Thursday, September 29, 2005

Soli Deo Gloria justly rewarded

Congratulations to Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, who have scooped the Record of the Year Award at last night's 2005 Gramophone Awards with their recording of Bach's Cantatas for the Feast of St. John the Baptist and Cantatas for the 1st Sunday after Trinity (SDG 101).

Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage on his own Soli Deo Gloria label has been championed by On An Overgrown Path since we heard the first bars of the first recording - see my post of March this year for the full story of this fantastic project.

It has to be said that the Bach Cantatas are the only 'stand out' in what is otherwise a predictable list of winners that made sure the big advertisers in the Gramophone all went home happy from the awards bash.

But let's not spoil a good party. Let's hear it for Sir John Eliot Gardiner, his fantastic musicians, and a beautiful, beautiful recording that once again shows that the small independent labels are where it is really happening.........

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Stopped Diapason

From today's Guardian....

Concerts banned after elderly fans turn rowdy

Rowdy behaviour by elderly theatre organ fans has led to a ban on lunchtime concerts in Penistone, South Yorkshire, where the Paramount cinema's 68-year old pipe organ is the last of its type in Britain. Claims of abuse, harassment and furious rows between an elderly fan and a councillor led to the move. The Paramount's manager, Rob Young, said: "We put on live bands, stage shows, and films and have lots of teenagers in, without a snippet of trouble." The concerts' regular organist, Kevin Grunhill, has issued a writ claiming loss of earnings from Penistone town council.

Photo credit St Mary's Cathedral, Kingston

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Serendipity, synchronicity, and Bernstein

The overgrown path works! In a comment on my post about Bernstein's Mass a while back Kathy Demaree wrote movingly about her choir singing Simple Song from the Mass at a memorial service for the composer. Kathy then went on to write a wonderful piece on her blog titled Serendipity, Synchronicity, and Bernstein. Read the whole post, but I will quote from it here....

I just couldn't believe that a series of random events had sent me back down a such a familiar road. I had not been listening to as much Bernstein of late, because I had OD'd at times in the past, but I so very rarely get tired of anything of his. In addition, I've found a CD I want to buy, a new Blog to read, and I've made a new virtual acquaintance. I guess it is true that if you stay true to the things that you love good things will happen to you.

In the early days of an overgrown path I tried to explain my reasons for starting the blog in Serendipity and collabarative filtering. The response to my Mass post in general, and comments like Kathy's in particular, are very rewarding. They show that this blog is achieving the objectives I set out in that rather clumsy early manifesto.

Kathy also sends us down other interesting overgrown paths. She reminds me that the CD of Bernstein conducting his Kaddish Symphony also contains Chichester Psalms. Yes, I bought the recording for the Psalms a long time ago, and serendipity led me to the symphonies. Surely no one will disagree that the Chichester Psalms are a Bernstein masterpeice? For me, and this may generate some dissent, surpassed only by West Side Story.

The responses to my Mass post brought one thing home. The very greatest music is both moving and perfectly structured - for instance Bach's B minor Mass. But there is also music that though moving is imperfectly structured, but is still great - such as Bernstein's Mass. The masterworks by definition balance form and function perfectly. But we must beware of falling into the trap of always seeking the perfectly structured in preference to the moving. The many thoughtful advocacies of Mass show that there is also a valid role for music that puts function before form.

And the overgown path leads us on further. The kernel of Kathy's post is Bernstein's music for Peter Pan (it is nice to see another post leading down the Fairytales path). He wrote the incidental music for J.M.Barrie's play in 1949. The new production starred Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff as Peter and Captain Hook respectively, and Bernstein was commissioned to write the incidental music. As I wrote in a previous post Lennie was larger than life, and always delivered more than he was asked for. His final score for Peter Pan contains music and lyrics for five songs, as well as two choruses for the pirates. The show opened in 1954, was a critical success, and pulled in the audiences on Broadway. The score is certainly not juvenilia (he was 31 when he wrote it!), so apart from recital performances of individual songs why isn't it better known? There is a recording in the catalogue with Alexander Frey conducting the Amber Chamber Orchestra, and Daniel Narducci, Linda Eder, and Michael Shawn-Lewis taking the lead roles.

So the overgrown path is working, and has led us to the fantasy world of Peter Pan. Last night I followed a different path prompted by another perceptive comment from a reader, and listened again to Messiaen's mighty La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ . But that's a different path, and a different post......

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Now Alpha shakes up web radio

In February this year a lot of eyebrows were raised when the jury at the annual international marketplace for music and recording in Cannes, MIDEM, gave the French label Alpha Productions the prestigous Classical Label of the Year award. This was yet another example of a zany and innovative new label deservedly beating the corporate players at their own game.

Alpha Productions is an independent label that was started just six years ago. Its fresh approach to repertoire and presentation, coupled with musical and technical excellence, means that it has already built a big following. And that includes this blog, with on an overgrown path highlighting its outstanding releases on several occasions. The catalogue specialises in early and baroque music, but extends into the 20th century. Artists include Gustav Leonhard, Pierre Hantaï, Capriccio Stravagante, Café Zimmermann and Les Witches. The cover image above is from their new DVD release of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

Alpha is like a blast of fresh air in a market where the norm is corporate conservatism. And the great news is you can sample their award winning output right here on an overgrown path. Alpha Radio has just been launched. It is a free, streamed, multi-platform service. It programmes stimulating and different extracts from the Alpha catalogue 24 hours a day. And you can listen to it right now via this link.

Enough said?

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Is classical music too fast?

Time passes slowly in Orford. At the eastern end of the 14th century church of Saint Bartholomew the remains of the Norman chancel can be seen, with moulded arches and great shafted piers still standing. Six centuries later century the church saw the first performances of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, and the three church parables, Curlew River, The Prodigal Son, and Burning Fiery Furnace. (photo to right is a detail from the Church Parable window by John Piper in Aldeburgh Church).

Britten was a true polymath. His genius as a composer goes without saying. His genius as both pianist and conductor is immortalised in many great recordings. His genius as music visionary lives on today in the Aldeburgh Festival. In his autobiography Notes of Seven Decades Antal Dorati writes:

“…the English-speaking world lagged far behind the Latin and German countries in creating and performing opera. The change in this century – a sudden and dramatic one – can be attributed virtually to the life work of a single man: Benjamin Britten. He, almost alone, brought opera back to the English language for the first time since Purcell; or if one prefers to put it the other way round, brought the English language back to opera. This achievement is truly unique, and, notwithstanding the high esteem in which the music and image of Britten are held in his own country, still underrated and not fully understood.”

Curlew River, with its libretto by William Plomer based on the Medieval Japanese No-Play Sumidagawa, is typical of Britten’s multi-layered genius. It covers an enormous time span, from the medieval origins of the play on which it is based through the Gregorian chant Te lucis ante terminum (Before the ending of the day) which opens and closes it, to the contemporary musical idiom in which the body of the work is written. (Photo to right is from L'Opera de Rouen production).

The use of Gregorian chant is a stroke of genius. The plainsong which frames Curlew River is historically timeless, and transcends conventional concepts of speed and musical rhythm. And that prompts me to ask the question, is classical music too fast?

A lot of people are starting to think that classical music needs slowing down, and several of them are putting their money where their mouth is. Longplayer is a 1000 year long piece of music which started to play on the 1st January 2000 and will continue to play, without repetition, until the 31st December 2999. Then it will come back to the point at which it began - and it will start again. Longplayer was developed and composed as a computer programme between October 1995 and December 1999 by Jem Finer. It takes an existing recorded piece of music and uses this as source material. Six sections are played simultaneously from it, each at a slightly different position and different pitch. It's exactly the same principle as taking six copies of a record and playing them on six turntables, each one rotating at a different speed. The source music is primarily Tibetan singing bowls of various sizes, and gongs.

John Cage’s ASLSP was written in 1985 for piano, and became an organ work in 1987. The ASLSP of the title stands for As Slow As Possible, and since its composition there has been debate as to how slow can slow really be? The burghers of the German town of Halberstadt came up with a novel answer. It is 639 years since the famous Blockwerk organ was constructed in the cathedral at Halberstadt. So it was decided to play Cage’s work for 639 years.

To make this possible a disused 11th century church, which was a Cistercian convent for six hundred years, has been renovated. A rather beautiful ‘Cage organ’ has been specially built in the church of St Burchardi by the organ builder Romanus F. Seifert & Sons. The keys are counterbalanced allowing notes to be held continuously once played until reset, producing intentional ciphering. The first three notes were played for eighteen months, following the seventeen months of silence while the organ bellows were completed. Scheduled completion is 2639. But for those that can’t make the finale there are regular concerts when 600 odd years are taken off the performance time as ASLSP is given a half-hour ‘condensed’ performance.

A slightly less extreme advocacy of slower classical music comes again from Germany where 'authentic tempi' may be the next big thing after 'authentic instruments'. Uwe Kliemt is a leading advocate of the Tempo Giusto movement which sprang from the Dutch musicologist W.R. Talsma’s 1980 book The Rebirth of the Classics: Instructions for the Demechanization of Music. It is worth remembering that Maelzel’s mechanical metronome was only created in 1816, the year of the composition of Beethoven’s 8th Symphony. Prior to that tempi relied on the subjective interpretation of Italian instructions. There is a lot of scholarly support for some astonishingly slow tempi on Uwe Kliemt’s web sites, which is in German.

So is classical music too fast? Or is it just catching the ‘hurry sickness’ that pervades every aspect of life today? Support for the latter viewpoint comes from none other than flautist Richard Adeney who played at the premiere of Curlew River, and on the definitive Decca recording conducted by Britten with Peter Pears as the Madwoman. Time & Concord (Autograph Books, 1997) is a wonderful book of reminiscences from the first fifty years of the Aldeburgh Festival. Richard Adeney contributes the following from a time when mobile phones, iPods and digital cameras were unknown, and the world, if not classical music, moved more slowly.

“Curlew River had more rehearsal time than any other new work that I have ever played….I would walk around (Orford) church to the ruined Norman arches in the courtyard and stand by myself with an empty mind, feeling relaxed and happy. The eerie quality of the music, the singing of plainchant, and the repetitive rehearsals, tranquillized me into an unusually quiet state.

In time off, I took my new Hasselblad camera to the surrounding churches and photographed the amazing monuments and carvings inside them. Sometimes, the churches were almost dark inside, and, because of using slow film and small apertures for depth of focus, the time exposures were as long as forty minutes, and that slowness, that waiting with the open-lensed camera with its tripod slowly doing its work, while I wandered around in the sun outside or sat in a pew of a quiet, cool empty church, fitted in with the tranquil music of Curlew River, which still quietly played in my mind.”

This post was sparked by Carl Honoré's fine book In Praise of Slow. There is an excellent section on classical music, and the chapters on slow food and slow sex aren't bad either. You can sample the book on the In praise of slow web site. (In the US the book is called In Praise of Slowness for some reason).

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Do, Re, Me.....

The Benedictine monk and choirmaster Guido d'Arezzo (990-1050), seen on the right, noticed that in the Latin hymn Ut Queant Laxis, which was sung in chant for the Feast of St John the Baptist, the tones rise progressively......

Ut Queant Laxis Resonare fibris
Mira gestorum Famuli tuorum
Solve polluti Labii reatum
Sante Iohannes

The notes in italics, Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La etc formed the basis of teaching music to children. Do replaced Ut in common usage, probably because the T in Ut could not be sung.

Very clever monks those Benedictines....

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Friday, September 23, 2005

My friends pictured within....

Not many words, just some wonderful portraits of musicians. Artist June Mendoza has commissions that include members of the royal family, prime ministers, businessmen and sportsmen. Her mother was a musician, and brought the young Ms. Mendoza into contact with an artistic circle that included the De Basil Russian Ballet Company. This gave her a love of the arts that is reflected in her many portraits of leading figures from the music, ballet, and opera worlds.

Working in oil paints on canvas by natural light, she uses an extensive palette of almost twenty colours due to the complex demands of realising flesh tones. The portraits require up to seven two hour sessions working straight into oils. June Mendoza says creating one of her portraits "involves gut feeling, experience, and the particular demands of the subject."

A blog is not the ideal vehicle for showcasing paintings. So I urge you to visit her excellent web site which has many more wonderful portraits on it (the young Colin Davis is particularly striking), and from which all the images on this article are linked. (These are quite big graphics, so apologies to those readers who do not have the benefit of Broadband, and find them slow to load.)

Portraits above are, of course, Michael Tippett, Antal Dorati, Paul Tortelier and Sir Georg Solti. The title of the post is taken a booklet published by Novello containing Elgar's own notes on the subjects of his Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma ) op. 36

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Barbarians at the gates....

"....sampling and synthesis technology gets better all the time -- we're on the cusp of an age when artificial orchestras will be indistinguishable in recordings from real ones, and of course be substantially cheaper to use. I suspect that the future of new orchestral music lies in this technology, and will thus remain healthy -- although the orchestra performance jobs will suffer." from a comment by Galen H. Brown on my post Is the Symphony Dead? on Sequenza21.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A neglected 20th century masterpiece

Interviewer: "Did you think as you began to write the ninth symphony that it would be the last thing you wrote?"

Sir Malcolm Arnold: "I was rather hoping it would be....(pause)...the piece is an amalgam of all my knowledge of humanity."

Interviewer: "It is a huge, bleak, finale isn't it?"

Sir Malcolm: (long pause) "....Yes...I wanted it to die away into infinity....."

These words are taken from the discussion between the conductor Andrew Penny and the composer Sir Malcolm Arnold which is included on Naxos' superb recording of his 9th Symphony. The symphony was written in a three week blaze of creativity in August 1986 as a birthday present for the composer's close friend, and carer, Anthony Day. Its composition followed five years of mental illness, and composing silence

Sir Malcolm's career started as an orchestral musician. He was Principal Trumpet for the London Philharmonic Orchestra until 1948 when he turned to full time composing. His musical output is prodigous. The published works include nine symphonies, several concertos (including works for written Benny Goodman, Julian Bream, Larry Adler and James Galway), two string quartets and much other chamber music, and the five sets of dances. But this extraordinary published opus does not include his film and TV music. 1957 for instance produced the 3rd Symphony, four other published works, and no fewer than six film scores, including the Oscar winning The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Inevitably though this phenomenal creative workload took its toll. There was a continuing battle with alcoholism, and recurring manic depressive episodes culminating in several stays in psychiatric hospitals. For seven years, including the period of composition of the 9th Symphony, Sir Malcolm was under the jurisdiction of the Court of Protection, established to protect and manage the financial affairs of those suffering from mental illness. The 83 year old Sir Malcolm now suffers from frontal-lobe dementia, and is largely housebound in Norfolk. He is tended tirelessly by Anthony Day, who welcomed me to their household to discuss a draft of this article. (The photograph above was taken at their house in 2001).

The 9th Symphony was composed in short score, and orchestrated when complete. The writing in the first movement is starkly simple and meditative, with page after page of virtually empty bars. But like late Picasso the work communicates huge emotions through a few sparse gestures. The symphony is in two halves. The first three movements form one, and include a typically Arnold scherzo. There is minimal thematic development, and considerable use of repetition and sequential structures in the first movement. In the second a motif is played on the bassoon, and is then repeated sixteen times as it is covered by different instruments.

The fourth movement, which is almost as long as the first three, forms the second half. The sombre final lento pays homage to Mahler's 9th Symphony, but then moves beyond it into an ascetic world of its own. There is very little conventional harmony in this final movement, the listener is kept waiting more than twenty minutes for the resolution of the final D major chord that ends the work. The lento dispenses with the conventions of symphonic form, and returns to elemental techniques.

Sir Malcolm Arnold's 9th Symphony is by any measure an extraordinary work. Parts look unfinished on paper. It is written entirely in two parts, and this creates the impression that the composer has forgotten how to write harmony. The writing for a large orchestra is equally extraordinary. The second trumpet plays in just twenty of the lento's three hundred and twenty-seven bars. The piccolo and trumpet are silent throught the twenty-three minutes of the last movement, only to play the final note.

When the 9th Symphony was announced the musical establishment was expecting another 'classic' Malcolm Arnold work, and they were sorely disappointed by the manuscript. Arnold's editor at Faber Music, the very experienced Donald Mitchell, was dismayed by the sparse scoring. So were other Arnold champions who were asked to pass judgement. The BBC music editor and Arnold supporter, Edwin Roxburgh, commented on its 'strange kind of simplicity.'

These negative reactions meant that the score remained in manuscript for years, despite vigorous advocacy from Sir Charles Groves and Howard Blake. Finally came publication, and excellent recordings from Naxos, Chandos and Conifer. The full score is now available from Chester Novello who bought the rights from Faber for just £500.

On paper the 9th Symphony may have looked like a bizarre mixture of juvenilia and mischief making, but in performance the work is pure magic. It has many of the unsung qualities of Shostakovich's 15th Symphony. It is a rite of passage. Not from youth to maturity. But from the mature Arnold, to a new and highly economical musical language. It is tonally accesible, but compositionally innovative. Above all it is an important work. A letter from Howard Blake to Arnold's agent Georgina Ivor sums it up beautifully:

"You've got to get this work performed, Georgina! It's not like his other works. It's very sparse and meditative, but it will work fine. It should be played! If nobody will do it, it's the sort of thing you could do in the Roundhouse and have young people all sitting on the floor meditating! You must put it on! It's a very significant work. It's from the deep inner recesses of Malcolm."

While discussing this article with me Anthony Day said Sir Malcolm (portrait by June Mendoza below) was 'heartbroken' by the poor reception accorded to the work. The story of its neglect is a graphic reminder of how difficult it is to achieve publication and acceptance for a contemporary symphony. Although technically innovative it hardly represents the extreme avant garde. It calls for large forces, but they are by no means exotic. Is one of the problems that the symphony is now considered a defunct form by the musical opinion formers?

Few contemporary composers can offer a CV to match Sir Malcolm's. Yet still the 9th Symphony specifically, and the Arnold oeuvre generally, is neglected. Is the problem the perennial one that the musical establishment cannot reconcile popularity with artistic merit? The BBC has been a staunch champions of Arnold's music in the past, but in recent years even this has waned. The last two Proms performances of his works were of film music - the Sound Barrier and St Trinian's suites. It is now more than ten years since one of his symphonies was performed at the Proms - the 2nd in 1994 to be precise. The 9th has never had a Proms performance, although it has received two broadcast performances since its composition.

In 2006 Sir Malcolm celebrates his 85th birthday. His music is a very rich seam that has still not been fully mined. Surely his 85th anniversary year is the appropriate time for the 9th Symphony, the neglected 20th century masterpiece, and his other works to be given the prominence they deserve?

Sir Malcolm Arnold resources:

* The music of Sir Malcolm is well served on CD. There are a number of recordings conducted by the composer. The nine symphonies have been recorded by Andrew Penny, Richard Hickox/Rumon Gamba, and Vernon Handley for Naxos, Chandos and Conifer respectively.

* Sir Malcolm has his own web site. This has an excellent range of resources including a listing of all current recordings. It also includes a catalogue of his published works, and links to their publishers.

* Pier Burton-Page’s 1995 biography, Philharmonic Concerto: The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold, was for some time definitive. But time, and the publication of two other lives, has now relegated it to a useful reference work. Recent years have brought two biographies which cover Sir Malcolm’s output up to, and beyond, the 9th Symphony. Paul R.W. Jackson’s slim volume The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold, The Brilliant and the Dark is strong on musical scholarship, but is too close to the subject to provide a totally objective survey. Most recent is Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius, co-authored by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. This is the most comprehensive biography, and as such should be considered the prime reference work. But be prepared for the unremittingly noir tone of the book. The detail of Sir Malcolm's struggles with his demons sometimes risks swamping the splendour of the musical output.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

.....the desire to move and be moved, the Blues

Went to the Old Granary Studio deep in rural Norfolk on Saturday to hear jazz pianist Julian Joseph playing with his acoustic trio of Adam Salkeld (guitar), and Mark Hodgson (bass).

Fantastic evening, and nice quote on Julian Joseph's web site:

"So much of music is a challenge but to achieve the "JAZZ" in Jazz is the ultimate, the hunger for Swing, the desire to move and be moved, the Blues. "

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Burning the bookshops

"Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too." Heinrich Heine

In May 1933 when the Nazis wanted to hit at the heart of Jewish culture they didn't burn i-Pods or mobile phones, or any post-Weimar equivalent of today's technology toys.

They burned books.

In the UK the largest book retailer Waterstones, which operates 200 stores, has made what looks likely to be a successful £96 million ($175m) bid for the country's second largest bookseller, Ottakars. If the takeover succeeds the combined business (nick-named Wottakars by opponents) will control more than 25% of UK book distribution. More importantly it will control 50% of the 'literary' market if the mass market paperback titles sold through supermarkets are excluded. And crucially 29 of Ottakars stores are in the same towns as Waterstones, and will be subject to 'efficiency driven rationalisation'. Which in plain English means closure. And that is the 21st century equivalent of burning books.

Understandably authors, publishers, and agents are up in arms. Derek Johns, President of the Association of Authors’ Agents eloquently sets out the case against the acquisition last week in an open letter to the UK Government's Office of Fair Trading:

"The fewer players there are in the book retail sector, the more likely it will be that decisions about which books to stock and promote will become centralized and limited. This trend is already clearly apparent, having been hastened to a great extent by the rise in book sales through supermarkets, a development which the leading chain booksellers have felt obliged to respond to by promoting (usually price-promoting) a small number of books. And since books are a vital communicator of our culture, the long-term effects of all of this are incalculable."

Waterstones are owned by the music retail group HMV which has 542 stores worldwide. They are not noted for their literary vision. Instead they prefer to devalue books by offering them in 3 for 2 offers. Their objective is to use the same retail tactics in their bookshops as they use in their music stores. Well, as anyone who has visited an HMV store knows, they are not the kind of place you want to spend too much time in. Their commitment to literature was demonstrated by the recent appointment of a new Managing Director from the supermarket sector. Their short term approach to bookselling is shown by their online store, which is no more than a rebranded Their Head Buyer (who started as a sales assistant in an HMV record shop) prefers flaunting his musical taste for David Darling and the Wulu Bunun in the Sunday supplements to talking about boring things like books. I am not a fan of interventionist economics (or Ottakars, see footnote 2). But the only hope of stopping the equivalent of burning 29 bookshops seems to be intervention by the Competition Enforcement Division at the UK Government's Office of Fair Trading.

May 10th, 1933 showed that books are not just consumer goods, they are a key part of our culture. And that means their availability must be safeguarded. The French solution to the challenge of cultural protection is 'l'exception culturelle' - the cultural exception. The concept originated in 1993, during internationals negotiations preceeding signing of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). This was the first time intellectual property and subsidies to the arts and culture were discussed at international trade talks. The discussions came about because the US film industry specifically wanted the elimination of Government subsidies for the French film industry.

French film makers, and other leading intellectuals, argued that the arts should not be subject to the same market forces as other commodities, because they are at the centre of culture. The French proposed that subsisdies, and other protective measures, for the arts should be allowed. In fact they went further, and said they should be positively encouraged in trade agreements to help protect national identities. Canada, and other European countries, supported this argument, and 'l'exception culturelle' became an internationally accepted concept. The World Trade Organisation, which succeeded GATT, now accepts that culture is a commercial exception, and allows protective subsidies.

One example of 'l'exception culturelle' is an 11% tax on movie tickets in France which goes directly to film producers as a subsidy. The results are self evident. France produces 50% more feature films than Britain despite having the same population, and produces more than Germany and Italy combined. Recent French film successes have included Amélie, (poster to right), which was nominated for five Academy Awards in 2001, including Best Original Screenplay.

In Canada directives to protect national identity mean English Canadian radio stations allocate around half their airtime to Canadian artists, and French Canadian stations devote a similar percentage to French language music. France has introduced similar measures, and these received the support of major record labels who saw an opportunity to increase production of French music, rather than simply importing US and British product. This has resulted in stardom for French Canadian artists in France. These include Céline Dion, who exemplifies 'L'exception culturelle' with a personal website in English and French. There has also been a boom in French rap led by artists such as MC Solaar .

It doesn't matter what you call it. 'L'exception culturelle' not only makes sense, but it also works. The concept is essential if we are to protect the availability of good literature, and prevent irreparable damage to our culture. Monastic libraries were the guardians of culture through the Dark Ages. In the 21st century a diverse network of booksellers, from independent stores to multiples and online retailers, provides the same function. We must not let the naked profit motive destroy that, and everything possible should be done to prevent Waterstones acquiring Ottakars.

1. A valuable source for this article was Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow (Robson Books 2003).
2. I am no great fan of Ottakars. The takeover was prompted by their own overblown corporate ambitions. Their web site was down while I was writing this article. Not for 30 minutes - for days! In fact I've just checked, and it's down yet again, so don't blame me if the links don't work. But two flawed players in a market as important as books is a lot less damaging than one.
3. The same 'cultural exception' arguments apply against the 'rationalisation' and 'repositioning' of public libraries. See my post Death of the library.
4. Waterstones and Ottakars are the McDonalds of book retailing. I prefer to dine out at friendly neighbourhood tratorrias like the award winning Aldeburgh Bookshop. Unfortunately they are a dying breed due to the increasing corporate clout of the Waterstones and Ottakars. As Michael Quinlan, Chief Executive of McDonalds said in 1994: "On any given day, McDonalds serves less than one half of one percent of the world's population. That's not enough. We're like Oliver Twist, we want more"

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Art works....

I'd like to turn people on to the fact that that the world is form, not just function and money." Claus Oldenburg

Marc Quinn's sculpture of the artist Alison Lapper was unveiled in London's Trafalgar Square on Thursday. Lapper is disabled, and the off-white marble statue shows her naked and eight months pregnant. The visually arresting and controversial work is the first of a series of commissions to be displayed in a prominent position in the London square. After eighteen moths it will be replaced by Thomas Schütte's Hotel for the Birds

Photo above shows sculptor Marc Quinn with a scale model of his statue of Alison Lapper: photo credit Reuters
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Saturday, September 17, 2005

Nielsen and Britten opera webcasts

Britten's church parable Curlew River has been a recurring destination on an overgrown path.

Don't miss the acclaimed 2005 Edinburgh Festival production which is being webcast tomorrow (Sunday 18th September) at 18.30h BST on BBC Radio 3 . Follow this link for webcast and 'listen again' services. Convert the time of broadcast to your time zone with this link

And no, the production shot above is not Curlew River (and I know Curlew River is technically not an opera, but the headline is everything). The striking photo is from Covent Garden's new coproduction of David Poutney's new production of Carl Nielsen's Maskarade, which is premiered on Monday (19th September). The opera is based on Holberg's play, and interestingly is being given in a new English translation by Poutney, rather than the original Danish. Listen to this rarely performed (outside Denmark) work in a BBC Radio 3 webcast on Saturday 8th October.

Maskarade is in that interesting group of works known by the overture, and little else. Berlioz was master of the genre, and his best example was Les Francs Juges where we know the overture, but the rest of the opera was abandoned by the composer, and only survives in fragments.

Other nominations for works now know only by their overtures, but which are worth reviving in toto?

As Paul Valéry, France's best known poet of the 20th century, said: "An artist never really finishes his work, he merely abandons it."

Photo credit Royal Opera House website where there is an excellent photo gallery of twelve Maskarade production shots.

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Friday, September 16, 2005

Where's my bus?

European Mobility Week is launched today with much fanfare. The laudable objective set out on the official web site "is to facilitate widespread debate on the necessity for changes in behaviour in relation to mobility and in particular the use of the private car. As usual, the Car Free Day will be the highlight of the whole Week."

The East Anglian counties of Norfolk and Suffolk found a novel way to celebrate the week and contribute to the demise of the motor car. Drivers of the main bus operator, First Eastern Counties, started a week-long strike yesterday forcing the counties' 68,000 regular bus travellers to use private cars.

Nice one.

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Cracking Kuhnau from Skywalker Sound

Harmonia Mundi USA have found a great way to add value to the CD format. Their new 1+1 series offers double CDs for the price of one full price disc, with performances drawn from their wonderful back catalogue giving a mix of mainstream and lesser known repertoire.

I took two 1+1's on holiday to France in June, and was so impressed I bought another one there. Monastic Chant is a recital of 12th & 13th century European Sacred Music sung by the Theatre of Voices and directed by Paul Hillier in wonderfully atmospheric performances and recordings. Similarly William Christie's playing of Rameau's Pièces de clavecin (1724) and Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de clavecin (1728) also comes highly recommended. Strangely these entrancing Rameau pieces are not too well represented in the catalogue, so this 1+1 fills the gap nicely.

But the real winner for me was the double CD of Kuhnau's keyboard works. Johann Kuhnau (see picture) was one of the last Renaissance composers, and comes with a pretty good pedigree, although the text books usually consider him to be a rather dry forerunner of Bach. His early musical education was in Dresden, and he was something of a polymath, studying ancient and modern languages and mathematics, and also qualifying as a lawyer. He became organist of the famous Leipzig Thomaskirche forty years before J.S. Bach held the position, and was also cantor for the major Leipzig churches.

But there is an 'off the wall' streak in Kuhnau which belies his reputation for being boring. He published an early satirical novel, Der musicalische Quack-salber (The Musical Quack), and the first CD in this set is devoted to his embryonic keyboard sonatas which are called Frische Clavier-Fruchte (Fresh Keyboard Fruits). The 'off the wall' approach spreads over to the second CD; Kuhnau's Musicalische Vorstellung einiger Biblischer historien (The Biblicla Sonatas). These feature the pioneering use of mathematical structures in a fascinating prelude to the technique of J.S. Bach.

For the Kuhnau John Butt (see photo) plays harpsichord, clavichord and organ. The recordings date from Butt's peiod as an Associate Professor at Berkeley, and interestingly were made at Lucasfilm's Skywalker Sound studios in Marin County. (The organ tracks were recorded at Hertz Hall, University of California, Berkeley). The Lucasfilms sound is a sharp contrast to the usual resonant 'period' acoustics. The harpsichord is closely miced, firm and powerful, but aurally none the worse for the hi-tec studio setting. One complaint though. Why do keyboard players insist on mixing the clavichord and other instruments on the same CD? On paper it may seem a good way of breaking the potential monotony of 70 minutes of music making restricted to the harpsichord's register. But in practice it just doesn't work. The laws of physics dictate that the right level for the harpsichord, or organ, will make the clavichord sound like the twanging of distant elastic bands. I am afraid it doesn't work on this, or any other CD. Don't be put off though as the gems are the Fresh Keyboard Fruits which are all played on the harpsichord.

I bought the Kuhnau in the superb Harmonia Mundi shop in Avignon and paid 18 euros (£12, $21 US) for it. But these highly recommended 1+1 sets originate from Harmonia Mundi USA, and are far cheaper if bought from the US. The Kuhnau is available via Amazon marketplace seller Caiman USA for just £10 delivered to the UK, and the retail price is $17.98 (£10).

Although Kuhnau is a discovery for me, he is not for Hyperion who have recorded his sacred music with Robert King and the King's Consort. The audio samples indicate it is pretty exciting stuff. Try it for yourself here on an overgrown path.

Tell other readers what you think of Kuhnau's music using the comment fuction at the bottom of this post, or share this unknown composer with a friend by emailing this post, including the music links, using the envelope icon.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Webern day on BBC Radio 3

Tomorrow, Thursday 15th September, BBC Radio 3 presents Webern Day , 60 years to the day after the Austrian composer's death. His complete works - about five and a half hours in total - will be broadcast in order of composition throughout the day, showcasing the entire creative output of one of the twentieth century's most influential composers.

Listen via the web, full details and timings on the BBC Radio 3 homepage. Convert these to your local time zone using this link

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Pie in the face for a dangerous buffoon

The automobile laconically runs down pedestrians. It gnaws into the side of a barn or else, grinning, it flies down a slope. It can't be blamed for anything. Its conscience is... clear... It only fulfillls its destiny. It is destined to wipe out the world.
from Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg's, The Life of the Automobile, published in 1929.

Worldwide three quarters of a million people are killed every year on the roads. More people between five and 44 die in car crashes in the Third World than are killed by any single disease. 3,508 people were killed in road accidents in 2003 in the UK, and 33,707 were seriously injured. 171 of those killed were children. Since 1899 motor vehicles have killed over 2.5 million Americans, and permanently injured 43 million.

The Humane Society estimates that more than one million animals are killed every day on US roads. It has been estimated that motor vehicles kill more animals than the fur trade and animal experimentation industry combined, and more deer than deer hunters.

Despite these appalling statistics BBC TV continues to broadcast a prime time motoring programme aimed at young people called Top Gear. The programme is presented by media personality Jeremy Clarkson.

Lobbying group Transport 2000 recently accused Top Gear of:

- Glamorising speed and failing to make the connection with danger on the roads.
- Encouraging an obsession with unnecessarily powerful and heavily polluting cars.
- Through using Jeremy Clarkson as presenter, with his distinctive image, encouraging a ‘yobbish’ attitude on the road.
- Not focussing on responsible driving, ‘greener’ cars, road safety or the need to cut car journeys
- Using ‘macho’ themes of speed and power, and failing to cover the interests of women

Until two years ago I was forced to drive around 25,000 miles a year on business, I even had a BMW at one time. I then took the decision to opt out of that sort of motoring madness. For the last two decades I have also been a high mileage cyclist. My cycling experience includes Europe and the US, and I now commute by bike whenever I can, covering several thousand miles a year using pedal power.

I have seen the carnage on the roads. I have seen the young people die because they are encouraged to drive beyond their capabilities. I consider Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson to be a prime candidate for Public Enemy Number One in the UK. Recent Clarkson public outbursts have included calling for motorcyclists to be decapitated with cheesewire and to be shot in the face, and a declaration that he wants to run cyclists down in his car.

I was therefore delighted, no let's be honest, I was over the moon to read the following story this week:

Pie In The Face For Clarkson At Degree Ceremony

Broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson has been hit in the face with a custard pie at a degree ceremony. The outspoken Top Gear presenter was at Oxford Brookes University to collect an honorary degree in recognition of his "passion for engineering". But the decision has proved to be controversial, and protesters, including members of Oxford's Green Party, assembled outside the presentation dressed in Clarkson's trademark tight jeans and wigs.

Security was tight and police outnumbered the the protesters, who waved banners reading On Yer Bike Clarkson at the gates. But one woman managed to gain access to a media call after the degree ceremony. She dashed out in front of the television cameras and, as Mr Clarkson posed in his cap and gown, removed what appeared to be a custard pie from a wrapped-up newspaper and hit him full in the face (see photo). The startled presenter maintained his cool, quipped "good shot" and posed for a few more pictures before beating his retreat.

The pie was thrown by protester Denise Lock, who said Clarkson "makes a living out of offending people. While other universities are rewarding the likes of Nelson Mandela, Brookes is rolling out the carpet for a dangerous buffoon."

Mr Clarkson has been criticised for engaging in stunts such as driving a 4x4 through an environmentally-sensitive peat bog in Scotland and inciting people to break the law by hiding mobile phone use while driving.

Speaking before the assault, he defended his record on environmental issues, saying: "I do have a disregard for the environment. I think the world can look after itself and we should enjoy it as best we can."

Nearly 3,000 people signed an online petition against Clarkson receiving the honorary degree. ....................

And I thought that the art of student protest died after our anti-Vietnam activities in 1968. Please can someone award the esteemed Ms. Lock an Honorary Doctorate pronto (preferably a proper Oxford college)?

And can we then move on to stopping the BBC spending a fair chunk of their annual £3 billion ($5.5 billion) income on dangerous drivel like Top Gear?

And if anyone asks what has this got to do with music?- the automobile has wiped out some huge talent in our world as well. Legendary horn player Dennis Brain was killed while driving his Triumph sports car in 1957. He was just 36. Bass player of the Bill Evans Trio, Scott LaFaro died ten days after the classic Village Vanguard sessions in a road accident. He was just 25. In 1968 the multi-talented Swedish jazz pianist Jan Johansson, who made his reputation with the classic album Jazz på svenska (Jazz in Swedish), was killed in a car crash on his way to a church concert in Jönköping, Sweden. He was just 37.

The main statistical sources for this post were Divorce Your Car by Katie Alvord, and Bike Cult by David B. Perry. I've also driven around more than half a million miles since passing my test in 1968 - the year of those Vietnam protests.

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Music will rise from the wreckage.....

Steel works, Snape Maltings fire: mixed media by Cavendish Morton linked from Island Arts

It was a dark night, but as we came over the brow of the hill the sky was lit up by an orange glow, with a trial of thick smoke. If this was dramatic, seen from close to it was positively theatrical. Above our heads the black shell of the Maltings loomed like the flank of a stricken liner..... In the foreground, silhouetted against the bright lights, members of the English Opera Group chorus were collapsing into each other's arms. It was a devastating event, of course, but one whose aftermath - the triumphant rescue of the Idomeneo premiere at Blythburgh, and the Maltings rebuilding for the very next Festival - swiftly became part of the Aldeburgh legend.

In 1965 the expanding Aldeburgh Festival urgently needed a purpose built concert hall. After much searching Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears found a disused maltings at Snape on the River Alde four miles upstream from Aldeburgh. Architects Arup Associates were commissioned to oversee the conversion of the old agricultural building into a state of the art auditorium. The new hall was opened by Her Majesty The Queen in June 1967 (photo right) to universal acclaim, both for its outstanding acoustics and sympathetic conversion.

The opening concert of the 1969 season was an afternoon performance of Schubert's Trout by Britten and the Amadeus Quartet. During the evening fire broke out beneath the stage and quickly spread to the whole hall, resulting in the conflagration described above by an eyewitness, the pianist and accompanist Roger Vignoles. (The quote is from Autograph Books excellent Time & Concord - Aldeburgh Festival Recollections). The fire completely destroyed the roof, stage, seating, and flooring. All that remained of the main building were the structural walls which were damaged but still standing. (The photo to the right shows Britten and Pears standing in the wreckage). As serious as the structural damage was the artistic loss was even greater. Two of the precious instruments used in the Trout were burnt beyond recognition - Britten's own Steinway concert grand, and cellist Adrian Beer's priceless Grancino double-bass. Adrain Beer heart-wrenchingly describes how all he found were "some ashes and metal parts of that lovely instrument." Also totally lost were the costumes for the new production of Idomeneo that was to be premiered by Britten's English Opera Group in the Maltings three days later.

Through superhuman efforts by Britten, Pears and the Festival committee, Idomeno was transferred to a hastily constructed stage in Blythburgh Church. Costumes were borrowed from the London opera houses, and the premiere went ahead to critical acclaim. Of the other eighteen performances in the 1969 Festival only one was lost, the others all took place in alternative venues.

As if all that work was not enough, on the day following the devastating fire Britten and Pears started planning the rebuilding of the gutted Maltings. Miraculously this herculean task was completed for the first concert of the following season. On 2nd June 1970 the Queen returned to re-open the Maltings (and reportedly said she hoped not to be invited back for a third time). The rebuilt hall that rose phoenix-like from the wreckage proved to have acoustics identical to the original. (In fact some claimed the acoustics of the rebuilt auditorium were superior as Britten had authorised subtle changes).

That three week long 1970 season included three performances in the rebuilt hall of Idomeneo. There were also two performaces of a new production of Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia, and three of the church parable Curlew River. The rebuilt Maltings was also saw venue for the first performance of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony outside Russia. It was conducted by its dedicatee Britten, and performed with the two soloists for whom it was written, Galina Vishnevskaya and Mark Rezhetin. (Photo above is Britten with Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya and Pears). Other Festival concerts included the world premiere of Hans Werner Henze's vivid theatre piece about a runaway Cuban slave, El Cimarron, conducted by the composer, and Dvorak's Requiem directed by Philip Ledger. Composer and guitarist Leo Brouwer continued the Cuban theme with a concert that gave both an overview of the history of the music of his native Cuba, and a parallel account of political developments there.

The rebuilding of the Snape Maltings concert hall, and the quality of the 1969 and 1970 Aldeburgh Festivals are enduring proof that music will rise from the wreckage. In 1964 Benjamin Britten was awarded the first Robert O. Anderson Aspen Award in the Humanities for 'the individual anywhere in the world judged to have made the greatest contribution to the advancement of the humanities.'

Britten's acceptance speech was subsequently published by Faber as a slim volume (right). It is an important document in which Britten sets out his beliefs and convictions as an artist. The speech has been an inspiration to many others over the years. Not only does it throw light on a great artist and visionary, but it also identifies the crucial issues which are still the concern of all those with an interest in the arts in the 21st Century.

E.M. Forster wrote the following eulogy to the Aspen acceptance speech. It can equally be applied to Britten's miracle of making music rise from the wreckage:

"A confession of faith from a great musician which should awake a response in the hearts of the rest of us, whether we are musicians or not, and whether we are great or small."

I am fortunte to live close to the Maltings, and can savour the legendary sound first hand. For CD listeners the peerless acoustics of the Snape Maltings (photo above) are well served by Britten's legacy of recordings made there for Decca. While I have been typing this article one of my favourites has been playing. Britten is not the immediate conductor that comes to mind for the Dream of Gerontius. But the combination of the date of this post, Elgar's divine music, Britten's inspited conducting, Peter Pear's sublime singing, the radiant Maltings acoustic, and the retelling of the miracle of the Maltings rising from the wreckage has brought tears to my eyes. Alas, like that peerless 1970 Aldeburgh Festival, Britten's recording of Gerontius is a thing of the past - it is deleted.

The definitive life is Benjamin Britten,A Biography by the late lamented Humphrey Carpenter who I paid tribute to in Death of a renaissance man. Thankfully Humphrey Carpenter's sharply observed book cuts through the syncophancy with which Britten surrounded himself in Aldeburgh. Three out-of-print books are well worth seeking out; Benjamin Britten, A Life in Pictures 1913-1976 compiled by Donald Mitchell and John Evans, the previously mentioned Time & Concord - Aldeburgh Festival Recollections from Autograph Books, and On Receiving The First Aspen Award by Britten himself.

All archive photos are linked from the excellent Britten-Pears Foundation web site.

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