Wednesday, July 31, 2013

More on classical music's image problem

'Photography, however, was not permitted. Some more taboos may need to fall.'
That quote comes from yesterday's review of the Bristol Proms by Norman Lebrecht and it is one of several instances where he has challenged the ban on photography at classical concerts. It is not my purpose to either challenge or defend that ban. My purpose is to point out that the ban on photography is part of the legal protection of audio and visual image copyright which ensures that ownership of intellectual property created during a concert remains with the performers. This legal protection allows the performers to commercially exploit that audio and visual intellectual property. Such protection financially benefits not only the performers, but also others to whom the audio and video copyrights are assigned, including record companies, film makers and photographic libraries.
'Lebrecht picture library is the world's largest resource for music pictures and all the creative arts. We have access to over 5 million images from collections we represent.'
That quote comes from the Lebrecht Music and Arts website which is run by Norman's wife Elbie. It is not my purpose to either challenge or defend the commercial exploitation of visual intellectual property. My purpose is to point out that the commercial viability of invaluable and perfectly legitimate resources such as the Lebrecht Music and Arts photographic library depends on the copyright protection of intellectual property - including photographs - created at classical concerts.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

How embedded marketing is reshaping classical music

Within hours of uploading my post about transparency in music blogging a newly released Deutsche Grammophon CD arrived in the post - not sent by Universal Music I hasten to add. As can be seen above the CD artwork is plastered with advertising for Universal's Sinfini Music website, so welcome to the brave new world of embedded marketing. Embedded marketing is a technique developed in the fast moving consumer goods industry that uses the high profile of a major brand to boost awareness of a sub-brand, and it is reshaping classical music. One of the best examples of embedded marketing is the BBC, where the high profile of the main BBC brand is leveraged to boost awareness of the BBC Proms sub-brand - a conservative estimate puts the value of the free promotional exposure for the BBC Proms across all BBC networks and websites at more than £1 million.

Now many readers will be asking what is wrong with that? Classical music needs all the promotion it can get, and the Proms are a wonderful institution. All of which is perfectly true, but it isn't quite that simple. The problem is that the major brands have total control over what they promote via embedded marketing. Which means that unless you are part of a sub-brand you are left to wither and die in the un-marketed wilderness. So the pressure to align yourself with the major brands, in other words toe the party line, is immense.

Sinfini Music is a revealing case study of embedded marketing. Sinfini Music is owned and controlled by Universal Music - which controls almost 60% of the market for recorded classical music - but the site's ownership is hidden away in the terms and conditions small print. Sinfini Music has ported the technique of recruiting embedded journalists from fast moving consumer goods. Sinfini Music has spread its activities, via its owner, into concert promotion. And right now Sinfini Music's embedded journalists are hard at work at the Universal Music backed Bristol Proms.

Yes, classical music needs all the promotion it can get and the Bristol Proms are daring to be different and doing many of the things suggested On An Overgrown Path years ago. But let's get a few things clear. Blogger Elaine Fine recently wrote very convincingly about the The Gradual Fall of Musical Bloggery. Independent music blogs are vital taste makers, and, just like classical music, need all the promotion they can get. But you will not find a single link to an independent music blog on the "editorially independent" Sinfini Music website or on the "editorially independent" BBC Radio 3 website - see this example and this example for evidence of just how editorially independent the BBC is when it comes to classical music. If you are an embedded journalist you are in clover, but if you don't toe the party line you wither and die in the un-marketed wilderness. That is how embedded marketing is reshaping classical music.

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pilgrimage in fluffy pink carpet slippers

We arrived in Aswan two days before President Morsi was deposed and Egypt started its descent into violence. Because of the deteriorating political situation we were advised not to go ashore from the boat that had brought us from Luxor. But my wife and I were not going to let a mere revolution stop us visiting the el-Tabia Mosque which we had glimpsed from the river as we arrived in the city. As the sun set a decrepit taxi took us along the corniche to the el-Tabia or Grand Mosque in the northern outskirts of Aswan. The tallest building in the city, the mosque was built in neo-Mamluk style with Saudi money and completed in 2010. Despite arriving unannounced we were welcomed at the door and taken on a tour. Our shoes were left outside and we were shown the main prayer hall before being taken up one of the barely finished minarets. As our shoes were still outside we were provided with temporary footwear for the steep ascent, mine were fluffy pink carpet slippers. The Maghrib call to prayer at sunset in Muslim countries is an unforgettable experience. But I never expected to be at the centre of the experience with the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the loudspeakers in front of me and the surrounding mosques echoing the call. There was no music other than the voice of the muezzin, but, despite the fluffy pink carpet slippers, I felt myself momentarily "crossing over". How true is this teaching of Venerable Amaro:
Just as the nature of water is not affected by the shape of the vessel into which it is poured, so too the nature of Ultimate Truth - the nationality and conditioning of the person in whom it is realised does not affect the way it actually is.

Quote is from Seeing the Way: Buddhist Reflections on the Spiritual Life, a valuable anthology of teachings by English-speaking disciples of Ajahn Chah which can be read online. All photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. Any other 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Music blogger heal thyself

Two of the First Ladies of music blogging have sparked a useful debate on the future of music blogs. Elaine Fine started the ball rolling on Musical Assumptions with her generally pessimistic post The Gradual Fall of Musical Bloggery. In it Elaine candidly shares readership data for her blog, which shows an apparent decline of more than 50% over a seven month period. I say apparent, because in a comment on Elaine's post I raise the point that during this period many readers have migrated from desktop to mobile internet access, and the traffic monitoring services are very fallible when it comes to tracking mobile access. Which means the apparent drop in readership for Musical Assumptions may not be a drop at all, but simply a change in technology platforms. Lisa Hirsch takes a more bullish view in her response on Iron Tongue of Midnight, suggesting that readership fluctuations are simply due to the "ebb and flow of blogging".

Although Elaine's concern about the gradual fall of music blogging may be overstated I share them, but for different reasons. Music blogs have almost certainly lost some audience, but more seriously they have lost authority. Thankfully over nine years the idiosyncratic and non-aligned On An Overgrown Path has - using the generally accepted "least wrong" independent measure available - retained a surprising degree of authority. The uncalibrated graph of pageviews below - uncalibrated because I want to avoid a "mine is bigger than yours" bragging match with a certain other blogger - also shows that the readership figure remains reassuringly robust.

So here is my gratuitous advice on how music bloggers can restore a degree of authority and arrest the gradual readership fall; advice incidentally that is not aimed at Elaine or Lisa whose blogs are models of authority.

Be more transparent: Blog is an acronym for 'personal web log' and in the early days 'personal' provided a warranty against commercial involvement. Unfortunately, and probably inevitably, the commercial agenda now swamps the personal in the majority of music blogs, and the result is the erosion of authority. The new Sinfini Music website is a very good example of how the authority of music blogging is being undermined. Fellow music writers have argued persuasively that freebies in the form of free tickets and review discs are essential to their work. It can also be argued that many of the great music writers in the past have written for both newspapers and record companies - Edward Greenfield's advocacy of André Previn in the early days of his career is a obvious example. But Sinfini Music with its relationship with several prominent music bloggers is something entirely different. It is covertly funded and controlled by Universal Music which control almost 60% of the classical record market and is now moving into concert promotion, and is in direct competition with independent media including music blogs. If a blogger takes money from a corporation they form a relationship, and that relationship should be declared as an interest. If that relationship is not prejudicial to independence, what is the harm in declaring it? Transparency is a prerequisite of authority and there is more on transparency in Are classical music journalists above criticism?

Dare to be different: The acid test for a blog post is to ask if it adds anything new to the subject matter. Microblogging (Facebook, Twitter etc) is notorious for its echo chamber effect, and blogs are increasingly falling into the same trap. If a press release arrives from a record company or concert promoter it is certain that it will also have arrived at every other music blogger. So why should anyone read yet another reheated version of it? Without exception the biggest stories measured by readership On An Overgrown Path have been those that no one else covered, e.g. A Philippa Schuyler moment. One of the major added value opportunities for blogs over micro-media is the graphic element, yet this opportunity is invariably ignored leaving blog posts looking like long-winded tweets. And daring to be different also means experimenting - and being prepared to fail - with different styles and formats. Forget the received wisdom that readers are time starved, if you write it long and good they will come. And remember that a blog with lots of Facebook 'likes' and Twitter 'retweets' is bad news, because it means the blogger is not daring to be different.

Stop chasing audience: It is one of the ironies that the more level-headed blogs agree on the dangers of classical music chasing audience, but the blogs themselves are pre-occupied with chasing audience. Whether we like it or not, Lebrecht has proved that there is an audience for a certain type of journalism. But remember the Classic FM fallacy. The BBC saw the large audience for Classic FM and used cultural genocide to turn Radio 3 into a Classic FM clone. But that did not increase the size of the total audience for classical radio as they expected, it simply split the existing Classic FM audience between the two stations. Similarly, aping tabloid music journalism will simply split the audience for that particular style of writing. Music blogs should be worrying about quality not quantity of readers. The difference between tabloid music journalism and quality music journalism is the difference between a rifle and a shotgun. A shotgun - tabloid journalism - sprays shot in the hope that some of it hits the target. A rifle - quality journalism - takes careful aim and hits the target with one bullet. Yes, some of the trends in music blogging are depressing. But let's remember that one bull's eye makes it all worthwhile. I have quoted Libby Purves several times in the past, but make no apologies for quoting her again in conclusion:

'To run radio you must be like an old-fashioned publisher, a 1930s Gollancz or Faber and Faber, working on faith and idealism and wanting to share what you yourself love. All that you can do is to make - and publicise - the best and most passionately well-crafted programmes you can think of. Ratings have to be watched, but calmly and with a sense of proportion. You have to believe that if even one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed, or comforted, by a programme, then that programme has been worthwhile.'
Quote is from Libby Purves' book Radio: A True Love Story. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Listening to something means you start to change it

"We find in physics now that they don't talk about an 'objective observer' and the 'observed' any more. Physicists have come around to seeing in terms of 'the participant'. The mere fact of looking at something means you start to change it" writes Buddhist monk and teacher Venerable Kittisaro. "Very occasionally you are lucky enough to encounter a performance in which a sort of mystical transformation takes place" writes Jessica Duchen of Wagner at the BBC Proms. "Probably the best Lachenmann performance - and doubtless part of that was the communal experience of being in the RAH - I've heard" comments Mark Berry. "One of those rare experiences of being transported by music to another and better world" I report about Jonathan Harvey's Fourth String Quartet at the Aldeburgh Festival. Just as the mere fact of looking at something means you start to change it, so the mere fact of listening to something means you start to change it. Listener as participant is a vitally important but overlooked variable in classical music. All the examples above are positive, but the reverse also applies. Three years ago I wrote about Classical music's viral loop. But there is also a downward viral loop which means that audiences with low musical aspirations reduce the aspirations of the music they participate in. Header graphic is a Sufi depiction of the complementary (waqt) spiritual state (ḥāl). More on this vital loop in The mysticism of sound and music.

Header quote is from Seeing the Way: Buddhist Reflections on the Spiritual Life, a valuable anthology of teachings by English-speaking disciples of Ajahn Chah which can be read online. 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

The children of the Rhine lament their looted gold

Behind the naïve suggestion that the coveting of gold, and of the outward power wielded by gold, is the source of all evil, Wagner himself saw an implication of much deeper relevance: that material acquisitiveness (more truly, the neurotic insecurity of which acquisitiveness is one symptom) may drive out love, by which in this context he meant all the unifying force of sympathy and compassion as well as the mutual desire of men and women.
Robert Donington writes of the coveting of gold in Wagner's Ring and its Symbols. In today's news the Church of England announces it will work with credit unions to counter loan sharks. In the Muslim world the enduring appeal of trust-based hawala financial networks confounds and disturbs Western governments. In Das Rheingold Loge sings of how the children of the Rhine lament their looted gold. In his book The New Wagnerian Abdalqadir as-Sufi condemns Western usury and advocates a gold based Shari‘ah currency. Are we ready for an Islamic interpretation of Wagner?

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Most of my musician patients are in orchestras

If you look carefully at this photo of contrabassoonist Burl Lane, who retired in 2008 after playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 43 years, you will see that he is wearing musicians' ear plugs. Melophobia is a little-known and little-understood neurophysiological condition. It is often wrongly defined as a fear of music, but is, in fact, an aversion to music caused by painful conditions resulting from prolonged exposure to loud sounds. Tinnitus and hyperacusis are the most common of these conditions and the risk to musicians can be greatly reduced by wearing custom designed tuned ear plugs such as those seen in the photo. Hearing damage is most often associated with rock musicians, but in one of the few informed articles about melophpobia Dr. Marsha Johnson clinical director at the Oregon Tinnitus & Hyperacusis Clinic, who has been treating melophobia sufferers for more than a decade, reveals:
Oddly enough, most of my musician patients are in orchestras, philharmonics, or symphony groups—or are piano players. These instruments are often quite loud, and the whole group productions are very loud, and I believe that the practice times needed to acquire great skill on these instruments are longer. Many professionals playing violins, flutes, cellos, and so on begin very early in life, so their exposure time may already have been decades long when they first begin to perform professionally.
Dr. Marsha Johnson talks about the "deep fear and shame" associated with tinnitus and hyperacusis, and for this reason there needs to be more awareness of these conditions within classical music, particularly with the high sound levels associated with currently fashionable composers such as Mahler. There is, fortunately, a greater awareness of the risk to listeners from amplified music and from the massive recent growth of listening to portable audio players using headphones . But despite this greater awareness Dr. Johnson issues this stark warning:
The use of things such as iPods, which are forcing sound right down into the ear canal with the newer, tighter ear buds, is going to produce hearing loss and other auditory issues at far younger ages than we’ve seen in the past. This is going to be an epidemic of great proportions in our world.
Given that most of Dr. Marsha Johnson's musician patients are in orchestras, it is puzzling why so many people in classical music have never even heard of melophobia.

Header photo credit is Anaheim Hearing Centre. 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Will it be Prince Alban?

Will the new royal baby be named Prince Alban in honour of his grandfather's favourite composer?

Photo credit Mixmag. 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Are we ready for an Islamic interpretation of Wagner?

And so, the Grail was nothing other than the Black Stone of the Ka'aba, the central shrine of the world's last religion, purified judaeo-christianity, Islam. Makkah is named in the Qur'an as the Mother of Cities, and thus the 'birthplace of all nations' and the Ka'aba is named the 'primal shrine of all mankind'. Embedded in one corner of the Ka'aba stands the Black Stone which every muslim raises his lips to and kisses when he arrive dusty and exhausted as a pilgrim, kisses as if quenching his thirst. This is the extraordinary tale that Wagner has, partly despite himself, and partly aware, chosen to tell the world in his farewell revolutionary message. Both the Bey of Tunis and Abd al-Hamid II, Caliph of Islam, contributed to the foundation of Bayreuth, they had not yet heard Parsifal, but their hearts drew them to this most spiritual of men among men in an age of darkness. When Parsifal ends in its vast serenity, 'One of the most beautiful edifices in sound ever raised to the glory of music' as Debussy described it, a white dove descends and hovers over Parsifal - symbol of peace which in Arabic bears the same root 'S-L-M' as pure religion itself, Islam.
This year we celebrate the Wagner bicentennial and tonight Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin open their Ring cycle at the BBC Proms. Which means the media is full of 'Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim defends performance of anti-Semitic Wagner's Ring cycle' and 'Bayreuth director to face court over Hitler salute' stories. Newsworthy maybe, but what's new? Well actually what is new is the discovery of an Islamic perspective on Wagner that deserves serious consideration. That quote above comes from a Sufi Shaykh's book on Wagner, and here is the story behind it.

In April 2010 I wrote about the Muslim teacher and prolific author Abdalqadir as-Sufi. Born Ian Dallas in Scotland in 1930, he was part of the London media scene in the 1960s where his work included adapting classic novels for the BBC and appearing in the Federico Fellini iconicc . The folklore of the '60s credits him with giving Eric Clapton the copy of the ancient Persian Sufi parable Layla and Majnun that inspired Clapton's song Layla. In 1967 Dallas converted to Islam in Morocco and became Abdalqadir as-Sufi. After founding the Ihsan Mosque in Norwich in 1977 he started the Murabitun World Movement in Granada, Spain. He went on to open a centre for the education of Muslim leaders in Cape Town in 2004. While Abdalqadir as-Sufi's Murabitun World Movement takes a liberal position on terrorism (against), veiling (against) and social welfare (for), its alignment with the orthodox Salafi movement on other matters is more contentious. He has also courted controversy in the Muslim world by accusing the Saudis of choosing wealth over theology.

Sufism has been a long-running strand On An Overgrown Path and two years ago I asked Was Wagner a Sufi? There was no connection between this post and the one about Ian Dallas other than the obvious common thread of Sufism, but in the second post I explained "One of the many wide-ranging definitions of a Sufi is a seeker of inner wisdom, and using this definition Wagner and many others can be categorised as adepts". When I wrote that in October 2012 I was unaware of the extraordinary coincidence that Abdalqadir as-Sufi writing as Ian Dallas is the author of a noteworthy and completely overlooked book on Wagner, the book in fact which my opening quote is taken from. Quite appropriately my detective work uncovered the book earlier in 2013, and I offer this discussion of it as my modest contribution to the Wagner bicentenary.

That is Ian Dallas aka Abdalqadir as-Sufi in the photo below. His book The New Wagnerian was published in Granada in 1990. Before discussing its themes the point should be made strongly that The New Wagnerian is not a lightweight misappropriation of Wagner by a radical Muslim cleric. Yes, it is a slim 171 page volume. But make no mistake, Ian Dallas knows his music, he knows and loves his Wagner and can really write - he dismisses Ernest Newman's writings as "tedious tomes" and his prose bears comparison with another great champion of Wagner, Bernard Levin. More than three quarters of the book is taken up with erudite but idiosyncratic analysis of Wagner's music dramas, and these sections only hint at the overt Islamic agenda that emerges in the concluding chapters.

The New Wagnerian is multi-layered and can be read as an appreciation of Wagner and his music, as a portrait of a political activist, or, most controversially, as an Islamic interpretation of Wagner. The key to appreciating the book is first understanding the three agendas that pre-occupy the author both as Abdalqadir as-Sufi and Ian Dallas. (For simplicity I use the latter identity in all future references). The first theme is coupledom, the "tragically unattainable dream" of the union man and woman, a theme that also, of course, preoccupied Wagner both in his music and personal life. Dallas finds much in Wagner's oeuvre to explore on this subject and draws parallels between the annihilation of self-hood by the lovers in Tristan and Isolde and the self-annihilation sought by Sufi adepts.

"The Jungian Wagner, trapped in the Swiss cuckoo-clock of the anima-animus" is rejected by Dallas who, inevitably, places emphasis on the love/hate relationship between Nietzche and Wagner, while playing down Schopenhauer's influence but placing emphasis on Heidegger's commentaries. The New Wagnerian pleads that:

The need is not to locate the action of the Ring in science-fiction settings or overload it with psycho-analytic symbols... the need is to think about Wagnerian vision and see it as well as hear it, grasp it as well as surrender to it".
The second overarching theme of The New Wagnerian is the nature of the state and leadership. The establishment of an Islamic Caliphate led by a supreme religious ruler is one of Dallas' core doctrines, and in The New Wagnerian he repeatedly rejects Western democracy as a failed concept and the states that embrace it as failed institutions. Here is one of his prescient - this was written in pre-Guantanamo 1990 remember - but inflammatory condemnations of Western democracy:
European man is radically less free in today's so-called democracies than he had been in the Third Reich. Police today have more far-reaching powers and legislative support for arbitrary arrest than ever in history, and the computerising of citizens' records assures their all but helpless political condition, to say nothing of the danger in which they may lie from technologised torture.
Dallas sees the Ring as "inescapably a political work" and appropriates its revolutionary themes to support his advocacy of rule by a theocratic leader. Despite the quote in the previous paragraph and provocative rants elsewhere he does not express any sympathy for Hitler's doctrines - "neither the Second nor the Third Reich could claim Wagner, nor, for that matter the banker's new united Germany", but shares Wagner's admiration for the German volk and the legacy of Goethe and Beethoven. Perversely, Dallas rejects democracy but supports personal freedom, advocating a Gurdjieff-like programme to "demotivate man from robotic continuity" and thereby destroy the state system, explaining that "it is this theme that vibrates and evolves and is so profoundly meditated throughout the Ring, and aspects of it vibrate through all the Master's works".

Many will find Ian Dallas' views on state and leadership unpalatable. But, in mitigation, these views are linked to his third overarching theme, the rejection of capitalist economies dedicated to the exploitation of usury. As an alternative Dallas advocates a return to zakat, the obligatory alms giving from accumulated wealth defined in the Qur'an. The Murabitun World Movement is noted for its rejection of paper based currencies and its advocacy of an alternative Shari‘ah currency based solely on gold and silver, a proposition that resonates strongly with the message of the Ring. Again these views are contentious but prescient: here is Ian Dallas writing in pre-credit crunch and pre-Occupy movement 1990:

"In reality the usury system is mathematically doomed to ultimate collapse, and the real meaning of democracy is that people have been granted limited rights to social order in the imperium, but utterly forbidden access to the world's wealth".
In his final chapter 'Wagner and Religion' Ian Dallas cuts to the Islamic chase and interprets Wagner's repeated rejection of Judeo-Christianity as leaving the door wide open for the third great monotheistic tradition. Wagner's longed for 'one religion and no state' is revealed as Islam and the small problem that there is only limited evidence to support this is dismissed with the explanation that "Wagner has, partly despite himself, and partly aware" written the first Islamic music drama. The main evidence produced to support the Islamic sub-text is Wagner's 1852 assertion that the 14th century Persian poet and mystic Hafez "is the greatest and most sublime philosopher". Ian Dallas dismisses the "small group of confused christians who look to Parsifal to uphold their bizarre religion of ritual homeopathic anthropophagism" and instead gives us a full-blown Islamic interpretation of Wagner. As with all other quotes this one retains Dallas' subjective capitalisation.
What happens next is the transformation of all the christian rites into their Islamic equivalent. Firstly Parsifal declares himself King. Islam law is founded on leadership. He bathes himself in water - the act of baptism is transformed into the act of wudhu' or ritual purification by water before prayer. Parsifal, following Qur'anic instruction, bathes his face and head, arms and feet. The act is completed by the annointing which in turn is the perfuming of the muslim. The 'Good' Friday of the calendar becomes the Friday instituted as the day of public worship...
So are we ready for an Islamic interpretation of Wagner? I sincerely hope we are, even if it does not meet with our approval. The dissenters will certainly be in the majority, but Ian Dallas deserves praise for taking us far beyond our comfort zone, which is more than most current Wagner bicentennial are events are doing. Jungians, Christians and other Western groupings have given us their perspective on Wagner, so why not Muslims? And Ian Dallas would not be the first to controversially reinterpret a musical masterpiece: as recounted here previously, that great patriotic anthem Jerusalem started life a a recruiting song for a syncretic spiritual movement. There is much to relish in The New Wagnerian, but also much to question. But that can also be said of Wagner, who we are celebrating so enthusiastically this year. Now does anyone know of any books about Britten and Sufism?

* Sources include:
- The New Wagnerian by Ian Dallas (ISBN 844047475X) published by Freiburg Books, Granada, Spain. See note below on availability.
- Personal website of Abdalqadir as-Sufi
- Text of presentation by Abdassabur Kirke on Ian Dallas' writings.
- 'The work of Shaykh Dr.Abdalqadir as sufi' at Ummah, the online Muslim community.

** It appears that the Islamic publisher Bookworks in Norwich - with which I have absolutely no connection - has the small remaining stock of The New Wagnerian. Copies can be bought from them via Amazon. The Bookworks also publishes Ian Dallas: Collected Works which includes The New Wagnerian and his highly recommended Sufi novel The Book of Strangers.

*** Wagner at the 2013 BBC Proms
- The Ring with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin on July 22, 23, 26 and 28.
- Tristan and Isolde with Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on July 27.
- Tannhäuser with Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on August 4.
- Parsifal with Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra on August 25.

**** Ian Dallas' interpretation of Wagner will almost certainly meet with disapproval. But there are interesting similarities between my header and footer photos.
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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Rise and fall of the most socially famous conductor

Today we have a new pretender to the title of 'Face of the Proms'. But fifty years ago the Proms had a very different 'face' and the story of his rise and fall still has considerable relevance. Between 1947 and 1966 Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted no less than 508 Promenade Concerts* and from 1950 to 1957 was chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was Sargent who first alerted the BBC to the TV ratings potential of the Proms with his theatrical Last Nights as seen above, and his heavyweight TV exposure made Sargent - nicknamed 'Flash Harry' - the first classical music household name in the UK. In an age where success is measured in social media impact it is significant that Nicholas Kenyon - who was director of the BBC Proms from to 1996 to 2007 - describes Sargent during his Proms tenure as "the most socially famous conductor in the country".

But despite his popularity Sargent fell from grace with the BBC. His autocratic manner was disliked by both musicians and programme planners, and his attitude towards contemporary music was disparaging - he famously introduced his broadcast performance of Benjamin Frankel's Violin Concerto with the words "Although it is contemporary music, it is a work of appealing intensity". Sargent's conservative and autocratic manner finally caused his downfall. But the handling of his exit in 1957 from the position of chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra showed the growing power of the broadcast media over classical music: despite his obvious failings Sargent continued, and I quote the BBC statement, as "Conductor-in-Chief of the Promenade Concerts, and Chief Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in sound and television at other times of the year".

Sargent's popularity with radio and TV audiences and his unpopularity within the musical establishment are both well documented. But there is another reason why he should be remembered. He replaced Sir Adrian Boult as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1950 when Boult was forcibly "retired" at the ripe old age of 60. The terms of Sargent's contract as chief conductor were radically different from his predecessor's, and became a template both for future agreements and for future working relationships between conductors and orchestras such as the BBC Symphony. The biggest innovation in Sargent's contract was that the BBC guaranteed him maximum public exposure but left him considerable freedom to guest conduct. The contract failed to stipulate the exact amount of time he would spend with the BBC orchestra, but instead simply said he would conduct "as many rehearsals and performances as possible". This conveniently flexible arrangement not only contributed to under-rehearsed concerts - an internal BBC report tells of Sargent conducting "as shocking a performance of the Brahms First Symphony as I have ever heard" - but was also a precursor to the later leaderless years that, hopefully, Sakari Oramo's appointment as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra will bring to an end.

The considerable strengths of Sir Malcolm Sergant must not be overlooked. Although he was disliked by many rank and file musicians he was revered by choral singers and his performances of large choral works were outstanding. But there are many important lessons to be learnt from "the most socially famous conductor in the country". These include the dangers of too much contractual freedom, the need for a balance between contemporary and mainstream repertoire, the fragile nature of the crucial conductor/orchestra relationship, and the impermanence of celebrity. But the most important lesson from the rise and fall of the first 'Face of the Proms' is that, ultimately, it is the music, not the TV ratings, that matters.

* Please don't tell current Proms director Roger Wright, but there were Winter Proms in the 1940s and 50s.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

And please stop that dreadful woman shrieking

Those dismayed by the social media reaction to the recent Proms performance of Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied can take heart from the Twitter response above to Vaughan William's Sea Symphony. Walt Whitman's verse also supplies the text for RVW's lesser known Toward the Unknown Region which receives a rare performance on August 11 in a free Prom that also includes the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Frieze. I await the critical deconstruction of both works on the social media with bated breath.

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Memorable contemporary ditties from the Ardittis

"And what an extraordinary piece it is! Probably the best Lachenmann performance... I've heard" declares Mark Berry of the Boulezian about Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied. The Lachenmann work was played by the Arditti Quartet - seen above - with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Jonathan Nott, and Mark added his comment to my post about the Prom in which it was given its UK first performance. Recently I described the Arditti's performance of Jonathan Harvey's Fourth Quartet at this year's Aldeburgh Festival as providing "one of those rare experiences of being transported by music to another and better world" and in another post I drew attention to the Quartet's recordings on the Aeon label of memorable contemporary ditties from Jonathan Harvey, Pascal Dusapin, Roberto Gerhard and Harrison Birtwistle. The Pascal Dusapin double CD is particularly recommended as it showcases a contemporary composer who deserves to be much better known, while the whole sequence of recordings by the Arditti of contemporary quartet masterpieces for the tiny French Aeon label provides a shining beacon in an industry where the creative vision of the corporate labels grows ever dimmer.

Looking back over my posts in the past week I see I have written more about the 2013 BBC Proms than I did about the entire season last year. Which just goes to show the continuing importance of this music festival, and all credit must go to the BBC for programming the Lachenmann piece. It is also heartening to read Mark Berry reporting in his own post outraged reaction to the Lachenmann on that arbiter of contemporary taste YouTube - "could someone please explain to me what the hell this has to do with music!!" - in fact just like the good old days when audiences stormed out.

That ability to provoke strong reactions shows how vitally important the Proms are. But what a pity that for radio and TV audiences that vital importance is masked by the curse of ego-centricity. Just as an example, last night's Thomas Adès Prom relay was bedevilled by presentation announcements from Katie Derham who, for much of the time, was struggling for something to say but felt she had to say something. Now let's be charitable and assume that there is a demand for this style of vacuous presentation. But the stasis in Radio 3's audience shows that a significant number of people are literally turned off by it. One of the curses of classical music is ego-centricity, the other is the mistaken dogma that one size fits all, with the chosen size invariably on the dumber side of the historic median. But there is a solution. In the distant days when I worked on BBC Radio we had a clean feed into the studio, this was the programme content (music and hall atmosphere in the case of a Prom) stripped of continuity announcements. We live in an age of greatly expanded bandwidth and 'red button' interactive options. It would cost the BBC little and secure the loyalty of its core audience if it provided the choice of the Katie Derham/Petroc Trelawny 'enhanced' Proms for those who want them, or a clean feed of the music only for those who don't - text is available on both FM and digital platforms to identify the music on the clean feed option. And before anyone dismisses my proposal with the comment that broadcast music without continuity announcements is unworkable, isn't that exactly what you get when you attend the concert itself or buy a CD or download?

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why distance lends enchantment to classical music

A sultry summer's evening and a Mahler symphony, it can only be the priceless Proms. But, while last night's BBC Radio 3 broadcast delivered Mahler's Fifth played by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Jonathan Nott in full-blooded sound, it failed to deliver the unique sonic atmosphere of the Albert Hall. Last year I cited the Radio 3 relay of Elgar's The Apostles from the Proms as a topical example of the curse of close-miking, and yesterday's Mahler symphony provided yet another example with the sonic signature of the venue traded for impact, with the spotlit harp in the Adagietto sounding like a bass guitar and with the heavy hand of the balance engineer squashing Mahler's dynamics in the Rondo-Finale.

Portable audio players bring the music up close and personal, so recordings and broadcasts are now balanced up close and personal. Yet distance is a vital element of classical music, as Sir Adrian Boult - a veteran of the Proms and under whose baton some of the best sounding recordings ever were made - eloquently explains in the anthology of his writings titled Boult on Music:
Whenever I am able to reach the top gallery of the Royal Albert Hall, I always feel it is an ideal place to listen from. The sound is clear and the quality is somehow purified, and the balance far better than anywhere else in the Hall. It isn't at all necessary to sit in front; in fact I prefer the back... you can see nothing, and as there are not many chairs you find people lying on the floor drinking in the sound in a dedicated and impersonal atmosphere. It is the music that matters up there not the performer. So there are, I think, occasions when distance lends enchantment, and space, in two senses of the term, is a help to the ideal projection of fine music.
What wisdom: 'people lying on the floor drinking in the sound in a dedicated and impersonal atmosphere' resonates with Jonathan Harvey's thoughts on classical traditions, and 'it is the music that matters up there not the performer' resonates with today's cult of the celebrity musician. Sir Adrian's reference to distance lending enchantment is not just whimsy. Enchantment, magic, ineffability or whatever you want to call it, is not a 'nice to have' in a Mahler symphony or any other great music; it is a 'must have'. Classical music's failure to connect with contemporary audiences is because it has been stripped of its enchantment and reduced to no more than a string of binary digits. Classical music has no fixed center than can be captured by binary digits alone, and it will only connect when the 'experts' finally realise that it is a vast process, an ever-moving stream of becomings and extinctions, a series of psychophysical reactions and responses with no fixed center or unchanging ego-entity, of which sound is just one small part. And if those words sound surprisingly eloquent for this blog it is because they are paraphrased from Nancy Wilson Ross' Buddhism: A Way of Life and Thought - this is the quote in context:
At his Enlightenment Gautama saw himself and all life as a vast process, an ever-moving stream of becomings and extinctions, and within this ever-moving flow and interpenetration of energies he recognised as delusion the idea of the existence of an individual ego. What was taken for the "self" was actually a composite of various aggregates, a series of psychophysical reactions and responses with no fixed center or unchanging ego-entity.
It is of great significance that Sir Adrian's book, which was published in the technologically dark age of the 1980s, is sub-titled Words from a Lifetime's Communication. What wisdom can be found in the writings quoted in this post. And what great delusions classical music labours under today.

My photo, which I took in the Albert Hall but not from the gods that Sir Adrian writes about (does anyone still call them the gods?), is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. Any other 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). No freebies were used in this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Vaughan Williams and the summer of love

Walt Whitman's line 'Behold the sea itself' opens Ralph Vaughan William's Sea Symphony* in a huge wave of sound that breaks over the audience. Hearing RVW's stroke of genius again at Friday's opening Prom performed by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra excited many resonances. Alex Ross' tweet that "the opening gesture of Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony carries me away every time" resonated with these words written by that great editor and publisher Robert Giroux** for the introduction to Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain :
In books that become classics ("A classic is a book that remains in print" - Mark Van Doren) the opening words often seem to be inevitable, as if they possibly could not have been otherwise - "Call me Ishmael," "Happy families are all alike," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
The opening of the Sea Symphony may be bold and inevitable, but Vaughan Williams is still all too often pigeonholed as a timid English pastoralist. This despite some of the most brutal music ever written coming from his pen, including the Sixth Symphony which is another work that opens with a massive avalanche of sound. It is also still thought in some places that Vaughan Williams' music needs a British conductor. But on Friday the BBC Symphony Orchestra's new Finnish chief conductor Sakari Oramo once again proved that assumption woefully wrong. That great British conductor Sir Adrian Boult will always be my first choice for Vaughan Williams. But my love affair with his nine symphonic masterpieces was first triggered by that American son of German refugees André Previn's more virile interpretations recorded between 1967 and 1972 with the London Symphony Orchestra - how many other celebrated interpreters of Vaughan Williams are on record as having dabbled in hallucinogens? As we agonise over how to attract young audiences to classical music it is worth remembering that in the late 1960s young audiences - including a young me - were listening to Vaughan Williams and Michael Pretorius as well as Led Zeppelin thanks to the advocacy of animateurs such André Previn and David Munrow. We may have Twitter, but where are today's equivalents of those prodigiously talented generation-bridging animateurs?

1967 was the 'summer of love' and that is reflected in Andre's sartorial tastes as captured on the artwork for my original vinyl LP set of his RCA RVW cycle seen above. And resonance excites resonance. Walt Whitman was a quasi-transcedentalist and Saturday's opening Prom also included the first performance of Julian Anderson's Harmony*** which sets a text by the nineteenth century mystic Richard Jefferies - will mysticism be the next big thing at the Proms? Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk, peace activist and friend of Joan Baez, and his advocacy of inter-religious dialogue in the 1960s led him to the mystical tradition of Sufism. That tradition provides the following personal favourite among inevitable openings which comes from Robert Irwin's autobiographical tale of Sufis, mystics and the sixties Memoirs of a Dervish:

It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided I wanted to become a Sufi saint. I wish I could remember more.
I remember my own recent and far more modest travels with a Sufi saint here.

* The opening line of the Sea Symphony is usually mistakenly quoted as 'Behold the sea' as the word 'itself' is inevitably drowned - in more ways than one - by the first orchestral crescendo.

** Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Alex's book The Rest is Noise is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishing house that Robert Giroux joined in 1964 and which is now owned by Macmillan, a subsidiary of the German multi-national Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group.

*** An article titled In Harmony by Julian Anderson in The Musical Times introduced the ideas and music of Tristan Murail.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Variations on a theme of Harrison Parrott

Friday's opening 2013 BBC Prom was musically very satisfying, and I will be posting some further positive thoughts on the concert shortly. But with reference to my recent musings on the hidden power behind the Proms, it is worth pointing out that the new chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Sakari Oramo, who conducted Friday's Prom, is managed by Harrison Parrot, As is Stephen Hough who Oramo accompanied in Paganini's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Yes, musically very satisfying; but, as I predicted last year, new chief conductor but the same old tune.

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How to lose more friends and followers

A post-crash fire contributed to the Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 tragedy at San Francisco Airport in which two passengers died and many were hurt. Just days later Boeing's state-of-the-art 787 suffered a less serious fire at Heathrow airport. So time to restate my unpopular views on allowing bulky musical instruments into the cabins of passenger jets. As I have said before, I have every sympathy with musicians whose livelihood is threatened by restrictions on taking fragile and valuable instruments into plane cabins. It is a problem that must be solved, but the solution is not to plead that musicians are a special case and should be exempt from eminently sensible safety regulations. Seat belts are designed to restrain humans, not cellos. Which means in an emergency a cello may become a projectile that at the best blocks an emergency exit, and at the worst kills someone. When flying to Egypt a few weeks ago a ridiculously oversize bag - not musical instrument - was allowed into the cabin of our Boeing 757 by lax ground staff at Gatwick airport. This simply reinforced my gloomy prediction that in the near future bulky cabin baggage causing obstructions will contribute to an avoidable aircraft tragedy, as inevitably will the proposed relaxation of the ban on passengers using electronic equipment during take-off and landing. More on my personal experience of this topic here.

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

The joy of exploring musical roads less travelled

Passion led me from wistful ballads to anguished opera, then to the poetry and songs of medieval troubadours, those somewhat sufi Christians whose ethos of romantic longing for a distant beloved were expressed in the strange irresistible twangs of 'langue d'Oc'. The more I listened to troubador music with its ethos of amorous longing, the more of those eastern resonances I hungered for. I followed the trial south from Cathar country across the Pyrenees towards the urgent sorrows and heartache of guttural flamenco, sobbing to Arabic and Kathak rhythms. For weeks I played nothing except Harmonia Mundi's 'Musique Arabo-Andalouse', familiarity increasing pleasure.
Anthologies are the best way to travel and that extract comes from Philippa Scott's contribution to the rich and rewarding anthology Meetings with Remarkable Muslims. Philippa Scott shares with me many roads less travelled: David Munrow, whose survey of the music of the troubadors The Art of Courtly Love is seen above, has appeared here many times, while Sufism is a recurring theme On An Overgrown Path. Cathar country was visited by me in A vintage year for blasphemy and heresy, and that pioneering twentieth-century sufi Christian Thomas Merton was born in Prades in Cathar country. Recently I walked through Languedoc in the footsteps of Alma Mahler. This journey took me across the foothills of the Pyrenees into Catalonia where Salvador Dail created his anguished and forgotten Cathar opera Être Dieu, and on into Arabo-Andalouse - Moorish Spain. Harmonia Mundi's Musique Arabo-Andalouse - which has never been out of the catalogue since its 1976 release - was recorded by Gregorio Paniagua's Atrium Musicae Madrid and he featured in Multiculturalism beyond big music.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Which composers are having a hard time at the Proms?

BBC Prom director Roger Wright's assertion in yesterday's sycophantic Telegraph interview that "I do have an enthusiasm for British music, which I think is well-known" passes unchallenged by Ivan Hewett, but not by me. Yes, during Wright's tenure at the Proms many works by popular British composers have been programmed - Vaughan Williams and Britten at tonight's opening concert for instance - and there have been token appearances for more obscure British composers including Havergal Brian's media-friendly Gothic Symphony. But despite Wright saying in the interview that "British music has always been part of the Proms’ mission" there has been no serious attempt by him to mine the rich vein of substantial orchestral works by less well known twentieth-century British composers. For example, since being appointed Proms director in April 2007 he has not programmed a single symphony by Malcolm Arnold, Robert Simpson, Edmund Rubbra or William Alwyn. And the masterly symphonies of that towering figure in British music Arnold Bax have received just one performance in the last six seasons, while the sixtieth anniversary of Bax's death this year is drowned in a sea of rather more media-friendly Wagner. In the interview Roger Wright is surprisingly coy about his enthusiasm for Broadway musicals. But the tweet above reveals all while also giving a whole new meaning to yesterday's warning to be on your guard at the 2013 BBC Proms.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

On your guard for the 2013 BBC Proms

Tomorrow the 2013 BBC Proms start with the appealing combination of Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony. I have lost count of how many Proms I have attended, and some years ago wrote here that "I am a huge fan of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts... they have changed my life". This year season quite rightly celebrates the Wagner bicentennial, but my enthusiasm for the Proms in their current guise is moderated by the wish expressed by Hans Sachs in the concluding monologue of Die Meistersinger that Art be kept genuine. So, on the eve of the new Proms season, I am setting down some thoughts on how Art, as it finds expression at the BBC Proms, can be kept genuine. These thoughts are often at variance with the coverage found elsewhere - see header graphic - and for that I am unapologetic. For years I have been critical of the BBC's stewardship of classical music, a stance that has lost me many friends and followers. But now others, including the chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten, are expressing "shock and dismay" at glaring inadequacies in the BBC management process. During his appearance yesterday before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee the new director general Tony Hall confessed that the BBC had "lost the plot" with regard to key financial controls. So I offer the following thoughts in the hope that they may, in some small measure, help the BBC avoid losing the classical music plot in a similar way.

In June this year Concert Club was soft launched with the objective of making BBC Radio 3's "huge back catalogue... more inviting to classical music and opera fans". It took me a while to work out what Concert Club actually is, other than a knee jerk reaction to that poster child of dumbing-down Sinfini Music. But after grappling with the PR spin for a while I fathomed out that Concert Club is an alternative way to make BBC iPlayer classical music content, including Proms, accessible. And in the process I uncovered that, despite having lavish internal web resources, the BBC has partnered with two outside agencies - Lume Labs and Caper - for the two month trial. Moreover, despite having an annual license fee income of £3.4 billion, funding for Concert Club is provided not by the BBC, but by the UK innovation agency. The outside funding for the Concert Club project is probably explained by the BBC blowing £100 million of its IT budget on an aborted Digital Media Initiative that, to quote director general Tony Hall "wasted a huge amount of licence fee payers' money". Even more in fact than another recent cause celebre, £60 million blown on BBC senior staff payoffs.

The BBC may sometimes ignore basic journalistic checks, but it has not forgotten how to spend money. And Radio 3 controller and Proms director for life Roger Wright certainly spends money, both with his personal expenses and with the artists that he brings to the Proms. Much has been made of this season's undoubtedly commendable 'Wagner for a fiver'. But what is the true cost of a Proms concert? Despite the concerts being funded from a public levy, it is impossible to accurately identify how much money is spent on them. This is because while the BBC's management activities are open to public scrutiny, its broadcast activities are conveniently shielded from Freedom of Information requests. Which results in the absurd and insidious situation whereby FOI requirements oblige the Proms director to reveal to the stakeholding public the tens of pounds he pays in taxi fares to attend a meeting with an artist's agent, but not the thousands of pounds he commits to paying the artist to appear at the Proms or the commission the agent earns for brokering the deal.

To my knowledge the only serious attempt to put a financial cost on the Proms was made by me in a 2009 post titled What price the BBC Proms? As this analysis has never been disputed I must assume it is reasonably accurate. Which means that a Proms season has a total budget of around £9 million and each concert is subsidised to the tune of around £63,000* from licence fee revenue. Other posts have reported that top musicians are paid around £20,000 for a single Proms appearance and that the BBC presenter and self-styled Prom queen Katie Derham is paid £250,000 a year - see graphic below. All of which we are told we must meekly accept, because great music demands lavish expenditure, massive subsidies and protection from Freedom of Information requests. But wait a minute, do we really have to accept that received wisdom without question?

A short distance across London from the Albert Hall is a shining example of how a different funding model can still produce great performing art. The award-winning Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre attracts almost 150,000 people - around half the total Proms' audience - for its summer season. Its productions include classic plays, Shakespeare, musicals and family oriented productions, and this year's season included a highly acclaimed production adaption of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird directed by the theatre's young, lean and dynamic artistic director Timothy Sheader. All of which is very impressive. But what is more impressive is that the Regent's Park Theatre receives no public subsidy, its work is entirely funded by its own operations and by sponsorship. 85% of the theatre's income is generated by the box office, which compares with less than 25% for the BBC Proms. In a Guardian interview Timothy Sheader made the following comment which classical music would do well to take note of: "I believe totally in subsidies for the arts and I've worked in the subsidised sector most of my life.. however, if the nation is seriously cutting back on public expenditure, the arts have to shoulder some of the burden".

Now the point of this article is, emphatically, not to advocate cutting public subsidies to classical music. My point is to question whether the lavish subsidies - £6 million is lavish by anyone's standards - enjoyed by specific institutions such as the BBC Proms and other major music festivals are creatively counterproductive and cause damaging cost inflation by inflating the fees demanded by celebrity performers. It can, of course, be argued quite convincingly that presenting classical concerts is considerably more expensive than staging theatrical productions. But the showpiece Ring cycle at this year's Proms does make an interesting case study. For the Wagner anniversary the BBC is bringing Daniel Barenboim and his Staatskapelle orchestra from Berlin for concert performances of the four Ring operas that are spread across seven days. Now just thinking about the cost of bringing more than one hundred musicians from Berlin and accomodating them in London for a week - let's hope £323 a night is not the norm - makes me wince. Again, we are told this is the unavoidable cost of presenting great music. But do we also have to accept that received wisdom without question?

Of course the Proms need outstanding Wagner productions that produce accolades such as this one from seasoned critic Richard Morrison: "a gripping performance of an epic... I would have sat through it all again”. But the significant point is that Richard Morrison was not writing about Barenboim's Staatskapelle Ring; he was writing about a different Ring that could have been presented at the Proms without artistic compromise and at a fraction of the cost of the Berlin production.

Those in the know were certain some years back that something miraculous was happening at Longborough Opera just 80 miles from London. Almost a decade ago I wrote here about the promise of Longborough's embryonic Ring, while Anthony Negus' 2003 interpretation of Parsifal for Welsh National Opera remains one of the most profoundly musical events I have experienced in half a century of concertgoing. Anthony Negus' Wagnerian credentials, which include being of the lineage of the great Reginald Goodall, are impeccable, although significantly he has never appeared at a BBC Prom. The Longborough orchestra uses seasoned professionals from the Midlands who can stand their ground against their Staatskapelle colleagues. And Jessica Duchen, whose writing features in my header image, describes the two Longborough sopranos - Rachel Nicholls as Brunnhilde and Lee Bisset as Sieglinde - as "absolutely world class". To have brought the Longborough Ring to the Proms would not only have saved a shed load of money - the difference between Barenboim and Negus' fee would be interesting to learn - it would also have been far-sighted and audacious. But today's BBC does not do audacious and far-sighted, it only does predictable and expensive.

The tale of two Rings makes a useful case study, but, unfortunately, the problems go far deeper. As I have detailed before, the core problem is that the territorial BBC has been allowed to gain far too much control over classical music. Only when that control is dismantled will the dangers of the ratings driven BBC management totally losing the classical plot be fully defused. Far too much power is exercised, without in my view adequate checks and balances, by the Proms controller and in my 2009 post I set out for discussion how the BBC's control over the Proms could be dismantled to the greater benefit of classical music, and those proposals are appended below.** Similar concerns were expressed some years ago by someone of much greater authority, the composer and BBC producer Robert Simpson who crtitiqued the vested power structure that controls the BBC Proms in his book The Proms & Natural Justice.

There is always a feast of outstanding music at the Proms, and Jessica is quite right in saying we should be on our feet for the 2013 season. But we also need to be on our guard, and greater fiscal transparency and probity together with less celebrity fixation would be an important step towards bringing this great music festival back in line with the vision of its founder Sir Henry Wood. But, as the president of the Aspen Music Festival and School Alan Fletcher recently reminded us in a prescient speech, music is the mission, not money, So I finish with music not money. The unique and priceless artistic value of the Proms is captured in the photo below which shows Anthony Negus' mentor Reginald Goodall rehearsing Gwynne Howells for the legendary 1987 Proms performance of Act 3 of Parsifal. Read more in Reginald Goodall - the holy fool.

* In reality the Proms budget is around £10 million and the subsidy is closer to £75,000 per concert. This is because the Proms benefit from a massive amount of free advertising and promotion on BBC Radio, TV and websites that is not charged to the Proms budget. If this advertising was bought at market rates, as is the case with every other music festival, I conservatively estimate it would cost over £1 million.

** Discussion proposal for restructuring the Promenade concerts as an independent entity.
- Separate the Promenade concerts from the BBC and establish them as a stand-alone non-profit organisation.
- Negotiate a 5 year contracted annual fee for broadcast rights with the BBC or another broadcaster, including minimum coverage and publicity clauses.
- Appoint an independent and innovative Proms artistic director answerable to a board of trustees on a fixed term contract.
- The BBC, or other appointed broadcaster, to have one seat on the board of trustees, but no other control over concert content.
- Contract a London orchestra and principal conductor to provide a minimum quota of concerts, and reduce the appearances by touring orchestras.
- Forge partnerships between the Proms and other arts festivals, including the visual arts.
- Publish artists' fees for concerts using banded scales.
- Sell the rights to Last Night name and format to Victor Hochhauser for a very large sum. Use money raised for endowment fund for new music commissions.
- Question all other current assumptions about the Proms, including the use of the Royal Albert Hall as principal venue.

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