Thursday, April 30, 2015

Primal stream

My recent post Music of things was adroitly distilled by Alex Ross and tweeted onwards. Which prompts me to return to a 2011 post on the same theme which arrogantly contemporized a celebrated teaching of Benjamin Britten. Disruptive technology has moved on in the last four years, so here is a new version of that teaching on the primal stream:
Anyone, anywhere, at any time can listen to the B minor Mass upon one condition only - that they subscribe to a music streaming service. No qualification is required of any sort - faith, virtue, education, experience, age. Thanks to the internet music is now free for all. If I say music streaming is the principal enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than a Wi-Fi connection. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.
Header image is sampled from Edvard Munch's The Scream, which was used on the cover of the 1977 Abacus edition of Arthur Janov's book The Primal Scream. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Travels with Joni

Conflicting reports about the condition of Joni Mitchell give serious cause for concern. Joni's music has been a constant in my life for more years than I care to remember. Two years ago, with ironic tongue in cheek, I quoted her lyric of how "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot" in a post describing the ecological rape of the laid back surf & spliff Berber village of Tamraght in southern Morocco. That post showed a photo of a mechanical digger working on an unidentified building project. A few weeks ago I returned to Tamraght to find that the diggers had finished their work, and had built...... the parking lot seen above. A post in 2009 described how in 1970 Joni took a career break and spent time in Europe, where she composed many of the songs on her, arguably, greatest album Blue. The lyrics of Carey on that album refer to the seaside village of Matala in the south of Crete where she lived with in caves with an alternative community during the summer of 1970. A few years later I visited Matala with my then wife-to-be, and by the mystical synchronicity that haunts this blog, I will be returning to the south coast of Crete with my (same) wife in a few weeks, for the first time in forty years. Joni's album Both Sides Now, which she cut in 2000 with Vince Mendoza, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine and others, plays as I write. Let's hope there are more "Rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air" to come.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Those are my principles, and if you don't like them...

Joyce DiDonato undoubtedly has a peerless vocal technique, but she also has a peerless technique for pushing media hot buttons. At the last night of the 2013 BBC Proms Ms. DiDonato had journalists eating out of her hand when she dedicated a performance of the gay anthem 'Somewhere over the rainbow' to 'voices silenced' over gay rights. Then in February this year her record label Warner Classics carpet bombed journalists with a video of her singing at the Stonewall Inn - see image above. The accompanying press release told how she sang at the birthplace of the gay rights movement as a "tribute to victims of intolerance and injustice". Media hot buttons were not so much pressed as hammered and the video went viral in response. With just one exception, the media assiduously ignored the inconvenient truth that less than three months later - on May 1st to be precise - Joyce DiDonato was taking her own Drama Queens project to the Royal Opera House in Muscat, the capital of Gulf State Oman. It is an inconvenient truth because, as the U.S. State Department travel advisory for Oman explains, "Consensual same-sex sexual conduct is illegal in Oman and is subject to a potential jail term of six months to three years".

That pro-gay protest by Joyce DiDonato at the 2013 BBC Proms was specifically targeted at the Russian government for - to quote her blog - "systematically silencing their own citizens and those of us that support them around the world". These are very worthy sentiments, but the facts need to be made clear. In contrast to Oman, same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults was decriminalized in Russia in 1993. The law passed by the State Duma in June 2013 against which Ms. DiDonato and others protested, did not recriminalize same-sex sexual activity. It banned "the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors, an offence if committed by Russian nationals punishable by a fine and not imprisonment. Such censorship is not confined to Russia, and media monitor Freedom House reports that: "Oman’s 1984 Press and Publications Law is one of the most restrictive statutes of its kind in the Arab world, and serves to create a highly censored and subdued media environment". In 2013 Reporters Without Borders highlighted how two Omani journalists faced judicial proceedings for publishing an article titled “The Outsiders” about gays in Oman. While in March this year Human Rights Watch reported how an activist blogger was imprisoned for three years for for criticizing the Omani government and its policies.

It goes without saying that the Russian government's anti-gay stance is deplorable and should be protested. But prominent classical musicians are conveniently singling out Vladimir Putin's government for protests while continuing to tacitly support other regimes - notably in the Gulf States - with far more repressive anti-LGBT laws. Joyce DiDonato is just a topical and outspoken example: among others whose tour itineraries have included the Gulf are Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, Riccardo Muti, Anne-Sophie, Joshua Bell, Jiří Bělohlávek, Jordi Savall, and Iván Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. As Groucho Marx once famously explained: "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others".

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

There's a story about a Sufi master who was walking with one of his pupils, near a huge field. In the field there was a man who was digging holes. This man had dug two hundred holes two feet deep. Observing this the pupil, the pupil asked, "O my master, what is he doing?".
"I don't know. Let us ask him," the Sufi answered. They called him over, and asked what was the purpose of digging so many holes just two feet deep.
"I'm looking for water," the man said. The Sufi master told him, "It's unlikely that you will find water by digging two hundred holes that are only two feet deep. You have a better chance of finding water if you dig one hole two hundred feet deep.
That Sufi teaching* came to mind when I read details of the 2015 BBC Proms. Header photo was taken a few days ago outside the Zaouia Moulay Idriss II in Fez, Morocco, where I was attending the Sufi culture festival.

*Sufi tale is adapted from When You Hear Hoofbeats Think of a Zebra: Talks on Sufism by Shems Friedlander. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

This rare Bruno Walter recording is a real revelation

A post here a few years ago discussed how the legendary conductor Bruno Walter was a disciple of the Austrian philosopher, educationist and founding figure in the Theosophy movement Rudolf Steiner. Theosophy is a syncretic tradition, but the discovery on Amazon of the recording seen above was still a surprise. Bruno Walter was of course one of the great interpreters of Wagner; which gives a whole new meaning to the question Are we ready for an Islamic interpretation of Wagner?

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Music of things

In 2015 the big new technology trend is the 'internet of things'. In this the focus shifts from software to physical objects, with digital technologies moving from being an end in themselves to a tool that increases the utility of 'things' such as cell phones, coffee makers, washing machines and wearable devices. The internet of things provides an interface between the physical and virtual world, and its emergence sends the important message that no matter how clever the technology, digital solutions can only enhance and not replace physical interactions. This message needs to be taken on board by the classical music industry, where the obsession with virtual content has turned streaming into flooding. Confirmation that the virtual can never replace the physical is also coming from within the music industry: in 2014 9.2 million vinyl records were sold in the US, the best year since the monitoring of vinyl sales by Nielsen restarted in 1991. Received wisdom tells us that vinyl sales are booming because analogue records sound better than digital CDs. But in an article on music industry commentator Bob Lefsetz begs to differ, explaining that in his view:
Vinyl is agitation against a disconnected society where we have no way to display our identity. If it were really about sound, people would be gravitating to Deezer Elite and Tidal. But they’re not, because they don’t want to hear better sound, they want to own something.
The money quote is that classical listeners want to own something, whether it is owning a physical CD or LP, or owning the shared experience of hearing great music live in a concert. Classical music must embrace the shift from the virtual to physical by celebrating the music of things in the form of physical recordings and live performances. Quite rightly much attention is paid to the musicians who make live concerts possible, but too little attention is paid to the dedicated retailers who make owning CDs and LPs possible. Saturday April 18th is World Record Store Day, an event that celebrates the culture of independently owned record stores. Without independent record stores On An Overgrown Path would not exist, and there have been many celebrations of these dedicated retailers here over the years. Physical recordings are more than vinyl LPs or polycarbonate CDs: they are also bold visual statements that express agitation against a digitally connected but physically disconnected society. So to celebrate the 2015 World Record Store Day I offer bold visuals from a CD that I discovered recently in one of the world's great record stores, Concerto Records in Amsterdam. Oud virtuoso Haytham Safia was born in Northern Galilee, but is now based in Europe and the artwork is from his CD U'D on the Dutch Loplop label. I will now leave you with those ravishing graphics as I am swapping the virtual world for the music of things and travelling to Fez for the Sufi Culture Festival. As Sufi master Rumi instructs us in the Mathnawi: "Say less, learn more, depart". Back soon insha'Allah.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

To everything, turn, turn, turn

Classical music's pursuit of the dollar into regions controlled by despotic regimes has long been a preoccupation on this blog, with the uneasy marriage of art and politics in the Gulf States receiving particular attention. To date On An Overgrown Path has been a lone voice on this topic, so I was heartened to find my esteemed fellow blogger Norman Lebrecht joining me in taking a critical position on classical music's exploitation of the petro-dollar. In a new post on Slipped Disc* about the purchase of a crystal encrusted Steinway by an oil sheikh, Norman rails against the Qatari regime with these words:
The Qatar economy is built on tenured labour from the Indian subcontinent. The slave workers have their passports confiscated on arrival, are kept in camps outside the city and forced to work in temperatures of up to 50 degrees C. (You won’t hear about this on Qatar-based Al-Jazeera; yes, we’ve seen it, in the company of the late Lorin Maazel). That’s how Qatar sheikhs get to afford crystal Steinways.
Now Norman is a committed activist, but in the past he has not been noted for his criticism of the Gulf regimes. So I thought it would be enlightening to explore the background to this epiphany. His own explanation that he had "seen it, in the company of the late Lorin Maazel" is the starting point for that exploration, and it leads to a 2008 post by him. This recounts how he attended the inaugral concert of the Qatar Philharmonic in the emirate. That concert was conducted by the late Lorin Maazel, who was on the podium because he was managed by Harrison Parrott. In common with other large management agents Harrison Parrott are expanding aggressively into new markets such as the Gulf States to compensate for falling revenues in Europe and North America. In his post Norman depicts how at the concert he sat between "senior officials" of the Qatari regime. He does not tell us why he was in Qatar, so let's assume he was on vacation and blagged his way into this exalted company in the interests of investigative journalism. That 2008 post, which is headed "Gulf orchestra a mirage", is equivocal, but it does not rail against the "slave state".

Fast forward to 2013 when Han-Na Chang was appointed music director of the Qatar Philharmonic. The announcement of her appointment can be read on the Harrison Parrott website because Ms Chang was signed to the agency in 2010. That is Han-Na Chang with the orchestra in the header photo, and her appointment was expanded on by Norman in a generally complimentary interview on Slipped Disc. The full version of that interview is no longer available online, but there is a sizable extract on Gulf Arts News.

Last year the Qatar Philharmonic and Han-Na Chang made their debut at the BBC Proms as part of a Harrison Parrot managed tour. At that time only one dissenting voice pointed out Qatar's appalling human rights record, and it wasn't Norman Lebrecht. Shortly after that Proms debut things went pear shaped for Ms. Chang and she left the orchestra in mid-tour; her abrupt exit was covered sympathetically on Slipped Disc in a post titled Why I quit, by walkout conductor. Coincidentally, sometime after Ms. Chang's sudden departure Norman saw the light about the repressive Qatari regime, a commendable epiphany that finds expression in his latest post. Hopefully we will now see similar invective on Slipped Disc directed at the equally repressive regime in neighbouring Abu Dhabi, which has hosted among others, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra, Jordi Savall, Riccardo Muti and Anne-Sophie Mutter.

* Indirect links are used when referencing Norman Lebrecht's writings to avoid contributing to click bait inflation; the referenced material should appear at the top of the Google search results. For those too young to know, my headline quotes from Pete Seeger's song 'Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)'. More on Pete here. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

This is my radio

Three months into the role, the new controller of BBC Radio 3 Alan Davey has revealed his vision to rejuvenate the station and make it relevant in an age of multiple media. At the centre of his vision is bringing back the Pied Piper programme last heard in 1976, and winding back the clock on the breakfast programme by dropping the vox pop contributions from listeners. When I explained last year why classical radio must change or die, I incurred the wrath of the Friends of Radio 3 by suggesting they advocated that Radio 3 presenters should once again wear dinner jackets while on air. It now seems that my misunderstood joke will backfire on me, and that Alan Davey will soon be announcing the return of formally attired presenters.

At this point let's make one thing clear. I was a huge fan of David Munrow's Pied Piper programme, have probably written more about him over the years than any other music journalist, and my interview with Munrow's mentor, the EMI producer Christopher Bishop, is one of the few first hand accounts of Munrow's career - listen here. But reheating the Pied Piper format for an age where every variable in classical music broadcasting has undergone a paradigm shift is a ludicrous concept, and it simply underlines that Davey - who has no broadcasting background - is struggling to come up with original ideas. BBC Radio 3's new controller has also missed the point that the original Pied Piper led the kids away, for them never to return.

Among other headlines from the interview with Alan Davey, which was published in the Sunday Times, is - as predicted here - an emphasis on sound quality to differentiate the station from Classic FM, and a move away from patronising its listeners, aka dumbing down. Like his earlier BBC Radio 4 interview Alan Davey has obviously written his latest script specifically to satisfy the Friends of Radio 3. Although the Friends of Radio 3 and On An Overgrown Path have both pointed out in the past that Radio 3 has got it badly wrong, I now view the activities of this pressure group with considerable nervousness. They claim to be non-prescriptive; so by default they have opened the door for the winding back of the clock strategy that Alan Davey is now unveiling; in fact, they have publicly expressed approval of his early plans.

The paradigm shifts in culture and technology mentioned earlier mean that any winding back of the clock at Radio 3 is doomed to failure. The Friends of Radio 3 is headed by the well-intentioned and very likable Sarah Spilsbury, and its online forums are a valuable resource. But the group's membership is statistically unrepresentative of the Radio 3 audience, it has no constitution or election of officers, and there is no rigorous methodolgy for checking that the views it expresses represent those of its members, yet alone all Radio 3 listeners. But the Friends of Radio 3 has the ear of the reactionary media, which means it also has the ear of the BBC. There are regular meetings between the Friends of Radio 3 and senior BBC executives; in fact Alan Davey met with the Friends of Radio 3 before he took up post - see Dec 5 2014. The Friends of Radio 3 regularly supplies soundbites to the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph; so, with a license fee and charter negotiation looming, keeping the pressure group onside is a high priority for the BBC and Alan Davey.

In the Sunday Times interview Alan Davey says: "If you set out to chase ratings, it's quite hard to succeed". I am a lapsed Radio 3 listener, which means that I am an unrepresentative sample of the thousands that Davey needs to woo back to his station. My header photo shows the alternative to Radio 3 that currently satisfies me: it is not a single station but a mix of media across a mix of sources. To win me back, Alan Davey needs to put his money where his mouth is and stop chasing ratings. He needs to create radio that is relevant, stimulating, dangerous, enlightening, challenging and new. I don't want programming by pressure group, Petroc Trelawny without the phone-ins, or a reincarnated Pied Piper with James May as presenter.

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Classical music is lone art and not crowd art

Loneliness has been the reason behind the creation of many masterpieces of art and literature, but compared to the general picture of lonely people and their miseries, these are only exceptional cases. We have missed seeing this most important of human conditions as a talent, as an inward concentration to be used for, rather than against, a human's well-being.

We teach, from kindergarten through the universities, all sorts of useful lessons to children. Reading writing, arithmetic and hundreds of other subjects are taught in schools, to be used on small occasions in life, but no occasion occurs as often as the occasion for a person to be alone. And yet we haven't developed any teaching for it. If we teach our children what I call the "lone art," then human life, alone or in society, will be quite different at many levels and ages than what it is today. Every day a child should learn how to be comfortably, even happily, alone to better his "lone art" education, and once he has learned, not only will he not run away from being alone, but he may also enjoy creating something in that period.

If taught in a school, the "lone art" classes must be more typical of the spaces people use in daily life. Individual students attending a space alone will think, create or simply daydream, and then will write, tell, and share the experience with others. Students will have the choice of pursuing the "lone art," and like the arts of painting, writing and music, new masterpieces may be created for others to emulate. And as the child grows into youth and then moves into adulthood and finally old age, he will know what to do with his "lone art" ability just as he knows what to do with his reading or writing or walking ability.
Those musings were written by Nader Khalili in 1983. Nader Khalili (1936-2008) was an Iranian-born American architect, writer, and humanitarian whose mission was to create low-cost, energy-efficient housing using traditional technologies. Laura Huxley, Aldous Huxley’s widow, described Khalili as a “practical visionary.” He published two books of translations of Mevlana Rumi's poetry. The artwork for American-Israeli oud virtuoso, educator and music therapist* Yuval Ron's CD Oud Prayers on the Road to St. Jacques seen above shows Khalili's Rumi Dome; this was built at Cal-Earth in California using his 'super-adobe' building process**.

As Nader Khalili tells us, loneliness was the reason behind the creation of many artistic masterpieces, and that includes many masterpieces of classical music from Schubert's Winterreise to Elliott Carter's First String Quartet. But the all-pervading influence of social media, which measures success by number of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, is replacing 'lone art' with 'crowd art'. In Which Lie Did I Tell? screenwriter William Goldman explained that the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment tells us lies or comforting truisms that we know already, while art tells us uncomfortable truths that we don't want to hear. The comforting truisms of crowd art - which is entertainment by another name - breed social media approval, while the uncomfortable truths of lone art do the opposite. Most of the changes being imposed on classical music in the name of anti-elitism do no more than to reinvent it as crowd art. Sorry to repeat myself, but it is my thesis that this enforced transition of classical music from its raison d'être of lone art to the fiscal honeypot of crowd art explains many of its current problems.

*Yuval Ron's recently published Divine Attunement: Music as a Path to Wisdom, an exploration of how Jewish Kabbalists, Gnostic Christians, Sufi mystics use sound to heal the body, mind, and spirit, is recommended, but no review samples were used in this post.
** Interview with Nader Khalili at EarthLight Library is essential reading.

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Friday, April 10, 2015

The Orthodox Veil

One day during 1986 Steven Isserlis rang me up. I had never heard of him; he was apparently a cellist. He said, 'I'm a Jew, I'm a Russian Jew. My father is Russian. I love your music. I particularly love the Russian Orthodox qualities that it has. Although I'm a Jew, I'm not a practising Jew. I always go to the service of Easter in the Orthodox Church, because I love the music so much and I love the ceremonies. I just wonder whether you could write a piece for cello and orchestra that has some connection with the Orthodox music that I love so much.' Of course, if another kind of cellist had rung me up and said, 'Would you compose a cello concerto?' I would have said, 'No. Absolutely out of the question.' But the way Steven put this question and the fact that he told me he loved Orthodox music somehow excited me. It seemed a genuine way of asking if I would do it.
John Tavener describes the genesis of his icon in sound The Protecting Veil in The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament. Easter is celebrated by the Orthodox and Coptic Churches on April 12th, and the mystical header image comes from the Coptic Church of the Virgin Mary in the Haret Zuweila district of Cairo. My pilgrimage to Coptic monasteries in Egypt is recounted in the photo essay In search of le point vierge.

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Don't shoot the pianist, shoot the music industry

There is little point on expending many words on the fiasco in Toronto, other than to say that both pianist Valentina Lisitsa and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra behaved unwisely, with predictable results. What does deserve attention is the bigger picture. Valentina Lisitsa may play fast and loose on Twitter, but she is well connected and an adept exploiter of YouTube and other social media. That header photo of Ms. Lisitsa playing at the 'alternative' Bristol Proms appeared here last year, and many paths lead from it. She is managed by IMG Artists which describes itself as "a global leader of performing arts management", and she has an exclusive recording contract with Decca. That label is, of course, part of the Universal Music empire. As explained here previously, the Bristol Proms are managed and promoted by U-Live, which is also part of Universal Music. Last year Sinfini Music - which is likewise owned and controlled by Universal Music - ran a a video interview with Valentina Lisitsa by their regular contributor Norman Lebrecht. More recently Norman and others connected with the Sinfini/Universal nexus have been doing a sterling job of defending Ms Lisitsa's corner in Toronto, and in the process, coincidentally supplying yet more vital oxygen of publicity. All of which is above board and an accepted part of classical music in 2015. You do not need to read the offending tweets about the Ukraine to understand the Toronto fiasco. You just need to read the recent Guardian profile of UK media celebrity Katie Hopkins. There is an old saying that you should be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. For years classical music has been fervently wishing to become part of the entertainment industry. What happened in Toronto shows that classical music's wish has finally come true.

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Thursday, April 09, 2015

Negro at home, maestro abroad

Dean Dixon, who is seen above, has featured in no less than sixteen Overgrown Path posts. By one of those auspicious coincidences that power this blog, just before I uploaded the most recent post - which recounts how he gave the the premiere of Richard Arnell's suite The Land with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1942 - news arrived of a forthcoming biography* of the West Indian American conductor. Its author is Dr. Rufus Jones, who has edited The Collected Folk Suites of William Grant Still and is director of orchestral and choral studies at Westglades Middle School in Fort Lauderdale. While studying music education in Austin, Texas, Rufus Jones became aware that discrimination was still endemic in classical music. This disturbing revelation made the young African American realise that, to quote him, "I needed to know more about my history and more about how others in my profession coped with the sobering reality of racial discrimination". So writing a biography of Dean Dixon became Rufus Jones' way of confronting racism in his chosen profession.

Dean Dixon: Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad‏ is a sobering story of racism, abandonment, self-imposed exile, health problems, spiritual searching, and financial difficulties. But it is also the story of towering achievement. It tells how Dixon returned to conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1970. He had been shunned by the American classical music establishment and this was his first concert in the U.S. for twenty-one years. His conducting moved the Newsweek critic to write:
This was a ripe Dixon, authoritative and precise. He is not a showboat conductor, yet he showered his program with lilting lyricism and controlled grace. And he gave Brahms’s Second Symphony a rich romantic sweep that brought the great throng to its feet in a standing, especially thrilling ovation.
But, despite this triumph, the story ends with a diminuendo, with Dr. Jones recounting how the American Dream of the West Indian American from Harlem finally came true - abroad.

With his health broken by the long struggle against discrimination, Dean Dixon died in Switzerland aged just 61 in 1976. But this new biography is much more than an important retelling of history. Speaking at Carnegie Hall in October 2013, Aaron Dworkin founder and president of the Sphinx Organization - a charity promoting diversity in the arts - accused orchestras of failing to diversify. In his speech he pointed out that just four percent of orchestra players in the U.S. are Black and Latino; by comparison the Black and Latino ethnic groups comprise twenty-nine percent of the U.S. population. Aaron Dworkin was especially critical of the New York Philharmonic, highlighting that, at the time, the orchestra had not had a Black member in five years. (The first small step to rectify this imbalance was taken, coincidentally or otherwise, in the following year when clarinettist Anthony McGill became the orchestra's first African-American principal). It is yet another overlooked irony of classical music that so much attention is paid to the deplorable gender imbalance in the Vienna Philharmonic, but so little attention is paid to the equally deplorable but less click baitable ethnic imbalance in virtually every major orchestra. Let us hope that Rufus Jones' timely biography of Dean Dixon helps to draw attention to that imbalance.

* Dean Dixon: Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad by Dr. Rufus Jones is published by Rowman & Littlefield on June 16, 2015.

Header photo via SMNR Frankfurt. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The answer my friend is changing with the wind

"A forthcoming book by Geoff Baker, lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, is puffed in the Guardian today on claims that it unpicks the Venezuelan music system that has been adulated and adopted the world over... None of this is substantiated in Dr Baker’s article in the Guardian, which offers nothing more than general assertions... My own limited contacts with El Sistema graduates have yielded few suspicions of dissent or dissatisfaction on their part." - Norman Lebrecht writes on November 12, 2014*

"Gabriela Montero has spoken out forcefully against the pressures used by the Venezuelan regime to use El Sistema as a tool for its violent, corrupt and incompetent leadership and in support of its anti-US stance... Gabriela, who lives in the US, has nonetheless taken considerable personal risks in speaking out against the regime. It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if El Sistema supporters in the US and Europe were to take against her as a result of her courageous stance" - Norman Lebrecht writes on April 8, 2015*
* Indirect links are used when referencing Lebrecht's writings to avoid contributing to click bait inflation; the referenced material should appear at the top of the Google search results. Photo via the LooseLeaf Report. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Permission denied in Boston

'The Boston Symphony Orchestra has signed a five-year recording contract with the German label Deutsche Grammophon... under the terms of the deal, the BSO and its music director Andris Nelsons will record five albums of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos. 5 through 10... the recording contract was announced in conjunction with the orchestra's 2015-16 season... plans include... a strong emphasis on Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Bruckner and other late Romantics' - source WQXR.
It seems Andris Nelsons and his Boston colleagues have forgotten that audiences need permission to like unfamiliar music. Khachaturian, Kabalevsky and Myaskovsky have been suggested elsewhere as alternatives to the ubiquitous Shostakovich and Mahler symphonies. But a composer with stronger American connections might go down better, so I suggest Richard Arnell. Born in London in 1917, Arnell followed Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Sir Arthur Bliss to the States in the late 1930s, and, like Bliss, found himself marooned on the wrong side of the Atlantic when war was declared. He settled in New York for the duration, and became a member of the Greenwich Village circle that included Virgil Thomson and Mark Rothko. Among the works that Arnell composed in New York before he returned to England in 1947 were his first three symphonies (plus much of his Fourth) and a film score for the US Departure of Agriculture documentary The Land. Paths auspiciously converge here as the suite from The Land was given its premiered by African American conductor Dean Dixon and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1942.

Among others who championed Arnell's music in America were Léon Barzin, who gave the first performance of the Fourth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in 1948, Leopold Stokowski, who gave the premiere of the Black Mountain Prelude with the New York Philharmonic in 1949, and Bernard Hermann. In the UK Arnell's advocates included Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Thomas Beecham. Despite advocacy by these musical luminaries, concert performances of Arnell's symphonies are today as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth, and none of his symphonies have been played at the BBC Proms. But we are very fortunate to have a magnificently played and recorded cycle of the symphonies by Martin Yates - a stalwart permission granter - and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on the independent Dutton label. Richard Arnell's monumental wartime Third Symphony is an ideal candidate for a Boston performance: it is late-Romantic in tone, Mahlerian in scope and duration and has a fifteen minute long slow movement that Visconti would have adored, while hints of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, David Diamond and William Schuman betray its Stateside genesis.

It is one of many overlooked ironies in classical music today that much of the click baiting convention challenging is being done by Max Hole, the ceo of Universal Music whose Deutsche Grammophon label dogmatically adheres to the most restrictive repertoire conventions. Unfamiliar music does not feature at all in DG's announced recording plans in Boston, yet Andris Nelsons is no stranger to the more arcane repertoire. A Boston Symphony press release reveals that in the 2015 season Nelsons will be conducting new music by Brett Dean, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Michael Gandolfi, Sofia Gubaidulina, John Harbison, and Gunther Schuller - my interview with Ēriks Ešenvalds can be heard here. The press release also reports that the orchestra's summer tour of Europe includes London, which almost certainly means an appearance at the BBC Proms. No details are given of the tour repertoire, but it is fair to assume that the keystone of the concerts will be one of the Shostakovich symphonies that is being recorded. Classical concert conventions are being challenged ad nauseam. But it is the same old conventions that are challenged - venue, dress, lighting etc. Which means that other restrictive convention that have only been established in recent years remain unchallenged. One of these conventions dictates that the music in a concert should be thematically linked - cycles of symphonies from anniversary composers, works that are linked stylistically or by composition date etc. This convention is coupled with several subsidiary conventions; these include that a concert must be built around a single monumental 'masterwork' - all too often a late-Romantic symphony - and that the works proceeding it should be subordinate in length and content. Another convention that needs questioning is that unfamiliar music and contemporary music are synonomous, while the emergence of the masterwork themed concert has brought with it the questionable convention that short concerts are the way forward.

As noted earlier, there has never been a performance of a Richard Arnell symphony at the Promenade Concerts in London. But studying the programmes for the two Proms that have included his music is enlightening. In September 1957 his Concerto for Piano was in a programme that included Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and an excerpt from his opera Mazeppa, plus an excerpt from Berlioz's Les Troyens. Two years later Arnell's ballet score Harlequin in April was programmed with excerpts from Délibes Sylvia, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Walton's Façade, and Franck's Symphonic Variations and Ravel's Boléro. (It is worth noting that both these concerts had two conductors, an arrangement that would give today's greedy agents apoplexy). These programmes contrast strongly with today's standard format of a five minute contemporary work, concerto and late-Romantic symphony. Music education must take place in the concert hall as well as the classroom, and those diverse concert programmes of the past opened the ears of concert goers to unfamiliar music. Remember that classical music's biggest opportunity is its current audience.

So why not a convention challenging and permission giving Boston programme of Arnell's Third Symphony in the first half and Shostakovich's wartime Seventh in the second? There are no claims that Arnell's Third Symphony is an overlooked masterwork that should take its place alongside the symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovish. But there is a very strong case for the Boston Symphony Orchestra giving it an airing in place of yet another Shostakovich Fifth or Mahler First. Listen to the complete symphony here.

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Sunday, April 05, 2015

The shock of inclusion

Erudition has suffered two severe blows with the recent deaths of Andrew Patner and Andrew Porter. Dilettantes such as this writer can only lament the changing landscape of music journalism while leaving the fulsome tributes to those better qualified. For every benefit there is a cost, as new media commentator Clay Shirky reminds us in the compendium How is the Internet changing the way you think?
The shock of inclusion, where professional media give way to participation by 2 billion amateurs (a threshold which was crossed in 2010), means that the average quality of public thought has collapsed; when anyone can say anything anytime, how could it not? If the only consequence of this influx of amateurs is the destruction of existing models for producing high-quality material, we would be at the beginning of another Dark Ages. So it falls to us to make sure that isn't the only consequence.
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Saturday, April 04, 2015

Passions and fashions

My Passiontide playlist always includes the re-interpretation of Bach's St. Matthew and St John Passions by early music ensemble Sarband and their music director Vladimir Ivanoff, with the Lebanese singer Fadia el-Hage. What a pity this that this remarkable project (samples here) receives only a fraction of the attention given to the equally remarkable re-interpretation by Peter Sellars of the St. Matthew Passion. Because, as Sellars himself has said, "Bach wrote the music for us to place everything we hope and care about into the vessel of this music, and the music will not only carry it but elevate it". For those wishing to explore beyond current passions and fashions, the setting by the Syrian composer Abed Azrié of St. John's Gospel is recommended. A mindful Easter to all my readers.

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Thursday, April 02, 2015

Literally become ocean

Sidi Ifni, March 2014

Sidi Ifni, March 2015

"... a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels" is how John Luther Adams' Become Ocean is described in its Pulitzer Prize citation. The relentless impact of climate change is graphically illustrated in my two photos of the town of Sidi Ifni on the Atlantic coast in the south of Morocco. The first photo was taken by me in March 2014, the second twelve months later. In November 2014 exceptionally heavy rain caused flash floods that killed thirty-two people across southern Morocco. The dry river bed (oued in Moroccan Arabic) seen in the upper photo was turned into a raging torrent that destroyed bridges and cut off road access to Sidi Ifni for a week. Four months after the floods, the dramatic change in the coastline caused by the torrent scouring the seabed can be seen in my lower photo - the town's beach on which its tourist economy depends has literally become ocean.

In the foreground of both photos is the shrine of the Sufi saint Sidi Ifni, from who the town takes its name and which has featured here before. Sufi adept and, some think, candidate for sainthood Isabelle Eberhardt died in a flash flood in an oued on the border of Morocco and Algeria in 1904. My oceanic playlist while in Morocco also included Arnold Bax's Tintagel, which the composer described as conjuring "...thoughts of many passionate and tragic incidents in the tales of King Arthur and King Mark... the piece ends as it began, with a picture of the castle still proudly fronting the sea and wind of centuries". In the same way, as everything around it changes, the Sufi shrine of Sidi Ifni still stands proudly fronting the sea and wind of centuries. Which is appropriate, as there are many links between the mythology of Arthur and Sufism. Parsifal and King Mark - to who Isolde was betrothed - are both mythical figures associated with Arthurian legend. Which prompts, again, the question Was Wagner a Sufi?

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