Thursday, October 31, 2013

Classical music still has more money than sense


Alex Ross reports in the New Yorker that Valery Gergiev’s annual income is said to be $16.5 million. Recordings of Hans Gal's Symphonies by Kenneth Woods and of Missy Mazolli's new opera about Isabelle Eberhardt are just two important recent projects that relied on crowdfunding. $13,500 was needed to deliver the acclaimed Hans Gal Symphonies; which is 0.08% of the amount reportedly paid each year to Gergiev by arts organisations around the world. As funders search for yet more savings, what is the defence against the accusation that classical music still has more money than sense?

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Catalonia triumphant - Jordi Savall's tribute to Pau Casals


Catalonia, triumphant - Catalunya, triomfant - is the opening declamation of Els Segadors, the Catalonian national hymn which was recorded in 1988 in a deeply moving rendition by Jordi Savall and his much-missed wife Montserrat Figueras. Catalonia is a creative powerhouse which has given us the two great string players, Pau Casals and Jordi Savall. So, to mark the fortieth anniversary of Pau Casals' death this month, I invited Jordi to record this brief exclusive tribute to his compatriot.


In that tribute Jordi Savall remembers Pau Casals not only for his great musicianship, but also for his human engagement for peace and concord, dialogue and justice. Jordi shares those values and this week releases Orient-Occident II, his personal homage to war-torn Syria which brings together musicians from Lebanon, Israel and Syria in a long awaited follow-up to his best-selling Orient-Occident project. As always with Alia Vox this lavish new CD/book is a thing of great beauty, nowhere more so than in Jordi Savall's heartfelt introduction from which I take these words:
Thus we have established a genuine intercultural and spiritual dialogue as a vehicle of peace and hope, respecting the musical identity and distinct culture of "the other": a free dialogue far removed from all fanaticism, all forms of which are always the product of ignorance and absolute conviction. The strength of an idea is not built on convictions alone, but above all thanks to doubt. Graham Green reminds us that "doubt is essential to faith" and, in the words of Lesley Hazleton "Abolish all doubt and what's left is not faith, but absolute heartless conviction... In short the arrogance of fundamentalism",
Which brings this path full circle: because, as Pau Casals told us 'A musician is also a man, but more important than his music is his attitude to life.'


* Other triumphant Catalans who have featured On An Overgrown Path include Salvador Dali, Roberto Gerhardt, Xavier Montsalvatge and, an honorary Catalan by birth, Thomas Merton. Catalonia's inspirational new Museum of Exile in La Jonquera honours both Pau Casals and Roberto Gerhardt. There is a very different but equally moving interpretation of Els Segadors on the solo album by Jordi and Montserrat's son Ferran that I wrote about in Early music unplugged.

My sincere thanks go to Jordi Savall who found time in his punishing schedule to record a Pau Casals tribute for a maverick music blog; the idea of linking it to his Syria CD, which I bought, was mine alone. As I said before, we need more mad geniuses! Thanks also to our son James for making this post technically possible inbetween travelling almost as many miles as Jordi Savall. Audio file is (c) Jordi Savall 2013. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Music's UN Messengers of Peace send mixed messages


The Gulf States have, justifiably, come under the spotlight for their repressive treatment of gays. But the human rights abuses are far more widespread: investigative organisation Human Rights Watch has documented these abuses and starts its latest report with these words:
The human rights situation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) worsened in 2012 as authorities arbitrarily detained and deported civil society activists, and harassed and intimidated their lawyers. In September, an independent monitor found significant problems in the treatment of migrant workers on the high-profile Saadiyat Island project in Abu Dhabi, identifying the payment of illegal recruitment fees as a key concern.
Fortunately classical music is actively involved in human rights via the four superstars who are United Nations Messengers of Peace, including new recruit Lang Lang. Of these messengers of peace, three have first hand experience of the situation in the Gulf States, as Daniel Barenboim, fellow messenger Yo-Yo Ma and new recruit Lang Lang have all performed in Abu Dhabi in recent years. The prime classical music venue in the Gulf State is the Emirates Palace; this is a seven star luxury hotel which cost $11.02 billion to build and is described as a "luxurious hotel blending Arabian splendour with the latest technology to create a magical and memorable experience". The magnificent auditorium where the UN's classical Messengers of Peace play is seen above. But here is a look behind the scenes at the Emirates Palace from Australian journalist Natalie Robyn Banks:
Emirates Palace itself has hundreds of laborers working on the gardens and around the perimeter of its property. They are “hidden” in plain view. Visitors...r are often caught up in the bright lights and refuse to see those in dirt-caked blue uniforms, who are bussed back and forth from labor camps living in poky rooms with triple-decker bunk beds where 12 men sleep. These men were once shuttled in cattle trucks until a number of expatriates complained. It is these labourers who work for about US$100 a week in temperatures that can hit 55 degrees, sweating like sponges slowly wrung out. These foreign underclass workers are the people who built Emirates Palace.
The next time classical music's United Nations Messengers of Peace play at, and stay in, the Emirates Palace they should take a walk around the grounds.

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Classical music's popular and attractive new market

'A sort of art revolution seems to have been going on [in the Gulf States] in the last ten years. In 2005 the Abu Dhabi government opened the Emirates Palace concert hall in a 7-star hotel, then four years ago the Qatar Philharmonic gave its first concert in Doha (under the baton of Lorin Maazel, no less). Last week Bahrain opened its new 1001-seater National Amphitheatre; Dubai is also building an opera house and last year the spectacular Royal Opera House, Muscat opened its doors in the Omani capital. [See photo above]. This is where the BBC Symphony Orchestra caravan rolled up last week, thanks to an invitation from the Royal Opera House... With the growth of music education, orchestras and opera houses in this region together with fabulous hospitality, the Gulf Arab states could well become a popular and attractive part of our touring itinerary' - BBC Radio 3 blog post November 2012 by Phil Hall of BBC Symphony Orchestra

'The decision to bar homosexuals from entering Kuwait [and other Gulf States] is a sovereign decision. Amnesty International should take care of lofty and noble goals for which it was established, leave aside homosexuality and deviations and stop defending delinquents. The organisation should heed the annual rates of births outside the institution of marriage in Europe and abortions as well as the high rates of underage mothers and other moral crimes forbidden by all divine religions' - Kuwaiti MP Abdul Rahman Al Jiran quoted in Gulf News Oct 14, 2013

'An affront to human dignity is an affront to me; and to protest against injustice is a matter of conscience. Are human rights of less importance to an artist than to other men? Does being an artist exempt him from his obligations as a man? If anything, the artist has an even greater responsibility, because he has been granted special sensitivities and perceptions and because his voice may be heard when others may not. Who, indeed, should be more concerned than the artist about the defence of liberty and free inquiry? Such fundamentals are essential to his creativity' - Pablo Casals who died on Oct 22, 1973

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Rare Wagner is rescued from record company archives


In the Wizard of Bayreuth's bicentennial year Wagner's rarely heard Under the Double Eagle march has been rescued from the archives in a notable new release from Warner Classics. The march is, of course, the work of the Austrian bandmaster and composer J.F. Wagner (1856-1908) and not his more illustrious namesake. But if my nuanced deceit generates some social media buzz about one of the least publicised but most rewarding classical releases of the year, it will have done its job.

Under the Double Eagle is one of the slighter words in Warner's retrospective from their newly acquited EMI archive Sir Adrian Boult - the Complete Conductor. I previewed the 10 CD box in August under the headline This Tchaikovsky is the cat's whiskers. Now, having auditioned the new discs, I am moved to pronounce that Sir Adrian's Tchaikovsky surpasses the cat's whiskers - even Ginger's. If you want to hear recorded sound that has never been bettered - period - listen to the finale of Tchaikovsky's Third Orchestral Suite and let producer Christopher Bishop and balance engineer Robert Gooch take you right into the sonically outstanding Studio One Abbey Road where the London Philharmonic musicians are playing their hearts out for one of the all-time conducting greats.



There are simply too many treasures in this 10 CD box to list. But in addition to the Tchaikovsky I would highlight Robert Simpson's First Symphony in astonishingly good 1956 mono sound, and, at a time when fanfares for uncommon women musicians are all the rage, Sir Adrian's 1939 recordings of two orchestral miniatures by Dame Ethel Smyth deserve attention. But most moving for me is Hubert Parry's sadly neglected Fifth Symphony. At EMI we knew that this would be the eighty-nine year old conductor's final recording. I was at Abbey Road for those last sessions in December 1978 together with my colleague Richard Bradburn, and Sir Adrian signed his autobiography for me - see below.

Richard Bradburn retains his links with EMI and has done classical music a valuable service by masterminding Sir Adrian Boult - the Complete Conductor as well as the earlier From Bach to Wagner anthology and the 2011 remastering of Sir Adrian's Vaugham Williams Symphony cycle. Warner Classics has taken a lot of stick over their acquisition of the EMI classical catalogue; but let me put on record that, despite the absence of the dog and trumpet on the artwork, everything about this new release is a triumph. Particular noteworthy is the excellent newly commissioned booklet note by Martin Cotton which gives much deserved credit to the role of Sir Adrian's producer Christopher Bishop. My thanks go to Andrew Ousley in Warner's New York office who flowed me a review copy. Andrew is one of a new generation emerging at the major record labels who realise that classical music needs to look to the past as well as to the future.

Sometimes when I am banging on about Sir Adrian's Indian Summer at EMI I think I have become a boring old fart. Now, having listened to this new retrospective I realise I am not a boring old fart, but, rather, I am dead right in thinking they don't make 'em like this anymore.



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Friday, October 25, 2013

Virtual failure in commercial terms but who cares?

My biography? Doesn’t “fit in”. From the wrong side of the tracks all the way. Virtual failure in commercial terms, but who the hell cares either way?
That self-deprecation appears on Michael Finnissy's website, which is also notable for the absence of social media links featuring the composer. Pianist Ian Pace has recorded Michael Finnissy's epic The History of Photography in Sound in a superb interpretation on the Métier label. In the admirably comprehensive sleeve notes for the new release Ian Pace quotes Susan Sontag as saying:
To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge - and, therefore, like power... Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.
Elsewhere in his notes Ian Pace describes how:
Finnissy's work investigates quite exhaustively the possibility of removing something from a unique existence in a particular context; his musical materials become flexible 'texts' which assume different meanings depending on the circumstances in which they are presented.
The History of Photography in Sound's preoccupation with appropriation and changed contexts resonates with its composer's "who the hell cares" attitude towards friends, followers and commercial success. While immersed in Ian Pace's persuasive advocacy of Michael Finnissy's pioneering but always human music I was reminded of these thoughts from new media maven Jason Calacanis:
We’re harvesting our lives and putting them online. We’re addicted to gaining followers and friends ... and reading comments we get in return. As we look for validation and our daily 15 minutes of fame, we do so at the cost of our humanity.
Dependent arising from this path includes Michael Finnissy as teacher of both composer Hossein Hadisi and Exaudi director James Weeks, who together present the premiere of Zahhák: the Dragon King of Persia this weekend. In defiance of micro-media trends, the epic piano cycle is a distinguishing feature of contemporary music. Other examples include Kaikhosru Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum and Alvin Curran's Inner Cities. Listen to pianist Daan Vandewalle in discussion with me about Inner Cities in an Overgrown Path podcast.

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Why do we listen to classical music industry experts?


Two weeks ago BBC Radio 3 controller and Proms director Roger Wright was in New York at the prestigious Lincoln Center, telling classical music what it was doing wrong in his Royal Philharmonic Society Lecture. This despite his having presided over, inter alia, possibly the most lacklustre period in the distinguished history of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and despite having crowned an orgy of dumbing down at Radio 3 by turning the most extravagant Proms' season ever into a 5.8% plunge in radio audience. (When the BBC makes its royal charter renewal submission in 2017 you can bet it will be the Barenboim Ring that is puffed and not the calamitous performance of Radio 3). Elsewhere ex-Gramophone editor and sometime Radio 3 contributor James Jolly is sharing his wisdom on the conference circuit, despite the Gramophone's circulation having plunged from 60,000 to 25,000 while he was editor and then editor-in-chief. Why do we listen to classical music industry experts?

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

If BBC Radio 3 is broke why not fix it?


RAJAR audience figures released today show that in the all important Q3 2013 - the period that includes the Proms - BBC Radio 3 lost a further 5.8% of its audience year on year, while total listening hours crashed by 8.9% due to an additional fall in average hours per listener. Despite the official BBC press release once again spinning the audience figures in an imaginative way the message is clear: while Radio 3 fiddled and classical music burned, Radio 2 added a million listeners and grabbed the headlines - see above. Now come on BBC Trust; if Radio 3 is broke why not fix it?

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Places I'd take Michael Finnissy to if he ever visited Iran


Noteworthy is the upcoming world première of a new work by Hossein Hadisi for voices, percussion and dance. Zahhák: the Dragon King of Persia celebrates the Persian minstrels' art of Naqqáli by re-enacting the ancient myth of Zahhák from the Persian 'Book of Kings'. Hossein Hadisi studied composition with Michael Finnissy and his works include Places I'd Take Michael Finnissy To Visit If He Was Ever Going To Come To Iran for piano. Currently a research associate at Cambridge University studying the traditional Persian improvisation school of Avaz, Hadisi's work spans rock and contemporary music and Bang the Bore XI: Psychobabble based on the Muslim rite of prayer can be sampled here. Zahhák: the Dragon King of Persia is performed by leading contemporary music ensemble Exaudi with dancers from London Contemporary Dance School and the production features paintings by Iranian surrealist master Ali Akbar Sadeghi. Performances are at the RADA Studio Theatre, London WC1 on Oct 26 and West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge on Oct 28. Exaudi's co-founder and director James Weeks can be heard talking to me about the music of Elisabeth Lutyens in An Overgrown Path podcast while more of Hossein Hadisi's music can be sampled here. There is a salutary tale of Western classical music in pre-revolution Iran in More maestros myths and madness.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The young person's guide to homophobia


Good to see LGBT activism increasing in classical music. Among recent notable examples was the dedication of Somewhere Over the Rainbow performed by Joyce DiDonato and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the BBC Proms to gay victims worldwide. But less than a month after this laudable protest the BBC Symphony Orchestra without Ms DiDonato played their first ever concert in the Gulf State of Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal. LGBT awareness may be in short supply at the BBCSO but irony is not; so their programme in Qatar included music by Benjamin Britten. Why are some gay causes more fashionable than others?

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Cautionary tale about cutting through classical music

'There was a very interesting study done once by a psychiatrist called Bruno Bettelheim who did a lot of work with autistic children. This was in the 1960s and, at that time, people were very concerned to have everything politically correct and modernised, civilised and egalitarian. So they started to straighten out the fairy-tales that they were telling the children in the hospital unit where they were working. They re-wrote all the fairy stories - they took out all the violent ogres and witches that ate children's heads, together with all the ghastly unfair, cruel and shocking elements. They dressed them up and made them a little more nice and polite.

They ran this programme for quite a number of years, but there were other centres that they were looking after where they did not use this approach. About twenty years later they made a psychological profile of these different groups of children and they found that the ones that had the sanitised fairy-tales were much more helpless in terms of real life; they were much less able to cope.'
That extract from Ajahn Amaro's Rain on the Nile provides a useful perspective on the current fashion for cutting through classical music. Thankfully ghastly unfair, cruel and shocking elements abound in the 1973 Unicorn LP of Jasca Horenstein conducting Hindemith and Richard Strauss with its glorious Max Ernst art seen above. As I said in a comment on my post Walking the walk with Alma Mahler "Jascha Horenstein was a very fine conductor who, undeservedly, has disappeared from view today".

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The camera never lies

Forgive a short meander off the usual overgrown path. But there is a rumbling controversy surrounding allegations that town councils in England use parking fines as a "cash cow". The latest development is that the parliamentary Transport Committee has told councils they should publish annual accounts if they want to disprove, to quote the committee chairman, "the deep-rooted public perception that parking enforcement is used as a cash cow". Now, as regular readers will know, I spend a fair amount of time on the road following overgrown paths. One journey earlier this year took me to Morocco which produced posts including the very pertinent They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. En route from our home in Norfolk to Gatwick Airport we stopped in East Grinstead for a meal. As it was a Wednesday afternoon in early March the town centre car park was almost empty, as can be seen from the accompanying photos which were taken on the day.


When we returned to the car we were astonished to find we had been given a £50 parking fine, despite the car displaying a valid parking ticket. The fine was because the car was "not parked correctly" - see photo below. A resident whose house overlooks the car park came over to commiserate saying that such over-zealousness by parking wardens happens "almost every day".


The £50 fine was reduced to £25 if paid within fourteen days. As we were out of the country for more than two weeks and about to catch a flight we had no alternative but to pay the fine on the spot using a mobile phone. When we returned a stiff complaint and the two photos were sent to Mid Sussex District Council who manage the car park. A few days later we we received grudging notification from the Council that "in the circumstances" the fine was being refunded. The camera never lies and the "deep-rooted public perception that parking enforcement is used as a cash cow" is perfectly justified.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What Pau Casals said about the classical music industry

'In modern business it is not the crook who is to be feared, it is the honest man who does not know what he is doing'
Pau Casals, who is seen above, died on 22nd October, 1973.

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Remembering Pablo Casals


Pau Casals died at 2 p.m. on Monday, 22 October 1973 in the Auxilio Mutuo Hospital, San Juan, Puerto Rica. It is one of many paradoxes that in an age when classical music is obsessed with anniversaries, this important anniversary is passing virtually unnoticed. Here, in an attempt to at least partially rectify that, is a reblog of my 2010 tribute to the great Catalan musician and humanitarian titled A musician is also a man.

'So it was that in the spring of 1939 I came to Prades. I could not have imagined at the time that I would spend the next seventeen years of my life in this little town in the Pyrenees. And in spite of the sorrow in me, I found respite in my surroundings. With its winding cobbled strees and whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs - and the acacia trees that were then in bloom - Prades might have been one of the Catalan villages I had known since childhood. The countryside seemed no less familiar to me. The lovely patterns of orchards an vineyards, the wild and craggy mountains with ancient Roman fortresses and monasteries clinging to their sides - these too were a replica of parts of my homeland. Indeed, centuries before, this very region had been part of the nation of Catalonia' - from Joys and Sorrows by Pablo Casals

Today Prades wears its Casals connection lightly but proudly. There is no Café Casals in the main square, none of his recordings grace the shop windows and the two houses he lived in are private residences marked only by discrete plaques. In fact sleepy Prades has changed little from the delightful Catalan town described above. But the residents are intensely proud of their adopted son and he is remembered in the one room museum behind the modern mediathèque in the town centre. L'espace Casals is a perfect tribute: it is human in scale and when my wife and I were there recently on a perfect September morning it was just us and the master's recording of the Bach Cello Suites. These are my images of the great humanist who said:

'A musician is also a man, but more important than his music is his attitude to life.'

Related resources On An Overgrown Path include In search of Pablo Casals for Casals' choral music and background on the life of the great Catalan musician, Early music unplugged for the Ferran Savall track, Are authentic performances a silly convention for Casals' Bach, Figures in a creche can't sing twelve-tone music for Casals' overlooked oratorio El Pessebre, Against the monoculture of modernity and Rearranging the geometry of heaven for Jordi Savall's The Forgotten Kingdom, Sweet Irrational Worship for the Niles/Merton song and The Magic Mountain for Sant Martí del Canigó.


* Quotes are from Joys and Sorrows, reflections by Pablo Casals edited by Albert E. Khan (Macdonld ISBN 356030482) - out of print but well worth buying cheaply from specialists.

** Here is my playlist of music linked to Pau Casals and his beloved Catalonia:
~ Pablo Casals Ovos omnesDresdner Kreuzchor directed by Gothart Stier (Berlin Classics 0013512BC)
~ Traditional Catalan El Noi de la Mare – Ferran Savall & Mario Mas guitars (Alia Vox AV9858)
~ J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 BWV 1049 – Casals Festival Orchestra conducted by Pablo Casals with Eugene Istomin piano (Membran 232768)
~ Anon Chant de la Sybille Occitane “El jorn del judizi” from The Forgotten Kingdom – Montserrat Figueras, La Capella Reial de Catalunya directed by Jordi Savall (Alia Vox AVSA9873)
~ John Jacob Niles/Thomas Merton A Responsory – Chad Runyon Baritone & Jacqueline Chew piano (MSR Classics MS1174)
~ Traditional arr. Pablo Casals Sant Martí del Canigó – Prades Festival Orchestra with Pablo Casals cello & conductor (Sony 88697656902)


Also on Facebook and Twitter. All photos were taken by me in L'espace Casals, Prades and are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). All CDs, books and travel mentioned in this post were self-funded. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, October 21, 2013

Today people go to concert halls looking for answers


Reaching a wider audience is seen, quite rightly, as classical music's number one priority. Yet the strategies for reaching that wider audience are, with a few notable exceptions, based on ill-founded hunches imported from the entertainment industry, while actionable data on what might actually appeal to a wider audience is resolutely ignored. One such example of actionable but ignored is a new survey by think tank Theos which reports that 52% of people believe that spiritual forces in some way influence their lives, while 77% believe that some phenomena cannot be explained by science. These findings resonate with the views expressed by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks in an interview that accompanies the recently released and highly recommended recording of his piano trio Canto Perpetuo by the Boulanger Trio seen above. In the interview Vasks explains that:
...people go to the concert hall because they are looking for answers. Above all for a way out of their difficult, unhappy lives. In the concert hall, then, it is not our job to show how the world is, how much aggressiveness, how much brutality there is. People experience those in their everyday lives... We have gigantic technological developments, but the souls of people are neglected. I always ask myself how I can compose so as to bring more light into this world. That is the purpose of music.
Let's at this point dismiss any ideas that Peteris Vasks is a Latvian Graham Kendrick. His Canto Perpetuos contains several aleatoric episodes and the use of sonorism links him to Penderecki and Górecki, while the juxtaposition of the work on the new CD with Shostakovich's grief stricken Second Piano Trio is apposite. And Vasks rejects charges of religiosity with these words:
I come from a pastor's family but am not an active churchgoer. Nevertheless, the spiritual dimension is the most important of all. We exist in a horizontal dimension, but the spiritual - the vertical - is of greater significance in my music. And this is not church religiosity. My church is nature.
Compelling support for the argument that people go to concert halls looking for answers comes from uses and gratifications theory (UGT). This explores why people use particular media, rather than what the media does to its audience. UGT, which focuses on needs rather than content, originated in the 1940s but has been applied recently to research the uses and gratifications of social media. In the words of one academic study using UGT "there are many different types of music and we choose from them to fulfill a particular need". The message from uses and gratifications theory is crystal clear: classical music must stop indulging in cosmetic surgery and start answering the needs of its new audiences. As Peteris Vasks explains:
Cold intellectualism alone does not satisfy listeners, whether in the west or in the east or in the north. . And when something hurts it hurts intensely, not just a bit. That is in keeping with my mentality. That becomes clear in composing. For that reason everything can be heard in my music. And concertgoers seek precisely that emotionality.
A graphic example of how concertgoers are looking for answers was provided in a concert yesterday (Oct 20) by the Britten Sinfonia. In a typically brave example of programming the Britten Sinfonia juxtaposed contemporary works by Nicholas Maw (1935-2009) and Anna Clyne (b1980) with Stravinsky, Mozart and Haydn. It would have been so much easier to have programmed more popular works to boost the audience on a very wet Sunday evening in musically conservative Norwich. But, with the help of a meta content-rich pre-concert talk by Jacqueline Shave who conducted the Anna Clyne work and Nicholas Daniel who was soloist in Nicholas Maw's Little Concert with yours truly curating the discussion, the contemporary works won the hearts and minds of the audience. The buzz around the concert hall foyers after the performance of Anna Clyne's Within Her Arms, a fourteen minute elegy for strings in memory of the composer's mother, echoed Peteris Vasks' words that "concertgoers seek precisely that emotionality".

But beware of thinking that one size of emotion fits all. The answers that concertgoers are looking for are, like the audiences themselves, very diverse. Some seek spiritual reassurance, while others seek a less overtly spiritual life enhancing experience. We should not forget the latter experience can be provided by music completely outside conventional concepts of spiritual, as this passage from Jonathan Cott's 1974 Stockhausen Conversations with the Composer tells us:
And the notorious fragmentation of contemporary music into factious ideological 'camps' cannot disguise the fact that the finest recent compositions - whether by Morton Feldman, Lucian Berio, Stefan Wolpe, Harry Partch, Pierre Boulez or Elliott Carter - attain to an experience beyond their intricate or incidental structures.
A convincing case can be made that today people are going to concert halls looking for answers. But the fashionable trend of turning classical music into entertainment, coupled with an unhealthy preoccupation elsewhere with musical existential angst, works against providing either spiritual reassurance or anything remotely approaching a life enhancing experience. Is it surprising that classical music is finding it so difficult to reach a wider audience?

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

In music there is an infinity of undecidables


More evidence of how artwork changes the sound of CDs comes from this new release on the Spanish Enchiriadis label. Músicas Viajeras is a journey through the music of Christians, Sephardic and Muslim Spain performed by chamber choir Musica Ficta and early music ensemble Ensemble Fontegara with sonic enhancement from Juan Lucas' cover photography. Those who doubt that graphics can influence sound or that frequencies we can't hear alter those we can hear should reflect on Gödel's theorem. This states, when expressed in layman's language, that in any consistent axiomatic system there are undecidable propositions; moreover not only are there undecidables, but there is an infinity of undecidables. Which means music exists only in constant flow and flux.

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Seeking the music that is beyond immediate reach


Junayd, the eminent Sufi master of the tenth century, counselled one of his fellow seekers to "know his contemporaries and understand those of his time and age" and went on to say "I note that the entire concern of most creatures is for this lower world, and that they seek the fragile goods that are within their immediate reach... the seeking of perishable realities has blinded minds and hearts occupied with the sole desire for the most vain of these... men are totally fascinated by the present life, and the things of the future life have become inaccessible to their clouded minds". Although generally viewed as a mystical expression of Islam, Sufism, with its emphasis on the inner wisdom of gnosis, can also be interpreted as an order of life independent of established faiths that has considerable contemporary relevance. The much vaunted digital long tail of 'things of the future' has proved, in reality, to be a short head of 'perishable realities from the lower world that are within easy reach'. Custodianship of things beyond perishable realities remains outside the digital domain as the lifework of a few of what Norman Perryman termed "analogue beings".

One such being is John McLaughlin Williams. His advocatory analysis of the forgotten music of Philippa Schuyler remains one of the most widely read posts On An Overgrown Path, and is, incidentally, one of the posts I am most proud of publishing. John knew Peter Paul Fuchs during his time at the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and, together with Adrian McDonnell in Paris, he has worked selflessly with me to give Peter Paul Fuch's music the audience it deserves. One of the results of this advocacy is an exclusive recording of Fuch's Five Miniatures for chamber ensemble which now can be heard via this link. Another of John's passions is the music of Mahler's forgotten assistant Karl Weigl and he has written to me about his recent performance of Weigl's two violin sonatas. Here is his email which also touches on Ernst Toch (that is the bust of Toch that John mentions in the header photo) who is another composer lost in the mists of the long tail.

Hello Bob, I've recently returned from Los Angeles where I performed the two violin sonatas of Karl Weigl. It was done at a mist interesting place, the Villa Aurora, which was owned for many years by the writer and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger. His gorgeous Spanish Colonial home is now owned by the German government and run as an Austrian cultural hub and artists residence similar to the MacDowell Colony. The concert was approved by the Orel Foundation and supported by the Karl Weigl Foundation. Karl Weigl (the composer's grandson) attended with his wife the musicologist Julie Brand. The music was enthusiastically received, making one lament yet again the relative obscurity of this composer who in my opinion could be a household name if offered the kind of exposure Beecham gave Delius, or as Bernstein did for Mahler.

A fascinating confluence of paths occurred; when I entered the salon there was a gorgeous Blüthner grand awaiting. Nearby was a bust of none other than Ernst Toch. The Blüthner was brought to California by Toch, and it belonged to him for many years. My imagination soared, wondering what music had been played on this piano. It is a beautiful instrument that has a mellower sound than Steinways, and one ideally suited to the muted and autumnal colors of Weigl's middle European scores. It felt quite special to play there, and with this instrument - Glen Inanga was my collaborator. A beautiful program was made for the concert [see below]. Just thought I would share.
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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Who said that music programming is mundane?


My journey down a typically overgrown path has uncovered evidence that music programming is far from mundane. Here is the track listing for a newly released double CD from Cherry Red Records:

Disc One
1. Gabor Szabo – El Toro
2. Alice B. Toklas – Recipe for Hashish Fudge
3. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan – Raga Yaman Kalyan: Teen Tala
4. Aldous Huxley – "How Often Have You Taken Mescalin Yourself?”
5. Sounds Inc. – Taboo
6. Sun Ra (seen in header image) – Ancient Aiethopia
7. Ravi Shankar – Raga Jinjhoti
8. Herbie Mann – It Ain't Necessarily So

Disc Two
1. Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin - Missa Luba: Sanctus
2. Gabor Szabo – Lady Gabor
3. Jackson Pollock – Modern Art & Method
4. Edgard Varèse - Integrales
5. Yusef Lateef – The Plum Blossom
6. Ustad Vilayat Khan – Raga Miya Ki Malhar
7. Ken Nordine – Spectrum
8. Sharan Rani - Raga Kausi-Kanada

The double CD is titled Dawn of Psychedelia and, on the same path, now read how Elgar takes a trip.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

No mud - no music

If you are a poet you will clearly see that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are... You cannot point out one thing that is not here [in this sheet of paper] - time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river the heat. Everything coexists with this sheet of paper... This sheet of paper is, because everything else is'.
That is the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writing in 'The Heart of Understanding'. My header image shows Arun Ghosh's A South Asian Suite, an Indo-Jazz chamber work inspired by the landscape and cultures of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as seen from the viewpoint of a British-Asian composer living in a northern English town. A South Asian Suite is rich in meta content and in his sleeve note Arun Ghosh writes about the "sweltering conditions" at the sessions, the "delicate monster" of a harmonium used for the recording and the "spiritual spaces" it has been performed in. Just as everything coexists with Thich Nhat Hanh's sheet of paper, so everything coexists with Arun Ghosh's music; from the studio conditions, through the technologies deployed in its distribution and on to the minerals used to make the CD, and ultimately to the sunshine and the soil. In fact The South Asian Suite coexists with a sheet of paper and everything else on this earth: this music is, because everything else is. Thich Nhat Hanh once famously declared "no mud, no lotus" and his teaching of interbeing also applies to music. Today bandwidth, both technical and cerebral, is at a premium, so all the analogue mud is stripped out of music in the single-minded pursuit of accessibility. But, to paraphrase Thich Nhat Hanh, no mud - no music

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Do great classical composers need the common touch?

Several times I was surprised at the end of a meal by suddenly hearing my overtures; than at the restaurant window, indulging in this feeling, I did not know what was having a more intoxicating effect upon me, the incomparable, magnificently illuminated square filled with countless, strolling people or the music bearing all of this as if in roaring transfiguration.
Wagner recounts his time in Venice in Richard Wagner in Venedig by Friedrich Dieckmann. The quote is used in the notes for the Uri Caine Ensemble's arrangements of Wagner for string quartet, piano and accordion recorded live at the Gran Caffè Quadri in the Piazza San Marco, Venice. Forget about the unconventional forces, this is a first-rate and often surprisingly moving Wagner disc which I am sure the Master himself would have approved of. Out of the three great composers celebrating anniversaries this year, Wagner and Verdi reached huge audiences thanks to their common touch being exploited in arrangements for popular forces. Britten comes from a very different era, but can anyone name a popular cover version of a Britten work? Is it because times have changed and social media has replaced café musicians as the preeminent popularising force? Or does Britten's music lack the common touch? But please read on before answering those non-rhetorical questions. Because in a depressingly po-faced centenary year it was refreshing on Saturday to find the Britten thought police taking the evening off and six musicians from disciplines as diverse as folk, house, techno and electronica being invited to reinterpret Britten at Snape. Listen to a demo of Britten's arrangement of the folk song O Waly Waly in what Wagner would term "a roaring transfiguration via this link. Then do share your views on whether great classical composers need the common touch.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Leonard Bernstein's Sufi dream

On October 13, a friend came to visit him and, at Bernstein's request, he read out loud Coleman Barks's translations of a number of poems by the thirteenth-century Persian mystic Jelaluddin Rumi, in particular some lines from Rumi's deathbed poem:

Last night in a dream I saw an old man in a garden
It was all love.
He held out his hand and said, Come toward me.


Leonard Bernstein died at 6:15 the following evening.
That extract is from Jonathan Cott's Dinner with Lenny. The valedictory choice by the 'Kaddish' Symphony's composer of poetry by one of the most senior figures in the Sufi tradition takes us beyond syncretism to synchronicity. Deutsche Grammophon has recently re-released Dream of the Orient (that is the original 2003 Archiv CD above) on which Concerto Köln directed by Werner Ehrhardt and transcultural ensemble Sarband - celebrated for their Arabian Passion According to J.S. Bach - mix European classical and Sufi influenced Turkish music from the 18th century. Musical East meets West encounters continue to be fashionable, but their appeal is all too often multicultural rather than musicological. But, as you would expect from the musically impeccable Concerto Köln and Sarband, Dream of the Orient throws fresh light on Turkish indebted Western masterpieces such as Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail when performed with refreshingly uninhibited Turkish percussionists. It is hardly surprising that 18th century Western classical music absorbed Eastern influences as the Turkish army reached the gates of Vienna in 1683 before being defeated. Leonard Bernstein also reached the gates of Vienna late in his career; but he avoided defeat and, predictably, the polyamorous conductor went on to have a passionate love affair with the Vienna Philharmonic. One of the fruits of this was the recording with them of his own transcription of Beethoven's op. 131 String Quartet which he cites in Dinner with Lenny as the record he was most proud of making. When once asked how he could love Wagner, Bernstein replied, “I hate Wagner — on my knees.” Despite this Lenny's performances of Wagner were acclaimed, which takes this post full circle as last year I asked Was Wagner a Sufi?

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Let's make 2014 a Max Last Night of the Proms


In his recent Royal Philharmonic Society lecture BBC Radio 3 controller and Proms director Roger Wright expressed the view that "the mundane programme is our enemy". This is an admirable sentiment, so today I am offering the Proms director some gratuitous advice on how to outwit the enemy in next year's Proms season. Hopefully the current misguided obsession with composer anniversaries should be self-correcting as 2014 is a lean year with Richard Strauss (1864-1949) being the only bankable birthday boy or girl; surely wall to wall Strauss tone poems is a step too far even for Radio 3? But my recent analysis of Google Trends did show that lesser-known composers respond to anniversary promotion. So my 2014 fantasy BBC Proms season would include all four of the life-affirming symphonies of Albéric Magnard (1865-1914) and, following on from the success of this year's Wagner Proms, a complete cycle of the six operas of Harrison Birtwistle (b 1934). Don't panic - or rather do Panic - Harry's operas don't last for four hours so they will not fill eleven concerts.

But I would save the best for last. Next year the Last Night of the Proms should fall on Saturday Sept 6 and Peter Maxwell Davies is eighty on Sept 8 2014. So I would present an all Maxwell Davies last night with his Albert Hall emptying Second Symphony in the first half to clear out the Union Jack waving Hoorah Henrys and Henriettas. For those who stay the course there would be a second half of Max bon bons including his Orkney Wedding with Sunrise and sublime Farewell to Stromness in its 2005 orchestration for string orchestra. Oh yes indeed - the mundane programme is our enemy. So let's make 2014 the year we swapped mundane musicals for Magnard, Max and the Minotaur.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Not coming to a TV near you


Elsewhere there are imaginative conspiracy theories as to why the film Peace and Conflict about Benjamin Britten's time at Gresham's School - production still above - is not being aired on British television. Follow this link for another possible reason conspicuously missing from that coverage.

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Oh yes indeed - the mundane programme is our enemy


That is BBC Radio 3 controller and Proms director Roger Wright in the photo above with presenter Petroc Trelawny. As reported here in August, between them they have managed to lose 100,000 listeners, which is 14% of its audience, from Radio 3's Breakfast programme by depriving it of context and turning it into a mundane imitation of Classic FM. So I choked on my coffee this morning when I read this quote from Roger Wright's Royal Philharmonic Society 2013 lecture.
'Context is all - the mundane programme is our enemy!'
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Why are some gay causes more fashionable than others?


Quite rightly there is anger about the persecution of homosexuals in Russia. But quite puzzlingly there is silence about the prohibition of homosexuality in Abu Dhabi and other United Arab Emirate States. Article 80 of the Abu Dhabi Penal Code makes sodomy punishable with imprisonment of up to 14 years, and in 2005 UAE Justice Minister Mohammed bin Nukhaira Al Dhahiri reportedly stated “There will be no room for homosexual and queer acts in the UAE ... our society does not accept queer behaviour, either in word or in action”. Now comes news - see story above - that members of the Gulf Cooperation Countries, including Abu Dhabi which is part of the United Arab Emirates, are considering tests to identify and deny entry to LGBT travellers. The United Arab Emirates have a spectacularly bad human rights record which stretches far beyond LGBT prohibition. Yet, as I highlighted back in 2008, Abu Dhabi has a thriving international arts festival organised in conjunction with leading classical music management agency IMG Artists. Just a few of the high profile musicians who appeared at the 2013 Abu Dhabi Arts Festival are Joshua Bell, Bryn Terfel, Jiří Bělohlávek, Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra and Plácido Domingo. In fact such is the magnetic appeal of the festival for performers that it would be easier to list the top classical musicians who have not appeared there since it was founded in 2004. Let's reprise the words of the UAE's Minister of Justice “Our society does not accept queer behaviour, either in word or in action”. Now can someone explain why there is not more anger about classical musicians endorsing Abu Dhabi's inhuman policies by appearing at its prestigious arts festival?


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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

We're losing nuances and nuances are very underrated


My thread on how classical music was covertly dumbed down is perfectly summed up by the member of an audiophile forum in the following words :
We're losing nuances. And nuances are very underrated.
My graphic is work in progress from Norman 'we are by nature nuanced analogue beings' Perryman for his kinetic art performance with composer Toshio Hosokawa, shō exponent Mayumi Miyata and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra in Amsterdam on Oct 26th. Yes, nuances are very underrated.

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Everybody now has their own broadcast station


Three key policies in new director general Tony Hall's 'vision' statement for the BBC impact on classical music and, therefore, require close inspection. The benefit of the first policy, 20% extra spend on arts programming, spins very well. But in reality it depends totally on the definition of 'arts', and all the evidence suggests the increased spend will simply be created by broadening the definition. The official remit of BBC Four TV is to "reflect a range of UK and international arts, music and culture". With Monday's typical BBC Four schedule offering Whatever happened to the likely lads, A very British murder with Lucy Worsley and Miss Marple the future of arts, music and culture does not look very bright under Tony Hall. Even before factoring in that the arts - including the Proms - are being used as political bait to catch a juicy license fee settlement and Charter renewal in 2016.

The second new policy of "a major new strand 'BBC Arts at…' that will showcase live performances from around the country" has already been implemented with disastrous results at BBC Radio 3. Quite wrongly the BBC sees its main competition as commercial broadcasters, and, again quite wrongly, is trying to differentiate itself by majoring on 'live' performances because commercial stations invariably pre-record. On BBC Radio 3 every third word uttered by the ubiquitous 'chin musicians' - aka presenters - is 'live'; which results in the absurdity of Pet Rock Trelawny gushing about a 'live' Prom in a recorded repeat the following day. Perhaps Tony Hall, who is much taken with things digital, should remember that there is no such thing as a 'live' broadcast. The BBC digital broadcast chain introduces a micro-second delay in relays of live performances, which only varies in order of magnitude from the macro-second delay in commercial sector pre-recorded performances.

Most worrying of Tony Hall's big new policies is that he wants "BBC Music to be a well-recognised brand". Despite flaunting his geek credentials by enthusing about watching Glastonbury on his phone, the new director general fails to understand that new technologies have overturned traditional concepts of brand, just as the same new technologies have overturned the infrastructure monopoly of traditional broadcasters. Today, thanks to mobile computing and social media everybody has their own brand and everybody has their own broadcasting station - see header image. The BBC gained early mover advantage with iPlayer, but betting the farm on a personalised son of iPlayer is a strategy that is doomed to fail because of the rate and breadth of innovation elsewhere. Things will only change at the BBC when Tony Hall realises that his organisation's medium is technology, but the message is inspiring programmes. When Louis Rossetto founded Wired magazine in 1993 his first instruction to contributors was "amaze us". What is lacking in the BBC today are programmes that amaze us, and based on yesterday's 'vision' statement by Tony Hall that is unlikely to change.

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