Wednesday, January 31, 2007

New BBC chief takes conducted tour

A few weeks ago I asked - 'Where is Jiří Bělohlávek? I was one of many who welcomed Bělohlávek back in July 2006 after the dark days of Leonard Slatkin. But as this review confirms the BBC Symphony's new chief conductor (right) has made little impact to date.'

Today fellow blogger Alex Ross provides the answer as to where the BBC Symphony Orchestra's new chief conductor is making an impact, and it certainly isn't in London where his orchestra's home for more than seventy years faces an uncertain future.

Now read about another shuffle maestro for the iPod audience.
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Early organ transplant is a complete success

My photograph shows the wonderful Wingfield organ. This is a pre-Reformation instrument that has been lovingly reconstructed from a soundboard found in the coffin-house of the churchyard at Wingfield in Suffolk, not far from where I write these words. The music of Tudor composers such as Tallis, Byrd, Bull, Gibbons and Tomkins would have been played on an organ such as this. The full specification is here, and there are more wonderful photographs, and an audio file, on the Guardian website. The instrument has been reconstructed as part of the Royal College of Organists Early English Organ Project, from where my photograph is taken.

On An Overgrown Path has also visited fine organs in St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, St-Louis-en-l'Ile, Paris, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin, the recently restored Frauenkirche in Dresden, St Thomas', Leipzig, Norwich Cathedral and Oberlin College, Ohio.

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BBC deletes classical music downloads

BBC News says on 31st January 2007 - TV shows like Doctor Who are expected to be available for download later this year after the BBC Trust gave initial approval to the BBC's on-demand plans. Under the proposals, viewers will be able to watch popular programmes online or download them to a home computer up to a week after they are broadcast. But the Trust imposed tough conditions on classical music, which could stop a repeat of the BBC's Beethoven podcasts.

Podcasts came under scrutiny, with the Trust recommending that audio books and classical music be excluded from the BBC's download services. "There is a potential negative market impact if the BBC allows listeners to build an extensive library of classical music that will serve as a close substitute for commercially available downloads or CDs," it said. The news will be a disappointment to the one million people who downloaded Beethoven's symphonies in a Radio 3 trial last year.

On An Overgrown Path was the first to say back in June 2005 when the Beethoven downloads were launched - the fact remains that a record company, or concert promoter, would give their right arm to have got just a tiny fraction of those 700,000 downloaders as customers. (The figure must surely reach a million before the symphony cycle is complete?) .... Despite high minded talk from senior BBC executives it is hard to see who the winners in this exercise are.

And, yes, even Norman Lebrecht agreed with me about the BBCs frost with the music business
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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

" Black people can’t do ballet "

Cassa Pancho, the British-Trinidadian artistic director of Ballet Black, has heard countless excuses over the years for the lack of black dancers in classical ballet - such as no one wanting to see one black swan in the corps de ballet. So many excuses in fact, that in her third year at the Royal Academy of Dance she made it the subject of her dissertation. "I thought I'd interview four or five black ballerinas and see what they had to say - I couldn't find one," she says. "It was a shock." This sorry state of affairs led her to create Ballet Black, the UK's only classical ballet company for black and Asian dancers, in 2001.

Pancho was driven to distraction by the racist stereotyping she encountered, including "black people can't do ballet"; "black women have big bottoms and feet that are unsuitable for pointe work"; "black dancers in the corps are not aesthetically pleasing". She is not the first person to challenge what sometimes seems to be the last bastion of racism in the art world.
Les Ballets Nègres was Europe's first black dance company, performing between 1946 and 1952, while Arthur Mitchell founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969.

Of late the debate has started up again, following revelations about the
English National Ballet principal Simone Clarke's membership of the British National Party and her comments on immigration. "In this country either we have freedom of choice and of speech or we don't," says Pancho of the furore. "You cannot sack somebody from their job for their political beliefs." Whatever one may think, the story has at least cast a spotlight on the issue. At the last count, the Royal Ballet had three black and six Asian dancers in their 93-strong company. Of those, only two are principals - Miyako Yoshida and the hugely popular Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, the first black principal in the company, and now patron of Ballet Black. The ENB has seven black or Asian dancers - 11 per cent of the total company.

From an excellent double page article in today’s Independent by Alice Jones. But Cassa Pancho is wrong when she says “You cannot sack somebody from their job for their political beliefs.” Police Officers in England and Wales are barred from belonging to the British National Party, the far right organisation that star dancer Simone Clarke is a member of.

Now, for more on diversity in the performing arts, and downloads of music by the Tunisian/French composer Roland Dyens, visit BBC Proms – a multicultural society?

+ In memory of choreographer Glen Tetley who died on January 26th 2007, aged 80, His ballets included Pierrot Lunaire to Schoenberg's music, Voluntaries to Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani, Field Figures to Stockhausen, and Laborintus to Berio. +

Photo credit Ballet Black. 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

Monday, January 29, 2007

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again Norman

Norman Lebrecht getting it wrong is so commonplace that it hardly justifies comment. Except when it is a journalist on his own paper pointing it out. Here's Fiona Maddocks writing in the Evening Standard.

Wrong, wrong and wrong again, thundered my colleague, Norman Lebrecht, in yesterday's Evening Standard, thereby guaranteeing the BBC's forthcoming Tchaikovsky Experience more curiosity and interest than the corporation's publicity department could have dreamed of affording.

His attack was on the BBC's cultural turpitude in general, and the choice of the all-time "chocolate box" composer for this wall-to-wall, complete works treatment in particular. The BBC, no doubt, can fend for itself. But the view that Tchaikovsky's music is merely decorative and devoid of deeper meaning is now so outdated that I must urge Norman, politely, to get out more.

Recent major studies by Richard Taruskin and Stephen Walsh have reminded us - though our ears tell us plainly - that Tchaikovsky was a key influence on Stravinsky, the towering musical genius of the last century. Shostakovich acknowledged his debt in every note he wrote. The list goes on.

A little known aspect of Tchaikovsky's work featured in a short, perfectly executed concert at the
Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens (above), for broadcast on Radio 3 on 14 February. The All-Night Vigil Opus 52, or Vespers, sets liturgical texts for mixed voices. Ancient chant combines with the ardent choral writing we know from Tchaikovsky's operas, here stripped bare but still radiant and full-bodied. The challenge to the performers, nearly an hour of vigorous unaccompanied singing, was met with masterly skill by the BBC Singers. Intonation was impressive, their attempt at a Russian sound quality highly creditable.

Three settings by Stravinsky, whose music also forms part of this Radio 3 season, were interpolated. The musical colours here shifted to snowy silvergreys, hushed and pure compared with the burnished golds of the Tchaikovsky. Both composers had decidedly unorthodox relationships with God but these works are a revelation to ear and mind. Those who dismiss Tchaikovsky as sugarladen schmaltz will, if they keep an open mind, discover through his music that the heart has an intellect all of its own.

Now for a bargain CD recommendation of the Tchikovsky Vespers visit Brilliant Russian sacred choral music
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Orthodox leader inspires unorthodox music

During the 20th century several inspirational church figures were catalysts for the creation of new art and music in England. Probably best known is the Anglican Reverend Walter Hussey, whose commissions in the 1950s and 60s included Henry Moore’s sculpture Madonna and Child, stained glass from Marc Chagall, Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

Less well known is the influence of the Russian Orthodox leader Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, who inspired one of the seminal works in 20th century sacred music, John Tavener’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, Metropolitan Anthony had early musical connections as his uncle was Alexander Scriabin. The future Metropolitan’s father was a member of the Russian Imperial Diplomatic Corps, and as a child Metropolitan Anthony lived in Russian and Persia. The 1917 Russian Revolution forced the family to flee to Paris where the young exile took a doctorate in medicine at the University of Paris.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the now-qualified surgeon secretly took monastic vows and received the name Anthony. During the Nazi occupation of France he worked as a doctor, and was active in the anti-fascist movement. In 1948 he was ordained into the priesthood, and was sent to England as an Orthodox Chaplain. He was appointed leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland in 1962, and the following year became Exarch of the Moscow Patriarchate in Western Europe. He died in 2003 at the age of 89.

Metropolitan Anthony encouraged John Tavener to compose his 1976 setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom for priest and chorus, a setting that was controversial as the Metropolitan told Tavener to ignore the sacred tone system traditionally used in Orthodox music. After completing the work Tavener was received into the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Anthony, and his subsequent compositions have been heavily influenced by the Orthodox Rite. In turn Tavener has himself influenced a generation of composers, including Ivan Moody whose Akathistos Hymn has already featured here.

Choral works are central to this new wave of Orthodox music, and Orthodox tradition eschews the use of instruments in liturgical music. But, ironically, a purely instrumental composition inspired by the Orthodox Church has become one of the most popular contemporary works for decades. Tavener’s The Protecting Veil pays homage to the sacred tones used in the Orthodox feasts of the Mother of God in an enormously long line for solo cello accompanied by string orchestra. The Protecting Veil was as a BBC commission for cellist Steven Isserlis, and the premiere was given at a BBC Promenda Concert in 1989 by Isserlis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen. But some gentle political manoeuvring meant that these forces changed for the first recording, which went on to be a best seller. Steven Isserlis remained as soloist, but Knussen was replaced by Tavener champion, Orthodox Church member and famous tantrum thrower, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, and the orchestra was swapped to the London Symphony. And in an ironic twist the famous recording was made by the LSO in the BBC Symphony’s, soon to be sold, Maida Vale Studio 1.

So a fascinating overgrown path that reveals how the little known Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (below) was a catalyst for one of the most popular compositions of the late 20th century. In conclusion a few words about the origins of the Protecting Veil. The inspiration for the work came from Orthodox feast which celebrates the miraculous intervention of the Mother of God when Constantinople (now Istanbul) was under attack by the Saracens. As my header image shows the Mother of God appeared in the sky and held a protecting veil over the threatened Christians, forcing the marauding Saracens to retreat. And how topical that story is today. I write this just weeks before we travel to Turkey to visit Orthodox sites there, and just days after the funeral at the Christian Armenian Orthodox Church in Istanbul of murdered Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink.

Now playing – it would be easy to write this to the sound of Steven Isserlis’ best selling recording of The Protecting Veil playing, particularly as the CD comes coupled with Britten’s Third Cello Suite. But On An Overgrown Path never takes the easy option. So spinning in the CD player is Russian Orthodox Church Music composed, and conducted, by John Tavener and Ivan Moody, and sung by the Kastalsky Chamber Choir. This excellent CD (sleeve right) is in the Slavica Series of Ikon Records, a label which was founded by Metropolitan Anthony’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption and All Saints in London. If you know the Protecting Veil but still bridle at Tavener’s choral music, and many do, give this CD a try. Tavener’s eight minute long Funeral Ikos is a wonderful introduction to his choral music, and is worth the purchase price alone. Need convincing? Here is a short sample from Funeral Ikon -

Metropolitan Anthony was active in the Resistance in Occupied France. So was another church leader who also inspired some wonderful liturgical music. Read about Brother Roger, and listen to a download, in The music of Taizé.

Image credit - Icon of Holy Protection of Mother of God from, John Tavener by Richard Haughton, Metropolitan Anthony from 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

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Bad week for child prodigies & jet set maestros

The excellent ionarts reports 'Teenage composer Jay Greenberg's honeymoon with the press is over' and links to my recent article. While Anthony Holden's Observer review today suggests jet set maestro Valery Gergiev's honeymoon with the London press was over before it even started.

Bag-eyed, straggle-haired and in his usual hurry, he finally made his much-heralded, once-postponed entrance. On giant screens to each side of the stage, a 'new era' was proclaimed by the London Symphony Orchestra as the dynamic Russian maestro Valery Gergiev (picture above) finally embarked on his new role as its chief conductor.

Had he surrendered even one of his half-dozen other jobs to give this lustrous appointment the attention that is its due, he might well have been hailed as a thrilling catch for one of the world's finest orchestras - lending it a commercial glamour it has not known since the days of Andre Previn, with a heft worthy of the successor to
Colin Davis. As it is, the honeymoon somehow felt over before the marriage had even begun.

Now the LSO's president, Davis (photo below) will still be spending as many weeks per year with the orchestra, to the point of leading it on overseas tours, as Gergiev is scheduled to conduct concerts. Will his reputation for haste and lateness, not to mention workaholic indisposition, see bass player Michael Francis constantly stepping in to lead rehearsals, even concerts, as in Russia last year and at the BBC's recent
Gubaidulina weekend? Will Gergiev really steward the LSO's continuing evolution, as is surely his job description, or merely drop in from time to time to give us the odd Slavic thrill?

If his debut had been a football match, it would have been deemed a concert of two halves. The first was loud, garish and nothing if not boldly original; the second was contrastingly trad, user-friendly and several notches classier. Gergiev will have to pull off the latter act in a wider range of repertoire to convince the doubters that he is more than merely the dreamchild of the
LSO's marketing department.

Read the full Observer review here. And learn more about jet setting in the Vienna Philharmonic in perpetual motion
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Speeding no big deal - BBC's Jeremy Clarkson

No apologies at all for republishing this article by the Independent's Johann Hari on the day BBC TV screens a new series of Top Gear.

One afternoon in 2001, my 80-year-old grandmother crossed the road to post a letter - and was smacked by a car "breezing along" at 45mph. She was thrown into the air, tossed over the car, and left haemorrhaging on the asphalt. Her legs were smashed. Her hip was wrecked. Her brain was damaged. Because she is incredibly tough, she did not become one of the 1,000 people killed by speeding drivers in Britain every year - but it took her a year to relearn to walk, and she has never been able to live in her own home, in dignity, again.

So when I hear about the return of a TV show presented by a man - Jeremy Clarkson - who says "speeding is no big deal", a trivial act that shouldn't even be punished with points on your licence, I cannot let out the indulgent chuckle that so many people offer at Top Gear's mop-headed incitements to break the law.

Instead, I think of the dozens more people who will suffer like my grandmother because of his babbling in defence of illegal speeding. Speeding is not an abstract problem or a glib gag. It is a crime. It claims victims every day. And advertising works. If you see a 30-second advert for Coke, you become more likely to buy Coke. If you see a half-hour advert for speeding, paid for with your licence fee and mine, then you are more likely to speed.

And yes, that's what Top Gear is. Clarkson and his co-presenters use this public platform to brag about their ability to find "high octane red-line thrills" on the roads you and I have to cross. He talks about his "sympathy" for the thugs who vandalise speed cameras that - according to independent studies - save over 300 children a year. (The AA begged him to stop). He doesn't even offer the factually wrong argument that speed cameras are merely a way to rake in cash for the Government. No - he boasts: "I don't curse speed cameras because of civil liberty issues. I curse them because they slow me down."

Yes, Jeremy. They slow you down to stop you crippling people like my grandmother. If you hit somebody at 40mph, there is an 80 per cent chance they will die. If you hit somebody at 30mph, there is an 80 per cent chance they will live. But you put your "right" to have a semi-sexual experience in an inanimate lump of metal (a pretty sad comment on your menopausal libido) above the rights of ordinary people to not be killed by you and your anencephalic followers.

Occasionally Clarkson claims he only speeds on private tracks, and it's true Top Gear stunts are staged there. But the speed cameras he hates are not placed on private property and Clarkson has admitted to private speeding by boasting, "I tend to drive fast and recklessly in Lincolnshire. I'm a lout in places that have the topography of blotting paper." Is all of Lincolnshire a private track? Perhaps in his mind.

But on Top Gear, driving at skull-smashing speed is always a big joke. On tomorrow night's show, they are screening the accident in which presenter Richard Hammond nearly died with Boy's Own breathlessness - "the most extreme stunt ever!" The grief and agony of accident victims (including Hammond's family) are washed away in the name of an adrenalin-rush. If you think people don't take Top Gear's ravings seriously, check out the message boards on the web, packed with people who take the presenters' injunctions that it's okay to speed, speed, speed literally.

While the bulk of my sympathy lies with the victims of Top Gear's speedophilia, I also feel sorry for these fans, who are being taken for fools. On the show and in his slurry-columns, Clarkson tells his followers that global warming - already killing tens of thousands of people every year - is a myth and they can carry on buying SUVs without compunction. Yet one newspaper last year reported Clarkson saying in an aside: "I would be absolutely mad to say I don't believe in global warming when we are right bang in the middle of the hottest summer for 400 years. Of course there is global warming, and you would be extremely surprised about my views on other such matters...I lead a surprisingly green life." Yet he has such contempt for his viewers that, to their faces, he brags about leaving on his patio heater to wind up Greenpeace.

Last time I criticised Top Gear, the show's camp-followers called me "a killjoy". No - what kills joy is seeing somebody you love broken to pieces because of "no big deal" speeding. Thanks to Top Gear - and the BBC who have recommissioned it - there will be more people enduring that soon. Forgive me if I can't see the joke.

* Follow this link to the Road Peace website. Google's Ad Sense automatically allocates advertisements to On An Overgrown Path, and performance car ads are currently coming up due to the content of this article. All advertising revenues generated this week will be donated to Road Peace. PLEASE click on the advertisements on the right. It doesn't cost you anything, and every click is money for a fantastic charity.

* Now read, and listen to the music, of one of the many great musicians who have died in road accidents - Sweden's best kept secret, Jan Johansson. Civilized comment and debate about this article is welcome. But, sadly, previous experience shows that fans of Jeremy Clarkson have difficulty with the concept of civilized debate. Offensive comments from either side will be deleted.

Footer image of roadside memorial crosses on Highway 69 South, Arab, Alabama taken by Eric Shindelbower and from The Cross with thanks. 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

Friday, January 26, 2007

John Ogdon - a blazing meteor

John Ogdon was born seventy years ago, on January 27th 1937. The words below were written by him in 1981.

"Here then…are some of the harsh facts behind the words ‘severe mental illness’ and ‘serious nervous breakdown’ which the press has been using about me so often lately. Not that I am complaining about the press! – I was thrilled by the sympathetic and wide spread media interest that came my way both before and after my return to the….concert stage"

Ogdon (above) was thrust into the limelight in 1962 when he was joint winner, with his friend Vladimir Ashkenazy, of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition. He wowed the Moscow audiences with his performances of Rachmaninov, Balakirev and Scriabin, as well as the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto which became his signature piece.

Although Ogdon is mainly remembered today for his stunning interpretations of the Russian romantic repertoire he was also a ceaseless performer of modern music. He studied in Manchester at the same time as Peter Maxwell Davies, who wrote his Opus 1 Sonata for Trumpet for Ogdon and Elgar Howarth, and his Opus 2 Five Pieces for Piano for him in 1956. Ogdon became part of what is now known as the ‘Manchester School’ together with Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr.

John Ogdon’s appetite for new music was insatiable. He gave the first performance in 50 years of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s (1892-1988) four hour epic, Opus Clavicembalisticum, and then offered to repeat the piece as an encore! He went on to record the Sorabji, a recording that is still in the catalogue. (Despite his exotic name Sorabji was born in Essex, England!) Among the other contemporary composers that Ogdon championed and played were Ronald Stevenson, Christopher Headington, David Blake, Malcolm Williamson (who dedicated his Sonata for Two Pianos to him), the American Richard Yardumian, and his long-time friend and supporter Gerard Schurmann.

Somewhat surprisingly Ogdon admired the work of Cornish tonal composer George Lloyd whose piano concerto ‘Scapegoat’ was dedicated to him, and which was described by Ogdon as ‘almost a masterpiece’. He was also a fan of jazz, and as Artistic Director of the Cardiff Festival of Twentieth Century Music he programmed Gershwin and Ellington alongside Boulez and Szymanowski. He was one of the first pianists to tackle Messiaen’s Vingt regards, was a ceaseless champion of Alkan’s oeuvre, and was responsible almost single-handedly for the rehabilitation of Busoni’s Piano Concerto.

As if this wasn’t enough Ogdon was also a prolific composer. His Theme and Variations was written for none other than Vladimir Ashkenazy. He wrote solo sonatas for piano, violin, flute and cello, a string quartet, and a quintet for brass, and left an uncompleted symphony inspired by the writings of Hermann Melville. His most ambitious work was a Piano Concerto, of which he made a long-deleted recording for EMI.

But if Ogdon’s creativity blazed across the heavens like a meteor, sadly his mental health spluttered like a dysfunctional firework. He made three attempts at suicide, one was by cutting his own throat. There were long stays in the specialist psychiatric Maudsley Hospital in London, interspersed by long periods of depression. There was electroshock therapy and lithium treatment. But ironically Ogdon died on August 1st 1989, aged 52, of natural causes connected with undiagnosed diabetes.

John Ogdon’s wife, the pianist Brenda Lucas Ogdon, supported him through illness. She has continued to champion his work long after it dropped out of fashion, and runs the John Ogdon Foundation. In 1981, eight years before his untimely death, she wrote a biography titled Virtuoso. It is John Ogdon’s own words from the Foreword that I used at the start of this article. And I will conclude by quoting his wife's Afterword which is as relevant to the Piano Man in 2005 as it was to John Ogdon twenty-four years ago.

"I have been amazed how many people have confided in me, as if to a comrade in arms, that a spouse, a relative, or a friend – even, on occasion, they themselves – had undergone a comparable ordeal (if not so extreme a one). But why have they hidden that experience from the world? Why, when most of them admit to having been deplorably ignorant when they were first forced to cope, do they not give advice and warnings to others? What is it that they are ashamed of.......?"

For a related story take An Overgrown Path to Music and Alzheimer's.
There is a superb sketch of John Ogdon by Milein Cosman on the National Portrait Gallery web site. Unfortunately this gallery charges for the use of their images on web sites so I haven't linked to it. As the sketch is not currently on public view at the Gallery this seems rather self-defeating. It is worth following the link as there are lovely sketches of other musicians including the Amadeus Quartet there. I fully sympathise with the drive for intellectual property protection. But in this case shouldn't the Gallery be taking the risk of exposing the works under their stewardship to public view?
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Thursday, January 25, 2007

That's Harrison Birtwistle - quick, let's hide

The Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall are in Philadelphia on Saturday as part of their current American tour, and it's great to see the royal couple taking in a cutting edge contemporary music concert at the city's famed Academy of Music.

Here's the programme - The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Tom Brokaw, host, Deborah Voigt, soprano, Ben Heppner, tenor, Dongwon Shin, tenor, John Lithgow, vocalist
The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, David Hayes, music director, Peter Nero, piano
Special Guest Appearance by Rod Stewart, A Selection of Popular Songs

Ravel "General Dance," from Daphnis and Chloé
Puccini "Vissi d'arte," from Tosca
Giordano "Un dì all'azzurro spazio," from Andrea Chénier
Verdi "Di quella pira," from Il trovatore
Verdi "Libiamo ne' lieti calici," from La traviata
Bach/Stokowski, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, & Dukas Fantasia Suite

Now take an Overgrown Path to some more progressive reflections on the Philadelphia Orchestra
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Lebrecht blusters live on music blogs

Norman Lebrecht's BBC Radio 3 programme Lebrecht Live, which airs at 17.45 GMT (18:45 [Europe], 12:45 [US East Coast]) on Sunday 28th January, is about music blogs. I am sure you won't be surprised to hear Norman (left) hasn't asked me to take part. But I'll be listening in anyway to see if he (and the BBC) actually come clean over those erased King's College Choir Choral Evensong tapes. And I guess that at least you can't misspell John Tavener over the radio.

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Your son is working on Petrouchka

Postcard from Igor Stravinsky to his mother in 1911. The message says 'From Beaulieu where your son is working on Petrouchka.'

This afternoon I was returning from a business meeting by car, and caught the last few minutes of a performance of the 1947 suite from Petrouchka on BBC Radio 3. I didn't know who the performers were, but it was very clear that there was some pretty amazing chemistry between the conductor and orchestra, and the sound they were producing was equally impressive. After a well deserved ovation I heard that the band was the BBC Scotttish Symphony under the Russian conductor Alexander Titov, and the concert was relayed live from the orchestra's superb sounding new home in Glasgow City Halls. The BBC Scottish revel in Stravinsky, and I have already enthusiastically praised an earlier performance by them of the Firebird here.

Nothing delights me more than to praise a BBC orchestra and broadcast, and the very fact that the BBC can produce such great live music making is the very reason why I feel so strongly about the Corporations current financial policies which threaten essential resources such as the Maida Vale home of the BBC Symphony. The threats are very real, and the BBC Scottish still carry the scars from an earlier round of budget cuts. So I offer no apologies for repeating the story here.

A financial crisis that had simmered at the BBC for several years flared up in February 1980 when a large package of economies were proposed to save £130m ($235). The proposal involved disbanding five orchestras, including the BBC Scottish, in a move aimed at saving £500,000 ($900,000) a year, or eight per cent of the BBC's music expenditure. On May 16 1980 the Musician's Union voted to strike against the BBC, and two weeks later the musicians of the BBC Symphony, and all other BBC musicians, stopped work. The dispute was not just about job losses, the musicians suspected a hidden agenda of a move away from contract orchestras to freelance arrangements.

The 1980 Proms season was at the centre of the dispute, and the Managing Director of BBC Radio publicly said the concerts were of 'less consequence than the music policy of the orchestras for the future'. The dispute was extraordinarily bitter, and for the first time ever in the history of the series the First Night was cancelled. The BBC broadcast a recording of the scheduled work (Elgar's The Apostles) while the BBC Symphony Orchestra played a protest concert in an alternative venue under the baton of that musician's musician par excellence Sir Colin Davis. As plans for more protest concerts gathered momentum, including one conducted by another musician with experience of the barricades, Pierre Boulez, the BBC began to back down. On July 24 a compromise solution was reached, and the BBC caved in to the Musician's Union demands and withdrew all the notices of dismissal. The BBC Scottish Symphony was thankfully saved, although long term damage was inflicted on it by limiting the number of musicians, but two other orchestras were disbanded with many job losses.

Twenty concerts were lost from the 1980 Proms season which resumed on August 7 with a programme of Ravel, Messiaen and Mahler's Fourth Symphony conducted by Sir John Pritchard. The 1980 autumn season was in full swing for the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC Symphony on 22 October which was dutifully attended by many of the BBC Governors who just months before had tried to drive a dagger through the hearts of the same BBC musicians. The dispute was settled, but we should not forget that this very week in 2007 'the BBC board will once again start deciding where to swing the axe.'

Sources: The BBC Symphony Orchestra 1920-1988 by Nicholas Kenyon (ironically), publisher BBC (out of print), and Is the Red Light on? The story of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra by John Purser, publisher BBC Scotland (out of print).

Listen to the BBC SSO concert until 1st Feb here, read the BBC Scottish Symphony blog here, and see Stravinsky's apartment in St Petersburg here, and, incidentally Alexander Titov was born in that wonderful city when it was called Leningrad.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

BBC downloads hurt classical music market

The BBC's plans for an on demand "catch-up service", a central plank of its strategy to remain relevant in the digital age, were dealt a blow yesterday when the media watchdog said it risked having an adverse effect on commercial rivals unless certain elements were axed.

In the first major test of the way the new BBC Trust will work with the media regulator,
Ofcom warned that the BBC iPlayer (above) risked harming DVD sales and could impact on orchestras and classical music revenues. The iPlayer, which has been in development for three years and extensively trialled, will allow licence fee payers to download any television or radio programme from the previous seven days at will, while also watching the BBC's channels live over the web. Altogether it could account for almost 4bn hours of listening and viewing by 2011.

Ofcom also warned the ability to download audio content could have a "serious adverse effect" on the market for audio books and classical music. Commercially available music is already excluded from the plans but Ofcom believes that making recordings by BBC orchestras available for download could hit CD sales and should be excluded or constrained.

Today's Guardian reports problems ahead for the BBC's digital vision. As On An Overgrown Path said in November 2005 - Musicians jobs before free downloads.

* Download the Ofcom report here.

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Reheated gestures from a museum

I would love to hear something genuinely new from a US composer of any age, let alone Jay Greenberg (above) at 15. But if you were thinking of using Cilla Black's wonderful putdown - "I've got tights older than that" - be warned that Greenberg's musical language is on the antique side. The fifth symphony is an impressively skilful exercise in academic harmony, orchestration and counterpoint, with no sense of anything new in the voice at all.

The first movement begins with a standard, late-19th-century unison string tune answered by a woodwind chorus; the harmony is Mahler, the orchestral style Dvorak. The galumphing scherzo shows that Vaughan Williams's reputation had gone further into the US than anyone knew - the model here is the Sinfonia Antartica, which even in 1952 was an incredibly conservative piece. The kindest thing to say about the finale is that it made one wonder whether the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra is still under copyright.

Strikingly, there is nothing more recent in Greenberg's ears than some very conservative music from 60 years ago. I do not think this is a matter of personal taste; that is the last moment in history when serious art music was still being written within a set of academic rules.

Greenberg will either grow up and use his dusty technical command to produce something vital and original, or he will stay exactly where he is and go and make a killing in Hollywood. After all, that's where the main market for orchestral music is these days. What can be said for certain is that serious art music could never be written by a child. The only things that are left for even the most brilliant of them are reheated gestures from a museum.
Philip Hensher in today's Guardian produces ressuring evidence that the art of music criticism isn't quite dead, although Greenberg's hyperbolic Wikipedia entry may convince you otherwise. Interestingly Greenberg is represented by IMG Artists, an honour shared with many other high profile artists including John Adams.

The work awarded a crouching ovation by the Guardian is Jay Greenberg's much hyped Fifth Symphony (sleeve left) on Sony Classical, recorded by José Serebrier and the London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO seem to have a thing about kiddies, as this story explains.

Picture credit Guardian. 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

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

BBC to sell-off its main classical music studio

The photo above shows Pierre Boulez at a rehearsal for his Pli selon pli before the first complete London performance in May 1969. The rehearsal took place in the BBC's Maida Vale Studio 1, and last week came the news that this historic studio complex is to be sold as part of the current BBC cost cutting measures.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra moved to Maida Vale in 1934 when it outgrew the concert hall in Broadcasting House. The Maida Vale building was a disused roller-skating rink in west London, and it was converted into five purpose-built studios. The largest, used by the BBC Symphony and seen in the three photographs here, has a capacity of 220,000 cubic feet, and can accomodate a small audience. It has hosted many famous musicians, including Bruno Walter who is seen below conducting a rehearsal there in 1955.

Boulez and Walter were just two of the international musicians who worked at Maida Vale. But Studio 1 has a particularly important place in the history of British music, and was used for rehearsals and broadcasts of many important contemporary works. The photograph below shows Sir Adrian Boult with Michael Tippett and BBC Symphony leader Paul Beard at a rehearsal for the premiere of the composer's Second Symphony in February 1958. At the subsequent performance the orchestra's string section lost its way in the complex opening passage, and the self-effacing Boult restarted the performance after blaming himself for the breakdown.

The final fate of the BBC studios at Maida Vale is not clear at this time, but reports have stated that it is to be sold to raise money, together with the BBC's TV Centre. It is very regrettable that such an important facility may be lost in order to support the annual £540,000 ($1m) that the BBC's top presenters are reported to be earning for a daily three hour show.

Now read about the Lucaskirche studio in Dresden that has hosted many famous recordings including Karajan's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.
Photo credits - BBC. 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, January 22, 2007

Igor Stravinsky's Tibetan connection revealed

Dear Pliable, I must agree with Sir John's comments on Stravinksi's innate spirituality, despite the superficial appearance of coldness in his music. But this note is more prompted by one of those coincidences that often happen in life. My brush with the famous of 20th Century music, if you like.

I grew up in the 50's with three recordings of The Rite of Spring: Stravinsky's own recording on 78's (not very good, I'm afraid and not in the league of his later stereo version for CBS), Fantasia (of course, and always hated the cuts and other liberties), and a mono Decca by
Ansermet (my very favourite which I wore out with repeated playings).

Well, fast forward to circa 1980 in India when I was living in
Dharamsala, India, working on a mammoth Tibetan translation. (BTW, the 3rd edition has just been printed!) It turned out that both Ansermet's widow and daughter had been ordained Buddhist nuns and were living there. I only talked to the daughter once, over lunch in a Tibetan restaurant in McLeod Ganj. We got to talking about the old days in Paris and the Ballet Russe, Dhiagalev and all that. And that The Rite had been composed in the Ansermet family home. But the thing that really struck me was the following. (Note: we all called her "madame", though that was, I guess, technically incorrect.)

Me: Madame, but why did you come to Dharamsala of all places?

Madame: Because of Roerich, my dear!

Nicholas Roerich (picture below), of course, co-wrote the scenario of The Rite with Stranvinski and also designed the sets and costumes. He is well known in Tibetan studies for translations and dictionary -- all now deprecated by modern scholarship. But he died at Tsho Pema (The Lotus Lake) near Kulu-Menali. This is close enough to Dharamsala, though I've never been there myself. It's a strange spot, where there are three strange islands on the lake. The two smaller islands circumambulate around the largest island, the place where Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava was burned at the stake by some local king or other in the 9th C.

I know nothing of what Stravinski thought of Roerich's later adventures. But for me, there is now a very strong (post) connection between Tibet and The Rite.

Michael Richards, Sydney.
P.S. Thank you so much for your writings. Very much appreciated, I can tell you.
Now for another 20th century composer with Tibetan connections read The wheel would scar the earth, and for more on the mountain kingdom see
Freedom to Tibet's serfs and slaves, Tibetan Monk up for Grammy, and Bloggers for Tibet.

Image credits - Padmasambhava Guru Rinpoche from Tibetan Foundation, Nicholas Roerich from Roerich Museum, NY. 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, January 21, 2007

Let's celebrate the good news from Kiev

Why are we so fixated on bad news from the former Soviet Union? When we are not replaying yesterday's revelations about Shostakovich, Stalin's purges and communist black-lists we are broadcasting today's news about gas prices and murder by plutonium. It is all rather sad, and baffling, because there is so much to celebrate in this vibrant region. So today, let's counterbalance the awful religous persecution, that lasted from the revolution of 1917 to the millenium of the Russian Church in 1988, with the good news of a new cathedral that is nearing completion in Kiev in Ukraine, and then follow that story with a download of music from one of the region's monasteries.

The new patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in Kiev, which can be seen in my photo above, is a five-domed church 49 meters wide, 56 meters long and 61 meters high. It combines traditional design with contemporary features. Four of the gilded domes, representing the four evangelists, surround a larger, central dome, representing the figure of Christ. There is capacity for some 1,500 faithful to worship. When the new cathedral is completed the spiritual centre of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church will move from St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv to the capital of Ukraine, where currently the Greek Catholics only have two small churches.

The Cathedral of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is sited on a channel of the Dnipro River, and there is a special alleyway to allow for processions to the banks of the Rusanivka Channel for Epiphany celebrations. Noted Ukrainian architect Mykola Levchuk designed the structure, which took the top prize for contemporary building designs for religious structures at a recent architectural design contest in Moscow.Mykola Levchuk, 62, from Kiev, is the director of the renown local architectural practice Kyivproyekt.

Now playing - Orthodox Church Music from Ukraine sung by the monks of The Holy Trinity, St Jonah Monastery, Kiev. This monastery was founded in 1862, but was suppressed in 1934. Following the collapse of communism the monastery once again became a religous foundation centred on the monastic church, which dates from 1871. Services are also held in the Zverinetskoe cave complex nearby which has been a place of worship since the 13th century. This excellent CD of hymns from the All-Night Vigil is from a catalogue of more than 100 recordings of Orthodox music on the Ikon label which is linked to the Diocese of Sourozh in London, part of the Patriarchate of Moscow. If you like Rachmaninov's take on the Orthodox Vespers you are going to like the real thing - listen to this 1' 12" MP3 file of Antiphons of Ascent (Tone 4) from Matins -

* The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is building the patriarchial cathedral in Kiev, is the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and is a Church of the Byzantine rite which recognises Papal supremacy. The Holy Trinity - St Jonah Monastery is part of the Russian Orthodox Church which recognises the Patriarch of Moscow as its head.

* It is extraordinary that the Eastern Orthodox Church (of which the Russian Church is part) is not better known in English speaking countries. It has 240 million members around the world, making it the second largest Christian congregation after the Catholics. The Orthodox Church is the original Christian Church founded by the followers of Jesus, from which the Catholics and Anglicans split. St Stephen's Press, the publishing house of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Diocese of Sourozh, has an excellent slim introduction to the church. The title is The Orthodox Church, the author is Sergei Hackel (that link is to a biography well worth reading), the ISBN is 0951903721, the cover is shown here, and it is available from Amazon. Readers interested in liturgical music and the visual arts are urged to explore the riches of the Orthodox faith.

* Recommended web resources include Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church - Religous information service of Ukraine - History of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Orthodox links - Encyclopedia of Ukraine. IOCC is the official humanitarian aid agency of Orthodox Christians worldwide. It was founded in the US in 1992, and has field offices in Russia, Georgia, Greece, Yugoslavia, Bosnia Herzogovina, Romania and Jerusalem.

For more inspirational new cathedrals and monasteries with musical connections take An Overgrown Path to Evry Cathedral, and La Tourette in France, and Prinknash Abbey in England.
With many thanks to the French langauage newsletter of my spiritual home in France, the Benedictine L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux, for the heads-up on this story. 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

Friday, January 19, 2007

Talking with Stravinsky

John Tavener writes in today's Guardian - Since the age of 12, when I heard the world premiere of the Canticum Sacrum, I have loved the music of Stravinsky. After hearing the Canticum I went to every concert conducted by him in London. I vividly remember that on one occasion I was introduced to Stravinsky by Rufina Ampenoft of Boosey & Hawkes, for she had previously given him a score of one of my first pieces, The Donne Sonnets. As I peered down at his tiny but muscular form, he inscribed the score with two mysterious words: "I know." I never found out what he meant by this, but intuitively I felt that it was in some way tongue-in-cheek, and therefore linked to the spiritual world of the holy fool, common to all traditions.

The last time I saw Stravinsky, in Oxford after a memorable performance of the Symphony of Psalms, I went backstage, and he happened to take my arm (because no one else was available!) so that he could descend the stairs to the stage door where hundreds of admirers awaited him. With his basso-profundo, thickly Russian-accented English, he said: "Up to heaven, down to hell." Again, tongue-in-cheek, he revealed a childlike but profound truth.

Time passed, and I moved away from the influence and the colossal impact that Stravinsky had on me. It is only recently, more than 40 years on, that I have re-immersed myself in his work, but in a totally different and more contemplative way.

I write this tribute now to Stravinsky, surrounded by metaphysical axioms and criteria according to all religious traditions, and my estimation of his greatness is determined entirely by them. I want to try to understand Stravinsky's stature by placing his music besides permanent and universal truths, essential truths, situated outside time and space. Stravinsky himself could not equate music with metaphysics, but this was a personal defect in a man who did not understand the true nature of objectivity. To be objective is to know, to will and love things as they are without any subjective deformation. Like many of his generation, he believed that to be objective in art meant a non-expressive coldness, and a complete lack of sentiment. Stravinsky (right) believed that music could express nothing at all. Thank God that most of his finest music belies this nonsense!
- For the full story follow this link.

Now find out who, in my header photo, is Walking with Stravinsky
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Thursday, January 18, 2007

How political leaders indulge their ambitions

Political leaders are invariably ambitious, and that ambition comes at a cost. In the early 16th century Albrecht of Brandenburg pulled off a series of political coups that left him as the head of the church in the German empire. But his ambition came at quite a cost, he was in debt to Pope Leo X and the great medieval banking house of Fuggers to the tune of 29,000 gulden.

But the wily Albrecht had a solution. He authorised the sale of papal ‘indulgences’ in the form of certificates guaranteeing the remission of sins in the regions under his control. The practice of using indulgences to offset sins was well established. Leading theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, supported it with the explanation that the church in Rome had the equivalent of as a spiritual bank account that was substantially in credit, and this spiritual credit could be offered to mortal sinners. Initially indulgences were earned by spiritual endeavours such as taking part in a crusade, or visiting relics or shrines. But by the 16th century indulgences were being openly sold in a tawdry trade. They may have simply left the purchaser with a worthless piece of paper, but they offered an attractive way for Albrecht of Brandenberg (picture above) to pay off his papal credit card.

Meanwhile last week, following press criticism, Tony Blair tried to restore his green credentials by announcing he would offset carbon emissions from his family holidays, including their Christmas stay at Bee Gee Robin Gibbs' Florida villa. To offset the indulgence of his long-haul short break it is calculated that the prime minister will simply need to purchase carbon credits to the value of £90. In support comes today’s announcement that carbon offsetting is getting the 21st century equivalent of papal approval. The UK government is to define criteria for offsetting schemes that use certified credits. And in a remarkable reminder that there is nothing new under an increasingly strong sun, the UK government scheme introduces a gold standard for carbon offsetting, neatly reflecting the 29,000 gold coins that Albrecht of Brandenberg was in hock for.

Of course, Albrecht’s sin offsetting scheme ended in tears. While his chief spin doctor was giving a media briefing in Brandenburg he crossed paths with a troublesome activist called Martin Luther. It was obvious to Luther that the indulgences being sold by Albrecht made promises far beyond what was realistically practical. Martin Luther was so incensed that he wrote his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, and then, like any good activist, he posted them on the the 16th century equivalent of the internet - the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.

The rest is history, or more correctly the rest rewrote history. Luther’s stand against indulgences in October 1517 sparked the Reformation, and his proselytizing against Rome was taken up by Calvin in Geneva, and by Zwingli and Bullinger in Zurich. The first great split in the Christian Church had been the schism in 1054 between Rome and the Orthodox congregation, and the Reformation in the 16th century sparked the second great split, this time between Rome and the Protestant Church. This split changed the political map of Europe and the religious map of the world forever, and sparked wars and conflicts that continue today. As well as creating a religious movement, Martin Luther (left) also created a cultural movement that stretches from Bach’s St Matthew Passion to Benjamin Britten’s 1962 War Requiem. And it all happened because a greedy leader decided that indulgences were a cool way to finance his ambitions.

Now read how the Pope has another Regensburg moment
Header image credit Shooting parrots. 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