Thursday, June 30, 2005

BBC launches free classical MP3 downloads

An important new development for BBC Radio 3 is their move into online MP3 file downloads, as opposed to audio streaming. MP3 files of the Beethoven Symphonies played by the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda are available from their web site for two days after broadcast as part of their Beethoven fest.

Open this link to access the downloads, but hurry as the downloads are available for a limited period.

These downloads are free. There is a fair amount of small print on the site about the files only being available for personal, non-commercial use. Radio 3 controller Roger Wright has said in a press release "We hope it will encourage audiences to explore online classical music."

The motive of trying to reach more listeners for classical music is very laudable, and has taxed music bloggers for some time. But since the Beethoven MP3 files became available in early June the BBC has said that more than 700,000 listeners downloaded files of the first five symphonies. I repeat that figure. Almost three quarters of a million downloads, or 140,000 per symphony.

I can't help but find a certain irony that these statistics are published in the same week as the music industry driven US Supreme Court ruling on file-sharing which ruled that distribution platforms such as Grokster can be held legally responsible if used for copyright infringement. Now I know that the BBC iniative is totally copyright friendly. But doesn't it send a clear mesage to those very listeners that Roger Wright is trying to reach that online classical music is free? And doesn't it also materially lower the price expectation for concert tickets among those same new listeners?

I'm well aware of the study by Harvard Business School associate professor Felix Oberholzer and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill associate professor Koleman Strumpf:

"We find that file sharing has only had a limited effect on record sales," the study's authors wrote. "While downloads occur on a vast scale, most users are likely individuals who would not have bought the album even in the absence of file sharing."

But the fact remains that a record company, or concert promoter, would give their right arm to have got just a tiny fraction of those 700,000 listeners as customers. (The figure must surely reach a million before the symphony cycle is complete?). Similarly the hard working musicians of the wonderful BBC Philharmonic who play on these downloads would surely appreciate remuneration at more than the pitiful rate received by LSO musicians on LSO Live recordings of a measly £400 - US$728 - each annual profit share? This move also undermines the smart work being done by sites such as Peter Maxwell Davies' MaxOpus to create a 'pay to use' business model for classical MP3 downloads.

Despite high minded talk from senior BBC executives it is hard to see who the winners in this exercise are. Except, of course, the audio file downloaders. And these are the very same people that the music industry is currently trying to teach in the US Supreme Court at vast expense, and with much bad PR, that the creators of intellectual property need to be properly rewarded.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Wiki brings collabarative music full circle

Full marks to the ever innovative Sequenza21 for bringing Wiki technology into blogging. Wiki software allows mutiple authors to create and modify documents online. And the smart guys at Sequenza21 are using it to build a reader created community encyclopeadia of new music. This is exactly what Tim Berners-Lee created the world wide web for - sharing information between multiple users. The online Wiki encyclopaedia has very successfully pioneered the development of free-content resources on the internet. It is fantastic to see Sequenza21 right in there using this innovative platform. Collabarative working is not without its hazards though. Last weeks a pioneering 'Wikitorial' about Iraq, and written by readers, was pulled at the LA Times due to online vandalism. But the music bloggers are a much better behaved bunch than the political activists, and I fully expect Sequenza21's Wiki project to be hugely successful, and followed by many others.

It is worth reflecting that collabarative working is not a new phenomena in music. Four days after Rossini died in 1868 Verdi proposed a requiem mass for the deceased composer, with each individual movement to be composed by a different leading Italian composer of the time. Twelve of the composers who contributed to the ultimate cut and paste job are in the category of forgotten masters (Buzzolla, Bazzini, Pedrotti, Cagnoni, F. Ricci, Nini, Boucheron, Coccia, Gaspari, Platania, L. Rossi and Mabellini), but the thirteenth was Verdi himself. His Libera me was later recycled and incorporated into his own famous Requiem for novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni.

In typically Italian version the planned performance of the 'Wiki' Messa per Rossini never happened. The extraordinary patchwork lay forgotten until a belated first performance 120 years later, in Parma, in 1988. It was then taken up by choral specialist Helmut Rilling who performed it at his Oregon Bach Festival. He then went on to record it with the Radio-Sinfonierorchester Stuttgart, and that two CD set, which is still in the catalogue, plays as I type this post. (Musically it probably falls into the category of a justly neglected masterpiece).

Of course the Messa per Rossini wasn't a true Wiki work as the composers of the individual movements were identified. Much closer to the Wiki model was the equally fascinating Mont Juic Suite for orchestra. In the 1930's, Benjamin Britten attended a music festival in Barcelona with Lennox Berkeley. He was fascinated by the themes played by the musicians and jotted them down on a scrap of paper. Later Berkeley and Brittem took these scraps, and in true Wiki fashion composed the Mont Juic Suite (Berkeley's Op. 9 and Britten's Op. 12) without identifying the authorship of each of the four movements. But on the liner note of my vinyl Lyrita recording Peter Dickinson says that Berkeley told him Britten wrote the last two movements. So today even the Mont Juic Suite can't claim to be a true Wiki composition.

Let's stay with the collabarative thread. Can anyone add to this post other truly Wiki musical works written by more than one composer, where the authorship of individual movements (or sections) has never been revealed? (Only works by two or more living composers qualify as a Wiki. Cerha's orchestration of the last Act of Berg's Lulu, Sussmayr's completion of Mozart's Requiem, Deryk Cooke's realisation of Mahler 10, or, heavens forbid, Anthony Payne's reconstruction - deconstruction? - of the sketches of Elgar's 3rd Symphony don't count as Wiki works I'm afraid).

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Are cheap CD's hurting concert attendances?

I've been away from the keyboard for three weeks, so I've watched at a distance (via an internet cafe in Avignon to be precise) the fascinating debate on my post Is recorded classical music too cheap? . This post generated a record number of comments including a very thoughtful one from Galen H.Brown over on Sequenza21's Composers Forum.

The debate is still continuing with Tim Worstall picking it up on his excellent non-music blog. The thrust of Tim's argument (and he has some background as a jazz musician) is that recorded and live music are not completely interchangeable, so recordings will never be a complete substitute for live performance.

All these viewpoints are valid, it is the debate that is most important. But I was interested to see this comment posted almost immediately (from Cambridge University no less) on Tim's blog...

"For Jazz and Opera, I agree. For classical recitals and concerts, I'm much less sure - we just buy CDs of those now."
Posted by:
dearieme June 27, 2005 11:34 AM

One swallow doesn't make a spring, but it is a worrying trend.

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Monday, June 27, 2005

Byrd Mass - without voices.....

Spent a recent evening listening to the viol consort Phantasm's new CD Four Temperaments. It is a wonderful disc of music by William Byrd, Alfonso Ferrabosco, Robert Parsons and Thoma Tallis. At the core is an extraordinary performance of the Byrd Four Part Mass, with viols taking the voice parts. The five sections of the mass are divided by in nomine settings by other composers. (The recording was made, incidentally, by the innovative independent label Avie in St Mary's Church, South Creake, Norfolk, not many miles from where I am typing this post).

In a recent interview on BBC Radio 3 the leader of Phantasm Laurence Dreyfusexplained how the playing of the consort was influenced by the style of the leading string quartets of the 1930's and 1940's. An interesting observation as the depth of string sonorities created by Phantasm had reminded me of the Griller Quartet sound in the Bloch Quartets mentioned in my post Brain Food 2.

Is a Byrd Mass arranged for viols legitimate? I don't think the question is relevant. The real question (as raised in my post Soli Deo Gloria) is rather do the artists have anything valid to say? Phantasm clearly do, I returned to this new disc from them time and time again. If you love the Byrd Mass this is a fascinating, and valid, new viewpoint on it.

I've been re-reading Peter Ostwald's controversial 'pycho-biography' of Glenn Gould The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius. In it Gould gives a defence of his piano reading of the Bach Preludes and Fugues which is equally as valid for a Byrd Mass played on viols.....
"The Well Tempered Clavier, or excerpts there from, has been performed on the harpsichord and on the piano, by wind and string ensembles, by jazz combos, and by at least one scat-scanning vocal group as well as upon the instrument whose name it bears. And this magnificent indifference to the specific sonority is not least among those attractions which emphasises the universality of Bach...One cannot, therefore, entirely sidestep considerations pertaining to the manner in which (the piano) should be employed in its behalf."

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Saturday, June 25, 2005

Piracy in Early Music

After the Hyperion versus Sawkins case here is a tale of more skullduggery in the Early Music world. Back in December I bought the recording of the Morales Requiem performed by Musica Ficta on the Spanish Enchiriadis label. I find it a very good interpretation, and was researching on the internet to write a piece about it for On An Overgrown Path when I came across the following on the Cantus Records web site....................

Piracy against Cantus
Last July 2002 the Provincial Court of Madrid dictated sentence (which cannot be appealed) in favour of Cantus in the lawsuit against the label Enchiriadis, who had committed an act of piracy against Cantus in December 2000. In that date, the pirate label released a recording that had been stolen in our offices by an ex partner of us. Then they published the recording, which more or less corresponds to our ref. C 9627 Morales: Requiem, performed by Musica Ficta and Raúl Mallavibarrena.

They used a pre-editing of the final master, full of mistakes, and tried to present it as if it was the original recording and their copyright. And although the sentence of the Provincial Court of Madrid is in our favour, nor the label nor their distributor, Diverdi (and their international subdistributors) have yet retired the pirate recording from the market. This has obliged Cantus to use penal prosecution and proceed against the label Enchiriadis, Diverdi and all international distributors of the label, as they are dealing with illegal material.

All early music lovers are kindly advised by Cantus not to buy at all the pirated version. Firstly because it is illegal, secondly because the Cantus presentation, translations and inner booklet is far superior, and thirdly because the pirated version contains a large number of mistakes, childish mistakes, because it was manufactured using a stolen pre-edited version! While we try to effectively contact international distributors of the label that has committed piracy in order to retire all illegal Cds from international market, Cantus cannot accept any responsibilities if customers find the pirate version deceitful, as they will most probably do.

Despite this ruling in 2002 retailers including and Prelude Records here in Norfolk continue to stock the Enchiriais version - strange....

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

.....and the soloist talked beautifully

The big question I ask myself before each recital these days is 'will the soloist talk to us?'

Mini-lectures from musicians is the big thing this year. At the recent Norwich Festival pianist Steven Osbourne talked like an angel (his Scottish accent helps), his playing was pretty good as well. Jaques Loussier improvised his nicely accented links almost as well as he improvised his Bach. Harpsichord virtuoso Carole Cerasi talked almost as good as she looked (and played), but violinist Alexander Balanescu's talking was a bit like his playing of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, rather more circumference than circle.
Harpsichordist Carole Cerasi, talks as well as she plays, as well as she looks....

The problem of talking musicians was well illustrated at a recent concert in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall . It was a tribute to the retiring Lindsays, but conductor Mark Elder's introductory words lasted almost as long as the piece he was introducing - Wagner's Siegfried Idyll (you thought I was going to type Wagner's Ring didn't you?)

The outlook isn't very bright. We are plagued with a new generation of continuity announcers on BBC Radio 3 who preface every item with interminably long links which sound like half-digested extracts from a children's music encyclopaedia. My conclusion is simple, and not very profound. If the soloist is a good raconteur and talks sparingly it can add to the evening. But if soloist lectures start to get out of hand they are going to become as big a nuisance in the concert hall as those digital wrist watches that bleep on the hour, every hour.

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Sunday, June 19, 2005

Guest blog - A Year at the Symphony

On An Overgrown Path will always be 'work in progress.' I want to try new ideas and approaches. I want to keep it fresh, and I want you, the reader, to come back for more. To keep the format fluid I've decided to invite some guest contributors to post here over the holiday period. The idea is to give a platform to some of my regular readers who don't have blogs of their own.

My first guest blogger is Carol Murchie from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and here is her very interesting post.

I became involved with the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra after meeting their new executive director at a classical music class I offered through an adult learning organization in 2000, and she asked me to consider being on the board. I had attended the symphony on occasion and had to admit that for a city its size, New Bedford had a very good musical organization, so I relished the opportunity to become more involved.

The season from 2000-2001 had a Tchaikovsky theme (last three symphonies) and the Musical Director, F. John Adams, had suggested that we feature soloists who had won the Tchaikovsky Competition. The executive director had some names to contact, and secured Mischa Dichter for the finale and the most recent pianist, Denis Matsuev, to win, but confounded about who the third soloist might be—and would they be within budget. I suggested that because New Bedford had an enormous Portuguese community, we would do well to aim for Portuguese-American violinist Elmar Oliveira, who has been the only American violinist to take gold at the Tchaikovsky. He was duly booked, and the new dilemma for the executive director was to have someone able to spend 2-3 days playing chauffeur and general factotum for Oliveira as he planned to stay from a Thursday night to Sunday morning. Naturally I sacrificed myself to do this task!

My job began with meeting him at the Providence airport, and I got the answer to the question of what do world-class violinists do with their violins when there’s a ‘call of nature’—take the fiddle with them (leaving their dog’s body to stand guard over the carry-on and tux). I suppose I couldn’t have expected to be entrusted with Oliveira’s newest prize, a Strad that had the power of a typical Strad but a more deep voice like I hear in a Guanerius (sort of the difference between a Pavarotti and a Domingo). It was a polite, slightly stiff atmosphere in the car on the way back to New Bedford and his hotel, but I learned his pet peeve is cell phones (he can abide the coughers, sneezers and occasional candy/sweets wrappers, but cell phones are tantamount to justifiable homicide). I think I gushed about seeing him on a prior concert trip to New Bedford when he appeared in a chamber setting with his wife, violist Sandra Robbins. They had played Martinu’s three madrigals for violin and viola, the opening madrigal played with such exquisite intensity that the audience that night erupted with applause, a spontaneous acknowledgement of pleasure even if it was poor concert etiquette. I had asked Elmar if that sort of “wrong applause” was a problem for him, and I gather he hadn’t noticed or remembered it (then launched into the complaint about cell phones).

I persuaded Elmar to have a late dinner at a fantastic little seafood restaurant in my town of Fairhaven (Margaret’s, on Main Street, if you ever find yourself fetched up on our piece of shoreline). With excellent food and some equally fine wine (my local wine-dealer had set me on the right track yet again—at the time, Margaret’s was a ‘bring your own tipple’), he began to relax and ask what I knew about the local Portuguese community, which I had to admit very little but I would try to find out anything he wanted. The agenda in the morning called for a meeting with the Portuguese Consul and I was sure they could help.

The Friday dawned on what would be one of the rainiest days ever seen in this area. Some streets set on fairly significant grades almost featured white-water rapids; I think Fairhaven got the most rain, something like 7” in 24 hours. It was in this Biblical deluge that I got him to the Consul, where the women giggled nervously and peered into the Consul’s office at us—the Portuguese community had risen to the occasion and there were articles in their newspaper and a push to get out the kids to come see a great man. Elmar asked about finding an unusual Portuguese cheese, Quiejo Serra de Estrela or Quiejo da Serra that, to date, he only found when he visited Portugal. The Consul’s office went to work and I ended up driving around the city’s north end with its concentration of small Portuguese markets, and hoping our soloist didn’t drown in the attempt to find this cheese. Find it we did and he proceeded to buy several pounds of the stuff and hummed relentlessly all the way back to the hotel.

The rehearsal with the orchestra had its rocky moments, no one being terribly well-versed with the Saint-Saens and most of that concert’s musicians comprised of New England Conservatory students with something of a bored attitude. It was amazing to hear Elmar work them into shape—they had a problem (as did the conductor, Adams) of playing behind the soloist a slight beat at first but he had them really tightened up by the third run-through (alas, they didn’t hold that shape the following night—here’s the review.

Performance day, Saturday, cleared of the rain and Elmar’s main goals, beside the concert in the evening, were: mail his cheese home and visit the large antiques market housed in an old mill building. He had visited the antiques market before, being a collector of art, and found the place to be “amazing”. (It is with irony that I write about this since in the past few weeks a developer has persuaded the City Council to evict the antiques market and other tenants so the mill can be razed for a Home Depot—a fight continues to save it but at the moment things look very bleak.)

We talked about the fact he had started his own record label, Artek, in order to give himself latitude to do the projects he wanted to do, and give musicians he admired a place to go for their own recording. We discussed how to make a symphony in an economically depressed, working-class city like New Bedford relevant; I had found some people found going out for live musical performance too much of a hassle and there was always the possibility of ‘mistakes’ being made, as opposed to the sterile perfection of digital recordings—Elmar called studio recordings “a cheat”, air-brushed and homogenized, and judging by the thinness of Artek’s catalog and the extensiveness of his touring calendar he prefers his 250-300 per year concerts, even when it is exhausting and takes him away from wife and two cats.

The key thing in his mind for reaching a community with a local orchestra was, no surprise to me here, getting the musicians out among the community, participating in the schools where the arts and music programs have been hacked to bits by bureaucrats. Giving the potential audience someone they could relate to as a person would enhance the musical experience, and indeed, the night of his performance I saw people I never saw at the symphony before because the general population could relate to a Portuguese-American ‘boy’ who had achieved a great deal, and they brought their kids in droves. At the interval, it was announced Elmar would be available to sign autographs, and I encountered a very excited little boy who was completely besides himself at the prospect of meeting Elmar. It was more in line with a kid who was meeting his sports hero (and the boy managed to get his mother to agree to upgrade from an autographed program to an actual Elmar Oliveira CD of the Saint-Saens concerto.)

I got my own autographed CD (right).

The NBSO faltered a bit after the 2000-2001 season ended, I left when the rest of the board seemed aimless and woebegone about finances, they got a new board president, and they unceremoniously discharged F. John Adams in favor of a much younger man who was chummy with the new president but had far less of a pedigree (Adams had studied composition briefly with Nadia Boulanger, I believe, and served as assistant to Leinsdorf and Bernstein—he wasn’t a warm and fuzzy guy but when he had a group of mature, experienced professionals set before him, the results were very fine). This disruption occurred a scant two months before the opening of the 2002-2003 season.

I recently attended two concerts, and find that the playing is adequate but without the forward momentum and springy, pointed rhythms Adams coaxed from his musicians (he could get a little self-indulgent like Bernstein could). The tempos feel wooden, the ensemble playing is a little rough around the edges, and the youthfulness of the musicians (they’re back to mostly Conservatory students instead of seasoned rank-and-file players from other part-time orchestras). The reviews are full of superlative and the PR from the NBSO office is glowing like it might be talking about the Berlin Philharmonic or the Concertgebouw—unfortunately it strikes me as a triumph of marketing over musicianship.

I thought that perhaps I had become jaded like those people who preferred to listen to stellar, perfect recordings rather than be disappointed by live performance that failed to match expectations. On the plus side, I went to see I Musici di Roma perform shortly after hearing the NBSO and was reassured that live musicianship is still a joy under the right circumstances. I hope that I will experience that joy again with the NBSO once it grows up (again).

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Friday, June 17, 2005

Classic misunderstandings - Mahler's Planets

Towards the end of my time at EMI Sir Adrian Boult made his final, and valedictory, recording of Gustav Holst's The Planets with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It was difficult to work up much press enthusiasm for this recording. Back in 1979 the classical music industry was much as it is today. Hype ruled. The bright young things like Riccardo Muti were hypable, but the venerable and musically impeccable Sir Adrian wasn't.

Finally I managed to get a Canadian magazine which I won't name to agree to do an interview. The magazine sent along its London bureau reporter to the interview in Sir Adrian's North London mansion flat where the charming Lady Boult served tea. Sir Adrian was his usually urbane self, and for a ninety-year old was remarkable lucid. But he did lose his train of thought occasionally. He was telling the Canadian journalist how Holst invited him to conduct the first private performance of The Planets by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1918 saying...............

"It was very rare in those days to have the opportunity to conduct a full orchestra, so when Gustav asked me...." and at that point Sir Adrian tailed off as he lost the thread.

The reporter helpfully jumped in...."Sir Adrian, you were telling us about how Mahler invited you to do the first performance of The Planets."

Afterwards Sir Adrian sent me a charming letter, which I still have, saying that he hoped his contribution to the interview was up to scratch.....

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

.....and now for an intrusion from our sponsor

There was a very intrusive wrong note at the otherwise excellent recent concert by the Tallis Scholars in Norwich Cathedral. And the wrong note didn't come from the Scholars, who sung like angels throughout the evening.

The concert was sponsored by Grant Thornton whose web site (which I will refrain from linking to) tells us "is a leading financial and business adviser to mid-corporate businesses and their owners." The Norwich Festival organisers allowed them to put up several prominent promotional boards inside 12th century architectural miracle that is the interior of Norwich Cathedral, including one beside the pulpit in full view of the audience throughout the performance. The advertising boards were full of the mumbo-jumbo of the financial services sector.... "As independent, fee-based financial advisers, Grant Thornton UK LLP wants to help you meet your challenges and realise your plans for the future." The boards even included a picture of a calculator for those in the audience who suddenly needed to be reminded what one looked like during John Sheppard's Media vita.

Example The sponsors (who were presumably among the suits who applauded intrusively, like a Proms audience, between each of the Ordinaries in Thomas Tallis' divine Missa Puer natus est nobis) must have felt very pleased with themselves for achieving 'visibility'. The Festival organisers presumably also felt chuffed as they had a happy sponsor, and bucks in the bank. The audience was left to ponder Matthew 21...

21:12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,
21:13 And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

The arts most definitely need serious funding. But not at any cost (and not as a la 1984 please). I appreciate that without a sponsor the performance may not have been possible. But the same can be said for the voice coaches, the music publishers and editor (but that is a very sore point right now), the composer's original patron, Peter Philip's tailor et al. Where will it stop. Will we see performers plastered with partner's logos like a Formula One car?

There is a clear line between allowing the sponsor to be associated with the performance, and allowing them to be part of it. A great performance is a marriage made in heaven between performers and composer. And like all great marriages there is only room for two. invisible hit counter

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Saturday, June 11, 2005

Tippett can still empty a concert hall

It is centenary year for Michael Tippett, and that means the programme makers are having something of a Tippett fest. With all that exposure, and with more A Child of Our Times than Messiahs around the country it would be easy to conclude that Tippett was now 'safe box office'. But the Norwich and Norfolk Festival found that this was very much not the case when they scheduled two concerts with acclaimed pianist Steven Osborne playing the four Tippett Piano Sonatas and contemporary works in a 'Tippett in context' series.

The first of the two concerts in the John Innes Centre (which is out of the city centre, but offers superb chamber music acoustics) didn't just have some empty seats, it was two thirds empty. Here is the culprit programme:

Tippett Piano Sonata No. 1
Gershwin 3 Preludes
Ravel Sonatine
Tippett Sonata No. 2
Ives Three-Page Sonata
Bartok Excerpts from Mikrokosm0s, Book 6

And what a treat the absent concert-goers missed. It was a typically craggy and uncompromising piece of Steven Osborne (photo on right) programming, matched by equally as craggy and uncompromising playing. What wonderful works the Tippett sonatas are. I have to confess to a particular fondness for the rites of passage Sonata No. 1, which probably reflects my fascination with first novels. Although I said in my post What a Facade! that even Gershwin's orchestral jazz writing didn't really come off, his jazz themes for piano in the three preludes show what a master of the jazz form he really was.

It would have been so easy to have programmed the two Tippett Sonatas with two 'popular' Beethoven sonatas. The Festival organisers and Osborne didn't. They got lots of empty seats, and those that did venture outside their personal comfort zones got a marvellous, and thought, provoking evening of live music making.

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Sunday, June 05, 2005

Is recorded classical music too cheap?

There has been a gratifyingly big response to my post Discovered - the online Arnold Schoenberg jukebox with its listing of more than sixty worldwide classical music stations broadcasting on the web (see right hand side bar). The eclectic mix of readers for that post surprised me. The visitor logs show this particular overgrown path has been trodden by the BBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (the UK body that enforces copyright protection on recorded music), Minnesota Public Radio, the Czech Academy of Science, the City of Berlin Arts Adminstrator's Office, a number of major US orchestras, and many, many more.

In a recent post I mentioned buying the inspirational Philippe Herreweghe recording of the Missa Solemnis for just £5 (US$9.10). And elsewhere I've written about Brilliant Classics (complete Haydn Piano Sonatas in excellent performances and recordings with 10 CD's for £23.99 - US$43.70), and the deep, deep discounts (and first-class service) available from Marketplace partners such as Caiman USA. All this set me thinking, is recorded music too cheap today?

Let me explain. The major record companies had a hissing fit about the impact of file sharing on pop music sales. In the classical music world it is not recorded music sales that are at threat, it is concert audiences. The ticket prices at the recent Norwich Festival were very reasonable by London standards, and certainly offered wonderful value for money. But the value of two average priced £15 (US$27.30) tickets for the Tallis Scholars doesn't look so good when compared with a discounted CD. After the concert I bought the wonderful Tallis Scholars CD of the Sheppard sacred choral works, including Media vita which was performed at the concert, for just £9.52 (US$17.30) including delivery from Caiman USA. (US readers will have spotted that CD prices are considerably higher in the UK. Which is why I buy Gimmel CD's of the Tallis Scholars recorded in Salle Church, just 25 miles from my home in Norfolk UK, from Florida. Great for my bank balance, but the 3500 mile air freight round trip for the CD can't do much to help global warming).

The Deutsche Grammophon LP of Karajan conducting Tchaikosky's Pathetique Symphony which was my first classical record cost me one pound ten shillings ($2.20) as a student in 1969. By my calculation graduate starting salaries in the UK have increased by a factor of around twenty since then. That would price the LP at £30 (US$54.60) in today's terms. A full price CD in the UK today is £15 (US$27.30), so real prices have halved before deep discounts and budget priced labels such as LSO Live are factored in. In orders of magnitude I reckon recorded music costs about one quarter of what it did thirty five years ago. Concert tickets have shown little or no price deflation in the same period. So the balance of pricing has swung massively in favour of recorded and internet streamed media, and against attending live performances.

On An Overgrown Path has commented before that performers like the Kamus and Sacconi Quartets seem to be getting younger, and their audiences seem to be getting older. Is it surprising when the absurdly low cost of great recorded music is giving the quite wrong impression that concert tickets are expensive? Naxos have done more than any other company to reduce the price that consumers expect to pay for recorded classical music. Recently I bought their highly recommendable CD of the Vivaldi Gloria and Bach Magnificat for £3.99 (US$7.30) in a Virgin Megastore - that is just stupidly cheap. And ironically the very people that stand to lose most, the orchestras, are fuelling the trend by pricing their own label recordings so low. Ask anyone in the retail trade what they think of the LSO Live CD's and they will say two things. Great performances, and too cheap at £4.99 (US$9.10). Ask any of the LSO players what they think of LSO Live after they have received their measly £400 (US$728) annual profit share from the label, and they will say one thing, too cheap.

One development that must surely further cheapen the perceived value of recorded classical music seems to have slipped under everyone's radar - Naxos Web Radio. This subscription service offers sixty channels of classical music plus jazz, blues, world, folk, and New Age. There is up to one hundred hours of unduplicated commercial-free music available per channel. The channels are pretty well targeted. Contemporary Classical offers Adams, Brusa, Balada, Glass and Norgard among others, while the Early Sacred Music programme includes Palestrina, Tallis, Lassus and Obrecht.The service uses Naxos and other label recordings, and offers the opportunity to buy the CD's via And my question is recorded classical music too cheap must surely be answered by the token annual subscription charge of just US$9.95 (£5.50) for Naxos Web Radio. With this pricing it is difficult to see what their business model is, other than world domination. Naxos, and others offering give away pricing on the internet, should ponder the first law of the cyber-economy. This says that the price of information will tend towards zero. Unless we stop treating recorded music as an information commodity the price, and perceived value, will continue to plummet, with an attendant disastrous knock-on effect on the size of audiences for live performances. Another factor to take into account is that web radio is the medium of choice for tecno-savvy youngsters (plus a few older early adopters). Most older folk don't have the technical confidence to use a computer for much else than email and e-Bay. So the vicious spiral of ageing concert audiences is accerlerated. If you want to find out what Naxos Web Radio is almost giving away to the internet literate just open this link for 15 minutes no-obligation listening.

Thankfully some people are trying to boost concert attendances, rather than undermine them. One particularly noteworthy example is fellow blogger Drew McManus' "Take a Friend to Orchestra" project. Recorded music, even via my wonderful B&W Nautilus 803 speakers, can never replace live performers. We are in danger of bringing up a generation who will never have heard the earthy texture of a baroque cello, the lightning fast attack of a harpsichord, or the true bass from a 32' organ pipe. But, I wonder, could the solution to declining concert audiences be economic rather than educational? I am certainly not suggesting lowering the price of concert admissions. But I am querying our wisdom in allowing the cost of recorded music to decline so sharply.

Live music making is sacred, and we must do everything possible to ensure not only its survival, but also its growth. In 1964 Benjamin Britten was awarded the first Aspen Award at Aspen, Colorado. Britten's acceptance speech was so thought provoking that Faber published it as a very slim volume. Here is part of Britten's speech which was made decades before the arrival of the CD and internet, but which with uncanny prescience identified the real danger of treating music as a commodity......

Anyone, anywhere, at any time can listen to the B minor Mass upon one condition only - that they possess a machine. No qualification is required of any sort - faith, virtue, education, experience, age. Music is now free for all. If I say the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study, or as an evoker of memories. 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 simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. 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.

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Note to regular readers of On An Overgrown Path. The next post will be uploaded on Saturday 11th June. Sorry about the pause; the overgrown path hasn't come to a dead end, but travel arrangements dictate the interruption. The posts will continue, including an interesting contribution about violinist Elmar Oliveira from a guest blogger in the US.....

Friday, June 03, 2005

People in glasshouses.........

Hard on the heels of the 1984 debacle the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden is involved in another major damage limitation exercise. One of their highest profile benefactors has been arrested and charged with allegedly stealing $5m (£2.7m) from a business client.

In 1999 Cuban-born Alberto Vilar promised £10m (US$18.2) to the Royal Opera House to finance the building of a glass-skinned atrium in the centre of the opera house complex. Additional finance was promised for a very worthy young artist training scheme, and aircraft style video screens in 700 seat backs in the main auditorium for subtitles. To recognise these donations the completed atrium is known as Vilar Floral Hall (see photo to the right), and the development programme as the Vilar Young Artists Fund.

Alberto Vilar left Cuba when Castro took power in 1959, and is reputed to have amassed a fortune of £520m (US$950m) from investment in hi-tec companies such as Microsoft and AOL. He has made large donations to other arts institutions world-wide including the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and the American Academy in Berlin.

Unfortunately it appears that, like the software he invests in, Mr Vilar's financial fortunes have crashed. He has reportedly had problems making the promised donations to the Met, and they have cut and run by removing a sign recognising his munificence. A promised donation to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra also apparently failed to materialise. Meanwhile the Royal Opera has reportedly only received £4m (US$7.3) of the £7m (US$12.7) promised for the glass house. Covent Garden are being typically British and stiff upper-lipped about the fiasco. Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera says it is too early to say whether Vilar's name will also be written out of the history of Covent Garden. But thankfully he tells us a new sponsor is in the wings for the much needed young artist development programme, and Vilar's name will definitely not be associated with that.

A sorry saga, and I sincerely hope that the young artists who benefitted from the excellent development programme will continue to be supported. But it does all go to confirm what Sir Peter Maxwell Davies told us in his recent Royal Philharmonic Society Annual Lecture. The arts, and serious music in particular, need proper funding not funny money. Otherwise the next thing we are going to hear is that the Piano Man is stepping up to the Covent Garden plate.

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The miracle of music

I slept badly last night. Nothing serious, but a cold seems to be developing and my body rythms simply wouldn't settle . It was one of those nights when you just know sleep isn't going to come (and they get more frequent the older you get).
So at 6 o'clock I got up and went down to my study. It was a glorious late spring morning. Brilliant sunshine and cloudless deep blue sky. The dew sparkled on the lawn as though thousands of tiny pearls had been miraculously scattered on the grass overnight. I turned on BBC Radio 3. At that time they broadcast a sequence of low cost and usually undistinguished recordings of live concerts culled from other broadcasters. But for today serendipity had arranged a broadcast of an orchestral sequence put together from Wagner's The Mastersingers. The Prelude to Act 3, followed by the Dance of the Apprentices and Entry of the Mastersingers, and finally the Act 1 Prelude. The orchestra was the Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos.

Now there are two opposite poles in my musical life, Bach and Wagner. The importance of Bach has been expressed no better than by author, cyclist and fellow pilgrim Anne Mustoe (see my post Lux Aeterna and not Ligetti) in her wonderful book Amber, Furs and Cockleshells ......

"For me, there is music, and then there is Bach. Bach is transcedent. He is the sun, whose light blots out the feeble rays of other composers. There are many whose music I enjoy, but I would throw their entire opus on the bonfire to save one fugue of the divine Bach."

Bach is a saint. The purity of his music is like taking crystal clear water from a cold spring. But we cannot live on spring water alone. So sometimes I turn to other refreshment. If Bach is a saint, Wagner is the magician creating spells from his intoxicating brew of magic, evil, and yes - sometimes purity. For some drugs, alcohol, the latest iPod, a new SUV or a round of golf can take them to a higher plane. This morning the Prelude to Act 3 of The Mastersingers took me there.

The B Minor Mass, the Goldberg Variations (which was composed for an insomniac) and The Mastersingers are not great music. They are not serious music. They are not works of art. They are not about life. They are life, and they are miracles. Thank God they are available to us, and thank God we can appreciate them.

Footnote from Pliable - and thank heaven for public service broadcasters whose serendipitous programming triggered this post. (If I had put on a CD it cetainly wouldn't have been Wagner, more like Couperin). There are a number of great blogs by PBS broadcasters linked from On An Overgrown Path including Alan Brandt , Richard Friedman, and David Duff

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

No such thing as a free lunch (or performing edition)

ExampleThe Hyperion versus Sawkins saga gets more bizarre. On Hyperion Records' web site there is an appeal for recording funds from Director Simon Perry. He says - "The label has received hundreds of letters and e-mails from people asking what they can do to support Hyperion Records in its time of need. Some have already donated sums of money and we are eternally indebted to those people for their generosity but we would like to make it easier for others also to show their support if they so wish."

The Hyperion online shop now allows CD purchasers to also make a donation to the appeal fund. Open this link for the full statement.

Shame somebody didn't bang together the heads of the two parties involved before it got to this ludicrous position.

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Reflections on the Philadelphia Orchestra

Infoshare, the excellent blog from the US Music Library Association pointed me in the direction of the Philadelphia Orchestra tour blog. It's a journal of the orchestra's current tour of Asia (photo to the right is cellists Alex Veltman and Udi Bar-David in Hong Kong). The blog is well worth visiting, and is a really good example of a blog working as a journal rather than a vehicle for personal rants.

Mention of the Philadelphia Orchestra reminds me of my brief involvement with them some twenty five years ago. I was with EMI/Angel at that time, and one of my roles was artist promotion. Riccardo Muti was the cat's whiskers and had just been appointed to the Music Directorship in Philadelphia in succession to Ormandy, and this gave us the opportunity to record there. Although the quality of the Philadelphia Orchestra was superb there had always been a feeling of disappointment with the sound of the RCA recordings with Ormandy made in the acoustically rather dry hall of the Curtis Institute in the city.

Angel Record's John Coveney found the acoustically excellent Met Church which started life as an opera house (see footnote for full history). The church at that time was in a very run down part of the city (it is probably now surrounded by expensive lofts). We recorded Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Stravinsky's Firebird among other works there. The Met Church posed unique problems including an antique heating system which ruined takes with metallic creaks during pianissimos, and lumps of plaster falling from the ceiling during fortissimos . The acoustics though were fine and the sound was wonderful, largely because we imported the production team of Michael Gray (sound engineer) and Christopher Bishop (producer) from the UK for the recordings. I still have the Mussorgsky on vinyl, the analogue sound is very exciting; but like much of Muti's work the interpretation strikes me as mostly circumference, and little circle.

I remember desperately trying to find a cab for Muti in the rather tough street outside the Met Church in tropical heat at the end of one session. Muti appreciated my efforts by saying - "if this had been a Deutsche Grammophon session they would have arranged a limo". Plus ca change....

Footnote from my sleeve note for Muti's 1979 Pictures at an Exhibition LP - The Met Church building was built as an opera house in 1908 by Oscar Hammerstein 1 (grandfather of the famous lyricist-librettist) and opened in November of that year. The first season stars included Garden, Melba, Tetrazzini and McCormack. It was the eleventh of thirteen theatres and opera houses he built in New York, Philadelphia and London (the now demolished Stoll Theatre). It was perhaps his most ambitious, most beautiful and near-perfect auditorium. An enormous hall seated 4,200 patrons, every one of whom had perfect sight-lines to the stage. In April 1910 it was purchased by the Metopolitan Opera Company of New York, and renamed the Metropolitan Opera House. As its use diminished over the following years it became the scene for everything from school graduations to prize fights, with very occasional appearances by the Philadelphia Orchestra. In May 1954 the building was acquired by the Reverend Thea Jones who allowed EMI/Angel to use it as a recording venue for the first time in 1978. That is what I wrote in 1978. What has since happened to the Met Church/Metropolitan Opera House? I can find no more recent information on the internet. Can any readers update the story?

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