Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Stravinsky in St Petersburg

The Stravinsky family lived in this apartment block on the Krioukov Canal in St Petersburg for more than eighty years. Their exact apartment can be located by the windows on the second floor above the entrance.

Now take a Path to Stravinsky - the last great composer?
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Shostakovich we'll allow, but take out Stravinsky

One of the recurring themes On An Overgrown Path has been the control of agents, broadcasters and record companies over the music we hear. The question is a simple one - do we hear the music we want, or do we hear the music chosen for us by others? A very perceptive comment today on my Peteris Vasks article by Daniel Wolf (do visit his blog Renewable Music) reminded me that hidden agendas among programmers are not new, and raised the interesting point that Shostakovich was actually promoted, rather than suppressed, by the Soviet authorities at certain times.

As soon as I read Daniel's comment I located Stormy Applause, Making Music In A Worker's State by Borodin Quartet founder Rostislav Dubinsky in my library. The events in the extract below took place in 1955. Goskoncert was (and still is) the Russian state run concert agency, and the programs under discussion were for the Borodin's first ever overseas tour to the German Democratic Republic.

At Goskoncert the program editor called me in immediately and amiably offered me a chair. Then he quickly read through the programs, looked at me in surprise, and said sourly, "You're new here. That explains everything. You see, out of all these programs I can accept the first, but not altogether. Stravinsky should be replaced, and Shostakovich ... Wait a minute, I'll be right back." He had, of course, run off to ask about Shostakovich. But whom did he ask? In all Goskoncert he was the only man with any musical education. On the other hand, it was not a musical but a political question: had the time come to rehabilitate Shostakovich? He had been banned in 1948, and it was now 1955, so for seven years he hadn't been performed. I wondered how the program editor would ask about Shostakovich. And, even more, what the answer would be ...

After half an hour the program editor returned. "It's like this: Shostakovich we'll allow, but take out Stravinsky."
I said humbly - "They're three tiny pieces. They last only seven minutes, and for the whole program ..." He interrupted - "That's not the point. We don't perform Stravinsky at all." I looked at him as naively as I could and he decided to enlighten me. "Recently Stravinsky said in public that all Russian music died in the twenties. By this, he meant that our great composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev don't exist." I said to myself excitedly - "Great composers? That means they've been rehabilitated!"

The editor satisfied with my silence, continued: "Our musicians abroad should play as much Soviet music as possible. At a minimum, half of each program should be Russo-Soviet." I said - "I understand, let me correct it." He handed me my sheet of paper. "With pleasure. You may sit at that desk." He saw that I was crossing out all the programs and smiled. "That's right."

I quickly wrote new ones. Everything was clear. Out of every three compositions - two Russian. For example: Borodin and Shostakovich in the first half and Beethoven in the second, not too bad. Or Prokofiev with Mozart and Tchaikovsky, also pretty good. Or even better: Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and then Brahms and Schubert. Beautiful!

For more from Stormy Applause take An Overgrown Path to Shostakovich, this is myself.

Stormy Applause, Making Music In A Worker's State by Rostislav Dubinsky was published by Hutchinson in 1989, ISBN 091742579, but is now out of print, and I see my copy is quite valuable.
Shostakovich image credit Umich-edu plus Photoshop I think. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Composers struggle under Shostakovich regime

This week BBC Radio 3 broadcasts a series of programmes titled Shostakovich in Context, which means devoting yet more airtime to an already over-exposed composer. The saturation coverage of the Shostakovich centenary has meant the exclusion from concert and broadcast schedules of many other deserving composers with anniversaries this year. There is a particularly bitter irony in this cultural hegemony by a Russian composer for Peteris Vasks (left) who celebrates his 60th birthday in 2006. For Vasks is a Latvian, a country whose very culture was under threat for more than fifty years from Russian ideologies and military power.

Latvia is one of the so called A8 countries from central and eastern Europe which joined the EU in 2004, the others are Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia. The A8 countries should be joined by Bulgaria and Romania in January 2007, although Bulgaria has a few money laundering and related problems to sort first - it has been said that Bulgaria isn't a country that has a mafia, but a mafia that has a country. Latvia is located on the Baltic between Estonia and Lithuania, and shares eastern borders with Russia and Belarus. The USSR annexed Latvia in 1940, and the country only regained its independence following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. The last Russian troops left in 1994, and ten years later Latvia joined both the EU and NATO. The official language is Latvian, but 38% of the population speak Russian, and the ethnic and cultural diversity is shown by the mix of Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Russian Orthodox among the countries religions. Latvia’s turbulent past and current EU membership have created an extensive diaspora, and there is a large migrant Latvian community working in agriculture here in East Anglia where I write this article.

Peteris Vasks was born in western Latvia in 1946. His father was a minister of the Church, and the religious intolerance of the occupying Soviets forced the family to move south to Lithuania where he attended the musical academy in Vilnius. He returned to his country of birth to play in Latvian orchestras, and then took up a teaching career in the Latvian capital, Riga, which continues today. His musical vocabulary is influenced by Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki and George Crumb, and his unique style incorporates aleatoric techniques. Vasks is an important modern composer as he is one of the select group of eastern European composers who have successfully developed a nationalist style without compromising their contemporary vocabulary; others include Arvo Pärt (Estonia), Giya Kancheli (Georgia), Gyorgy Kurtag (Hungary) and Henryk Górecki (Poland), and interestingly four out of those five come from the A8 countries.

Not a single note of Vask’s music was included in the 2006 BBC Proms season. Rectify this by listening to four minutes of Anthony Marwood and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields playing Peter Vasks: Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra ('Distant Light') - Mosso - Cadenza II -

* As I upload this article the news breaks that BBC Chairman of two years Michael Grade is unexpectedly leaving to move to commercial rival ITV. As Grade has presided over a wholesale lowering of programme standards at the BBC, and is going to troubled ITV, where the programme standards are already the subject of universal derision, it is difficult to know what to think. Perhaps the rumoured £2m ($3.8m) salary renders thought superfluous?

Now read about the Roma - the forgotten Holocaust victims
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Classical music and the paid-for media

Norman Lebrecht recently roared “Until bloggers deliver hard facts and estate agents turn into credible critics, paid-for newspapers will continue to set the standard as the only show in town”. So on Friday it was good to see a paid-for newspaper setting the standard and covering the wonderful music education programme in Venezuela. In a major article that made the front page of the influential Film & Music supplement (above) Guardian journalist Charlotte Higgins visits both Venzuela and Rome, and sings the praises of what she calls ‘The System’, or to give the Venzuelan education programme its full title Fundacion del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela.

Also championing Venezuelan music education is Simon Rattle, who gushes euphorically in the article about wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and declares "If anyone asks me where is something really important going on for the future of classical music, I say here." Rattle and Dudamel are just two of the big names that appear in the article, the others are Claudio Abbado, and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony, and Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestras.

Now I am a huge advocate of music education, and have written about it on these pages, and I am also a great admirer of what is happening in Venezuela. But there are some hard facts that didn't make it into Charlotte Higgins' article. Music education in Europe and North America has been the victim of another system, known as the free market. This balances supply and demand, and, whether we like it or not, this has put a greater value on training computer programmers than orchestral musicians. But some in classical music have benefitted from this system, particularly the artists agents who have found a lucrative niche matching musical supply to demand.

The Guardian article prominently namechecked Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado, Gustavo Dudamel, and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony and Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestras. Now follow this link to the website of leading artists agent Askonas Holt, and you will see that the artists represented by them include Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado, Gustavo Dudamel, and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony and Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestras. Uncanny isn't it? - particularly as the footnote to the article is also rich in namechecks - "The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela's recording of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, is out now on Deutsche Grammophon".

The practice of music critics being supplied with free concert tickets and CDs is long established. But in the brave new global world of classical music the stakes are much higher. Follow this link and you will find that there are major international tours in 2007 by the Gothenburg Symphony and Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra organised by Askonas Holt and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and some global exposure in the Guardian isn't going to harm ticket and CD sales for that is it?

This is not just an isolated example of global promotion. Several music critics, including Norman Lebrecht, have recently written reviews of the Vienna premiere of John Adams new opera The Flowering Tree. The orchestra for that premiere was another band from South America, the Orchestra Joven Camerata de Venezuela, and in December the opera is in the repertoire of Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, who are of course in the Askonas Holt stable, before being performed by the San Francisco Symphony, who are co-commissioners and also Askonas Holt artists. The opera is also coming to London, so some exposure there in the Evening Standard doesn't go amiss either. And back with Venezuelan musicians the Guardian article won't hurt the 2007 Edinburgh Festival appearance of Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which is promoted by Askonas Holt, as is the major US tour that follows.

I am the first to agree that classical music needs all the exposure it can get, and also that our children need all the music education they can get. But, equally, don't readers of the paid-for newspapers need all the hard facts they can get on The System behind these glowing articles?

For more on The System follow An Overgrown Path to No such thing as an unknown Venezuelan conductor.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

A treasure trove of music recording history

An interesting, and rewarding, recent development On An Overgrown Path recently has been the interest in the recording process and sound quality, an interest also reflected in other new blogs including the excellent The Crunch. Recording history is a particular area of interest for me as I worked for both the BBC and EMI in my time in the music industry, so I was delighted this week when our internet sleuth Walt Santner sent me details of a veritable treasure trove of recording history links.

The links are part of the University of San Diego's project documenting the history of recorded sound. The timeline only currently goes up to 2005, so it doesn't yet cover topics such as SACD in depth, but there is some really interesting material there including a history of microphone development. But the real gem is the extensive list of internet resources and links. And please don't think this is just for geeks, there is important musical and cultural material there as well.

I've only just started to explore the resources, but already I've been fascinated by the Aaron Copland Collection from the Library of Congress, America's Jazz Heritage from the Smithsonian Institution, a discussion of recording and gender, an audio file of Stokowski talking about orchestra seating layouts, a very good summary of sound recording copyright, and one for the geeks - an illustrated history of world payphones. There are also a lot of downloads, check out the 44 recordings of Omaha Indian music, and Stokowski downloads of ten audio and two video files.

Ideal browsing for an autumn holiday weekend - enjoy!

* That wonderful header photo is from the the website, and shows the Seattle Session Orchestra being recorded in Bastyr University Chapel - do check out the HybridSound site for the interesting audio samples.

For more Walt Santner discoveries visit a Treasure trove of historic MP3 downloads
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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Musical riches for anyone to enjoy

Five hundred years ago the Italian town of Ferrara was ravaged by what today’s media would call a pandemic. Bubonic plague broke out in Europe in the 14th century, and continued sporadically until the 17th century. The plague was carried by rats, and population growth in medieval Europe slowed causing widespread economic decline.

Ferrara was the seat of the house of Este, and became a cultural centre with a university. During the late 15th and early 16th century the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole 1, became one of the most important patrons of the arts in Italy after the Medici, and the city was particularly noted for its music. Josquin Des Prez was employed by Duke Ercole, and wrote his Missa Hercule dux Ferrariae for him. Antoine Brumel was principal musician in the early 15th century, and the patronage of Ercole’s son Alfonso 1’s resulted in the city becoming an important centre for the lute. The cultural and economic strength of Ferrara attracted a large Dutch and German population, and in 1605 this included the Flemish priest-composer Jacob Obrecht. However Ferrara was particularly vulnerable to the plague, probably due to the proximity of marshes. In the severe outbreak 6000 lives were lost, and among those, in August 1605, was Jacob Obrecht.

Obrecht (below) was one of the leading composers of his period. He was born in 1458, the son of a Ghent trumpeter. He trained for the priesthood, and became choir director at Bergen op Zoom, before taking up appointments in Cambrai, Bruges and Antwerp. He travelled to Ferrara in Italy twice; first in 1496, and then in 1504 for the visit he was not to return from. Obrecht was a prodigous composer of sacred music. He wrote twenty-four masses and twenty-two motets. His masses retain the cantus firmus, but use a wide variety of techniques to transform the traditional monody into elaborate multi-movement works. His style is a development from that of the better known Johannes Ockeghem (c 1430-1495) with more use of melodies and cadences. This is very rewarding music to listen to. No specialist knowledge or appreciation of Renaissance polyphony is needed to derive a lot of pleasure from it - these are musical riches for anyone to enjoy.

It remains something of a mystery as to why the reputation of Jacob Obrecht is overshadowed by his better known Flemish contemporaries. He is adequately represented in the CD catalogues, and if you are not familiar with his music I urge you to explore it. An excellent starting point is the Naxos issue of his Missa Caput sung by the excellent Oxford Camerata under Jeremy Summerly. This fine Mass survives in a manuscript copy from the court at Ferrara, and is a 're-engineering' of the early 15th century anonymous English Missa Caput.

Also well worth exploring are the Clerk's Group recordings under Edward Wickham on Gaudeamus, particularly as there recordings are often available at a considerable discount through Amazon Marketplace sellers. (They are part of the financially challenged Sanctuary Music Group, so hurry as they may not be in the catalogue for long). The Clerk's Group's CD with the Missa Sub Tuum Praesidium is particularly recommended for Obrecht's elaborate twelve minute setting of the Salve Regina. Jacob Obrecht deserves to be recognised as an important composer, and his works should be celebrated alongside the other great Renaissance polyphonists.

* Jacob Obrecht is generally thought to have been born on November 22nd, 1458, although there is some debate as to whether it was 1457 or 1458 *

Picture credits: 15th century church fresco 'Dance of Death' - Needham High School's (Massachusetts) excellent plague web site, Jacob Obrecht - Classical composers. Report broken links, missing images, and other errors to overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).
If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to
Brilliant Classics

Benjamin Britten – We Shall Overcome

There are four anniversaries today, and three of them are of important events connected by a fascinating thread. November 22nd is remembered by many for the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, while on a happier note Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft on this day in 1913, and quite appropriately today is also the name day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. The connection between these three anniversaries also involves folk singer, political activist and pioneering conservationist, Pete Seeger. Here is the little known story.

In his Inaugural Address on January 20th 1961 President Kennedy vigorously defended the principle of liberty with these words: - Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Despite this powerful rhetoric liberty was still under serious threat in the early days of the Kennedy administration. Prior to 1961 Pete Seeger had been investigated for sedition by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, harassed by the FBI and CIA, blacklisted, picketed, and stoned by conservative groups. In March 1961 Seeger (right) was convicted of contempt of Congress following his 1955 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in New York. After his conviction, and before his successful appeal, Seeger obtained the court’s permission to tour England in the autumn of 1961.

In the two years since his last visit to England Seeger had developed a large following, and an audience of four thousand turned out at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which is best know today as the home of the BBC Promenade Concerts. The concert in 1961 was promoted by the English “Pete Seeger Committee” which had been formed to support the embattled musician; Paul Robeson was president, the great ballad singer Ewan MacColl was chairman, and the sponsors were Doris Lessing, Sean O’Casey and Benjamin Britten.

With acknowledgements to David Dunaway’s excellent biography of Pete Seeger (Da Capo ISBN 0306803992).

* This Path brings together Britten and J.F. Kennedy, but another one tells the story of how Britten felt unable to compose a memorial to the slain President - see Music does not exist in a vacuum.

* Eagle eyed readers will have noted I have only mentioned three of today’s four anniversaries. The fourth one is mere trivia – November 22nd is also my birthday.

For more on pluralism in the world of music take An Overgrown Path to BBC Proms - a multicultural society?

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

You couldn’t ask for anything more ...

I missed this one because I was in France in September, but it is worth reprising. The top three aren't too much of a surprise, but numbers 4 and 5 are worth the click as well.

The Times September 02, 2006 - The top five websites. This week - classical music

On An Overgrown Path - This blog is updated every day with well-written posts on the likes of Britten and the BBC Proms, along with links to news articles and MP3s. You couldn’t ask for anything more.

Sandow - A long-standing critic, Greg Sandow asks the big question — “Is classical music dying?” — and explores it with angst and expertise. He also responds in depth to readers’ comments and questions.

The Well-Tempered Blog - If you like short posts delivered within three minutes of each other, you’ll like Bart Collins’ blog, which is essential reading for all classical music news junkies.

Classical pontifications with Professor Herbie McJeebie
It may sound like some crazy Open University programme made by Disney, but our professor investigates “the trajectory of contemporary canonic classical music”, focusing on young composers.

Múica Clássica - Spain has produced such fine composers as Manuel de Falla and Joaquin Rodrigo, and this blog offers a “special emphasis” on the country’s classical music scene.

Meanwhile, eat your heart out Norman Lebrecht. Music blogs continue to bloom with our reviews now being quoted alongside 'paid for' media such as The Times, Chicago Tribune and BBC Radio 3 CD Review

Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, November 20, 2006

November Woods by a brazen romantic

Photograph above taken at the Carmelite Monastery, Quidenham, Norfolk on November 18th 2006 by Pliable.

Now playing - November Woods (1917) by Arnold Bax, performed by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson (Chandos LP ABRD066). Bax described himself as a 'brazen romantic', so you won't find him on Sequenza21. His life and music were informed by literature and nature, and he drew on Celtic and Nordic mythology for inspiration. November Woods is a close companion to two other Bax tone poems, The Garden of Fand and Tintagel.

The legends of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table are linked to the Cornish castle of Tintagel, and Bax's eponymous tone poem is available on one of my nomination for the greatest records of the 20th century. This EMI recording was made in No 1 Studio, Abbey Road with Robert Kinloch Anderson producing in 1967. The coupling is one of the great 20th century symphonies, Vaughan Williams 5th, the score of which was completed in 1943, and is dedicated to Jean Sibelius 'without permission'. Both works are conducted by one of the great 20th century conductors, Sir John Barbirolli. As you may have guessed I recommend it. Also recommended is Bax's autobiography Farewell My Youth. Sadly it is now out of print, my copy is of a 1949 edition and expect to pay quite a high price if you find a copy.

The words on the crucifix at Quidenham in my header photo are: Wanderers stay and think of me here a while, how I hung on the cross so that thou could come to me. This message is reflected in Vaughan Williams' magnificent 5th Symphony which draws on material from his 1951 opera The Pilgrim's Progress which in turn was based on John Bunyan's 17th century allegorical novel. There is a classic EMI recording of the opera with Sir Adrian Boult conducting, and John Noble singing The Pilgrim. It was made in London's Kingsway Hall in 1972 with exemplary sound from the legendary producer and engineering team of the two Christophers - Bishop and Parker. My webname, Pliable, comes from one of the characters in Bunyan's novel. I have been married for 30 years today, and my wife thinks it significant that Pliable was one of the two residents of The City of Destruction in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The other was Obstinate.

That mention of The City of Destruction brings this Overgrown Path through more November Woods to its final destination. The two photographs above were taken yesterday as we walked through the campus of the University of East Anglia to the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts to view their magnificent Francis Bacon exhibition. Bacon shared Celtic connections with Bax, and was born in Dublin in 1909, although he spent much of his creative life in London. The exhibition focuses on Bacon's work from the 1950s, and quite stunning it is. Just as even the very best audio system cannot realistically reproduce an orchestral fortissimo from a recording, so Bacon's paintings cannot be done justice on the printed page. They must be seen in the flesh. Some are massive, black statements from the City of Destruction, but others, by contrast, celebrate with colour Bacon's love of van Gogh and travel. And those contrasts brings me the end of this Path. It has travelled
from the enlightenment, through romanticism to the modern, and is a reminder, if we neeed one, of how fortunate we are to live in a society of contrasts that can embrace equally Bunyan, and Bax, and Bacon, and beyond.

* Listen to a 43 minute BBC audio programme on Vaughan William's Fifth Symphony -

* For more recordings of Bax, Vaughan Williams and their contemporaries take An Overgrown Path to Treasure trove of 20th century composers

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Killing classical music in the US .....

The following comment was posted by the irrepresible Henry Holland on my recent A shuttle maestro for the IPod audience, but it is well worth a post to itself:

<< "Playing the same old 19th century rep over and over is part of what is killing classical music in the US (that and no music education anymore)"
- Oh, that again. *sigh* Where's the PROOF --I mean, actual rigorous stats, not wishful thinking-- for that view? I guarantee the bean counters on Grand Avenue rejoiced when Sariaaho's Passion of Simone got cancelled recently because of Dawn Upshaw's unfortunate breast cancer situation and was replaced by the Mahler 2nd. I was bummed, I love her music, but then I'm a distinct minority.

Having been to more concerts than I care to remember of concerts featuring contemporary fare that drew 1/2 full, heavily papered houses in the old Dot, I don't think your claim is true at all. I've been saying for years that orchestras should market themselves to people in their 50's and above, people whose kids have left home, which means they'd now have the time and money to explore classical music. But, no, that's not "cutting edge" or "pop culture friendly" or "reaching out to the youth of today".

Everyone went nuts over the Minmalist Jukebox last year but I couldn't see the relevance of a one-shot festival to the ongoing programming of the orchestra. Fans of minimalism do NOT automatically equal fans of the orchestral rep, though, of course, there's overlap. I'm a maximalist, I loathe minimalism, I love Birtwistle, Ferneyhough, Boulez, Murail type stuff, you'd have had to have paid me thousands of dollars to go to one of those concerts. And Salonen dropped out of the Shostakovich symphony cycle early on because he discovered after, what, 3 concerts in the first year of the five (4 symphonies in total) what me and my friends have been saying for years: his music isn't very good.

Look at concerts the LA Phil has done with contemporary pieces. They are almost always surrounded by crowd pleasers from....wait for it...the 19th century rep because it's been shown time and time and time again that that's the only way to keep people from fleeing in droves. In cities like Philadelphia, they don't even really bother with new stuff. Eschenbach is leaving partly because they don't like his conducting, but also because of complaints that he programs too much modern stuff (see: Boulez, Pierre; New York Philharmonic). Their audience has made it crystal clear what they want: Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Wagner bleeding chunks, orchestral showpieces by Rimsky and Holst and maybe, just maybe some pretty Debussy or Ravel.

From what I understand, orchestra attendance is steady or even slightly up in the US, as it is for opera. If you're talking about "relevance to the wider culture" and "speaking to our times" all that Greg Sandowian stuff, I couldn't possibly care less, it would be impossible. People seem to forget that there's always going to be people for whom the Beethoven 5th or La Boheme is a brand new experience. >>

Now, for more on reaching new audiences with new music sample the New music lunch box

The header photo is not of classical music in the US, it is my own shot of the first night of the 2006 BBC Proms season, see
BBC Proms - summer in the city. The lovely Boulez photo is by Murdo MacLeod via an interesting Guardian article. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, November 18, 2006

You read it first On An Overgrown Path

At least Norman Lebrecht was right when he wrote above that "the one blog that aims to break news, and occasionally does, is On An Overgrown Path."

On Sunday Nov 12 On An Overgrown Path sung the praises of Catherine Bott's new CD Convivencia in a big article about the new FRED label.

Six days later, on Friday Nov 17, Lebrecht's CD of the week was ....... Catherine Bott's new CD Convivencia.

And while on the subject, last week Lebrecht accused On An Overgrown Path of having "a bug about the BBC."

This week Norman devotes 936 words to ....... the BBC.

Now read how Norman Lebrecht blusters as blogs bloom
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Friday, November 17, 2006

A shuffle Maestro for the iPod audience

Today’s Guardian positively salivates over the news that Esa-Pekka Salonen (left) is taking over as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London from Christoph von Dohnanyi. Martin Kettle gushes that “in this new battle of the batons the only certain winners look likely to be the London music public, who can look forward to an orchestral life of a quality and diversity with which no other city can compete … Salonen’s wide-ranging, non-traditional approach makes him the closest thing any London orchestra could have found to Sir Simon Rattle. Short of tempting Rattle back from the Berlin Philharmonic, it is hard to think of a more exciting appointment for the Philharmonia to have made”. But slipped in among the purple prose are the key words that Salonen “will remain in charge in Los Angeles when he takes over the Philharmonia.”

Now if we leave aside the fact that some of the Berlin press may well have wished that Rattle had been tempted back from Berlin, we will soon have the Philharmonia headed by a conductor with one foot in London and one in the West Coast, and the London Symphony headed by Valery Gergiev, who will have one foot in London, one in Rotterdam, and his heart in St Petersburg. Shuffle Maestros may well appeal to iPod audiences, but there are many who would have welcomed an appointment by the Philharmonia in the style of Jonathan Nott at the Bamberg Symphony. This talented young conductor has raised an unknown band to world-class quality by working in the old Kappelmeister tradition, and keeping both feet, and his heart, firmly anchored in provincial Germany.

For more on shuffle maestros follow An Overgrown Path to Vienna Philharmonic in perpetual motion
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Thursday, November 16, 2006

New music lunch box

Do we all agree that contemporary music needs a new audience?

And do we also agree that reaching that audience takes imaginative commissioning, innovative programming, a very wide reach, and some damn hard work from the musicians?

Well, I’ve just returned from the first in the new season of Britten Sinfonia at Lunch concerts in Norwich, and I challenge anyone to show me an ensemble that are doing more to reach new audiences with contemporary music. First let’s take the concerts. The 2005/6 Britten Sinfonia at Lunch project comprises five separate concert series. Now listen to this. Each concert series consists of four lunchtime concerts played over five or six days, and not only are all the four concerts in different venues, but three are here in East Anglia, and one is in the Philharmonic Hall in Kraków, Poland, which is 750 miles away. But stay with me, it gets even better. Everyone of the five concert series features a world premiere by a contemporary composer, and to complete the virtuous circle all the concerts are being broadcast from Cambridge in BBC Radio 3’s lunchtime concert slot.

The players each deserve a medal for their sheer commitment. The East Anglian concert venues are Aldeburgh, Norwich, and Cambridge, and the Polish concerts are made possible by the budget airline flights between Standsted Airport, near Cambridge, and Kraków. In December this concert series involves an ensemble of oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn (not to mention pianist), playing in Aldeburgh at 1.00pm on a Saturday, and Kraków at 12.00pm on a Sunday. I think someone planned that schedule before the current security restrictions on cabin baggage! You can catch up with the travel tales of the Sinfonia’s peripatetic oboeist via Nicholas Daniel’s own blog.

The Britten Sinfonia is a flexible ensemble and the At Lunch concerts use chamber sized groups. There are some real gems in the series, including first performances from female composer Tansy Davies (right), John Tavener, and Tarik O’Reagan, and rarely performed 20th century masterpieces including two of Peter Maxwell Davies’ arrangements of Bach’s Prelude and Fugues (a commercial recording PLEASE of those), Berio’s Folk Songs, and de Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto. This is imaginative and innovative programming with no Puccini Chrysanthemums or Copland Shakers to blunt the challenge.

Today’s concert was played by the trio of the Russian Alina Ibragimova (violin), Joy Farrall (clarinet) and Huw Watkins (piano), and contained two astringent 20th century masterworks in the form of the reduced concert suite from the Soldier’s Tale Suite Stravinsky’s and Bartók’s immensely challenging Contrasts, which was written for Benny Goodman. Balancing these were two contemporary works including. Michael Zev Gordon’s Fragments from a Diary. dates from 2005 (photo below), and here is a description in the composer’s own words.

’My music tends to pull between two very different characters: the passionate and the contemplative. The former is often expressed through kinds of lyricism, the latter through subtly altered repeating patternings, quite often broken into fragments. Sometimes these occur in the same work, and the music’s course has to do with moving away from “heat” into serenity. In others, the temperament is more a kind of steady state. Stylistically, my music often bridges quite different musical types too, frequently at the border between tonality and atonality. Recently, this has crystallised into a number of works rooted in a wide range of other music, including Dowland, Couperin, Chopin and Tom Jobim. Quite different to transcription, my pieces dip in and out of these past works - structurally exploring ideas of merging, layering and juxtaposing materials

At the time of writing I considered the seven short of Movements of Fragments from a Diary almost as private jottings to myself, hence the title. Most are brief and fleeting. The tone is often one of fragility. They each ‘look’, in the main at one musical object. Still I was interested in exploring how much can be ‘said’ in such short, immediate utterances. Kurtág was a contemporary point of departure; so too was the 19th century ‘confessional’ piano miniature. The title of one comes from a poem by Primo Levi, the titles of three others are words by Rilke.

Today’s first performance was Huw Watkins’ Dream. The 30 year old composer, who was also pianist, studied at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, and King’s College, Cambridge, and his teachers included Robin Holloway, Alexander Goehr, Peter Pettinger (biographer of Bill Evans) and Julian Anderson. Here is Dreams in the composer's own words - 'I wanted to use the same instruments as Bartók’s Contrasts, but to create something atmospheric rather than showy, exploring just one mood. Dreams evokes the feelings and moods associated with night and sleep .. It begins with gentle, hypnotic music played slowly and quietly on all three instruments. As the piece progresses there are faster, more troubled outbursts, but eventually the mood returns to that of the opening.'

All too often today, appealing menus of new music turn out to be measly meals relying heavily on technical gimmickry, self-serving cliques, bitchiness and cynicism. By contrast the Britten Sinfonia at Lunch project is a nourishing meal whose courses include imaginative commissioning, innovative and open-minded programming, a truly international perspective, and some damn hard work from the musicians.. But don’t take my word for it. Here are the words of clarinettist Joy Farrall as she introduced the Huw Watkins premiere at lunchtime - ”It is great to see such a large audience for this concert, and it is also really nice to see so many young people here today.

Other contemporary music groups and promoters please take note.

For more new music advocacy take An Overgrown Path to Hildegard comes to Norwich via IRCAM and Darmstadt
With acknowledgements to the Britten Sinfonia for use of programme notes. Bento box image credit Internetkookboek . Any copyrighted material on these pages is included for "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Ali Ufki - a 17th century Al Jazeera

Tomorrow the English-language news channel of Arab TV station Al Jazeera starts broadcasting. With four studios around the world, and presenters including Sir David Frost, Dave Marash and Darren Jordon the new service has summarised its ambitious plans as ‘building a bridge between cultures’ and ‘a forum for the West to speak to the Muslim world’. Impressive sounding rhetoric, but it is worth telling the story of how a 17th century scholar achieved exactly these aims using music instead of satellite broadcasts.

Wojciech Bobowski was born a Pole in 1610 in Lwów, then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and now part of Ukraine. He was raised as a Protestant and trained as a church musician. These were times of great instability, with Lwów suffering frequent raids from Crimean Tartars. In one of these the eighteen year old Bobowski was taken prisoner by the Tartars, and his musical training meant he was sold to the court of Mehmed IV in Constantinople, whose reign saw the first flowering of Ottoman-Turkish music. Bobowski was a particularly valuable property as his enslavement in the sultan’s seraglio coincided with the growth of Calvinoturcism, a religious movement which is now forgotten, but interestingly stressed the common elements of Islam and Protestantism in opposition to the Catholicism of the Habsburg Empire.

The sultan (portrait below) provided an excellent education for Bobowski, with the result was that the Pole converted to Islam and took the name Ali Ufki. He learnt fourteen languages including Arabic, French, Greek, Hebrew and Latin, translated the Anglican catechism and Bible into the Ottoman, and wrote a Latin explanation of Islam. But today he is remembered primarily for his music. From his Protestant upbringing Ufki knew the French melodies of the Genevan Psalter. In a fascinating example of 17th century cultural bridge building he composed fourteen Turkish Psalms by notating them using the Turkish modal system and translating the texts into Ottoman Turkish. Ali Ufki’s unique psalter, Mezmurlar, remains in performance today, and has been brought to a wider audience by German vocal ensemble Sarband.

After 20 years in captivity Ufki regained his freedom while visiting Egypt. He continued to live there, and became an important dragoman in the Ottoman Empire. A dragoman is defined as “an interpreter and guide in the Near East; in the Ottoman a translator of European languages for the Turkish and Arab authorities”, which brings this Overgrown Path full circle.

* Visit Al Jazeera’s English channel homepage via this link, and listen to Psalms 5, 6 and 9 from Ali Ufki’s Turkish psalter on the excellent Sacred Bridges CD released by Signum Classics. As well as excerpts from the Ufki’s psalter the King’s Singers and Sarband also sing Protestant and Jewish settings of the psalms by Salamone Rossi, Claude Goudimel, and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelink. Here is a 30" MP3 sample from Ali Ufki's setting of Psalm 9 -

* Also highly recommended is - G. I. Gurdjieff, Sacred Hymns played by Keith Jarrett (piano). Although Gurdjieff is known for his advocacy of Sufism, which is a mystic tradition of Islam, he claimed to have studied more than 200 religions, and his compositions are linked to Greek liturgical music. Keith Jarrett made this recording in 1980 with the support of followers of Gurdjieff.

* And in a week when bridges between cultures are big news folk singer Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stephens, has released his first album for 28 years. As Cat Stephens the singer had a string of hits including Moon Shadow, Peace Train and Morning Has Broken. He converted to Islam in 1977, and supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, but has denounced terrorist acts. Yusuf Islam’s new album, An Other Cup (sic), has received lukewarm reviews.

* With Al Jazeera getting all the attention this week we should not forget that France 24 launches on Thursday. This is the long-awaited French government-backed global 24-hour French language satellite TV news channel which Jacques Chirac has described as 'CNN à la française'.

For more on music, religion and politics take An Overgrown Path to The Pope has another Regensburg moment

Audio sample linked from Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, November 12, 2006

New record label delivers music with real sting

This classical music thing just gets weirder and weirder, and to prove it I bring you today the story of a contemporary art gallery that has started a record label. Here, to set the scene, is the extraordinary story of the Fred label taken from their website, followed by a review of their remarkable first release, and no, the date is not April 1st:

Why Fred (Label) Ltd?
Fred (label) is the brainchild of Fred Mann. Following the success of his contemporary art gallery, Fred [London] Ltd Mann decided to look at his other great love, Music. The label will work as a sister company to the gallery and, like the gallery, will respond in a close knit and creative way to the recording artists it seeks to nurture and promote.

What For?
FRED has been set up to record, produce, distribute and promote new music by a wide range of artists. The label, unlike a large slice of the established indie or major labels has the luxury of being able to respond to projects by different recording artist as and when they come up. Rather than setting out to release rock, R&B, classical or pop, FRED will cross musical genres. Despite the variety inherent in how the label will work, FRED has a commitment to quality of the first order and to encourage innovation and experimentation throughout our releases. To celebrate this spirit of diversity, our first two releases will be suitably wide reaching.

Why Now?
FRED has been set up during 2006. Whilst beavering away recording and planning our releases, we noticed that the music industry is changing. Global brands and multi nationals have been challenged by downloads, and small, creative projects. It seems to us that the time to do something personal, detailed and above all lead by ideas was right now! The whole project was kicked started by New York art rocker, Guy Richards Smit who asked Fred Mann to help sign his band to a cool independent label. One month later Mann had set up Fred (Label) LTD and contracts were drafted. Finding himself with a label and one recording artist, Mann cold called his favourite English soprano, Catherine Bott (right) and nervously asked if there was an album she had always wanted to make but had never had the chance. After a long lunch chatting through ideas firm plans were made and the label began to take shape. Future plans include an album of music in response to the sculptures and poetry of Cathy de Monchaux by Pop legend Martyn Ware and a compilation to celebrate the history of the Colony Room Club in Soho.

Fred Mann
Fred Mann has had a mixed and colourful career that has included everything from DJing at Glastonbury, running illegal nightclubs and raising money for arts education in East London schools. After he finished studying sculpture, he worked art directing music videos, and making films, before exhibiting his sculptures as an artist. After a long association with rebel art gallery Milch, he took over as co-director in 1996. He then ran a contemporary are gallery partnership in Hoxton from 2000 ­ 2005, before setting up his first solo gallery project FRED (London) LTD in 2005. He has now opened his second gallery in Leipzig, Germany at the invitation of Judy Lubke of Eigen + Art. Having his own record label has been on his mind for many years.

Well, that's the Fred PR blurb, so what about the music? I stumbled across the label through their first release, Convivencia featuring soprano Catherine Bott (below), which hit the streets on November 1. Let's get the weird bits out of the way first. The very distinctive sleeve design is below, the hand decoration by Riffat is an example of the Indian art of mehndi. If you can't read the title of the album in my image don't worry, you can't read it on the sleeve itself unless you use a magnifying glass. You won't find any description of the music on the sleeve, and when you get inside you won't find any track or overall timings, the typeface for the notes is tiny, and if you want them in any other language than English forget it. The disc is produced by Stephen Henderson (who also plays on the CD, see below) and Catherine Bott, with Steve Price engineering. Recording venue was Angel Studios which is a former United Reform Church in Islington, London. It is an excellent studio, but the sound on Convivencia is a little dry and close. This may be to accomodate the spoken tracks, but it does not compare well with the signature sound that Alia Vox achieve on similar repertoire in more resonant acoustics such as the Collégiale du Château de Cardona which was the recording venue for Orient-Occident which I wrote about recently.

Now if you think this is shaping up for a seriously negative review you are quite wrong, Convivencia is one of the most innovative, challenging and ultimately satisfying new CDs I've listened to this year. Convivencia is the Spanish word for living together harmoniously, and it was also used to describe the co-existence of different faiths in medieval Spain. Iberia was under Muslim rule for more than 700 years, and the final re-establishment of Christianity resulted in exile or conversion for many Moors and Sephardic Jews. The collection of songs and poems on the CD is taken from the 11th to 16th centuries, and mirrors the cultural melting pot that was medieval Spain. (Many common Spanish words are derived from Arabic including ¡Hola! and azúcar). Convivencia certainly delivers innovation and experimentation with its mixture of song and prose, and Spanish and English, and also crosses from classical to World Music with an eclectic instrumental mix of vihuela, lute, guitar (all played by David Miller), oud (Abdul Salam Kheir - above) and tar, tablah, tbilat and douf (Stephen Henderson).

But the real star is Catherine Bott, who is also a presenter for BBC Radio 3's Early Music Show. She turns this extraordinary CD into a double celebration of the wonderful music and seductive langauge of Spain. This new label's first release may be weird, but it is also a remarkable achievement. Perhaps I am weird as well, but for me this bold new venture shows that there is a future for the classical recording industry beyond established rock stars 'discovering' John Dowland.

* With many thanks to the indefatigable Andrew Cane at Prelude Records who actually managed to find me a copy of Convivencia. If you can't find a copy just contact Andrew.

For more on Moorish Spain follow An Overgrown Path to Spanish Recognitions
Header image from, a site well worth visiting for background on the art of Mehendi. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

This Requiem is a real discovery

Today is Remembrance Sunday in the UK when we remember all those who gave their lives for the peace and freedom that some of us are fortunate to enjoy. Wilfrid Owen's poems from the First World War and the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten, which sets Owen's poetry, are two of the most moving tributes to the victims of war, and tonight (Nov 12) BBC Radio 3 are broadcasting the War Requiem, followed in the coming week by Owen's complete war poems. But today, as part of my remembrance, I turned to another Requiem by a little known English composer who was profoundly affected by his traumatic experiences in the Second World War.

George Lloyd was born in Cornwall in 1913, and achieved considerable success as an operatic composer in the 1930s when his opera Iernin enjoyed a long run in London, and he had an opera performed at Covent Garden when he was just 28. Lloyd served with the Royal Marines in the Second World War, and his ship was sunk by one of its own torpedos when protecting an Arctic convoy. Lloyd was one of just three survivors, and this dreadful experience caused him to abandon opera, and turn instead to orchestral and choral works.

He wrote twelve symphonies, and three were recorded by Lyrita in the early 1980s with Edward Downes conducting, and were released on superb sounding vinyl LPs which I still treasure. Sadly these recordings haven't yet made it into the rejuvenated Lyrita CD catalogue which I wrote about recently. I also have a 1984 LP of Lloyd's Fourth Piano Concerto played by Kathryn Stott with the composer conducting on the Conifer label.

The Requiem was George Lloyd's last work, and he only completed it two months before he died in 1998. It uses the Latin text, and was written for small chorus and counter tenor with only organ accompaniment as Lloyd (photo below) feared he would be unable to complete an orchestral score. This is one of his few works for counter-tenor, and this voice gives an etheral feeling to the work, while the bold organ writing underlines the spiritual dimension. Despite dating from the end of the 20th century this is not an avant garde work, and today the score's dedication 'Written in memory of Diana, Pricess of Wales' seems incongruous. The Requiem follows the Italian style, and moves between the modal and romantic. It ends optimistically with the Lux Aeterna, but both musically and philosophically it encourages reflection on the past, and that is entirely appropriate for Remembrance Sunday. There is no claim that Lloyd produced a masterpieces to rival Britten's, but with Requiems such as John Rutter's achieving such popularity it is difficult to understand why this fine work by George Lloyd is not better known.

* An excellent recording of George Lloyd's Requiem sung by the Exon Singers conducted by Matthew Owens is available from Albany Records, together with many other recordings of his works. Here is a 30" MP3 file from the Sanctus as a taster.

Now discover another very moving, and neglected, 20th century Requiem by taking An Overgrown Path to Dresden Requiem for eleven young victims.

George Lloyd is BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week starting November 13th 2006. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Are musicals the new opera?

English National Opera's new Opera Guide lists sixty-one performances between April and July next year. Twenty-two of the performances are of three operas, Philip Glass' Satyagraha, Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice and Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, and thirty-two them are of two musicals, Bernstein's On The Town (ENO production shot above) and Robert Wright & George Forrest’s Kismet.

For some personal memories of Leonard Bernstein take An Overgrown Path to Simply chic symphonies?
With thanks to the letter by Stewart Trotter in today's
Independent for the heads-up. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk