Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What sparked the Mahler revival?


Hull Truck Theatre, which "makes real theatre for real people", brought Dennis Kelly's DNA to the Wolsey Theatre Ipswich yesterday - production shot above. Three quarters of the good sized audience were school parties as the play is a GCSE English set text. Direction is by the National Theatre's Anthony Banks and the composer and sound designer is Alex Baranowski who works in theatre, TV and film. So a receptive young audience was exposed to quality contemporary music without entering an 'uncool' concert hall. Is incidental music for the theatre now an overlooked art form? Is contemporary classical music too obsessed with having the platform to itself? What part did Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice play in the Mahler revival?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. We paid for our tickets for DNA, readers who are able to catch its extended tour should not hesitate. 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, February 28, 2012

Is dumbing up classical music's next big thing?


The problem today is not one of restricting classical music to any single audience. On the contrary, it is a matter of making concert going a necessary experience and consequently a social activity that is essential to a community as a whole. This cannot be achieved by popularising classical music in a naive way. This cannot be achieved by adapting classical music to the needs of its audience. It cannot be achieved either by limiting classical music to the expectations of an elite.

Such a role for classical music can only be created on the basis of a new audience with the intention of serving all those members of a community who see classical music as a possibility of renewal for themselves.
To create that manifesto I took the text of Peter Brook's 1969 funding application for his Centre International de Recherches Théâtrales and simply substituted the words 'classical music' for 'the theatre'. Brook's funding application was successful and resulted in milestones of the performing arts including his interpretations of the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata and the Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds, and culminated in the creation of the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris. Below is a scene from Brook's film of G.I. Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men.


In the 1970s Pierre Boulez and BBC music supremo William Glock shared Peter Brook's vision of reaching a new audience by making the performing arts a necessary experience, and my header photo shows Boulez in the Roundhouse before a BBC concert in 1974. Peter Brook was a follower of the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff whose teachings were based on the principle that "If we live calm, monotonous days and peaceful nights, we stultify; we had better torture our own spirit than suffer the inanities of calm". Despite programmes that must have tortured the spirit of some listeners, the photo below shows the Royal Albert Hall prepared for Stockhausen's Carré which was played twice in one Prom in 1972, the Boulez/Glock approach won the hearts and minds of audiences and produced what Nicholas Kenyon describes as "one of the landmarks of Britain's musical life in the twentieth century".

Forty years later classical music is in danger of drowning in the inanities of calm. But as the combined audience for the the unashamedly dumbed down BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM shrinks by half a million, Thomas Adès' Violin Concerto receives whoops of approval from contemporary music virgins in Norwich and Missy Mazzoli's new multi-media opera sells out in New York. Is dumbing up classical music's next big thing?


The text of Peter Brook's funding application can be found in Michael Kurstow's biography of the director. This book contains more wisdom about the performing arts that any other volume I know; it is also pretty good on G.I. Gurdjieff, a subject that I will return to. 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.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Wine, women and Buddhism


Lawrence Durrell, who was born on February 27th 1912, is celebrated as the author of two of the great achievements of twentieth century literature, the Alexandria Quartet and the Avignon Quintet, and also as a peerless travel writer; but the story of how he embraced Buddhism towards the end of his life is less well known. The accompanying photos shows the great hall of Dashang Kagyu Ling monastery in La Boulaye, France and I took them when I visited the monastery, which is also known as Temple of a Thousand Buddhas, a couple of years ago. The Temple, which follows the Vajrayana tradition of Tantric Buddhism , was consecrated in 1987 and Lawrence Durrell played an important role in raising funds for its construction.

Gnosticism and the Christian heresies of Europe and the Near East provide the spiritual thread from which Lawrence Durrell's novels are woven, but he also had a deep interest in the mysticism of the Far East. In 1982 Durrell and his friend Jacques Lacarrière were exploring the Morvan Forest in central France by car and during their journey were discussing the Tibetan poet and yogi Milarepa, whose writings had long fascinated Durrell. As they drove they met by chance two Tibetan lamas walking on the road. The lamas were on their way to the Kagyu Ling Buddhist study centre at La Boulaye, so Durrell and Lacarrière gave them a lift. At which point the Buddhists doctrine of dependent origination came into play: when Durrell arrived at Kagyu Ling, which he had never visited, he was amazed to discover that the Buddhist tradition practised there was inspired by Milarepa.

Durrell returned to Kagyu Ling many times and his support was instrumental in its expansion from a study centre to a Temple. The Buddhist ambiance appealed to him because, as the novelist's biographer Gordon Bowker explains "the ghost of Original Sin, it seemed, had been thoroughly exorcised by these gentle people". In his last years Durrell said "I think I'm more a Buddhist than I would have believed. It's the only religion that's demonstrable... It's as honest as ice-cream". In 1986 the four times married Durrell and his final companion Françoise Kestman celebrated a Buddhist wedding at the Temple helped by a consecrated bottle of local wine. Soon after Durrell died in 1990 a Buddhist lama reported that he was already reincarnated and living as the proprietor of a vineyard in Burgundy.

* The Lawrence Durrell centenary website is here. French contemporary composer Eliane Radique has made settings of Milarepa's poems for voice and electronics. My photo of Dashang - Temple of a Thousand Buddhas originally appeared in a post about Jonathan Harvey's String Quartets. Buddhist chants meet El Sistema in the Mantra Mountain project.

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Breaking - exclusive on the Oscar winners

Oscar van Dillen (left) is a contemporary Dutch musician and composer. His studies included North-Indian classical music (sitar, tabla, vocal) with Jamaluddin Bharatiya in Amsterdam, bansuri with Gurbachan Singh at Berkeley, California, classical and jazz flute at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam, and medieval and Renaissance music with Paul van Nevel in Leuven (Belgium). He now teaches world music composition and jazz, pop and world music department at the Conservatory of Rotterdam. In 2003 van Dillen's first CD, de Stad (the City), was released on Cybele Records. Do follow that last link for a treasure house of contemporary music. Biography via this link.

Oscar Stranoy is a contemporary Argentinian composer who studied with with Guillermo Scarabino, Guy Reibel, Michael Levinas, Gerard Grisey, Hans Zender, and John Carewe. He works in Europe and the US, and lives in Paris. Biography here, personal website via this link.

Oscar Straus (1870-1954) was a Viennese composer of operettas, film scores and songs. He also wrote about 500 cabaret songs, chamber music, and orchestral and choral works. He studied music in Berlin under Max Bruch, and became an orchestral conductor, working at the Überbrettl cabaret. In 1939, following the Nazi Anschluss, he fled to Paris and then to Hollywood, but returned to Europe after the war. His surname is spelt with a single 's'. An unconfirmed story says that he dropped the second 's' to distance himself from the Strauss musical dynasty. Biography via this link.

Oscar Herrero is a leading Spanish flamenco soloist, composer, and teacher . Personal website via this link.

Oscar Peterson was one of the all-time great jazz pianists. Born in 1925 he established his reputation through the 1950s, 60s and 70s with a varying trio line-up. He won seven Grammys, and his album Night Train is a gramophone classic. Personal website via this link.

Oscar Perez is a New York based jazz pianist and composer. He has a longstanding involvement with gospel music, and is music director of St Edward's Church in Harlem. Personal website via this link.

Oscar Hernandez is the New York based founder, music director and pianist for the "Spanish Harlem Orchestra" who received a Grammy Award nomination in 2002 for best salsa album. Biography via this link.

Oscar Macchioni is an Argentinian pianist who teaches at the University of Texas. His concert repertoire includes Antonio Soler, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla, Alberto Ginastera, Carlos Guastavino, and Castro. Personal websire via this link.

Oscar Shumsky (left) was an American violinist born in Philadelphia. He taught at Curtis Insitute and Yale University, after serving in the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini. His classic recordings include Ysaye's Solo Sonatas . He was first violin of the Primrose string quartet. Biography via this link.

Oskar Kokoschka (yes I know, but the Oscars are noted for their self-indulgence) was the expressionist painter who provided a libretto for an opera by Ernst Krenek, whose story is told in Multicultural, multimedia and banned.

This post originally appeared in 2007 but I thought it worth repeating. I have checked and updated the main links but apologise if any others are broken - if so let me know. Also please add missing Oscar, or Oskar, winners using the 'Comments' facility.

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

If that is what classical music is, it's really grim


My co-presenter at this evening's Britten Sinfonia pre-concert event in Norwich is violinist Pekka Kuusisto - seen above. While researching the talk I came across this in a 2007 Guardian profile:
Not that he's in sympathy with anything that might be described as crossover. Perish the thought. A few years ago, one of Kuusisto's UK visits coincided with the Classical Brit awards, and he found himself watching them on TV, agog for all the wrong reasons. "Andrea Bocelli got some kind of lifetime achievement award, and then the Opera Babes performed, and the Planets - and so the whole country is being taught to believe that this is what classical music is! It's really grim, you know? I was shocked".
Less grim is the news that the first four New York performances of Missy Mazzoli's new multi-media opera 'Song from the 'Uproar: the Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt', which presumably will not feature in the Classical Brits, have sold out - more on Isabelle Eberhardt here.

* Pekka Kuusisto plays Thomas Adès' Violin Concerto with the composer conducting the Britten Sinfonia in Norwich tonight (Feb 25), on Monday (Feb 27) in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Tuesday (Feb 28) in Dublin. There is a New York Times review of their recent Lincoln Centre performance here. Kudos to BBC Radio 3 for broadcasting the QEH concert live: however the presenter is Petroc - if that is what classical music is, it's really grim - Trelawny. And yes, I know Pekka Kuusisto's agent is Harrison Parrott.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. I have received compensation in kind for presenting the Britten Sinfonia pre-concert talk. 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, February 24, 2012

If you dig Led Zeppelin try this Janacek


Music journalist Stephen Davis emails "I'VE BEEN DIGGING "JANACEK CHORAL WORKS" ON HARMONIA MUNDI... I DROVE TO MANHATTAN LAST WEEKEND AND LISTENED TO THE "SIX MORAVIAN CHORUSES" ON MY JAG'S ALPINE SPEAKERS AT HIGH VOLUME. INCREDIBLE!" At first it may seem strange that the biographer of Led Zeppelin and ghost writer for Michael Jackson digs Janáček. But in fact Janáček's choral works, with their use of Bohemian and Moravian folk themes, provide a bridge between art music and popular culture. Stephen collaborated with me on my posts about art music colliding with popular culture in Jajouka, Morocco. Read them here and here.

Janáček's Choral Works was bought online. Impecunious UK readers should note HMV.com offer lower prices and a faster service than Amazon. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

New chief conductor but the same old tune


News came today that Sakari Oramo, seen above, will be the next chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Which means he will conduct at the BBC Proms. So first I googled 'Sakari Oramo Proms', which told me that his most recent Proms appearance was in 2011 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and soloist Alice Sara Ott. Then I googled 'Sakari Oramo agent' which gave the result 'Harrison Parrott'. Next I googled 'Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra agent' which gave the result 'Harrison Parrott'. Finally I googled 'Alice Sara Ott agent' which gave the result 'Harrison Parrott'. Great conductor but plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose..

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Classical music is excited about the wrong things


Ask anyone in the business what is the biggest challenge facing classical music, and it is odds on their reply will revolve around funding cuts, inadequate music education and ageing audiences. It is also a dead certainty that retrogressive attitudes within classical music itself will not feature among the challenges. Which is puzzling when you look at what classical music gets excited about. The New Year started with a global concert by one of the most reactionary institutions in the arts world. This was followed by the Mahler ringtone in a teacup and then came the world premiere of two minutes of music by a long dead composer vigorously spun by a social media agency retained by the audience hungry BBC with a little help from their Guardian angel.

All of which was enough to convince the general public that classical music had somehow manouvered its cerebral cortex into the proximity of its nether regions, even before it turned out that the Brahms "discovery" was the product of spin and not substance. It would be difficult to accept all this nonsense even if there was no substance left to get excited about. But that is most certainly not the case, as is proved by this notable new CD release.


My post about the recent music and symmetry event at Snape curated by Oxford professor of mathematics Marcus du Sautoy generated a lot of attention. The subject of music's overlap with science always exerts a particular fascination, possibly because it takes us into what the Sufi philosopher Ibn 'Arabi called barzakh or the intermediate world, the realm between the known and unknown. Creation theory remains a contentious subject for both Christians and Muslims and in 2009 the evolutionists celebrated both the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work ‘On the origin of Species’ with events including the Cambridge Darwin Festival.

As part of the Festival celebrations the organisers commissioned the String Quartet No.4 "Charles Darwin" from composer John Ramsay. The Quartet is written as a single twenty-one minute movement divided into three sections. The first portrays the evolution of the earth from chaos to order, the second describes the development of life and the arrival of Homo sapiens, and the third is a speculation on the future of our planet and mankind. In Ivesian style the quartet quotes from liturgical music of the three monotheistic religions and the 5/4 rhythmic pulse from Holst's Mars makes an appearance representing human discord.


John Ramsay, seen below, was born in London in 1931. He studied music privately with several distinguished teachers and has combined music with an illustrious academic career in the field of geology culminating in professorships at Imperial College London, the University of Leeds and University of Zurich. Since retiring he has lived in Isirac, France where he teaches the cello and continues with some academic work. John Ramsay's music explores the outer reaches of tonality and shows the influence of Bartók and Martinů and Ives. It is notable for its use of non-twelve tone serialism; as an example the Fibonacci Series, the Golden Section, determines the harmonic series in the fifth movement of his String Quartet No.4.

At a time when decoding is mandatory to separate spin from substance, it is refreshing to discover a CD release that does exactly what it says on the can. John Ramsay's Four String Quartets have been recorded by the Fitzwilliam Quartet - acclaimed for their Shostakovich recordings - on 2 CDs for independent label Métier. Totally committed performances are captured in excellent sound in St. Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire by Philip Hobbs, who is best known for his work for Linn Records. But above all we are not dealing with promise: John Ramsay comes to us as a fully formed composer with something important to say and the technique to say it. It would be nice if classical music gets as excited about eighty-seven minutes of never previously heard John Ramsay as it did about two minutes of previously heard Brahms. But I am not holding my breath.


* The distinctive cover art and CD label seen here use micro-photographs of rock crystals in polarised light by John Ramsay. Writing string quartets is most definitely not among my talents or ambitions, but I did read geology as a subsidiary subject at university. Which leads to Meditations on a Byzantine hymn.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Aldeburgh's poignant song without words

A Catalan proverb tells how Qui canta, els seus mals espanta - 'He who sings, frightens away his troubles'. After the Spanish Civil War the traditional Catalan lullaby El Cant Dels Aucells - 'The Song of the Birds' was adopted by Republican refugees in French internment camps and went on to become a global anthem for the Catalan cause in Pablo Casals' cello arrangement. A young Jordi Savall heard Casals play at the Prades Festival and in 1988 the Catalan viol player recorded 'The Song of the Birds' with his wife the soprano Montserrat Figueras and their children Arianna and Ferran. The Astrée album featuring 'The Song of the Birds' launched Montserrat Figueras on a richly productive musical and humanitarian career that ended with her tragically early death in November last year. Her final album Mare Nostrum was recorded under the shadow of the cancer that was to take her from us. It includes 'The Song of the Birds', but the lullaby becomes the most poignant of laments in a version without voice. In a bold piece of programming the 2012 Aldeburgh Festival is presenting Mare Nostrum in a typically bracing Festival that ranges from Gesualdo to Cage. Montserrat Figueras is of course irreplaceable, and in recognition of this Mare Nostrum is being given at Aldeburgh without voices. There is a deeply moving video of the memorial concert for Montserrat Figueras below.



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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Swiss-born female Lawrence in man-drag


While I was developing my interest in the cultural explorer, Sufi adept and libertine Isabelle Eberhardt composer Missy Mazzoli and director Gia Forakis were engaged in the far more arduous task of creating their multi-media opera on the same subject. 'Song from the Uproar: the Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt' opens at The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, New York on February 24. Now Gia writes to tell me that two of the five performances have already sold out following Justin Davidson's critics' pick billing in New York Magazine which previews the production as "a multimedia don’t-call-it-opera dramatizing the story of the intrepid Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss-born female Lawrence in man-drag". As Isabelle herself once wrote “The way I see it, there is no greater spiritual beauty than fanaticism, of a sort so sincere it can only end in martyrdom.” More on my fascination with Lawrence in man-drag here.

Graphic is sampled from the cover of the Peter Owen collection of Isabelle Eberhardt's writing 'Prisoner of Dunes'. This cover is the work of Juliet Standing and is in turn sampled from a detail of 'Algerian Women in their Apartment' by Eugène Delacroix 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.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Brass bands and Xenakis are not a crazy mix


When I wrote yesterday's headline 'Salvation Army band plays Xenakis' I realised it was a compromise. Twitter and other social media demands brevity, my headline needed to imply a clash of styles, but I knew it ran the risk of being interpreted as disparaging Salvation Army bands. I did consider 'Palm Court orchesta plays Xenakis' but a quick Google check suggested the term 'Palm Court Orchestra' might leave North American readers baffled. (Was I wrong on that?) So I ran with the Salvation Army reference despite some misgivings. Which means I was not surprised to receive the following very constructive email from a reader:
Brass Bands and Xenakis are not such a crazy mix. When Norway's Einkanger-Bjorsvik Band appeared at the Saturday night concert of the 2007 Brass in Concert Championships (the UK's leading brass band entertainment competition) they included in their programme Xenakis' Rebonds, played by one of their young percussionists. The audience was very appreciative (I have the DVD - http://www.worldofbrass.com/acatalog/26043.html). Actually, brass band audiences don't get enough credit for the breadth of repertoire that they will happily listen to. They will pack out a hall to hear an entertaining mix of styles from classical transcriptions to arrangements of pop tunes, and will be equally happy to listen to original works for brass, especially the test pieces that written for the major competitions. The test pieces are always highly virtuoisc and, while some of them are little more than showcases for the quiality of the bands, many test pieces are serious pieces of music and deserve a hearing. Composers like Philip Sparke, Derek Bourgeois and Edward Gregson have written complex and rewarding scores for brass band that would resonate more with the disenchanted Radio 3 audience than the many retreads of light classics that have pushed them away. This year there has been a lot of excitement in the band world over the test piece for the Norwegian National Brass Band Championships, Goldberg 2012 by Svein H. Giske. Here's a little information about the piece (translated from the Norwegian): http://bjorsvikbrass.wordpress.com/kven-er-med/kornett/svein-henrik-giske/english-goldberg-2012/. I am yet to hear it, but am very keen to do so. I'm hoping Eikanger or Manger takeit to the European Championships as their own choice work.

As for Salvation Army Bands, have you heard one recently? Many SA bands (not just the the International Staff Band, but several strong corps bands like those of Hendon, Enfield and Kettering) play quite a variety of music. Yes, there are still hymn tunes and marches and song arrangements, but there are also big, challenging works for brass band that are influenced by the world of classical music. For example: The principal trombonist of the London Symphony Orchestra, Dudley Bright, has written a fair bit of music for brass band in various styles. His extended piece for the ISB, Pursuing Horizons, was premiered by that band last year as part of its 120th anniversary celebrations. It's not Xenakis, but it is neither is it light and fluffy. It is music of serous intent that deserves to be heard.
Two important points come out of this path. The first is that brevity and the need to grab attention is a mixed blessing - but at least I didn't run the headline 'Naked Salvation Army band plays Xenakis'. The second point is that, as the email above tells us, the brass band community is producing music of serous intent that deserves to be heard - which is what this blog is all about. My thanks go to reader TP for bringing us back on path. Header image is taken from YouTube and shows the Southern Band of the Salvation Army playing at Southsea Citadel. And this path leads on - Glenn Gould bequeathed half of his substantial estate to the Salvation Army.

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Salvation Army band plays Xenakis


In a post on the BBC Radio 3 blog network controller Roger Wright tells us he will be broadcasting 200 hours of non-stop Schubert in March and that the audience for Radio 3's breakfast programme has increased by 25%. Now there can be no dispute that the increase in breakfast audience has been achieved by moving the station down market. Confirmation of this is provided by the 5.4% decrease in Radio 3's total audience for the same period, a key statistic mysteriously omitted from the controller's blog post. Which raises the question of how can Radio 3's breathless race to the bottom be reconciled with 200 hours of Schubert? The answer lies in one word - distinctiveness. BBC network controllers spend a lot of time in meetings with brand consultants; these are the guys with designer stubble, iPads and BMW X5s who preach that you can do anything with a brand provided that you mix in the occasional distinctiveness. This dogma explains why Radio 3's dash to beat Classic FM to rock bottom is punctuated by late night Jonathan Harvey and Schubert marathons. The theory is that the trite leavened by the distinctive equals great radio, but the practice is that it equals a Salvation Army band playing Xenakis. More on that remarkable architect turned composer here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo of Iannis Xenakis via BVHAAST online record store. 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, February 17, 2012

Now where did he put that Rumi CD?


'I thought I saw a Sufi cat' was more than an opportunist title for my recent post. Muslims are taught that cats should be cherished and loved and they often appear in Islamic folklore. The biographer of the Sufi poet Rumi tells how shortly before the poet's passing a cat came to him and meowed sadly. Rumi smiled and explained to his followers that the cat had told him: "Soon you will go to the heavens where you will find peace. But what will I do without you?" Rumi's cat did not eat or drink anything after the poet died and survived for only seven more days. The Sufi's followers buried the cat close to Rumi's tomb in Konya. In the photo above the resident Overgrown Path feline is searching for Ali Reza Ghorbani's musical tribute to Rumi. Read more about that CD in Songs of rebirth defy the mullahs.

Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. Advertising agencies, pet food manufacturers and others offering pots of money for Ginger to model for them can contact his master via the email address below. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Music on the other side of the great celebrity divide


This path leads from music education in Norfolk England to Thomas Adès in New York. Members of the Britten Sinfonia are seen here working as part of the In Harmony project which uses music to bring positive change to the lives of young people in some of the most deprived areas of England. I took the photos this morning at Larkman Primary School and the young musicians seen in them will be joining violinist Pekka Kuusisto and me for a pre-concert event in Norwich on February 25th at which they will play Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Pachelbel. After their performance Thomas Adès conducts his Concerto for Violin, felicitously subtitled Concentric Paths, with Pekka Kuusisto as soloist, and music by Couperin, Ravel and Stravinsky. The Norwich concert is part of a Concentric Paths tour by the Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Adès and Pekka Kuusisto; the other venues are Dijon (Feb 11), Cambridge (Feb 20), Lincoln Center, New York (Feb 22), London, Queen Elizabeth Hall (Feb 27), and Dublin (Feb 28). As Alex Ross reminds us today, classical music is lucky to be on the other side of the great celebrity divide, and those working on In Harmony are just some of its many unsung saviours.


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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Classical music has many saviours


In June the scene above will become the most talked about concert venue in the world when Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela give an outdoor concert in Raploch, Stirling. Scottish artist Bill McAnally's watercolour shows Stirling Castle which will provide the spectacular backdrop for Gustavo Dudamel's concert on midsummer's day June 21, 2012. The original painting hangs in our dining room as a reminder of the years we spent living on the edge of the Raploch in the 1980s; it was here that our son started school and our daughter was born.

Gustavo Dudamel's concert is being staged by Sistema Scotland and is part of the visionary Big Noise Raploch project which is working to create a children’s orchestra centre. Almost all the ingredients are in place for an unforgettable concert in June, a world class conductor and orchestra playing in a magnificent natural setting to promote music education. What more could we want? Well, I think we need a sense of balance.

Gustavo Dudamel is indisputably very talented, but I wish he would spend a little less time studying his scores and a little more time challenging his PR advisors. Recently Newsweek ran a profile which hailed Dudamel as, among other things, "the saviour of classical music" and I am sure we will hear more of that kind of hyperbole before the Raploch concert. Please do not get me wrong, Gustavo Dudamel has done some fine things and will doubtless go on to do many more. But classical music has many saviours, and some of them have performed their miracles with precious little recognition in the very place that the Venezuelans will be barnstorming in June.

Across the road from Raploch is the Macrobert Arts Centre on the campus of Stirling University and for many years the Macrobert hosted BBC Scottish Symphony concerts. The Macrobert (since refurbished) was the kind of venue that brought out the true mettle in orchestral musicians. An hour's drive from home base in Glasgow in treacherous Scottish winters, a cramped stage and acoustically dry multi-purpose auditorium. Yet the BBCSSO played its heart out for its Stirling audiences on so many occasions - thirty years later I can still recall a memorable Sibelius Sixth Symphony with Charles Groves, a Walton Viola Concert with Nigel Kennedy and even a Mahler symphony, the First, conducted if my memory is correct by Jerzy Maksymiuk.

Back in 2002 the BBC Scotish Symphony Orchestra started its education activities with 'Toy Symphony'. This innovative project brought together new technology, orchestral musicians and primary school children in Glasgow's blighted East End to perform together at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. There have also been many notable additions to the record catalogue from the BBCSSO ranging from the modernism of Jonathan Harvey to the late-romanticism of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Why Mackenzie's Benedictus, which is on the Hyperion CD seen below, is not as well known as Barber's Adagio I do not know.

That other fine ensemble the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was also doing wonderful work when we were living in Scotland with concerts in Glasgow and tours to Dundee and other cities. My EMI colleague Christopher Bishop was their managing director at the time and memorable projects include a Martinů symphony cycle with the late and under-rated Bryden Thomson (thankfully recorded for Chandos) and a 1990 Musica Nova festival that brought John Cage to Scotland. Today the RSNO continues its education activities which include schools' concerts.

So let's celebrate music education in Raploch in June. But let's also remember that classical music has many saviours who have worked tirelessly over the years to bring music to the people, just a few of who are mentioned here. And we should not forget that although youth no longer features in the name of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela it still does in that of many outstanding British orchestras.


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Monday, February 13, 2012

Postcards from a forgotten concentration camp

'Shortly after arriving at Prades, I visited some of the concentration camps - there were a number nearby, at Rivesaltes, Vernet, Le Boulou, Septfonds, Argelès - where the Spanish refugees were confined. The scenes I witnessed might have been from Dante's Inferno. Tens of thousands of men and women and children were herded together like animals, penned in by barbed wire, housed - if one can call it that - in tents and crumbling shacks. There was no sanitation facilities or provision for medical care. There was little water and barely enough food to keep the inmates from starvation. The camp at Argelès was typical. Here more than a hundred thousand refugees had been massed in open areas among sand dunes along the seashore. Though it was winter, they had been provided with no shelter whatsoever - many had burrowed holes in the wet sand to protect themselves from the pelting rains and bitter winds. The driftwood they gathered for fires to warm themselves was soon exhausted. Scores had perished from exposure, hunger and disease. At the time of my arrival the hospitals in Perpignan still overflowed with the sick and dying.'
Those words from that great humanitarian and musician Pablo Casals describe conditions in the notorious Argelès-sur-Mer internment camp in 1939. After Barcelona fell to Franco's fascist forces in the last months of the Spanish Civil War almost half a million Spanish Republican civilians and soldiers struggled across the eastern Pyrenees to what they thought would be freedom in France. But the French government, which had signed a European non-intervention agreement, herded the refugees into settlements which Casals describes as concentration camps and which were known elsewhere as les Camps du Mépris - camps of scorn.


La retirada (retreat) was one of the largest human exoduses of modern times and it is estimated that 15,000 Republican refugees died in the French refugee camps. Yet it is one of several political skeletons the French managed to lock away in cupboards for many years - among the others are their subjugation of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, the links between some elements of the Catholic church and the extreme right-wing, and the Vichy regime's active persecution of Jews and other so-called “undesirables”. As a self-confessed Casals groupie I was familiar with the story of the French concentration camps and of the Catalan musician's selfless work on behalf of the refugees. But I wanted to see for myself, so last summer I set out from England with my wife to find the forgotten concentration camp at Argelès.


Our exit from the E15 autoroute was at Le Boulou, the site in 1939 of a transit camp from which refugees were sent to other camps in the region. We followed the route of the exiles towards the sea and finally arrived at the site of the Argelès-sur-Mer concentration camp after a journey of 1150 miles. As Pau Casals describes, the camp was situated in an open area among sand dunes on the seashore. The area is now a tourist beach and the photo above shows the landward border of the old camp, this is now a car park with only a small plaque to mark the area's grim history. As can be seen in my photos sand dunes have long since reclaimed the area and there is no evidence of the camp other than a few poignant memorials. Several of the photos use the perimeter fence of a tourist camp sites to evoke the atmosphere of 1939.


Casals lived in exile in Prades
at the foot of Mount Canigou, and the mountain which means so much to Catalans was visible through the wire of the Argelès camp, as can be seen above. The Catalans are fiercely patriotic and Lluis Companys, president of Catalonia, was one of those who fled across the Pyrenees only to be interned. After the German invasion of France in 1940 the Vichy government handed Companys over to the Spanish fascists and he was executed in Barcelona. Catalan folklore tells how as he faced the firing squad he removed his shoes and socks to die with his feet on the soil of Catalonia.


Although little remains of the barbaric camp the understated memorials say it all. The one above is in the small Spanish cemetery and is inscribed "To the dead of the camp of Argelès". Below is the plaque in the grove of the children which reads:

'Seventy children died in this camp. They were less than 10 years old.'
As that other great Catalan musician and humanitarian Jordi Savall wrote:
'Absolute evil is always the evil inflicted by man on man. That is why, in common with François Cheng, we believe that "it is our urgent and permanent task to unveil the two mysteries which constitute the extremes of the living world: on the one hand, evil, and on the other, beauty. For what is at stake is no less than the truth of human destiny, a destiny which involves the very foundations of our freedom.'

* Photo essay on the nearby Rivesaltes internment camp here.

* Header quote is from Joys and Sorrows, reflections by Pablo Casals edited by Albert E. Khan (Macdonald ISBN 356030482) now out of print. Also recommended is Rosemary Bailey's Love and War in the Pyrenees (Phoenix ISBN 9780753825914), Rosemary Bailey is, incidentally, the wife of the biographer of Allen Ginsberg and others, Barry Miles.

* One of the many points made in Rosemary Bailey's excellent book is the vital role that the Quakers played in helping the Republican refugees, and in particular the work of two English Quakers Edith Pye and Hilda Clark who were partners in action and in their private life. The pacifist role of the Quakers deserves another path.

* Regular readers will know the coda to this post. Soon after these photos were taken, like so many Republican refugees I was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Perpignan. At times conditions in the Clinique Médipôle Saint-Roch à Cabestany - Perpignan resembled a 1939 concentration camp. But I have now almost completely recovered and, undaunted, we will be back in Catalonia in May.

* Related resources include In search of Pablo Casals, Are authentic performances a silly convention? The magic mountain and A musician is also a man.

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Unfortunately there are no complimentary tickets


A couple of quotes that caught my eye. First a nomination for pseuds' corner from the ECM website's listing for Tim Berne's newly released Snakeoil:
Tim’s tough alto is heard with Oscar Noriega’s earthy clarinets, Mat Mitchell’s cryptic piano, and Ches Smith’s tone-conscious drums, tympani, gongs and congas.
Secondly a contribution to the recent overturning established intermediaries thread. It comes from director Gia Forakis' promotional email about her multi-media opera Song from the Uproar: the Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt:
Unfortunately, there are no complimentary industry tickets for this production. However, student discounts and discounts for groups of ten or more are available.
No need to apologise Gia, remember it was Isabelle Eberhardt who wrote - "We are, all of us, poor wretches, and those who prefer not to understand this are even worse off than the rest of us".

Header and footer images are from the newly released Artwork in Progress from French independent label No Format. This is a CD/book that explores the label's innovative artwork and also challenges the assiduously cultivated myth that ECM is the only game in town when it comes to graphic values. Sadly it seems Artwork in Progress is available exclusively from FNAC stores in France, which is where I bought it, but the sampler CD can be downloaded for a bargain £3.99.

While on this path a non-earthy, non-cryptic, non-tone-conscious heads up for two albums from No Format artists who also appear on the sampler. Set Luna from Senegalese-French chanteuse Julia Sarr and Spanish-French guitarist Patrice Larose, video here, and Swansongs from Mark Anthony Thompson, alias Chocolate Genius Inc, video here, are both worth investigating; but please note some of the lyrics on the latter album are definitely adult advisory. More on No Format's healthy dislike for established intermediaries in Music they will like tomorrow.


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Thursday, February 09, 2012

We have the music but they have the money


When the Santa Barbara Symphony enjoyed a $23,000 hike in ticket sales by adding concert visuals were they leveraging twenty-first century technology or were they recreating a centuries old synaesthetic experience? Synesthesia occurs when stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory pathway. The most common form of synesthesia is the neurological condition which causes words and numbers to be perceived in colour, but the condition can occur with any of the senses and in less dramatic forms. The subject is under-researched, but a mild form of synaesthesia may explain why visuals at a concert enhance the audience's perception of the music - for a simple illustration of the importance of sensory crosstalk try watching this video with the sound muted.

Sound, sight, smell and movement can all contribute to synaesthetic experiences. Towards the end of his life Karlheinz Stockhausen reinvented mono-sensory classical music for a multi-sensory age using sound, movement, costume colours and aromas and in scene four of his posthumously premiered opera Sonntag seven different kinds of incense are released into the auditorium. Ritual is an important component in Stockhausen's music and his son Markus has recorded an Electric Sufi album So there are links between Sonntag and one of the earliest synaesthetic rituals, the Moroccan Gnawa ceremony known as a lila. Gnawa music came to Morocco from sub-Saharan Africa with the slave trade and in a lila sound (gnawa music and song), sight (colours), smell (incense) and movement (dance) are used to create spirit-possession and healing environments.

Lilas evolved from ancient African animistic and Islamic Sufi rituals into extended ceremonies which are still performed today and the twelve hour long Nights of the Seven Colours trance ritual is seen in the accompanying photos. This uses music, colours, incense and dance to celebrate the creation of the universe and in 2008 I presented a pioneering broadcast of the ‘black’ phase of the Seven Colours ritual on Future Radio. This was a collaboration with Kamar Studios in Marrakech and used their premiere recording of the traditional 'black' ritual - in gnawa symbolism black represents the unknowable, the ungraspable and, appropriately, the unheard.


Given the widespread interest in North African trance music there is surprisingly little literature on the subject. Stephen Davis' fictionalised Jajouka Rolling Stone has already featured here and one of the few other books available is the valuable Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace by American academic Deborah Kapchan. This is a study of how traditional Moroccan trance music has become a major international market - which brings us full circle back to the Santa Barbara Symphony's synaesthetic box office bonus.

As the search for new audiences hots up the question is morphing from 'does classical music need to change?' to 'how much does classical music need to change?' This quote from a deliciously irreverent review of Deborah Kapchan's book sheds light on solving the 'we have the music but they have the money' dilemma:
When a Gnawa talks about trancing, he/she's talking about getting out to a lila and letting a spirit (which the Gnawa can summon and then control) inhabit your body for awhile. When the record-and-concert-ticket-purchasing public talks about trancing, they are talking about getting out to a club and honing in on a primal state for a bit. There's just enough overlap in terminology here for the Gnawa to sell mad CDs of their syncretic African music... to the trancing public-at-large. This is not lost on the Gnawa, who regularly alter their previously proscribed rituals to play them in Parisian amphitheaters for hard Euros so consumers can trance -- playing down the Islamic elements and punching up the African ones, shortening the songs, whatever makes them appear more accessibly exotic. Author posits that this might be a good trade: The global commercial class has money but no primal reality, the Gnawa deal in primal reality and need some bucks. If the lila is really about healing, then maybe it can heal better and more effectively if it changes to meet the needs of the folks willing to pay for healing.
So we have the music but they have the money. The Gnawa compromised and adapted their sacred rituals so they could be played in Parisian amphitheaters for hard euros. So how, if at all, is classical music prepared to compromise? It really doesn't matter whether the Santa Barbara Symphony was leveraging twenty-first century technology or recreating a centuries old synaesthetic experience with its concert visuals. What does matter is that the orchestra hit pay dirt by meeting the needs of the folks willing to pay for healing.

As both the Gnawa and the Santa Barbara Symphony have proved, creative compromise need not involve dumbing down. Some years ago I wrote how the 2400 seat Philharmonie Hall in Berlin sold out for a programme of Ockeghem's Missa Au Travail suis sung by the Tallis Scholars followed by Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano. So how about a synaesthetic BBC Prom opening with a lila performed by Abbès Larfaoui Baska and the Maâlem (Master Musicians) from Marrakech. In the second part would be another lila - synaesthesia sufferer Olivier Messiaen's mystical Turangalîla Symphony, with both performances enhanced by visuals from the creative team behind Aldeburgh's Faster Than Sound events? Now that really would exploit an $11 billion market opportunity.


* This brainstorming post is one in an occasional series exploring the twilight zone of quantum entanglement that lies between science and art. I am convinced that the key to the future of classical music lies in this area which is inhabited by the unknowable, the ungraspable and the unheard, rather than in that other twilight zone inhabited by the avaricious PR consultants and duplicitous agents who generate the kind of hysterical nonsense about Gustavo Dudamel that recently appeared in Newsweek. More on music and quantum entanglement here and here.


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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Not so sweet for the birthday of Prince Charles


News that the Queen's Diamond Jubilee is to be celebrated with a concert promoted as a joint venture between the BBC and Gary Barlow featuring Elton John, Paul McCartney and Lang Lang prompts me to reblog this from my 2008 post Tippett in focus:
Above is Georg Solti's recording of the symphony missing from the Colin Davis' Tippett cycle, the 1977 Fourth which was a Chicago Symphony Orchestra commission. The Decca recording did appear on a CD coupled with The Knot Garden, but is now deleted. The LP coupling was Tippett's Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles commissioned by the BBC in 1948 to celebrate the birth of the heir to the throne. I am told by someone who tried to programme the Suite in the royal presence some years ago that Charles hates the piece. Which must make it very good music indeed.
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