Friday, May 15, 2015

That's not entertainment

The initial spiritual idea, that music was an explanation of the divine universe, has a long and distinguished history. The symmetry of numbers presents itself as both an attractive way to account for an underlying structure in apparently chaotic nature and a fitting way to think of the beauty of God's creative mind; the important idea of music as perceptible numbers, which exemplifies this symmetry, thus stretches through history from Pythagoras and his followers to Plato, Boethius, the Corpus Hermeticum, the Camerati, Vincenzo Galileli, Ficino, Fludd, Kircher, Newton and Freemasonry. The writings of Hindemith, Schoenberg, and Stockhausen are not far removed from it either. The idea of music as being essentially entertainment was as alien to such people's attitudes as the idea of philosophy or psychology being essentially entertaining today.
That is Jonathan Harvey writing in his exploration of music and spirituality In Quest of Spirit*. My first two photos were taken at the Bab Mekina in Fez, Morocco during the recent Sufi Culture Festival which had as its theme 'The Religion of Love. From Rabiaa, Ibn Arabi, Rumi, to the present day…' Attending the Festival was a richly rewarding experience. But it must be said that the performances in the capacious open air Bab Mekina auditorium sometimes crossed that crucial dividing line between art and entertainment, and were not helped by a disappointingly sub-standard sound system.

The Bab Mekina concerts were also marred by the very intrusive use of mobile phones and cameras throughout the performances. Writing about the Bristol Proms in 2013, Norman Lebrecht opined: "Photography, however, was not permitted. Some more taboos may need to fall". Just let me say that, based on my experience in Fez, if audience photography is ever permitted at classical concerts, you will never ever find me at a concert again. (The creation of images of sentient beings is haram - forbidden - in the hadith and sunnah. But alas, like everywhere else, everyone in Morocco has a mobile phone. If you look carefully at my photo at the foot of this post of a munshidin at a Sufi samā in Fez, you will see a phone in his hand.)

Bab Mekina is adjacent to Fez's famous Bab Boujeloud, which translates as Blue Gate, and the barbarians are at the gates all over the world. The Jacksons at the tawdry BBC Proms in the Park is bad enough. As is the 'Symphonic 60s' with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra playing songs by Petula Clarke, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Cilla Black, Andy Williams, and The Beach Boys at the all too obviously Roger Wright managed Snape Maltings. But Motown R & B group The Temptations - fronted by septuagenarian Dennis Edwards - at the forthcoming Fez Sacred Music Festival is little short of apostasy.

It was no surprise that there was no music by Jonathan Harvey in the Sufi Culture Festival. But Jonathan set Rumi's verse in How could the soul not take flight (1996) and Ashes dance back (1997). Both settings use translations by Andrew Harvey, and in the anthology Rumi: Past and Present, East and West author Franklin D. Lewis' describes the composer as "apparently a relative of the Rumi exponent Andrew Harvey". In his sleeve note for the 2007 recording of How could the soul not take flight Jonathan does quote from Andrew Harvey's book on Rumi: The Way of Passion, but the mention of a family connection between composer and Rumi translator surprised me. So I contacted Jonathan's daughter Anna, who confirmed that the shared surname was a coincidence and that there was no family connection.

Rumi: Past and present, East and West is a valuable if fallible resource. Its survey of composers who set Rumi's poetry includes R. Murray Schafer, Andrew List, Ton de Leeuw, Diane Thome and Ben Johnston. Also highlighted is of one of the more unlikely Rumi settings: the 1996 album Three Fish - named after the Sufi tale - by the eponymous band led by Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament. But the 2001 publication date means that Philip Glass 2007 opera Monsters of Grace, which uses Coleman Barks' Rumi translations, is omitted, as are John Tavener's 2002 The Veil of the Temple (All night vigil) and 2007 Requiem, both of which also set Rumi.

In another survey of the great Sufi poet titled Rumi and His Sufi Path of Love Şefik Can describe how the German poet, translator, and professor of Oriental languages Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) translated forty-four of Rumi's odes into German, and describes him as "a great Sufi". Rückert also translated Sa'di, Jami and Hāfez, and in the nineteenth century Sufism had a considerable influence on German literature: Goethe lyrical poems in the West-östlicher Divan were inspired by the Persian mystic Hāfez. Franklin D. Lewis' Rumi: Past and present, East and West quite correctly lists Richard Strauss, Franz Schubert, Josep Soler and others as setting Rückert's Rumi influenced anthology Östliche Rosen (Eastern Roses). But it misses an intriguing connection between the trending poet and a trending composer. Gustav Mahler's Rückert-Lieder are considered by Mahler authority Donald Mitchell to be composed in an "Orientalist" style. It is not my purpose to propose anything as rash as an Islamic interpretation of Mahler. But the thought of a Catholic convert from Judaism being influenced by Islam's greatest mystic poet in a transcultural Abrahamic trilogy is appealing. Because as Rumi tells us** in Ode 31 of the Dīvāni Shamsi Tabriz, which Rückert would have known:

What can be done, O believers, as I don't recognize myself?
I'm neither a Christian nor Jew, Magian nor Moslem.

I'm not of the East or West; neither land nor sea;
I'm not of Nature's mine; nor the stars in Heaven.

I'm not of earth, water, air or fire;
I'm not of Heaven, nor the dust on this carpet.

I'm not of India, China, Bulgaria nor Saqsin;
I'm not of the kingdom of Iraq, nor Khorasan.

I'm not of this world, nor the next, Paradise nor Hell;
I'm not of Adam, nor Eve, Eden nor Rizwan.

My place is in the Placeless, my trace in the Traceless;
I'm neither body nor soul, as I belong to the soul of the Beloved.

After this exceptionally overgrown path the blog will lapse into silence for a while as I depart once again in search of the placeless. As Rainer Maria Rilke says in The First Duino Elegy, "Listen to the news that ceaselessly arises out of silence". Let's hope that silence is not shattered by a Sufi ringtone.

* In Quest of Spirit by Jonathan Harvey was published in 1999 by the University of California Press this very important book is long out of print, difficult to find, and long overdue for republication.

** This translation of Ode 31 is from R.A. Nicholson's Selected Poems from the Divani Shamsi Tabriz

All travel and tickets for the Fez Sufi Culture Festival were paid for by me. This post is also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted materialis included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Much ado about nothing in Berlin

Am I the only person in the whole world who is not interested in which overpaid and over-hyped celebrity maestro will replace another overpaid and over-hyped celebrity maestro in Berlin three years hence? My photo was taken in Sidi Ifni, Morocco. For these jam session the audience is rewarded, but the musicians are not.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Let's stop pretending classical music will change the world

I’m not a fan of silence. Wait. Allow me, please, to clarify: I’ll take contemplative silence whenever I can, or the silence that comes from crisp mountain air or the hush that befalls your heart when gazing up at the galaxy of stars on a moonless night. Oh, I love that kind of silence. But silence in the face of oppression? Nope. Not a fan. Never have been. Can’t imagine I ever will be. That doesn’t mean that I always know how to speak up, that I always do speak up, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I always know the most effective way to speak up in order to actually invite people to listen, and then – under the best of circumstances – perhaps to actually feel the call to action. No. I’m not an expert in any of those areas. But I can tell you that I at heart, in the very center of my being, not comfortable in staying quiet about causes I am personally invested in. Especially when a person’s inherent dignity is at stake.
That is Joyce DiDonato writing on the eve of her much publicised 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' protest against Russia's anti-gay propaganda law at the last night of the 2013 BBC Proms. Earlier this week a guest contributor wrote very movingly about a courageous voice in India that would not be silenced and paid the ultimate price; so I am justifying yet another post on the subject of classical musician's performing in China by the need to balance a lot of spin with a little information. A recent post explained how I searched in vain among Joyce DiDonatos many tweets for any comment about human rights and freedom of expression in China, where she recently gave two concerts plus one in Chinese administered Hong Kong. On reflection I should not have been surprised that my search was fruitless*, and here is why.

Last year Ms DiDonato moved from Intermusica, the agency she had been with for many years, to Askonas Holt; a move that, according to Christopher Gillett, happened because Askonas Holt could offer her more mass exposure. An example of that increased exposure is the recent high profile Askonas Holt managed tour of Europe that Joyce DiDonato made with the Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra that the agency has a long relationship with. Significantly the opportunity for mass exposure extends far beyond Europe. China is acknowledged to be the world's fastest growing market for Western classical music, and Askonas Holt has a lot of clout in China.

That clout includes representing superstar pianist YUNDI, who is described as "a household name with a huge following in his native China", and the China Philharmonic Orchestra, which the agency brought to the BBC Proms in 2014. Simon Rattle is another Askonas Holt represented artist, and in 2011 he gave three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic in China, while in the same year Askonas Holt stablemates Daniel Barenboim and the West Eastern Divan Orchestra were also behind the Great Wall. In 2013 Askonas Holt presented a Britten in China project at the Beijing Music Festival and masterminded a four week tour of China by the Royal New Zealand Ballet. And in July this year the Askonas Holt represented National Youth Orchestra of the USA makes a seven city tour of China and Hong Kong with the agency's star pianist YUNDI.

It is well-documented that China, like Russia, has a lamentable human rights record record including LGBT discrimination. But conveniently, Russia - which has been the subject of vociferous protests - is no longer an important destination for touring orchestras and star musicians: to my knowledge the last major orchestra to visit Russia was the Chicago Symphony in 2012. Askonas Holt's relationship with China is just one example of the hidden power of management agents. It reflects the inconvenient truth that celebrity classical musicians cannot support their expensive lifestyle without collaborating with ethically compromised regimes in China and the Gulf States, and without accepting funding from ethically compromised global corporations. So please can we just accept that, and stop pretending that classical music is going to change the world.

* Freedom of expression, or the lack thereof in both China and Russia, is at the heart of this lengthy thread. So in the interests of freedom of expression I have asked Joyce DiDonato to respond to my posts, and she has agreed to do so when her schedule permits. Inconveniently On An Overgrown Path disappears into a communications black hole in a few days while I travel for some weeks off-grid. So if there is an undue delay in airing Ms DiDonato's response I apologise.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Scriabin in the Himalayas

I have a rule of not publishing press releases On An Overgrown Path. But this one just could not be ignored:
Scriabin in the Himalayas is a tribute concert for the great Russian composer Alexander Scriabin taking place on the outdoor terraces of Thikse Monastery in India this June 21st for the Summer Solstice. The multi-sensory performance includes three world-class pianists and one tenor, an interactive light show based on Scriabin's colour tonal system, Himalayan Cham dance and an olfactory score of timed scent diffusions. A limited number of 100 concert tickets have just been released via at £2,000 per person alongside an optional travel package by our partners Quintessentially Travel.

This once-in-a-lifetime experience is being offered at a time when the cultures of the Himalaya, unique in the world, have suffered a great loss. Amongst the tragic loss of life, it is believed that four of seven Unesco world heritage sites in the Kathmandu valley have been severely damaged during the recent earthquake in Nepal. For this reason, a portion of the ticket proceeds are being donated to the Blue Shied (BS) - the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross - and their representative the International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) who are currently coordinating an action plan to support the restoration of Nepal’s rich cultural heritage.
The photos of the Tibetan Buddhist Thikse (or Thiksay) Monastery were taken when I stayed there last summer - see my post The paradox of the Dalai Lama. This is not just a stunning venue for the concert, it is also an appropriate venue. The obvious link is that Alexander Scriabin intended his uncompleted magnum opus Mysterium to be performed in a specially built temple in the foothills of the Himalayas, which is where Thiksay is. But there are other links. Scriabin was a Theosophist, as was Nicholas Roerich, who collaborated with Stravinsky on The Rite of Spring. Roerich visited Ladakh - where Thiksay is situated - in 1925 and has a particular connection with nearby Hemis Monastery. More on that in When classical music danced to the rhythms of Mother India. Finally a word of caution to anyone thinking of attending Scriabin in the Himalayas: Thiksay is a stunning and appropriate venue, but reaching it is a challenge.

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

I hear those voices that will not be drowned

Peter Grimes sings of how “I hear those voices that will not be drowned” in the second act of Britten's eponymous opera. One voice that sings out against the tide while refusing to be drowned is worth one million parroting received wisdom on social media. Many lone voices have been featured over the years On An Overgrown Path, and today's article posthumously celebrates a very special voice. Temples, snake charmers, cows and call centres feature in the stereotypical Western image of India. But the reality is very different: India's economy is the seventh largest in the world measured by nominal GDP and the third-largest measured by purchasing power parity. A forecast growth of 7.2% in 2015 puts China in the economic shade, and on current trends the Indian economy will be larger than that of Japan and Germany combined by the end of the decade. This economic powerhouse has created a commercially and culturally vibrant nation, but one that is certainly not without its problems. Human rights violations - particularly involving women and children - remain rife, and corruption is endemic at all levels.

The recent conviction of Bollywood star Salman Khan for culpable homicide - see photo above - in a legal process that dragged out over thirteen years was reported in the Western media. But the 'here today gone tomorrow' flurry of social media activity around the trial left a lot unsaid. So I invited Avradeep Pal to contribute a guest post on the subject. Avradeep, who is an accomplished sarod player, is a post-graduate student at Cambridge University where he is president of the Cambridge University Indian Classical Arts Society (CUICAS), and he has been involved with the anti-corruption movement in India. Here is Avradeep's tribute to a voice that would not be drowned:
All men are equal, but some men are more equal than others! You will be mistaken to read the above as an Orwellian commandment. It’s rather an inference drawn from a series of real life events which has unfolded under the glare and extensive coverage of world media. A sturdy, young, handsome, innocent man starts being harassed by his peers is arrested by the police, loses his job, is abandoned by his own family and goes in hiding. A year later he re-appears begging in the streets, suffering from starvation and acute tuberculosis, and subsequently expires in a condition which has been best described as ‘a pile of bones weighing 30kgs’. His only ‘crime’ was that he obdurately stuck to his statement as a witness against a speeding drunk driver who ran over four people sleeping on the pavement - killing one and severely injuring three others.

Support has been pouring in for the drunk driver from the moment he was given a five year prison sentence, following a quick trial lasting only thirteen years. ‘Dogs who sleep on streets, deserve to die like street dogs’, said one. Another noted personality tried to use the case to start a debate on whether the government should have taken steps to provide homes for the poor, while insinuating that because of the government's inaction the drunk driver should not be held guilty. While the former suggestion is well intended, it is worth reminding readers that the government’s commitment to fight poverty is unquestionable. In a bid to reduce poverty, the poverty level for households was redefined as any income of approximately 30 pence per day! One also wonders why such an important question about providing homes has not featured in mainstream media; especially when it is common knowledge that a few hundred million in the country still live below the redefined poverty line and a few thousand babies are born like ‘street dogs’ every day.

Our drunk driver is no ordinary man. It took him only a few hours to hire some of the most expensive lawyers in the country to ensure that he didn’t spend a single minute in jail. Interestingly, moments after the sentence was pronounced, lawyers revealed that the convicted driver has a heart ailment, therefore arguing for a lesser sentence. The country seems to suffer from an epidemic of heart ailments which strike the guilty the moment they are pronounced so, and this epidemic seems especially prevalent among the economically and politically well off. Nevertheless, 48 hours on, the prison sentence has been suspended by a higher court, and there isn’t any report of the drunk driver currently undergoing heart treatments. This convicted drunk driver is indeed no ordinary man. He has been voted as one the best looking men in the world, has been declared by some as the sexiest man alive, has his lifelike wax statute installed at London's Madame Tussauds Museum, and has played ‘hero’ in several motion pictures. He is also known for establishing a merchandise brand, the generated profit of which goes towards humanitarian philanthropic activities. Apart from humans, his heart goes out for animals as well, with endangered species of blackbucks being very dear to him.

There has been global coverage of the court case. But the world media has hardly ever uttered the name of the hit-and-run victim. Thirteen years on, the victim's family has not yet received the promised financial compensation. The world seems to have forgotten that if the justice is ever done, it will be due to the unsung selfless sacrifice and steadfast honesty under extreme personal distress of a sturdy, young, handsome, innocent man. If there is a hero to be celebrated, it’s not the one who dances bare chested on camera. It is the one, who in real life risked his all to stand by the truth, ultimately to be reduced to ‘a pile of bones weighing 30Kgs’. He also happened to be the personal bodyguard of our ‘heroic’ drunk driver.

Constable Ravindra Patil – you are an inspiration to millions in the world who still believe in honesty, equality and justice for all. You deserve immense respect, true fame and glory. Hence, yours is the only name I will care to mention in this article. I deeply admire you. I salute you!

Constable Ravindra Patil - seen in the photo above - died of tuberculosis on October 4, 2007. After his death, there was nobody to take back his body. The friend who had admitted him to the hospital was so scared that he didn’t even inform his family. Photo of Ravindra Patil via SaddaHaq, and of Salman Khan via 103FM. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, May 08, 2015

What happened to the political dimension of the artist?

By one of those auspicious coincidences that haunt my life, within a few days of a Conservative government being elected in the UK I travel to the enlightened but troubled political milieu of Greece. That header image shows the 1971 CBS LP of Maria Farantouri and John Williams performing songs by Mikis Theodorakis, and by another auspicious but sad coincidence this classic of the gramophone was produced by Paul Myers who died recently. As recounted in a post many years ago, the recital includes Theodorakis' setting of Brendan Behan's verse used in Constatin Costa Gravas' legendary film Z, which protested against the despotic regime of the Greek military junta. In the note for a recording of his Requiem Mikis Theodorakis wrote:
"You can't create art with slaves, no matter whether they were forced into slavery or made to adopt a slavish attitude. At this point the political dimension of the artist comes into force. He must contribute to the rescue of mankind out of pure self-interest".
Mikis Theodorakis was imprisoned by the Greek military dictatorship for his humanitarian stand. Maria Farantouri (which is the usual transliteration of the Greek, rather than Farandouri as on the record sleeve) went into exile when Theodorakis' music was banned after the 1967 military coup. She became known as 'the Greek Joan Baez' and made a major contribution to international resistance to the fascist regime by performing Theodorakis' songs around the world. In the past great musicians such as Mikis Theodorakis, Maria Farantouri, Arturo Toscanini and Pau Casals put their money where their mouth was and refused to fraternise with despotic regimes. Today celebrity musicians still have their principles: but if those principles put the all-important dollar at risk, they are changed.

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Thursday, May 07, 2015

Classical music's reality distortion field needs challenging

Yes, I said I would stay off this subject for a while, but classical music's reality distortion field really needs challenging. With humanitarian activist Joyce DiDonato tweeting about disappearing behind the Great Firewall, I searched in vain among her copious tweets for any comment about human rights and freedom of expression in China. So here, to balance that puzzling silence, are some links. For a full account of how dissenting voices among China's 641 million internet users are selectively silenced read Reporters Without Frontiers. Unlike Oman and Singapore, where Ms DiDonato has just performed, homosexuality is not a criminal offence in China. But Human Rights Watch puts this superficially liberal position into perspective:
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: The Chinese government classified homosexuality as a mental illness until 2001. To date there is still no law protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, which remains common especially in the workplace. Same-sex partnership and marriage are not recognized under Chinese law. In February, a lesbian couple attempted to register at the marriage registry in Beijing but their application was rejected. On May 17, the International Day against Homophobia, Changsha city authorities detained Xiang Xiaohan, an organizer of a local gay pride parade, and held him for 12 days for organizing an “illegal march.” In China, demonstrations require prior permission, which is rarely granted.
LGBT discrimination is just one example of China's wide-ranging human rights infringements. With China the touring destination of choice for celebrity musicians and orchestras, the following summary from the 2014 Human Rights Watch report should be noted: "China places arbitrary curbs on expression, association, assembly, and religion; prohibits independent labor unions and human rights organizations; and maintains Party control over all judicial institutions". It is a personal decision whether classical musicians tour China. But speaking out against Russia's anti-gay propaganda law while remaining silent on the well-documented human rights abuses in China is, in my view, distorting reality to an unacceptable degree.

* More on distortion fields in Let's stop pretending classical music will change the world.

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Whoever you vote for, the government gets in

That EMI LP captured the then Conservative prime minister Edward Heath conducting Elgar's Cockaigne Overture at a London Symphony Orchestra concert in November 1971. The Elgar was coupled with studio recordings of André Previn conducting Bernstein, Enescu and Vaughan Williams. Heath was never quite as good a conductor as he imagined himself to be. But, plus ça change, classical music could not resist a celebrity. On another occasion he conducted a concert in Salisbury Cathedral. During rehearsals, the prime minister was growing more and more curt in his comments. The leader of the orchestra became increasingly exasperated, and eventually exclaimed: "If you don't stop being so rude to us, Sir Edward, we may start obeying your instructions." As in music, so in politics - whoever you vote for, the government gets in. Elsewhere there is more on mixing music and politics.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

What music would you recommend to a classical neophyte?‏

Is classical music asking the right questions in its search for a new audience? Should we be debating the way musicians dress, the style of lighting used in concert halls and the rights and wrongs of applause between movements? Or should we be spending more time deliberating over what music will appeal to that elusive new audience? As the name of the game is classical music, my vote goes unequivocally for deliberating over what music to recommend and promote to new listeners. Which is why the following Facebook exchange sent me off down a path that is worth sharing.
Reader - Hey there. I am a big fan of On An Overgrown Path and a friend of mine wants to start off listening to classical music. I wanted to know some recommendations for beginners
Me - You ask a very important question, and one to which there is no easy answer. Can you give me a brief biographical sketch of your friend to help me? With some background I will make some suggestions. Reader - Brief bio: Female. Educational background: Marketing and IT. Age: 27. Occupation: IT Consultant. Hobbies: Singing pop rock. Favorite movies: The Hunger Games saga. Music they currently listen to: Joan Baez, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and have heard a bit of Wagner.
Max Hole and the other new classical gurus are curiously quiet on the crucial question of what a classical beginner should start by listening to. Current concert programmes suggests that Mahler, Shostakovich and Sibelius are the only games in town, while Classic FM and BBC Radio 3 playlist programmes favour the 'Tchaikovsly's greatest hits' approach. None of which, I feel, would hook our 27 year old pop rock singing Nick Cave fan on the classics. So I enlisted the help of four 'virtual' friends, all of who are professionally involved in classical music, to recommend music for this specific classical neophyte. Here are their responses.

Frances Wilson: pianist blogger and piano teacher - I'm basing my suggestions partly on my idea of "lateral listening" and also on the premise that everything is "new" if you've never heard it before - i.e. a new listener will, hopefully, approach his/her listening with open ears and few preconceptions. Here goes.....

Baroque - Bach French Suite V, 1st Partita, some of the Chorales

Moving laterally to 'Variations for Judith' (various living composers). A set of variations on Bach's Bist bei du Mir. An excellent intro to contemporary piano music and all the movements are very individual and brief. This might pique an interest in variations, in which case back to Bach and the Goldbergs.....

Chopin - Preludes (even if one doesn't know them, they are "familiar" in their idiom and soundworld). Moving laterally to Syzmanowski (Etudes, Metopes) and early Scriabin (Preludes, Morceaux).

Liszt - Annees de Pelerinage, 1st year. Fountains at the Villa d'Este - and laterally on to Ravel Jeux d'Eau and Ondine

Debussy - Preludes and Children's Corner. Clair de Lune. Again, I think this music will seem "familiar" even if it is not instantly recognisable. From Debussy early Messiaen (Prelude: La Colombe)

Prokofiev - Visions Fugitives. Brief, varied, accessible. And an intro to more atonal music

Shostakovich Preludes Op 87 - varied, short, melodic, rhythmic, colourful

Cage - In a Landscape, Dream. And thence to Philip Glass - piano Etudes, Metamorphoses (I find my students love Glass's music because it is familiar from film and TV scores)

Ligeti - Musica Ricercata. Proof that 20th-century classical music can be witty and fun. Which leads us back to Bach....and now perhaps the Goldbergs and the 48....
James Weeks: conductor and composer - How about

Machaut chansons (virelais, rondeaux, ballades)
Beethoven symphonies
Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind and Rite of Spring
Varèse Amériques
Riley IN C
Cage Sonatas and Interludes
Andriessen De Staat or Hoketus

for a start?
Vanessa Lann: composer - I would say that a good start might be to listen to any Hildegard von Bingen; then Bach's Matthew Passion or B minor Mass; I'll let other people recommend everything in the next century and a half; then maybe Stravinsky's Rite of Spring; then maybe Google "composer non-white" and "composer female" for a selection of more modern works. I'll leave out the ten-page list I could write including all the amazing work written by composers of all sorts (classical and otherwise) in the last century and a half, as I would not want to limit a new listener - and I would not know who to include, and who to leave out - and it is a bit too close to home...
Ian Sidden: baritone at Dortmund Opera I became somewhat obsessed with this project. In fact, I might have gone a bit overboard with it, because I’ve written a long blog post with a playlist both on YouTube and Spotify along with short annotations to each of the contained pieces. As I acknowledge in the blog post, I don’t consider this frozen in place, and I will update the playlist and annotations as I think of new appropriate music or as people suggest music to me.

What does "appropriate" mean? The blog post goes into much more detail, but there were six criteria:

Sense of story or place.
Brevity (as much as possible).
Opens doors to more music.
Easy to enjoy.
Quality without condescension.

I began with “story” because of my own experiences with classical, and from what we know about this young professional who wants to learn more, "story" seemed relevant to him as well. From there I considered what challenges new listeners face to flesh out the other criteria.

And the resulting playlist (as of now) is too long to post here entirely, but it’s 40 selections as of now. It has composers like Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven, of course, but also Barber, Victoria, Puccini, Bernstein, Josquin, Copland, Schubert, Britten, Wagner, Hildegard, Scriabin and Prokofiev. There are some modern composers like Larsen, Adams, Tavener, Whitacre, and Salonen. And Gottfried Huppertz is in there as the composer of the Metropolis score, which opens many doors into to the present day and to the past.

The pieces chosen from them tried to satisfy the criteria and offer a doorway inside the composers’ world. Sometimes that meant ignoring dominant genres in which particular composers composed (opera for Britten and religious vocal music for Bach, for examples) to find an easier path in. Sometimes it just meant finding the shortest expression of characteristics of a composer (Symphony no. 5 Allegro con brio from Beethoven, for example). But sometimes it meant challenging even new listeners to something unusual and potentially difficult (“Der Leiermann” from Schubert or “Helix” by Salonen).

Some major names were left out who I hope to add later, and additionally I’d like to add more diversity to this list of names. It’s a start though. You can read the aforementioned blog post via this link:

Those four thoughtful responses expose once again the fallacy of the fashionable 'one size fits all' approach to music programming. Recommendations for our classical newcomer range from Hildegard, Machaut and Bach, to Cage, Ligeti, Scriabin, Salonen, Andriessen and Gottfried Huppertz. Which is how it should be: because just as the established classical audience is a mix of overlapping but distinct niches, so the new classical audience is also an agglomeration of different niches; with some liking Nick Cave and others André Rieu. Tunnel vision programming - Mahler and R. Strauss last year, Mahler and Sibelius this year - ignores the reality of niche audiences. If classical music really wants to win new listeners, programmes must include everything from Hildegard to Gottfried Huppertz and beyond. My thanks go to Fran Wilson, Vanessa Lann, James Weeks and Ian Sidden for making this post possible, and I hope that the young neophyte that started us down this path benefits from their astute recommendations. In conclusion, to the wise words of my four 'virtual' friends I would add the following advice from the 14th century Persian poet Hāfez: "Stay close to any sounds that make you glad to be alive".

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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Such a warm welcome in Oman - if you are not gay

So that's the human rights problems in Oman sorted. Next stop for gay rights campaigner Joyce DiDonato's Drama Queens tour is Singapore tomorrow evening (May 4). Where, and no apologies if this is becoming repetitive, under Section 377A of the Singapore penal code, men who engage in "gross indecency" privately or publicly can be jailed for up to two years. Hopefully a stunning theatre, captivated audience and wonderfully warm welcome, together with a sycophantic global music press, will sort that little problem as well. This should be the last post for a while on the subject as from Singapore Ms. DiDonato's road show goes on to three concerts in China, where homosexuality was decriminalised in 1997. However, other human rights infringements in China, which include press censorship and the banning of human rights organisations, should be of concern to any outspoken defender of personal liberty. Freedom of expression is a major preoccupation for classical music in general and Joyce DiDonato in particular. So it should be noted that China ranks 175th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Frontiers' index of press freedom; while the much protested against Russian Federation manages a still unacceptable but significantly less worse ranking of 148th.

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People reveal themselves in writing about music

Composer Michael Berkeley celebrates his long-running BBC Radio 3 programme Private Passions in the Guardian article seen above. In his eulogy Michael Berkeley includes links to Overgrown Path posts praising the Private Passions programmes in 2005 on which Harrison Birwistle and David Hockney were guests. But he does not link to my 2013 post which reads as follows:
I used to be a big fan of BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions programme which Michael Berkeley presents, and in the past have written here in praise of it. But the programme has fallen victim to the BBC’s ‘dumb or die’ policy and now features Berkeley indulging expendable media celebrities whose tastes in music are more Radio 2 than 3. Which means I - and probably a lot of other people - no longer listen to it. Is no one prepared to oppose dumbing-down?
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Friday, May 01, 2015

Yes, that new young audience really does exist

This youthful dervish of the Naqshbandi order was in the groove at the concert by Sheikh Hassan Dyck, Ali Keeler and Muhabbat Caravan at the Museé Batha in Fez during the Sufi Culture Festival. As Benjamin Britten proved, everybody - irrespective of faith, virtue, education, experience or age - can make music.

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