Tuesday, March 28, 2017

In Dubai homosexuality is illegal but the music plays on


Money was doubtless the reason for franchising the BBC Proms to the oil-rich but ethically-challenged emirate of Dubai. However just one of many concerns about classical music's endorsement of the United Arab Emirates is the regime's overt homophobia, which makes demonised Russia look distinctly gay-friendly. As stated by UAE lawyer and government spokesperson Dr. Habib al-Mulla: "This is a conservative society. Homosexuality, conducted homosexuality is an illegal act*. And we are not ashamed of that”. Presumably BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny, who has publicly expressed support for LGBT+ causes and who travelled without demur to Dubai to present the franchised Proms, and BBC Proms controller Alan Davey who is also aligned with the LGBT+ community, are both well aware of the UAE's stance on homosexuality. But in classical music today money speaks louder words, and the Gulf media's critical appreciation of western classical music was clearly not the reason why Dubai was favoured with a Proms franchise; as this extract from the review of the first concert by the UAE's leading English language newspaper The National shows, :
In residence is the renowned BBC Symphony Orchestra which — under the baton of distinguished Proms veteran Edward Gardner — gave over the evening’s second half to William Walton’s Symphony No. 1, a formulaic assault of pomp, grandeur and cliché which, premiered in 1935, chimed a wantonly oblivious note of pride from an empire on the slow march towards collapse.
* Article 177 of the Penal Code of Dubai imposes imprisonment of up to 10 years on consensual sodomy. Before the twitterati complain about negative caricaturing of Emiratis I would point out that the serendipitous header cartoon depicts William Walton with Edith Sitwell in drag and is sampled from a YouTube video of Walton's Facade. 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.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The art of understanding the ordinary


Understanding the ordinary:
Enlightenment
Not understanding the ordinary:
Blindness creates evil.

Understanding the ordinary:
Mind opens.

Mind opening leads to compassion,
Compassion to nobility,
Nobility to heavenliness,
Heavenliness to TAO
There is definitely nothing ordinary about the keyboard music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, which forms an important but too often overlooked bridge between the high baroque of his father's circle and the emerging classicism of Haydn and Mozart. And there is nothing ordinary in the playing of the Croatian pianist Ana-Marija Markovina whose discerning interpretations on a 'modern' Bösendorfer are faithfully captured in Hänssler Classics' 26 CD anthology of C.P.E. Bach's complete works for solo piano. But in an age when the classical promotion machine practises its own nuanced version of 'if it bleeds it leads', I suspect that this admirably bleed-free release will be misguidedly judged ordinary. The TAO tells us* that understanding the ordinary opens the mind. And listening to Ana-Marija Markovina playing C.P.E. Bach also opens the mind.

* Quotation is from Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo's purist translation of Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching. No review samples used in this post. 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.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Belief and beyond belief


In tune with the zeitgeist, the London Philharmonic dedicated yesterday's performance of Mozart's Requiem to the four victims of Wednesday's terrible attack at Westminster. But the orchestra passed on the opportunity to dedicate the other work in their programme, Strauss' Death and Transfiguration, to the 200+ Iraqi civilians killed in the coalition airstrike on Mosul five days before the London atrocity - see photo above. Predictable but ironic: because the concert was a central event in the Southbank Centre's much-trumpeted Belief and Beyond Belief festival, which "looks at the broader questions of what it means to be human... in the 21st century".

Photo via LA Times. 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.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Who needs the Berlin Philharmonic?


A conductor making great music with a first class orchestra is a delight. A conductor making great music with a third class orchestra is a miracle. I will remember Louis Frémaux, who has died aged 95, for the miracles he worked with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In the 1970s when Frémaux was its principal conductor, the CBSO was a third rate and ill-disciplined band: Simon Rattle tells of how at the time if a conductor asked the violin section to play a passage using the same part of the bow the players would laugh and ask why. Given this, Frémaux's recordings with the CBSO such as the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony - still one of the finest interpretations committed to disc - and Massenet's ballet music from Le Cid are nothing short of a miracle.

EMI recorded the Saint-Saëns in the Great Hall of Birmingham University, although the artwork, of course, shows the Cavaillé-Coll instrument in La Madeleine, Paris. In 1978 relations between the CBSO's management and players broke down completely and Frémaux walked out on the orchestra on the same day as the general manager. This left a gap which Simon Rattle filled; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Above and below is my 1973 SQ quadraphonic pressing of the Saint-Saëns Symphony. That year I worked on EMI's SQ demonstration at the Olympia Audio Fair. This involved playing the Allegro moderato - Maestoso - Allegro final movement of the Saint-Saëns repeatedly at very high levels for three days. Louis Frémaux's interpretation is indeed miraculous. But almost half a century I still cannot hear the work without shuddering.



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Friday, March 24, 2017

What is important is to be your own Master

To fresh matters must I now refer, indeed there's much to say.
One night I spent as a passing guest in a friend's house.
Sufficient was the meal, even though today, come what may,
Some men are reluctant to open their doors to visitors.
It takes but little patience to spend the evening together,
Enough time for intentions, worthy and unworthy, to show.
Say what I must, these times are at one good and bad.
As to what fate holds in store, how should we know?
We lack nothing material, yet our minds are in turmoil!
That is the opening stanza of the contemporary Berber ballad Hospitality Betrayed from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco composed by Sheikh Assu of Ishishawn*. The photo is from Cette Lumière by Dominique and Miloudi Nouiga which takes its title from Jiddu Krishnamurti's teaching "L’important c’est d’être à soi-même sa propre lumière, son propre maître et son propre disciple [What is important is to be a light unto yourself, to be your own Master and disciple]". This exquisite French/ Darija book documents life in the village of Ait Hamza in the Atlas Mountains. Paul Bowles documented this region sonically in his 1959 field recordings which have been lovingly remastered for CD release by Dust to Digital. Cette Lumière was purchased on my recent visit to Morocco which included visiting the Middle Atlas - post to follow. Last year I trekked in the High Atlas to a soundtrack of Paul Bowles' recordings and I will return to that region where the magnificent belittles the material later this year.

* Extract is transcribed from the collection Berber Odes by Michael Peyron. No review samples used. 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.