. More on the forgotten maestro here.

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