Friday, August 19, 2011

The society which is not diverse is less beautiful

'Complexity is a beautiful thing... the society which is not diverse is less beautiful. I cannot know myself if I do not know the Other - the Other is a condition of my existence.'
September 10th brings the last night of the BBC Proms at which Wagner rubs shoulders with the Sound of Music. Will the Proms director be sentenced to four years in prison for using social media to publicise the event and will rubber bullets be used on the audience when they sing Jerusalem? My header quotation comes from the liberal-leaning Shiite cleric Sheikh Hani Fahes and I leave it with you while I follow Other paths until the Albert Hall has emptied. If you only buy one CD while I am travelling, make it the one above. A small piece of social media trivia; On An Overgrown Path enters its eighth year of blogging in a few days and thank you for supporting the Other point of view during that time. Until I return follow this path for a chance selection of Gurdjieff posts, and this one for meetings with remarkable musicians.

Header quote comes via Alex Klaushofer's recommended Paradise Divided, A Portrait of Lebanon, which featured in a path that led to many other - Is a miracle maestro worth £20,000 a concert? 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.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Hints of Penderecki, Ligeti and Stimmung

A chance path leads from my recent articles about Philippa Schuyler to the Vietnamese composer Ton-That Tiêt. In her biography Kathryn Talalay tells how Philippa entered into a relationship with an American intelligence officer called Jim Leiter during her first visit to Vietnam in 1966. The biographer describes one of their meetings as follows:
'Philippa saw quite a bit of Jim. One evening as they were sitting in the jeep gazing at Hué's Perfume River, he told her she was the first good thing that had happened to him since he had come to Vietnam.'
The Perfume River provided the inspiration for Et la rivière chante l'éternité (And the river sings for ever) written in 1998 for string trio by Ton-That Tiêt. Born in Hué in 1933, Ton-That Tiêt, who is seen above, moved to Paris in 1958 and studied at the Conservatoire where his reachers included Jean Rivier, André Jolivet and Andrée Vaurabourg; the latter is better known as Mrs Arthur Honegger and among her other pupils was Pierre Boulez.

Philippa Schuyler and Ton-That Tiêt may be linked by the Perfumed River at Hué, but their music could not be more different. Although Philippa had what John McLaughlin Williams describes as "a healthy curiosity about the modern music of her time" she did not stray from her tonal roots. By contrast Ton-That Tiêt's journey took him beyond serialism to a unique style that combines Eastern and Western elements. His output includes electro-acoustic compositions among which is a work for for flute and magnetic tape commissioned by IRCAM.

Divination systems have attracted many contemporary composers. Philippa Schuyler used tarot cards to choose her recital programmes and Ton-That Tiêt shares with John Cage a fascination with the I Ching. But, unlike Cage, Ton-That Tiêt does not use chance as a composition process, but rather as a philosophical guide. Despite being an agnostic, Ton-That Tiêt's music is influenced by mystical traditions including Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, with the latter inspiring his Les sourires de Bouddha (Smiles of the Buddha) which sets verses by the 8th century Chinese poet Wang Wei for chamber choir.

Both Les sourires de Bouddha and Et la rivière chante l'éternité are available on CD from the enterprising and independent French Editions Hortus label. Les sourires de Bouddha , for which a reviewer's listening notes mention hints of Ligeti, Penderecki, and Stimmung, comes on a 19 minute CD single in an exemplary performance by the Toulouse based chamber choir Les Élements conducted by Joël Suhubiette. Et la rivière chante l'éternité is post-Jolivet in style and comes on a full length CD coupled with two other works by Ton-That Tiêt. The performances are by the Ensemble Les Temps Modernes who champion a number of contemporary composers including Tristan Murail, and the sound captured in the Salle Varèse in Lyon by the Editions Hortus production team is both appropriate and excellent.

A combination of artistic excellence and high production standards typify Editions Hortus's output, and never more so in their disc of György Kurtág's Játékok (Games) and Átiratok Machaut-tól J. S. Bach (Bach transcriptions). This new release was made with the co-operation of the composer and his wife Márta, but comes up againt the formidable opposition of the husband and wife's own 1997 ECM recording of extracts from the same work.

Duplication should not however deter those with the ECM disc in their collection. Jean-Sébastien Dureau and Vincent Planès give a refreshingly extrovert interpretation which supplements but does not replace the composer's own definitive account and, sensibly, the new disc offers a different selection from the two cycles. But, and probably most importantly, Edition Hortus provide considerably better sound. ECM recorded György and Márta Kurtág in the dry acoustic of the Mozart-Saal in the Konzerthaus, Vienna and Manfred Eicher and his team used their standard digital tools to produce the signature ECM sound. By contrast Editions Hortus chose the warm acoustic of l'église Saint German de Talloires in the Haute-Savoie region of France and producer Valérie Aimard provides the natural depth and spaciousness that is missing on the ECM disc.

My intitial impression on learning about this new release was 'do we need another Játékok?' But the number of times I have listened to Jean-Sébastien Dureau and Vincent Planès' interpretation unequivocally answers that question. More on André Jolivet here, and Kurtág's ghosts lurk here.

* English interview with Ton-That Tiêt here. French resources include Jean-Sébastien Dureau and Vincent Planès' excellent website. Featured CDs can be bought from the English language Editions Hortus online shop. Editions Hortus discs can also be bought from the MusicWeb International website.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Does anyone else sense a coded message?

A few days ago I pointed out that the BBC Buzz Proms feed, which was featuring links to some robust posts On An Overgrown Path, had stopped updating. Despite my article the page has now not been updated for ten days. But the BBC online and technology team, who understand social media somewhat better than their Radio 3 colleagues, have chosen to feature my story about the updating glitch on their own web page. Does anyone else sense a coded message?

* Ian McDonald is the content producer, BBC internet blog. Nick Reynolds is editor of the BBC internet blog.

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BBC and the overlooked black conductor

Yesterday's post 'Did the BBC derail the career of black conductor?' prompted the following email from Dominique-René de Lerma:
A few years before his death, Rudolph Dunbar wrote several letters to me which will confirm biographical statements you have recently posted, as well as some information not previously in print (for example, comments regarding [William Grant] Still's Festive overture). I'd not trust the accuracy of my memory but these letters -- as well as some from Julia Perry -- were deposited with the former Institute for Black Music Research at Fisk University. I'd hope someone would locate these and publish them.
Columbia College Chicago's website has the following biography:
Dominique-René de Lerma (1928– ) is a prominent, pioneering scholar in black music research. After a career as a performing oboist, de Lerma received a PhD in musicology from Indiana University in 1958. Subsequently he taught at Indiana University (1963–1976), at Morgan State University (1976–1990), and at Peabody Conservatory (1983–1990). He served as Director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago from 1990 to 1993. Currently, he teaches at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. De Lerma is the author of several books, including the four-volume Bibliography of Black Music (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981).
Reader contributions are proving invaluable in the re-assessment of overlooked black musicians including Everett Lee, Philippa Schuyler, Dean Dixon and Rudolph Dunbar. Can anyone access the papers referred to at Fisk University? And a poser for my English readers: the following section in my 2007 profile of Rudolph Dunbar has always struck me as unfinished business:
He also composed, and his 1938 ballet score Dance of the Twenty-First Century (described by Dunbar as ‘ultra modern’), which was written for the famous Cambridge University Footlights Club, was broadcast nationally by NBC with the composer conducting.
I am talking to Cambridge Footlights and Cambridge Arts Theatre to see if the score for Dance of the Twenty-First Century is in an archive somewhere and will keep you posted. Can any readers assist in the search? Because, I have a dream...

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

He died in obscurity in London in 1988

Immediately after uploading 'Did BBC derail career of black conductor' I visited a colleague from my EMI days. On his bookshelf was Rudolph Dunbar's 1939 Treatise on the clarinet (Boehm system) which yielded these rare photos. More on Dunbar in 'The Berlin Philharmonic's first black conductor'.

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Classical music is shanghaied

My recent posts on classical music in China in general and Shanghai in particular were remarkably prescient. Header image is from my 2006 post about music in China.

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Did BBC derail career of black conductor?

National treasure Sir Colin Davis conducts BBC Proms on August 24 and September 4 in programmes that include Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. Sir Colin progressed from clarinet to conducting, as did Guyanese born Rudolph Dunbar who is seen above. But, despite conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Dunbar never appeared on the podium at a Promenade Concert. And there is an important story behind that simple statement.

A website focussing on Guyana explains the decline of Rudolph Dunbar's career in these words:

Nobody was now asking him to conduct orchestras. He was not even playing his clarinet at concerts anymore. In fact, he died in obscurity in London in 1988.

Why was Dunbar overlooked? There is no clear answer to that question. In an interview he gave six months before his death in 1988, Dunbar, who had previously conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, blamed the BBC and a particular producer/director in the organization for derailing his career.

In those days, the BBC was powerful enough to open doors and close doors to people in the arts and music. There may have been other factors as well, given that he was one of a group of West Indians in the UK who campaigned openly against racism and colonialism.
This account is corroborated by the profile of Dunbar in the Starbroek News of Aug 24, 2004 by respected academic Dr. Vibert C. Cambridge quoted in my 2007 profile of the conductor:
In an interview with Alex Pascal in 1988, about six months before his death, Dunbar spoke about the particular vindictiveness of a producer/director of music at the BBC who derailed his musical career in Europe. Dunbar described that director of music as "despicable and vile" and the BBC "as stubborn as mules and ruthless as rattlesnakes."
Nicholas Kenyon's official history of the BBC Symphony Orchestra contains no mention of Rudolph Dunbar, despite his importance as a pioneering black conductor. It would be very interesting to see whether the BBC archives throw any light on this important and quite recent episode in music and cultural history.

* Several paths branch off here. Rudolph Dunbar was a war correspondent in Europe during World War II, and his friend Philippa Schuyler was a correspondent during the Vietnam War. While back in the 21st century, up and coming African American conductor Kazem Abdullah also progressed from clarinet to conducting. Will Kazem Abdullah succeed where Rudolph Dunbar failed and be the first black conductor since 2003 to conduct a BBC Prom? Well, a curious twist brings this path full circle: if anybody can put Kazem Abdullah on the podium at a Prom it is Columbia Artists Management Inc, whose founder told black conductor Everett Lee "a Negro, standing in front of a white symphony group? No, I'm sorry". Because today CAMI represents Kazem Abdullah as well as Sir Colin Davis.

* Update - independent corroboration of this story in a new post.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Classical music debates - but will anything change?

National Public Radio in the States is among the media channels that picked up on my story about musicians' fees. The widespread interest confirms that the subject of fees has been off limits for far too long. Or, as a journalist said to me, "If a secret is closely guarded, it's usually because something somewhere is wrong."

Musicians' fees certainly makes compelling headlines. But, as I said in my original article, we must beware of jumping to conclusions. Despite the attention now focussed on fees, one group within the increasingly fragile classical music business model continues to evade scrutiny. There is no doubt that agents provide a valuable service by matching performers to opportunities. But my article highlighted the not inconsiderable portion of dwindling budgets that is paid to agents. And other aspects of their role remain almost completely hidden. One is the limitation of choice resulting from the selling of 'packages' of conductor, soloist and orchestra, all from the same management, to concert promoters. Another is the predatory move by agencies into the management of music festivals.

Forget about human rights, China is where Lamborghini sales are booming and classical music has not been slow to spot this. A few days ago I highlighted the move of outgoing BBC Symphony Orchestra chief conductor Jiří Bělohlávek's from IMG Artists to the Hong Kong and Shanghai based Armstrong Arts management agency. Among the services offered by Armstrong Arts is "consultancy": this includes an unspecified role in the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra's new summer music festival.

According to the Xinhua-Dow Jones index, Shanghai is the sixth largest financial center in the world. In the city Armstrong Arts share their territory with super-agent Columbia Artists Management, which represents both the Shanghai Symphony and its music director Long Yu. The latter has been described by the New York Times as "China’s Herbert von Karajan" and, following a familiar pattern, includes Deutsche Grammophon among his recording contracts.

Shanghai may be a leading financial centre, but the insidious power of the agents has been around a lot longer than bankers' bonuses. Back in 1955 the United States Department of Justice filed suit against Columbia Artists Management and three other defendants for restraint of interstate trade and commerce in the booking of artists. The agencies did not defend the case and were forced to relinquish their monopoly position.

As I said in an earlier post, while classical music debates nothing changes. So no triumphalism; just some hope that one day we will see greater equality of opportunity and reward for classical musicians. The choice of header image is NPR's not mine; more on that subject in A tale of two Chavez.

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What the London riots meant for a musician

Our reviewer Carla Rees (seen above), flute player and artistic director of Rarescale, recently lost her home in the London riots. She was burned out losing all her flutes, music and possessions as well as her two cats. She has nothing left and is having to live in a hotel. The company Just Flutes & Jonathan Myall Music are lending her instruments and music and have launched an appeal on her behalf. MusicWeb will be making a donation and would urge you all to do the same.
From the MusicWeb International website. Let us hope that music will rise from the wreckage.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it

'When you think about it, the classics have always rebounded because of advancement in aesthetic conceptions. In his time, Karajan’s legato was a controversial novelty, same for “objective” readings by the likes of Boulez (and before him Klemperer ?) …

The equivalent for these days should be baroque players but I feel that there is a difference in their contribution. Most of the players are very very dogmatic and tend to apply their principles too much beyond baroque composers. Interpretation is subordinated to strict adherence to certain performance principles, no vibrato (glassy string sound …) , fast tempi with lots of rubato, … Baroque contribution should have been a more theatrical feeling to instrumental music or certain different harmonies and inner voices, not what we have. These days, the Berlin Phiharmonic and others are just trying to mimic baroque practices. This just does not make any sense.'
I was reminded of that contribution by Antoine Leboyer to my October 2010 post Just trying to mimic Baroque practices by Nigel Kennedy's Guardian interview. Or as another contributor wrote here recently, Specialisation is damaging classical music.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Top conductor feels the pain

Are top musicians sharing the financial pain? Apparently so: in today's Guardian conductor Jonathan Nott, seen above, talks about, and I quote, "working in Europe, and his other passion, his Lamborghini". More drive time music here.

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BBC Proms lose their buzz

As revealed here recently the BBC has a central service called Buzz that monitors social media and posts a link to the relevant programme page. Recently BBC Buzz has been linking to quite a few of my Proms posts. In fact I was surprised by the number of visitors coming via the Buzz link to How many black conductors at the BBC Proms? But six days ago the Proms Buzz page stopped updating, as seen above. Meanwhile the editorially controlled Twitter comments on the Radio 3 Proms page continue to be updated. I know the BBC online and technology guys read my blog, so hopefully the technical glitch will soon be fixed. Until then, buzz over to this story.

* Four days later - still no updates, but...

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Classical music opens the China gates

Jiří Bělohlávek's impending departure from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and appointment to the Czech Philharmonic have been covered. But his move from IMG Artists to the China based Armstrong Arts management agency has slipped under the radar. The little-known Armstrong Arts has a small artist roster that includes Barbara Bonney, Krzysztof Penderecki and the Chinese conductor Da Ye Lin. But the commercial-intermediary complex have been quick to close ranks. With Bělohlávek currently sidelined by a virus (Hong Kong flu perhaps?) his place at the BBC Prom on August 22 accompanying IMG Artist Barry Douglas has been taken by IMG Artist Thomas Dausgaard. Amazing how nothing is lost, even in infection.

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Mahler? - I advise you not to do it

'Firstly the [New York Philharmonic Orchestra] was really not so good; Boston was much better. And I was only too eager to do something big, like a Mahler symphony. Judson said, "That's not possible. There won't even be a hundred people in the auditorium." And in a sense he was right; at that time Mahler was quite down. Finally he agreed to Das Lied von der Erde, if we could find a couple of singers who would bring in the public. It turned out they couldn't be found, so I said I wanted to do Mahler's Second Symphony. He said, "Mr Klemperer, I advise you not to do it. It will result in a big deficit." I insisted and it was an enormous success, also with the critics. But the next day I got a letter from Judson, saying that, as he warned me, there was a deficit of five thousand dollars on the concert.'
Otto Klemperer talks about performing Mahler in 1936 in Peter Heyworth's book Conversations with Klemperer. With Mahler's Second Symphony currently trending I turned to Klemperer's 1962 recording of that towering work. My LP set is seen above and the CD transfer is available in EMI's great recordings of the century series, and so it should be. Under Klemperer's baton in the Kingsway Hall were the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, the latter trained by Wilhelm Pitz, soloists Elisabeth Schwarzkpf and Hilde Rössel-Majdan, with Walter Legge, Suvi Raj Grubb and Bob Gooch in the control room. Robin Golding says it all in the sleeve note when he writes about the "granite-like strength (no Bruno Walter-like sentiment in the central movements) and absolute authority" of Klemperer's interpretation. All this comes in sound that is of demonstration quality even by 2011 standards.

This definitive interpretation should be in every CD collection and is currently available for around £4.99. That bargain price provides food for thought; in fact this recording of the century costs significantly less than either the Goats' Cheese Salad in the Royal Albert Hall Café Consort or the stuffed piquillo peppers with Capriola Farm goat cheese tapas at Bazaar in the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. So hurry before they change the menu.

And talking of Beverly Hill dining, which music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra was acclaimed for his interpretation of Mahler's Second Symphony, but with a different orchestra? Well, actually there are two. One is, of course, Bazaar aficionado Gustavo Dudamel. It may surprise some to learn that the other is Otto Klemperer who directed the LA Phil from 1933 to 1939. There is not too much about Klemperer on the Orchestra's website, which may be explained by this exchange in Conversations with Klemperer:
Heyworth: Did you find the programmes in America very dependent on box office receipts?
Klemperer: Yes. On one occasion in Los Angeles I was asked to end Tchaikovsky's Symphonie pathétique with the third movement, the electrifying march. The manager wanted me to leave out the marvellous last movement. Naturally. I didn't do so.
At least the BBC Proms has got that one sussed. In the Albert Hall the audience can applaud to their heart's content at the end of the electrifying march and hear the marvellous last movement. There is no Pathétique at this year's Proms. But Sir Colin Davis performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony on Aug 24 with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester should be electrifying. There is also the Fifth Symphony with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on September 5 conducted by Manfred Honeck, who is joined by fellow IMG Artist Hélène Grimaud for a performance of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. Which cues my end link to one of those LA Phil music directors talking about the hot topic of classical music's mutual admiration societies.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Meet the composer behind the protecting veil

Sir John Tavener's reputation is currently passing through the obligatory lacanu between youthful marketability and mature authority. His new website, which is being developed ahead of his 70th birthday celebrations in 2014, is a timely reminder that a composer can be relevant without being fashionable.

The music of Sir John Tavener, Michael Tippett and Sofia Gubaidulina can be heard in a BBC Prom given by the Britten Sinfonia and BBC Singers on September 3. Pity though that this bold piece of programming is consigned to the off-peak Proms new music ghetto.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Are top musicians sharing the financial pain?

Everyone in classical music is talking about funding cuts. But no one is talking about how dwindling budgets continue to be top-sliced by the fees charged by high profile musicians. In my recent post I used an estimate of Gustavo Dudamel's fee for a BBC Prom taken from an identified and reliable source. But it remains an estimate because the musicians, agents and concert promoters involved keep such information a closely guarded secret; even when , as is the case with the BBC Proms, they are paid from public funds. But now a concert promoter who has suffered savage funding cuts and considers some of the current fees "outrageous", has supplied details of what top musicians charge. And, more importantly, has agreed I can publish them anonymously.

So here are the fees and associated on-costs. They are as requested by the artist's management for a single concert appearance unless otherwise stated. It should be emphasised this is simply available information and these musicians have not been identified as demanding higher than average fees. It is also worth remembering that fees charged to the most prestigious venues may be higher. Convert currencies here.

Hélène Grimaud - 16,000 euros
Kronos Quartet - 23,000 US dollars
Philip Glass - 36,000 US dollars plus transatlantic flights for solo piano concert
Patricia Kopatchinskaja - 10,000 euros
Dawn Upshaw for pair of concerts - 57,000 US dollars plus additional presentation costs.
Twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic - 24,000 euros plus flights for twelve people plus twelve 'Mr Cello' seats.
The Sixteen - 14,000 pounds sterling euros plus 24 flights (includes one instrument), local transport, hire of chamber organ and one night's hotel for 23 people.
Steve Reich - 18,000 US dollars to attend a series of concerts but not perform, performance fee additional. Also requires business class transatlantic flights.

My source also points out that some other leading musicians are far more accommodating in their demands, but it is not possible to identify them without compromising anonymity. I am also told that Gidon Kremer, who has recently criticised "distorted values" declined to discuss appearing for reasons the promoter believes may include the relative lack of prestige of the venue.

Those fees confirm that the estimate of £20,000 for a Gustavo Dudamel concert is credible and maybe even low. So are top musicians sharing the current financial pain? It is a not a simple question to answer and we must beware of jumping to conclusions. Artists perform a limited number of concerts every year, and unpaid practice and travelling time must be taken into account, as well as the cost of pension and other provisions. The fee charged by The Sixteen for instance is not immoderate when shared between twenty-three singers, and, of course, the performers have to travel and sleep.

But then this path does again highlight the role of the middle feeders in the classical music food chain. For one of the single artist projects the two management agencies involved would receive a combined commission of an estimated 10,000 US dollars without having to do one minute's practice or leave their offices. Then there is the contentious issue of the disparity between the earnings of the celebrities and those of rank and file musicians, contemporary composers and others lower down the food chain.

Yes, governments and arts organisations must take their share of the blame for funding cuts. But is it surprising that classical music is not first favourite with funding bodies when a pianist can earn the price of a new family car for a single evening's work? There may not be a conclusive case that top musicians are failing to share the current financial pain. But with the level of funding cuts in the public domain, why, when public money is involved, are top musicians' fees not similarly disclosed?

* My thanks go to anon for courageously making this article possible. If other concert promoters feel moved to share artist's fees with Overgrown Path readers please forward them to me by email and they will be published on the same anonymous basis.

* More on the role of agents here.

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It's an ill wind that blows good music

Civil unrest in England has sent a lot of new readers On An Overgrown Path after googling the 1958 Notting Hill riots. Hopefully some will buy Tod Handley's CD of Malcolm Arnold's Fourth Symphony. Because that wonderfully inclusive music features in the 2008 article they land on.

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Monday, August 08, 2011

Following the path from Dudamel to Barbirolli

My post questionning the latest Guardian hagiography of Gustavo Dudamel has sparked a healthy debate. But no one has yet made the obvious point that there are many other other examples of newspaper journalists supplying sleeve notes. Among the more notable was Michael Kennedy who was both an editor and music critic at the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph between 1960 and 2005. As well as being a distinguished journalist Michael Kennedy supplied exemplary sleeve notes for many recordings of English music, notably Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and his books included biographies of Sir Adrian Boult and Sir John Barbirolli. Yes, Michael Kennedy walked the fine dividing line between criticism and boosterism. But there is a fundamental difference between journalism in the Michael Kennedy era and journalism today, and it can be summed up in one topical word - integrity. And before younger readers click away from yet another post about boring old dead conductors I would point out that Gustavo Dudamel and Sir John Barbirolli are linked by several paths. First, Barbirolli's Mahler attracted a lot of attention in its day. And secondly, 'Glorious John' was music director of an American orchestra from 1936 to 1943 where he enjoyed a critical honeymoon before being hounded out by the American press.

Elgar's First Symphony conducted by Sir John Barbirolli at a King's Lynn Festival performance in 1970 provides the soundtrack to this post, and I am not embarassed to admit it once again moves me to tears. This BBC radio recording of a Festival concert by Barbirolli's adored Hallé Orchestra was made just five days before the great conductor died. The painfully slow speeds of the opening movements are surely a premonition of his imminent mortality, but these are transcended in the final Lento - Allegro by a radiant acceptance of impermanence. Certainly not a critic's choice, but in the light of this thread does that really matter? Now comes the rub. Sir John's King's Lynn Festival concert, which coupled the A flat Symphony with the Sea Pictures, was originally released on the BBC's own label but is now deleted, although I see a new copy awaits a reader who moves very quickly. Copies can sometimes be found from the Italian Suisa label: but, and do correct me if I am wrong, I suspect these are unlicensed as they do not acknowledge the provenance of the recording. And as I finish this post I spot another link between Dudamel and Barbirolli, and it is not slow speeds or the role that agents played in their careers. (JB's New York appointment was engineered by musical power broker extraordinaire Arthur Judson). No, the link is more topical, Gustavo's mezzo in Mahler's Second Symphony at the BBC Prom was the Swede Anna Larsson, Sir John's mezzo in Elgar's Sea Pictures was the Swede Kirstin Meyer. More on Barbirolli in 'Label me obsessed'.

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Sunday, August 07, 2011

Was the critic at the same concert as the rest of us?

Consensus is that although Gustavo Dudamel's Mahler Prom with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra had its high spots it also had its low spots. Which raises the questions as to whether the critic who penned the five star review seen above was listening to the same concert as the rest of us. But then, with their chief arts writer Charlotte Higgins supplying sleeve notes for Dudamel's Simón Bolívar Orchestra Mahler recordings and contributor Tom Service also presenting Proms for the BBC I wonder whether comment really is free at the Guardian these days?

* 'Comment is free but facts are sacred' are the words of celebrated Guardian editor C.P. Scott. Now follow the path from Dudamel to Barbirolli.

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

A little less harmony please

Samaagam comes from a Sanskrit word meaning "confluence" or "flowing together". In realising this work from Amjad Ali Khan's singing and playing, and in rehearsing it with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, I have aimed to preserve the essence of both Indian and Western traditions so that they can flow into each other without artistic compromise. I have used the orchestration of Indian ensemble music in the pre-Bollywood era as inspiration and have also looked back to the ancient (i.e. pre-equal temparament) Western tradition incorporating elements which, because of their antiquity, do not violate the rules of Indian music. The aim is through this process to joyfully explore the common "musical DNA" of both traditions.
That is the 'yogic maestro' David Murphy writing in the notes for Samaagam, a concerto for sarod, concertante group and string orchestra newly released on the World Village label. Samaagam is a product of the laboratory music project of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in which a group of players from the SCO work with an external collabarator to create improvised and devised music away from the concert platform, with sarod virtuoso Amjad Ali Khan acting as external collabarator for this project.

Samaagam certainly ticks all the right boxes. But, despite this, the end product is less than the sum of the parts. David Murphy has previously collaborated with Ravi Shankar, and Samaagam does not move the India meets West dialogue much further forward than Shankar's own bland sitar concertos. There is too much pre-occupation with 'common musical DNA', with the result that while artistic compromise is avoided, create compromise is not. I was going to say that what is needed is a project that builds on the differences, instead of the common elements, of Indian and Western music. But there is one such project, the 1967 Jazz Meets India on on which a duo of horn players provide the improvisatory thread that ties together a jazz trio and three Indian musicians. Contrast this extract from the notes of Jazz Meets India with David Murphy's note above:
In this session, jazz is not adulterated to Indian music, and neither is the Indian element "jazzed up". Nor do both partners meet halfway in an abstract inhospitable no man's land where they would relinquish their respective characteristics. Each of these musical areas remain respected in their individualities, their purity is left untouched. Everyone of these musicians plays his very own music. Yet, this is really why it is so revealing to hear how musicians of two very widely separated cultures are able to communicate intelligently, how they can play together with superb sensitiveness.
But despite my reservations Samaagam is still worth exploring. I paid £8.25 online for the CD which comes with the very elegant documentation that provides my image, the MP3 download via Amazon costs £7.49. A bonus that almost justifies the purchase alone comes in the form of the three opening solo ragas lasting 22 minutes from Amjad Ali Khan. And no reservations about the sound captured in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh by the SCO's regular producer Philip Hobbs. Read more about Jazz Meets India here.

* There is an important path from this post to yesterday's about Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra's appearance at the BBC Proms. In that article I explained how the BBC Prom was part of a tour managed for Dudamel and the orchestra by artists agent Askonas Holt, and the same agent manages Amjad Ali Khan and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I know that others share my concern about the increasing involvement of the commercial/intermediary complex in world music, and when my sense of humour returns I will write about the emails I received from the management of one of the group of musicians that featured in my post Discord among the Master Musicians.

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Friday, August 05, 2011

Is a miracle maestro worth £20,000 a concert?

Today the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra hits the BBC Proms and 'miracle maestro' Gustavo Dudamel hits the media with the message "I think the most important thing is to make the music accessible... I think we have to make everyone understand that it's important to have a future for the people".

There is no disputing that El Sistema does invaluable work making music accessible, as do several other lower profile music education programmes. But less publicised aspects of Hugo Chávez's petro-socialism musical sub-brand also deserve consideration. The BBC Proms appearance of the Venezuelan orchestra is one of just five concerts they are giving on their current overseas tour. Two of the concerts are at the Salzburg summer festival, which is probably the most expensive and least accessible music event in the world. Tour management is the responsibility of the orchestra's agent Askonas Holt, which also represents the miracle maestros's other bands, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as the Simón Bolívar String Quartet and the soprano in the BBC Prom. For tonight's concert Gustavo Dudamel will receive an estimated fee of £20,000 and an additional payment will be made to the tour management. Around 15% of Dudamel's fee will go to the separate personal agent he now shares with his predecessor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Both the Simón Bolívar Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel record for Deutsche Grammophon which is is part of Universal Music, the world's largest record company. Universal music is owned by French media conglomerate Vivendi, a global corporation with annual revenues of 29 billion euros. El Sistema's work with the socially disadvantaged is highly laudable, but success does brings its rewards. Today Gustavo Dudamel lives in the Hollywood Hills and is happy to share with us that his favourite restaurant is the $150 a cover Philip Stark designed Bazaar at the SLS Hotel, which is the domain of celebrity chef José Andrés.

So, as a mountain of debt threatens to engulf the US and as anyone with investments in UK stocks watches the value of their savings crash by an agent's fee of 15%, is it unreasonable to explore other ways to make the music accessible? And where better to start than with these thoughts from journalist Alex Klaushofer?

There's certainly an appetite for a new media model which would share many of the elements of the traditional co-operative. One of the less-discussed factors behind the crisis in journalism - besides the technology-related revolution which has moved so much information onto the free-to-search internet, and the drop in advertising revenues - is the rise in profit expectations. These days media proprietors often expect profits of 25% or more, and cut back on quality in a bid to get to the right figure, with the result that the journalism suffers. So there's scope for a more realistic model which allows the connection between product and profit to be maintained. Add to that the growth in support for community-based organisations in all walks of life and it would seem that, in journalism, the co-operative's time could have come.
If you re-read that paragraph substituting 'classical music' for 'journalism' it still makes perfect sense. My research failed to uncover whether the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra is self-governing. But the four main London orchestras (excluding the BBC Symphony) and the Berlin Philharmonic have all been self-governing for a long time. Things are a little different in the States, but the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra are also self-governing. The latter three ensembles rose from the ashes of bankrupt contract orchestras, a path that others may well need to follow.

Away from symphony orchestras the co-operative model is less well established. But examples include the New York based Composers' Collective, which in the 1930s numbered Henry Cowell, Marc Blitzstein, Hanns Eisler and Aaron Copland among its members, Cornelius Cardews' experiments with his Scratch Orchestra and AMM, and the Camberwell Composers' Collective which has performed at Aldeburgh Music's Faster Than Sound.

Recorded music distribution, management agencies and concert promotion seem obvious areas where, as Alex Klaushofer suggests, the co-operative model could restore the connection between product, profit and quality. I will be among many listening to Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra performing Mahler's Second Symphony at this evening's BBC Prom. But can we continue to pay miracle maestros £20,000 a concert while orchestras are going to the wall and audiences face financial hardship? Or has the music co-operative's time come?

* There is a useful three part article on musicians involvement in the governance of symphony orchestras here, and a guide to setting up a co-operative in the creative industries can be downloaded here. More on the finances of the BBC Proms here and on top musician's fees here.

I came across Alex Klaushofer through a chance reading of her Paradise Divided, A Portrait of Lebanon. It is recommended on all counts, but particularly for its chapters on the little-known Druze community in Lebanon, an esoteric sect with links to Islam, Gnosticism, Abrahamism and other philosophies. Background image credit The Cultural Worker. 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.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Whatever happened to classical music's long tail?

'Sound experiments are part of daily life for a baroque orchestra. Because more so than their "modern" cousins, historical instruments offer numerous possibilities for sounds that are equally valid.'
Much discussion here recently about the dangers of specialisation in classical music and the quote above comes from a Baroque ensemble that proactively works against specialisation. Although 17th and 18th century music remains the core territory of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (Freiburger Barockorchester) their repertoire has expanded to include classical, romantic and contemporary works. In an enlightened experiment in 2004 the Freiburg Orchestra commissioned new compositions from five leading young composers, Michel van der Aa, Juliane Klein, Rebecca Saunders, Benjamin Schweitzer and Nadir Vassena. The project actively encouraged the composers to explore the sonic possibilities and challenges of a conductor-less Baroque orchestra; the commissions were given in concerts at various European venues in 2005/6 and the performances were recorded for release on the CD seen above.

As Benjamin Schweitzer explains in the CD booklet, "...there is something in the gestures and tonality of [Baroque music], which is closer to modern times than one would assume in the first place". The Freiburg project is a fascinating exercise in reversing the early music 'trickle up' effect that I referred to in the post that started the specialisation hare running. All the young composers fully exploit the unique sonic palette of the Baroque instruments and the result is both thought provoking new music and a valuable exercise in ear candling. Although copies can still be found, Harmonia Mundi's About Baroque CD is now deleted and cannot be bought as an MP3 download. Why are so many of the CDs that feature here deleted? As Mahler and a handful of others increasingly dominate concert and CD/MP3 release schedules whatever happened to classical music's much vaunted long tail?

About Baroque was bought at the Harmonia Mundi boutique in Arles. This is the label's home base and the Mas from which the company is run is outside Arles. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A Philippa Schuyler moment

An earlier post painted a word portrait of child prodigy, pianist and composer Philippa Schuyler. Her music is rarely heard today and difficult to find. So we are very fortunate that John McLaughlin Williams agreed to record her Nine Little Pieces for piano specially for On An Overgrown Path. His recording can be heard via the YouTube video above, and in the article below he analyses her music
Philippa Schuyler. Just hearing the name takes me back to a place in my childhood I have not revisited in memory more than a couple of times in decades. Philippa Schuyler’s name was but one of dozens lodged in my parent’s large sheet music library, occupying shelf space alongside the giants and talented lesser lights of our canonic music literature. Even among those lesser lights Schuyler seemed to me an odd duck a the time, for here peering at me from the cover of the sole piece of music by her in our possession was a picture of a seven year old girl of mixed race, rather than an aged, wizened and likely bearded Caucasian man. Wasn’t that what a composer was supposed to look like?
My being a beginning pianist of about ten or eleven at the time caused me to be extremely curious about the yellowed sheets containing nine pieces of progressive difficulty penned by Schuyler between the ages of four to nine. The fact that she was considered to be an exemplar of mid-twentieth century black achievement added to her music’s mystique. My parents played piano music of timeless worth; my dad enamored of Beethoven and Brahms, my mom all quicksilver and light in Chopin and Mozart. I was learning to play Scarlatti sonatas, my mind filled with the melody and counterpoint by masters of compositional craft. I sat down to play Schuyler’s music and was immediately filled with disappointment. “This is bad”, I thought to myself! It didn’t sound like what my parents played, much less like the music I was studying. Compared with the masters Schuyler’s work seemed trite, short breathed, and to my young mind, immature. (In retrospect and in defense of Schuyler’s work, because of the unusual way in which I began to play the piano, the valuable didactic nature of these pieces eluded me completely.) I played through the music, put it away and never looked at it again. Until last week.
When Bob Shingleton asked me if I knew anything about Philippa Schuyler, I said I knew a little. That little bit comprised my early impressions of her music coupled with knowledge acquired later of her reputation as a racial role model. (I was given Kathryn Talalay’s biography of Schuyler a few years ago, but I considered her such a marginal figure that to this day I have not read it.) Remembering dimly that my mother (Mrs. Norma McLaughlin Nelson) had some sheet music by Schuyler as well as her autograph (acquired at a concert my mom attended as a child in Greensboro, North Carolina), I offered to ask my mom if she still had these items in her possession, and if so would she share them with us. Mom looked and confirmed that indeed she did, and she would. Mom sent me scans of the material that I soon forwarded to Bob. After perusing the music he asked if I might consider making an informal recording of the little pieces, and that is when my trip down memory lane began.
I returned to the pieces with the same derision that I was left with many years ago, convinced that they lacked worth almost entirely. On paper they look very simple (with one exception). The published edition is in need of further editing; dynamic markings can be inconsistent or seemingly illogical, some pieces are meticulously marked, but some of the pieces have no tempo or dynamic markings at all, leaving one to infer everything about the piece save the notes. And yet as simply and naively as these nine pieces begin, as I played them I began to sense growth from one to the next, not only in an increasing confidence by the composer in her raw material, but also a mind attempting to incorporate aspects of then current musical trends.
For example, looking at the No.1 The Wolf we see simple triads and arpeggiated faux bourdon; No.2 Autumn Rain we have unprepared modulations to remote key areas and the lessening importance of a home key. Whereas No.3 The Jolly Pig is completely diatonic, No.4 At the Circus seems to lightly conjure the Stravinsky of Petrouchka. No.6 Men at Work (The WPA on a Construction Job) is by far the most dissonant piece, employing free linear chromaticism and clusters of minor seconds. This piece is also the most technically involved of the nine. I found No.7 Song of the Machine to be the most remarkable of the group. In its evocation of mechanistic automation it cannily recalls music of Sergei Prokofiev and the Soviet futurist composer Alexander Mossolov, and it is here that I finally thought that Schuyler was showing honest potential as a composer. I became genuinely impressed.
No.8 Morning Miniature returns to Schuyler’s diatonic idiom, but here she shows considerable advance beyond the simplicities of Nos. 3 and 5. The melody rings true as inspiration, admirable in its simultaneous simplicity and sophistication. Even without extension or development, it is a complete thought, and a remarkable one from a nine-year old. No.9 Postscript shows a way similar to Prokofiev in making the familiar seem less so, by imposing a simple diatonic melody upon an accompaniment of more dissonant harmony. Schuyler’s writing here is a far cry from the first pieces of the set; she is showing an ability to absorb tradition and a healthy curiosity about the modern music of her time, all encapsulated in a suite of pieces that impress by their precocity.
Ultimately, what do we have in Philippa Schuyler? What is it about her that is worth the preservation of her memory? Is it the person or the music? As a child Schuyler was presented to the black community as someone to emulate. To whites she was the perfect assimilated Black American; well educated, decent to look at, musically sophisticated and manifest with all the transplanted Western European mores that we were told would make the rest of us not merely good citizens, but good Americans. That had to be a heavy burden for her, and as she left us only a handful of works I’m sure it had a severe impact upon her creativity. Yet I must judge only by what I hear, and what I hear from the seven-year old girl makes me want to hear from the twenty-seven-year old woman.
Schuyler had true talent as a composer, and while she was not a child prodigy composer on the level of a Mendelssohn or Korngold, her compositional talent certainly deserved more support than it ultimately received. It may likely turn out that the value of her music is historical rather than as a living corpus of work for today’s audiences. As a female composer of biracial heritage, Schuyler is a relative rarity among composers. Yet whenever accomplishment is presented to us on the basis of race or ethnicity (as she was), we should rightly be suspect but we should also listen honestly. Whatever judgment is at last rendered, Schuyler’s talent does not deserve to be consciously ignored. Let’s examine what she left and see what she had to say. I have a feeling that we may be pleasantly surprised.

Now, I simply must read that book!

John McLaughlin Williams plays and writes about Philippa Schuyler who was born on August 2, 1931. Respect goes to John and to his mother Norma McLaughlin Nelson for making this project possible. The first part of this birthday tribute appeared as Philippa Schuyler - genius or genetic experiment?

1. John recorded Philippa's Nine Little Pieces in a non-studio environment. The piano was a 1919 Steinway and a Zoom H1 Recorder using MP3 192 kbps format was used.
2. The audio player requires the latest version of Windows media player, this may mean downloading a dedicated plug in for browsers such as Firefox or an update for Internet Explorer.
3. My research indicates that The Wolf, Autumn Rain and The Jolly Pig were published in 1938 as Three Easy Pieces and the remaining six pieces were added to an edition published approximately two years later. This should be read in conjunction with Philippa's birth date of August 1931.
4. It would be appreciated if any interested reader could add external links to the two Overgrown Path Philippa Schuyler resources on her Wikipedia entry because the Wiki police do not allow me to add links to my own web pages bacause of "self-interest". A separate post on the boring but important subject (nonsense?) of Wikipedia moderation is needed.
5. Copyright of images 1 and 9 lies with Norma McLaughlin Nelson. Copyright of the audio recording lies with John McLaughlin Williams.
6. My thanks go to Norma McLaughlin Nelson of Shaker Heights, Ohio, John McLaughlin Williams and our son for their pro bono contribution to this project.

Any copyrighted material other than that identified above 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.