Saturday, July 30, 2011

Symphonic musicians against specialisation

Not too much specialisation in the photo above as the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio is joined in Studio 5 of the State Recording House, Moscow by jazz and world music group Oregon. Much of Oregon's distinctive sound comes Paul McCandless' oboe, English horn and bass clarinet and his double reeds have given the group strong links with the symphony orchestra. These stretch back to Oregon's formation in 1970 and their collaborators have included the Philadelphia Orchestra and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra with Dennis Russell Davies.

That 1999 session captured in the photo was for the Grammy nominated double CD Oregon in Moscow. Conductor for the sessions was the Armenian Russian saxophonist, bandleader and composer George Garanian (1934-2010) who was a leading figure in Russian jazz. Production credit goes to Steve Rodby who is better known as the Pat Metheny Group's bassist. Oregon in Moscow was released on Schott Music's Intuition label but is now deleted, although it remains available as an MP3 download. Which is a pity as the CD packaging is a thing of beauty that celebrates the fast disappearing art of sessions photos and informative essays, all fronted by the inspired cover art seen below which uses a painting by Caio Fonseca.

As with many world/jazz meets symphonic projects Oregon in Moscow sometimes teeters uneasily on the edge of easy listening. But there are also moments of beauty and in a neat piece of synchronicity Ralph Towner's Icarus plays as I write, surely music to die for. Projects like this have a place and these CDs have sustained me many times on the 1000 mile drive from Norfolk to Provence and Languedoc. Oregon is one of a trinity of linked counter-specialisation bands, the others are the Paul Winter Consort and Codona; read about them here and here.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Bach - the specialists would never allow that

I couldn't agree more strongly with Théo. As Colin Davis said when he took over at the LSO, what the orchestra needed was to play a great deal of Mozart and Haydn, string tone often having been the Achilles heel of London orchestras. Davis has also said that, of works he would most still like to record he would most like to record, he would choose the St Matthew Passion, but noted that, alas, the 'specialists' would never allow that. As our good host points out, the present situation would have been incomprehensible to great conductors of the past, whether Walter, Klemperer, Mengelberg, or Furtwängler. How is one to hear the Bach in Mahler, let alone the Mahler in Bach, if one does not know Bach - and know him intimately? Even if one were to take the ayatollah-like view that Bach and Handel were and could only be chamber music, it would be necessary to play them for that reason alone.

Those would confine Bach, Mozart, Monteverdi, or anyone else, to a (generally grossly misunderstood, even on their own terms) particular room of the museum (I think Paul Bekker used the phrase many years before Boulez), drain it of any life. Furtwängler was already lamenting that Bach had become ‘today … indeed – as is also already the case with Beethoven – infinitely more of an authority than a vital force [Lebensmacht].'

And anyone who has heard Theodor Adorno's blistering attack, 'They say Bach, [but] mean Telemann,’ is unlikely to forget it. Adorno quite rightly pointed out (in 1951) that, in order to neutralise Bach, he was being reduced to the level of a generic Baroque composer, just at the time when German towns were being prettily restored, attempting to wipe away the traces of the recent catastrophe: restoration rather than renewal. Such was the world from which Hans Werner Henze decided he must escape: ‘the period of political reconstruction around and after 1950,’ the very year of Furtwängler’s defiant Vienna Philharmonic performance of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto from the piano. For Henze, the period looked ‘like a gradual return to the recent past, under which its appalling conditions once again became conceivable’. He went on to observe that communists,‘old comrades, who had been imprisoned by the Nazis, were locked up again. I have never heard anyone mention this in musical circles. Music is, after all, unpolitical!’

We might likewise observe that 'heritage' Bach must never be connected with Schoenberg, or indeed with Stockhausen... Boulez put it very well in an interview quite some time ago: 'It was much more interesting when the period piece being performed was actually distorted by the period performing it. At least that implied some creativity, even if it caused a few distortions, whereas specialized reconstruction leads to a total and remote historicism. The more one reconstructs, the further one drives things back into history, resulting in a totally dead contact – the myth of the Golden Age. It’s like people who think dinner without candlelight is not a proper dinner. It’s as vulgar as that really – rather nouveau riche.'
No apologies for reblogging that comment which was left by Mark Berry on Specialisation is damaging classical music. It was also Sir Colin who said "I don't worry about status".

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How many black conductors at the BBC Proms?

The separate paths of BBC Proms and black conductors have been the hot topics here recently. Now they converge in this question - how many black conductors have appeared at the BBC Proms and Henry Wood Promenade Concerts during their 117 year history? It is not a rhetorical question as I do not have a definitive answer and therefore would welcome collaborative input from readers. One definitely has, Wayne Marshall conducted Porgy and Bess in the 1998 season. But have any other black conductors appeared at the Proms? Rudolph Dunbar, Dean Dixon, Everett Lee and James Frazier did not, while James DePriest, Paul Freeman, Isaiah Jackson, Kwamé Ryan, John McLaughlin Williams, Tania León and others to date have not; but I may have missed someone. Just as a benchmark, Charles Hazlewood has so far conducted two evening BBC Proms and four daytime concerts. My header photo shows Kwamé Ryan and you can read more about him here.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Orchestras unable to play a Mozart symphony

'Some conductors are starting to realize how deep the problem is : they can see an incredible quantity of great professional BUT also some almost amateur orchestras are able to play a Mahler symphony, with great commitment and sense of the music's character, but are totally unable to play a Mozart symphony.'
Part of a comment left by Théo Bélaud on Specialisation is damaging classical music. That great Mozart interpreter Bruno Walter gave the first performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and Ninth Symphony. More on Bruno Walter here.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Specialisation is damaging classical music

'I would go a little further. One of the issues we face today is the ever-increasing division of classical performances into small, ghetto-like compartments. Forty years ago Fischer-Dieskau could be a giant among singers whether he was performing Bach or Wagner, Schubert lieder or Weber operas. For modern performers that doesn't seem possible. The baroque period has largely been abandoned to specialists. Even performances of Mozart, Hadyn and even early Beethoven, which used to be a staple of most symphony orchestras' concert seasons, are becoming rarities.

This over-specialisation makes for less rounded and perceptive musicians. What's more it creates a uniformity of performance style which becomes more and more difficult to challenge. What isn't clear to me is why this should have become the norm. As a lifelong listener it isn't a development I ever wanted and I can't believe the move towards clinical uniformity has done anything except drive audiences away - but perhaps I am the only one who would put a Barenboim recording of the the St Matthew Passion right at the top of my Christmas list.'
Carl left that comment on my post Is classical music too lean and mean? I thought it worth a post of its own and I would add to those examples of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's virtuosity Messian's opera Saint François d'Assise. I wonder if Carl's Christmas list also includes Britten's St John Passion?

Header image is title page from 1961 London Beethoven Festival from my own collection. Look at that stellar line-up of non-specialists. Plus the notes were by Ernest Newman and William Mann and the programme cost 3 shillings (15 pence) Those were the days! Carl's comment has been gently edited by me. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

From Carmen Jones to Arvo Part and beyond

My recent post about Everett Lee ended enigmatically with his CD of Arvo Pärt's music released in 2000 by an Estonian label and an appeal for further information about the pioneering African American conductor. Now an email has come from Byron Hanson at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan and here is the very good news:
'Regarding Everett Lee, I had a call out of the blue from his son just a couple of weeks ago asking me to verify a concert Mr Lee conducted at Interlochen in 1974. Everett was in the room with his son and is therefore alive though nearly 100 years old!'
My thanks go to Bill Zick at AfriClassical who relayed the email and also to the many readers who shared my article on Facebook and elsewhere . Byron Hanson tells me that the programme for that 1974 Interlochen concert was Mozart Overture to The Magic Flute, Bartók Romanian Folk Dances and Borodin's still neglected Second Symphony. The latter work is a natural for the BBC Proms, but was last performed there in 1971.

I am now in the process of making contact with Everett Lee's family and wouldn't an interview be wonderful?

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Is classical music too lean and mean?

If the recent BBC Proms Gothic Symphony firestorm told us anything it is that there are a lot of people out there who like their classical music large and loud, and that many of them are classical music virgins who find something lacking in a standard performance of the mainstream repertoire. All of which points in the direction of Jonathan Harvey's thoughts about amplification, to Jeff Harrington's suggestion that we turn up the bass, and to the possibilities of nuanced sound reinforcement. But, quite understandably, electronic re-engineering of live classical music is a contentious subject. Which leaves me wondering whether there is, as the Buddhists say, a middle path that can be followed to reach classical music virgins.

As I write Herbert von Karajan's recording of Arnold Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande plays. This was recorded in 1974; it was originally released as part of the 4 LP Second Viennese box seen above and was then re-mastered as a now deleted 3 CD set, but remains available as a "must have" single CD. Pelleas and two other Schoenberg works were recorded in the Philharmonie in Berlin, which is not the best recording venue in the world. So the pre-digital Deutsche Grammophon production team used their signature close microphones and even resorted to changing the microphone positions between takes to achieve the best sound. And the result is a sonic wonder. Yes, it is clearly close miked and multi-tracked, and the dry Philharmonie reverberation is electronically enhanced; so it is definitely not 'the closest approach to the original sound'. But it is totally stunning and compelling listening. And it is large and loud enough to drive the most committed Gothic fan into ecstasy. Which set me thinking...

Many classical music virgins find something lacking in a standard performance of the mainstream repertoire. So has classical music become too lean and mean? Has the trickle-up effect of early music scholarship robbed classical music of its sound appeal? Has the fashion for analytical sound resulted in a new generation of acoustically 'cold' concert halls and a catalogue of sonically detached recordings? Should we be winding the clock back in terms of performance style? Should we be programming the large, loud and terminally unfashionable orchestral arrangements of Hamilton Harty, Bernstein, Stokowski, even Vaughan Williams and Mahler, and many others instead of trying to wean the classical virgins on a diet of film music and light classics? Should classical music be loud and proud?

* Karajan's views on Schoenberg and Negroes, the latter interesting in view of yesterday's post, are here.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

'I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors'

'Oh, come in, young man. I'm reading these reviews. They are out of this world. You really have something. But I might as well tell you, right now, I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors. No, you may play solo with our symphonies, all over this country. You can dance with them, sing with them. But a Negro, standing in front of a white symphony group? No. I'm sorry.'
That is the impresario Arthur Judson discussing career opportunities with African American conductor Everett Lee, seen above, in the early 1950s. Judson headed Columbia Artists Management Inc and for twenty-five years was the power broker of musical America with a stable of artists that included Eugene Ormandy, Jascha Heifetz and African American contralto Marian Anderson, and at the time of the discussion he also managed the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 1940, together with fellow African American Dean Dixon and Canadian Benjamin Steinberg, Everett Lee attempted to circumvent the institutionalised racism in American classical music by forming an orchestra of black musicians. But the project failed for financial reasons and both Lee and Dixon went on to pursue their careers outside America, although Steinberg succeeded in establishing an orchestra of predominantly black players when he formed the New World Symphony in 1964.

Born in 1913 in Wheeler, West Virginia, Everett Lee was an accomplished violinist who led the orchestra in the original Broadway production of Carmen Jones and played the oboe on stage in the country club scene. His big break came in 1945 when he was asked to deputise for the musical's conductor Joseph Littau and became the first African American to conduct a major Broadway production. Following this Leonard Bernstein invited him to conduct On the Town, the first time a black conductor led an all-white production. In 1946 he was awarded a Koussevitzky Music Foundation Award to conduct at Tanglewood, and in 1952 was appointed director of the opera department at Columbia University Music School and was also awarded a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to travel to Europe.

History was made in 1953 when Lee became the first black musician to conduct a white symphony orchestra in the south of the States, this happened at the concert in Louisville, Kentucky see in the photo below. There was another milestone in April 1955 when he became the first musician of colour to conduct a major opera company in the US with a performance of La Traviata at the New York City Opera in April 1955.

But denied conducting opportunities in his country of birth, Lee left for Germany in 1955 with his then wife the vocal coach Sylvia Olden Lee to pursue his career. His reputation grew in Europe and his appointment as chief conductor of the Norrköping Symphony in Sweden, which started in 1962, lasted for a full ten years. His illustrious predecessor and successor at the Swedish orchestra were Herbert Blomstedt and Franz Welser-Möst respectively.

Based on this overseas success, a leading American critic called for Lee to be given an appropriate position with an American orchestra, as Jet magazine reported in 1970:
Following a recent Cincinnati (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra concert, for which Everett Lee was a guest conductor, music critic Henry S. Humphreys commented in his Enquirer music column, "Why this fine maestro isn't conducting a major USA orchestra I find hard to understand." Lee has been a candidate for the directorship of a major American symphony orchestra since the first of last year under the sponsorship of American Symphony conductor Leopold Stokowski. After building a super reputation, both as an operatic and symphonic conductor in Europe, Lee, principal conductor of the Norrkoping Symphony in Sweden, feels he is ready for one too. There is no black music director of a major symphony (one with a budget of more than $250,000 annually) and Lee aspires to be the first. Henry Lewis became the first black conductor of a metropolitan orchestra (one with an annual budget of $100,000 or more) when he was named to the New Jersey State Symphony Orchestra.
But this call for a position at a leading American orchestra went unheeded. This despite an acclaimed 1976 debut with the post-Judson New York Philharmonic in a programme that included Kosbro, a work composed by the African American David Baker to mark Martin Luther King's birthday. So Everett Lee was once again forced to pursue his career outside America and in 1979 was appointed artistic director of the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra in Colombia where his first season included a pioneering South American performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

Because of his colour Everett Lee struggled throughout his career, and this lack of recognition also applies to biographical resources. Despite his important achievements he has no Wikipedia entry and, to my knowledge, no online biograpy other than this article. For this reason I have assembled this profile from my own desk research and enquiries in the States.

But at this point the path fades away. There is a reference to Everett Lee premiering a commission by the African American composer H. Leslie Adams with the Iceland Symphony and, tantalisingly, several Arvo Pärt discographies list him conducting Cantus In Memory of Benjamin Britten, Fratres and Summa with the Arvo Pärdi Sünnipäevorkestri on an Estonian CD released in 2000. But otherwise the later part of his career is undocumented.

This post should be viewed as work in progress. Hopefully readers can correct my inevitable errors and add the information needed to transform it from a partial to a complete biography. Then the Wiki community can re-purpose it as an entry and start the process of giving this important African American musician the recognition he truly deserves. Let's get working!

Update - Everett Lee is still with us aged 98. Read more here.

Everett Lee with his father-in-law Baptist minister and civil rights leader Reverend J.C. Olden.

* 1970 - "There is no black music director of a major symphony and Lee aspires to be the first". 2011 - plus ça change.

** My profile of Rudolph Dunbar, the first black conductor of both the London and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras is here, and that of African American conductor Dean Dixon is here.

Sources include:
1. Schiller Institute interview with Sylvia Olden Lee which provides my header quote.
2. Online archived copies of Jet magazine which also provide my second quote.
3. Composition in Black and White by Kathryn Talalay.

Photo credits.
1. Marquette University Archives and was taken by Carl Van Vechten who appeared in a recent post.
2. Vielles-Annonces via Flickr.
3. Courier-Journal

Jet magazine for March 14, 1994 has a photo captioned "Opera star Jessye Norman (l), joins (l-r) The Orchestra of St Luke's conductor Everett Lee, composer-musicians Max Roach and opera singer Martina Arroyo at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Aaron Davis Hall in the City College of New York Campus". But I have my doubts if it is Everett Lee and I can find no other references connecting him to The Orchestra of St Luke's. Can anyone positively identify the person second left in that photo or shed any more light on it?

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Boredom and the lost art of listening

'A Tantric master, Trungpa, has written that some meditation should be boring, should be as boring as possible, because in intense boredom all our habitual responses and concepts are dissolved. The mind's terror of boredom is the more acute because the mind suspects that through boredom, through its extreme experience, another reality might be reached that would threaten its pretensions, and perhaps even dissolve them altogether.'
Andrew Harvey writes in A Journey in Ladakh. Terry Riley's in C provides the header image and Jeroen van Veen dissolves all habitual responses in an over-dubbed performance using keyboards and samplers in his 9 CD Minimal Piano Collection. The lost art of listening path started here.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

I simply do not want sensationalism

"I simply do not want to breath the air, which is filled by sensationalism and distorted values" writes Gidon Kremer in a letter to the organisers of the Verbier Festival which he then gives to Norman Lebrecht to publish. Go figure.

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Buddhist lama takes the rap

Which Overgrown Path article has generated the largest readership over the seven year life of the blog? One about Guastavo Dudamel? - sorry but no. One about Benjamin Britten? - sorry, wrong again. Perhaps one about the BBC Proms? - no, I am afraid not. Somewhat surprisingly my most popular post is Lost in Meditation, a 2009 piece about the bumpy spiritual path of the Buddhist lama Osel Hita Torres, while the follow up Found in Meditation is not far behind. Which must provide food for thought for those who believe spirituality and serious music do not mix. If I had a pound sterling for every reader of those two posts I would be very rich indeed and now their pre-eminence has been reinforced by huge numbers of new visitors following today's NPR preview of the debut rap single from Gomo Tulku, who is a close friend of Osel Hita Torres. Audience participation is all the rage, so here is my user's guide to Buddhist rap.

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Contemporary music uncovered

Good to see cover art can still arouse strong feelings. Back in 2006 the disc seen above on the Dutch Bvhaast label from pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama, which features music by Adriana Hölszky, Vanessa Lann, Galina Ustvolskaya, Sofia Gubaidulina and Meredith Monk, created a few ripples. And it's not just contemporary music that gets uncovered.

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In a nutshell

... but leads to interesting destinations.

Talking of dangerous conditions, In a Nutshell is the title of a suite by a composer known for his sadistic and masochistic pleasure-seeking. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Slowly and inexorably he parted from his fellows

'Both Stockhausen and Babbitt were interested in global time: they shared the High Modernist belief that time becomes space, and that one views a musical work, a work of art, as one object, very complex, which should be experienced somehow from above, moving through it but yet conscious of it as a whole, and with no particular sense of line pushing from moment to moment. The logic lies in the enormous planning of the temporal relationships in Gruppen, or the serial value in time-points, dynamics and registers in Babbitt's work' - Jonathan Harvey quoted by Arnold Whittall.
'The impression left by the school [Downside] was sufficient to have inspired a 1947 literary effort by Gysin - "Time and Brother Griphen" - a story about a "sad, brave" monk whose indulgence in chronodaedaly led to his discovery of an error in the calculation of time. Don Griphen resolved to live his own life according to his corrected measure. At first the difference was so minute that he appeared at meals or at devotions at the same time as his companions. Yet slowly and inexorably he parted from his fellows, drawn further away by time itself... He made great looping circles through the seemingly straight line of life in the monastery' - from John Geiger's life of Brion Gysin.
Jonathan Harvey talks about Stockhausen and global time in my streamed interview with him at 9' 45". Brion Gysin's High Mass in C minor with the choir boys nude is here.

Jonathan Harvey by Arnold Whittall is published by Faber (ISBN0571195814). Nothing is True but Everything is Permitted - The Life of Brion Gysin by John Geiger is published by The Disinformation Company Ltd (ISBN 1932857125). Both books were purchased. Images in montage are, of course, from top left clockwise, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt, Brion Gysin and Jonathan Harvey. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Drowned in a fusion sauce?

More fusion sauce here and Take Five's composer is here.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

I want to comment and 'like' on Facebook but...

'BBC Radio 3,will, I suppose, make this abysmal state of things into a sort of national standard. The worst journalists and bloggers it co-opts by dipping into its very weighty bag of goodies because they fit in well with Radio 3's own standards, and so also they try to co-opt the best, often with success, because they live in mortal fear that they may one day train their critical faculties full bore on Radio 3 itself. And so I wasn't surprised to find Dr. Service occasionally is on there, nor to learn that Mr. Lebrecht will be. There are only two music blogs in Britain, as I review in my mind those I'm pretty well-acquainted with, that I know are untarnished by all this, and only one I can think of that is willing to go head to head with the Beeb, and that is the most admirable one I'm commenting on at this very moment.'
That is part of a comment added by Philip Amos to yesterday's post. Many other personal emails have been received from readers who agree with the thrust of my recent articles, but for professional reasons feel unable to publicly state their views. Here is an example which is quoted anonymously with the permission of the sender:
'Your post on the Gothic...just so RIGHT! I dare say you've had a lot of readership and feedback - hope so. I would like to 'like' and comment on Facebook but you'll have to take it as read!'
Ratings mean very little to me. But independent measures suggest my views are finding an audience, even if it cannot publicly agree with me. So, once again, whose hand is on the balance control?

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Great Wagnerian who does not spin the Ring

A truly talented 65 year old conductor with just one catalogue CD to his credit scores a full page Guardian profile. How cool is that? And what is even cooler is that the profile does not boost a BBC Prom and Tom Service did not write it.

Some readers may recognise Reginald Goodall and Anne Evans in the photo above taken at a rehearsal for a Welsh National Opera production of The Valkyrie. But who is conducting?

Well, it is Goodall's assistant Anthony Negus and I personally have experienced his truly great talent. A 2003 WNO Parsifal conducted by Negus ranks among my most moving experiences in more than fifty years of concert going and it was also my good fortune to be at Longborough when he conducted the Jonathan Dove adapted Ring with Donald McIntyre as Wotan.

Anthony Negus' credentials are impressive. As well as working with Reginald Goodall at Welsh National Opera and at English National Opera on the their legendary demotic Ring and Mastersingers he was an assistant at Bayreuth in the early 1970s and supported Pierre Boulez on the WNO Pelleas Et Melisande in 1992. More recently he has assisted Valery Gergiev with concert performances of Elektra in London and Vladimir Jurowski on the acclaimed Meistersinger at Glyndebourne where he conducted one of the performances.

But, despite being an accomplished Wagnerian, the sexagenarian Negus does not spin well. Which means he remains virtually unknown in a profession where today, youth trumps talent and ego trumps both. So it was good to see a profile of him in the Guardian last week. To read it follow this link, and for more on his mentor read Reginald Goodall - the holy fool.

* Anthony Negus, seen above, is currently conducting Siegfried at Longborough opera. An additional performance has been added due to demand for tickets, a case of age before ego perhaps?

** The one catalogue CD conducted by Anthony Negus is the Chandos recording of James Macmillan's opera The Sacrifice. This was a Welsh National Opera commission and is not mentioned in Nicholas Wroes' otherwise excellent Guardian profile. You can listen to my Britten Sinfonia pre-concert talk with James Macmillan as a podacast here.

*** Another forgotten English maestro here.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A gritty and angry new symphony

'My new Symphony - for that is what it eventually turned out to be - would serve as a memorial to the victims of the [Sharpeville massacre] in which eighty-three people were shot dead by the police while taking part in a peaceful demonstration against the notorious Pass Laws, the hated symbol of black subjection to white supremacy. I was also influenced by the example of Shostakovich's own memorial to the victims of political oppression in the shape of his Eleventh Symphony, which so movingly commemorates the dead of the 1905 Revolution in which another peaceful demonstration was turned into a massacre. But where Shostakovich uses Russian political songs as symphonic material, I resolved to make use of three African melodies to give my work a similar sense of urgency and immediacy of purpose.'
That is John Joubert writing in the notes for the new Dutton release of his Second Symphony, which, as related here, recently made an unexpected appearance in the classical charts. Born in Cape Town a white South African, Joubert moved to England in 1946 and still lives there. His Second Symphony was given its premiere in London in 1971 with Joubert conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and was immediately banned in South Africa by the government controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The ban was only lifted following the intervention of Nelson Mandela in the mid 1990s.

Do not be misled by the composer's reference to African melodies. This is not a cosy folksy work, rather it is a gritty and angry statement that proudly displays its debt to Shostakovich and Walton. Conductor Martin Yates and the underrated Royal Scottish National Orchestra are passionate advocates of Joubert's music and the coupling includes a little known gem in the form of Carlo Martelli's Fourth Symphony. And on a disc where the planets well and truly align, the Dutton production team use the acoustic of the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow to prove that for some the sound does still matter.

Elsewhere in his note John Joubert, seen above, explains that inspiration for the Second Symphony came from Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country. This novel, which was written shortly before apartheid was implemented in South Africa, is a protest against the attitudes that institutionalised racism. Cry the Beloved Country was banned by South Africa's press censors due to its subject matter; it was first published in America in 1948 and went on to sell 15 million copies before Paton's death in 1988.

Plus ça change and today's news is dominated by revelations about the freedom, or lack thereof, of the press. It will be difficult for my many American readers to grasp the immense power and influence of Britain's tabloid newspapers. And it will be easy to assume that clearing out Rupert Murdoch's augean stables will be the end of the problem. Sadly that is not the case as attitudes more appropriate to South Africa in the 1960s than Britain in 2011 live on in newspapers such as Paul Dacre's Daily Mail and Richard Desmond's Daily Express. Before we gloat too much about the eclipse of News International we should consider those waiting to step into the vacuum that is being created. The king may be close to abdicating, but an heir awaits in the form of Richard Desmond, whose media interests include not only the Daily Express but also the celebrity magazine OK! the Channel 5 TV station and a slew of adult TV channels. And there has been a strange absence of discussion about how the BBC stands to benefit from the collapse of Murdoch's British empire.

As the current revelations are revealing, our police, media and political leaders not only failed to stop the News International virus, they helped spread it. Exposing the rot was left to a few courageous individual activists, notably Labour MPs Tom Watson and Chris Bryant and Guardian journalist Nick Davies. An Overgrown Path reader recently lamented the disappearance of musicians with a conscience. In fact they are still around. But, just as with other activists, you need to look outside the commercial intermediary complex to find them. Take a bow John Joubert, Dutton and all those involved in this brave and inspiring new CD.

* John Joubert's website is here. Composer portrait above is (c) Graham Boulton

Dutton Epoch CD of John Joubert's Second Symphony was supplied as a requested review sample. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter. V1.1 20/7 Augean stables correction.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Classical music beyond Twitter

Yesterday's BBC Proms performance of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony confirmed that history has passed fair judgement on the work. This is honest music that certainly deserves to be heard and full credit should go to everyone involved in the concert. But this is by no means great music and, given the cost and complexity involved, the thirty-one year gap since the last professional London performance does not seem unreasonable.

Yesterday I quoted Peter J. Pirie as saying it is "difficult to make an objective assessment of [Havergal Brian's] work", and this point is worth dwelling on. Another post highlighted the prominence being given to Twitter reactions on the BBC Proms website, a development that is not conducive to making objective assessments of the featured works. Because, as Tweets Law states, if you give one hundred chimpanzees instruments, put them on a concert platform and broadcast the result, 95% of Twitter users will give the performance a rave review. Which means classical music must beware of programming for the Twitter audience.

Controversy over Proms programming is, of course, nothing new. William Glock's reign at the Albert Hall created the 1970s equivalent of a Twitter storm, and this is eloquently summarised in Robert Simpson's book The Proms & Natural Justice, seen above. Published in 1981, it attempts an objective assessment of composers neglected during Glock's tenure at the Proms and makes interesting reading in light of the social media frenzy surrounding yesterday's Gothic Symphony performance.

First, Robert Simpson's list of composers who between 1960 and 1973 did receive Proms performances, but of less than one hour duration:

Arnold Bax, Richard Rodney Bennett, Ernest Bloch, Havergal Brian, Alan Bush, Ferrucio Busoni, Arnold Cooke, Aaron Copland, Luigi Dallapiccola, Peter Racine Fricker, Alexander Goehr, Arthur Honegger, Elizabeth Maconchy, Bohuslav Martinů, Darius Milhaud, Anthony Milner, Albert Roussel, Edmund Rubbra, Humphrey Searle, Ronald Stevenson and Karol Symanowski.

And these are the composers who received no performances in the same period:

Richard Arnell, Niels Viggo Bentzon, Stephen Dodgson, Benjamin Frankel, Berthold Goldschmidt, Vagn Holmboe, Herbert Howells, Kenneth Leighton, Francesco Malipero, Frank Martin, John McCabe, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Max Reger, Franz Reizenstein, Hilding Rosenberg, Franz Schmidt, Gerard Schurmann, Nikos Skalkottas and Bernard Stevens.

Music fashions change, a few of those names are no longer neglected and some deserving composers are missing from Simpson's list. But that still leaves an awful lot who deserve an outing at the Proms before Havergal Brian comes around again.

The BBC are to be congratulated on programming the Gothic Symphony. But as their current love affair with the social media rages unabated let us remember the generous funding of the Proms is not just about audience numbers. It is also about providing the opportunity for lesser known composers to be objectively assessed, and that means looking beyond Twitter.

Robert Simpson's The Proms & Natural Justice (ISBN 0907689000) is published by Toccata Press and is still available. Background image source Wikipedia Commons. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Please welcome the citizen music journalists

Listener's tweets are being prominently displayed on the new BBC Proms website. Intrigued by the one above I followed the link to read more from the new generation of citizen music journalists. Here is the same contributor on Janáček's Glagolitic Mass.

RIP the art of the animateur...

Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Havergal Brian - a spurious glamour?

'Then there was the first performance of Havergal Brian's overture Dr Merryheart. In those days [1913] his music was still being performed, and he had not sunk into that long and mysterious neglect which has given his name a spurious glamour, and rendered it even more difficult to make an objective assessment of his work.'
That quote is from the English Musical Renaissance by Peter J. Pirie which was published in 1979. Havergal Brian is certainly not neglected today in the record catalogue and there is, thankfully, the opportunity to make an objective assessment courtesy of tonight's BBC Prom performance of his Gothic Symphony. Is this work a neglected masterpiece, another of classical music's Diana moments, or something in between? Worth remembering that Peter J. Pirie had it right about John Fould's World Requiem.

Image is via YouTube clip from 1972 Havergal Brian documentary. Quote is from Peter J. Pirie's The English Musical Renaissance - Twentieth Century British Composers & Their Works (Gollancz ISBN0575026790 OP) 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Two little-known Arvo Part premieres

Pärt, Byrd, Mussorgsky, Reger, de Falla, Milhaud, Garcia Lorca and anon are a pretty remarkable mix for any playlist. They are even more remarkable as the tracklisting for a CD by stereotyped 'early music specialists' Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras. Their 2002 album Ninna Nanna was linked from yesterday's post and that prompted me to listen to it again last night. (With Petreoc Trelawny fronting the BBC Prom on Radio 3, Figueras and Savall followed by silence was a no brainer.) That composer line up is pretty special, and the fact that two of the Arvo Pärt pieces were commissioned for the album makes it even more special. But what is equally noteworthy is the discrete cultural activism of a disc that presents lullabies from across the cultures that developed under the three great monotheistic traditions. Yet another example of the Savall family rearranging the geometry of heaven.

* Dedicated Savall watchers should note the performance of Elogie de la folie: Erasme de Rotterdam et son temps (The Praise of Folly: Erasmus of Rotterdam and his times) at La Cité de la Musique in Paris on Dec 11, 2011; presumably Alia Vox's next big book and disc project.

Am I the only one to think that the sales of this gorgeous album may have been limited by the lovingly designed but overpoweringly noir sleeve with its Picasso image? Ninna Nanna was bought by me. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Dvorak will never sound the same again

Musicians with a conscience make many appearances On An Overgrown Path and I offer no apologies for today featuring another artist who eschews the self-righteous bullshit that is the lingua franca of today's music industry.

The presence of Berber's in Morocco predates the Arab invasion of the country by eight centuries. Around three-quarters of the 30 million population of modern Morocco are of Berber descent and the number of Berber speakers, either as a first language or bilingually with an Arab dialect, is estimated to be around 10 million. Although Tamazight is the generic term for Moroccan Berber (Berber culture is known as Amazigh culture) there are actually three main Berber dialects, Tamazight, Tashilhit and Rifi. Despite the establishment in 2001 of a Royal institute to safeguard and promote Berber culture Moroccan schools did not recognise any of these dialects until constitutional changes forced by the Arab Spring this year, and as a result there have historically been low levels of literacy among some Berber groups. Other human rights violations identified by Berber activists include the refusal of the Moroccan Government to issue birth certificates with Berber names because, to quote the Moroccan government, such names "contradict the Moroccan identity".

The Berbers, together with many other North African Muslims, mix observance of saintly and animistic cults with more orthodox Islam in a syncretic tradition known as Maraboutic Islam. This finds expression in the music of the region, most notably among the gnawa who blend their sub-Saharan origins with Berber and Sufi influences. It is also found in the music of the famous Master Musicians of Jajouka from the Rif Mountains, but they are of Arab not Berber ethnicity. Although gnawa is justifiably celebrated there is much other interesting Berber music, including the disc featured above and below.

Cherifa Kersit, who is known as the poetess of the Middle Atlas, sings in the emotional tamawayt style. She was born in the Middle Atlas Mountains and, as still happens today with many girls in rural Morocco, did not attend school. Her reputation singing at local weddings and village gatherings spread and in 1999 her career took on an international dimension when she sang at Peter Brook's famous Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in a marathon event celebrating the women of Morocco. She is now managed by Zamanproduction: this Paris based agency specialise in showcasing non-Western artists and presented Les Orientales Festival which I wrote about so enthusiastically in 2009.

On Berber Blues Cherifa Kersit performs songs which follow the traditional sequence of an opening instrumental taqsim and final lively final dance framing a central section built around call and response between soloist and chorus. The songs are part of the improvised oral tradition of the Maghreb and are based around Cherifa's own poems about the daily joys and miseries of Berber life. Accompaniment is provided by a lute and two of the bendir frame drums that are found throughout North Africa, and the three accompanying musicians, seen with Cherifa Kersit above, also provide the chorus. Their music can be sampled in this video.

Now let's tackle the dead moose that lurks in the middle of this post. Berber Blues will be, for many Western-trained ears, a difficult listen. But there are many good reasons to write about Cherifa Kersit and Berber music. The first is quite simply that this is foreign but compelling music and in today's monoculture of modernity we must keep alive threatened cultures. Another reason is that this music is a powerful illustration of what I called in a 2009 article the lost art of listening. At that time I wrote "just as television sets can be retuned, so can the human ear and its linkages to the brain be retuned. This retuning process can take many forms, such as tuning out our inbuilt preferences for conventional tonality and melody". The prejudiced ear can be retuned and music such as Berber Blues is an invaluable tool in this retuning process.

In that 2009 post I also talked about "ear candling music" and that is precisely what Berber Blues is. If you liked my recent post about István Kertész's recordings of the Dvořák symphonies you can thank Cherifa Kersit. Because after spending some time appreciating her tamawayt style, I heard Dvořák's music with a freshness and clarity that was quite revelatory. So at just £4.14 for the MP3 download why not give Berber Blues a try? I guarantee Dvořák will never sound the same again.

* Cherifa Kersit did not attend school and, as explained above, this still happens today to many girls in rural Morocco. Education For All is an NGO that provides the opportunity of a college education for girls from rural Moroccan communities. Three boarding houses making secondary education available for around 100 girls have been built by them in the High Atlas region around Marrakech. More on Education for All's invaluable work and how you can help here.

* In a wonderful example of inclusivity Berber Blues is on Long Distance, the label that also released Daan Vandewalle's recording of Alvin Curran's Inner Cities. Back in 2007 I webcast this contemporary epic for solo piano, all 4 hours 24 minutes of it.

* And in another wonderful example of inclusivity Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall perform a Berber lullaby on their exquisite album Ninna Nanna.

* My earlier post I am in an even larger prison touches on the contradictions of contemporary Morocco as experienced in Essaouira. This city is home to many Tashelhiyt speaking Chleuh Berbers whose region stretches from Essaouira south to beyond Agadir. The conundrum that is Morocco is also illustrated by Tahar Ben Jelloun, considered by many to be Morocco's greatest living author he is viewed by others as being anti-Amazigh.

* As a change from the numerous videos of Gnawa musicians follow this link to a wonderfully authentic example of the oral tradition of the Maghreb as practiced by a Chleuh Berber poet in a souk.

* More Berber music in my Chance from the souk system post and linked podcast.

* My photo below was taken in the Berber village of Tamraght in southern Morocco and by chance captures the gender inequality that still exists across the country. Thanks go to Hassan, Said, Mohamed, Brendan and our other friends who invited us into their homes in Tamraght and to friends in Essaouira, Marrakech and elsewhere. We will be back!

Berber Blues was bought online. Footer photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter. V1.1 amended 16/7 to correct error with date of founding of IRCAM Berber cultural institute.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A tale of two standards

Investigative journalist Johann Hari is exposed as using unattributed quotes: Hari's punishment is suspension pending investigation by the Independent.

Music journalist Norman Lebrecht is exposed by senior industry figure Klaus Heymann in the following words:
'For me it’s beyond belief how any journalist in five pages can make so many factual mistakes. It’s shocking. Also, he really doesn’t understand the record business.'
Lebrecht's punishment is a new BBC Radio 3 series.

Whose hand is on the balance control?

Photo source Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.