Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My role as conductor is to provoke curiosity and joy

Ethnomusicologist Philip Bohlman has argued that "music affords power to those who search for meaning". Such is the power and appeal of the Western classical tradition that symphony orchestras now play in regions far distant from the art form's Judeo-Christian heartlands. When in North Africa recently I attended a performance of the Mozart Requiem with Olivier Holt conducting l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc (Philharmonic Orchestra of Morocco). Before the concert my expectations were not high: because there is no tradition of Western classical music in Muslim Morocco, and because Essaouira where the concert was taking place evokes Jimi Hendix more than Mozart, . But despite this, conductor Olivier Holt's mastery of his Moroccan vocal and orchestral forces resulted in a Mozart Requiem of notable power and intensity.

That is Olivier Holt in the header photo with Axelle Fanyo and Edwin Fardini at another concert in Essaouira. Olivier Holt will be unknown to many readers; he is one of the under-appreciated peripatetic conductors who work tirelessly and effectively to promote classical music without the rewards of the celebrity maestros. He was born in Paris in 1960, studied at the Hochschule für Musik and his subjects included piano and percussion as well as conducting, and among his mentors were Leonard Bernstein and Charles Mackerras. .

Olivier Holt is particularly noted for his work in the opera house, he has conducted at many leading European houses including the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, and has also conducted many European orchestras. In 2002 he conducted the world premiere of Dominique Probst's opera Motherland in Melbourne; he is a founder of l’Orchestre Symphonique d’Europe, a professional orchestra of young musicians from across Europe, and is also a composer of chamber and theatre music, and teaches at two French conservatories. This year Olivier Holt was appointed artistic advisor to the l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc after working as a guest conductor with the orchestra for four years. It was in Morocco that our paths crossed, and I was delighted that Olivier accepted an invitation to share his Moroccan experiences with Overgrown Path readers. But first I asked him about those famous teachers:

Bob Shingleton: Olivier, welcome to On An Overgrown Path. I know that many readers will be interested in the references to Leonard Bernstein and Sir Charles Mackerras in my introduction. So let's start by hearing about your contact with them.

Olivier Holt: I passed a competition to attend the Masterclass in Vienna with Mackerras in the summer of 1981. The classes mainly focused on extracts of Mozart’s operas. There were also young singers and a Bulgarian orchestra, I think. Mackerras was considered to be a baroque conductor at the time, he had us work a great deal on ornaments, cadences and appoggiaturas, and look at the manuscripts, which was very instructive for me. He often scolded me for my left hand, especially for accompanied recitatives... We also sang choral parts or secondary roles, which was very amusing. He had begun to talk to us about his interest in Janacek which was budding. What I retained from him is the absolute necessity in music to go back to the original writing.

It’s thanks to Alexis Weissenberg that I met Leonard Bernstein. Alexis had come to one of my concerts at Salle Pleyel in Paris and offered to recommend me for the Schelsswig Holstein Festival where Lenny was conducting and teaching. It was in July 1987. I’ll try to be brief because there is a lot to say. It was a memorable encounter. He greeted me in a special way because of his passion for France and because he knew I was related to Robert Casadesus with whom he had often played in the United States. [In the photo below from 1987 Bernstein is with Olivier Holt and his cousin Gaby Casadesus. She was married to the acclaimed French pianist Robert Casadesus and was herself a celebrated teacher and pianist. Photo (c) Olivier Holt]

Lenny's joy and passion for music and people was contagious. He was very available for everyone. At the same time he was finishing up a tour with the Concertgebouw, I remember his Schubert’s Symphony no. 5 as light and joyful. I was backstage waiting with his assistant who handed him a lit cigarette, and the Maestro walked onto the stage blowing out the smoke right next to the double basses... Despite it all he was tired and wouldn’t show up for class some mornings. We spoke quite often about painting and literature. He had a burning passion for European culture. And he introduced me, aged 27, to whisky.

BS: I have mentioned your work in opera; what are your latest projects in the opera house?

OH: I toured in France and Martinique with a rarely played opera by Gluck, Merlin's Island or The World Upside-Down, and last month I conducted Carmen in Rabat with l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc and Chorus with an entire cast of French singers.

BS: This is your first year as artistic advisor to the l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc [OPM] which is based in Morocco's capital Rabat.. How much time will you spend with them?

OH: As much as possible. The OPM puts on six programmes per season and I am conducting three this year.

BS: Morocco was a French protectorate until 1956 and French is widely spoken. But Morocco is part of North Africa with strong links to both sub-Saharan black Africa and the Arab world, and its indigenous population of 33 million has no tradition of Western classical music. In fact Morocco is celebrated for its ethnic music from brotherhoods such as the Gnawa and the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Despite this l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc was founded in 1996 and is flourishing. Who founded the orchestra and why?

OH: The OPM was founded by Farid Bensaïd who is also the leader of the first violin section. His secretary-general is Yassine Matjinouche, who is also a violinist. They both studied music in France. The orchestra’s mission is of course to communicate, share and educate but also to professionalize Moroccan musicians.

BS: Tell us about the first time you conducted in Morocco. What were you expecting? And how did the reality match your expectations?

OH: I came for the first time in 2012 to accompany the piano competition. I discovered a group of enthusiastic musicians. My first impression was good because the OPM was performing a programme that the musicians knew pretty well. Our second programme together for Beethoven’s Symphonies no. 6 and no. 4 was more difficult. It wasn’t a question of the notes but more what lies between the notes that the orchestra needed to watch out for and getting them to hear a poetic style.

BS: Funding is currently a big issue for symphony orchestras? How is l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc funded?

OH: The OPM is mainly funded by private partners.

BS: Tell us about the make up of the orchestra. How many of the players are Moroccan , and how many come from Europe and elsewhere?

OH: When full-size the orchestra has 60 to 70 Moroccan musicians. There are also one Bulgarian, one Hungarian, one German and two French players who are local, and depending on the programme 3/4 French players who come over to play.

BS: It is impressive that more than 80% of the musicians are Moroccan. Quite understandably it is mainly European conductors who are currently working with the orchestra, although I know Rachid Regragui, who is a graduate of the Moroccan National Conservatoire in Rabat, has also conducted some concerts. Looking to the future, will there be more opportunities for Moroccans and other non-European conductors to work with the Orchestra?

OH: Of course, all these opportunities are possible. The administration continues to consider them as well as exchanges with South America and Asia. I would like to find the time with the orchestra to run masterclasses open to all young conductors, so I can also scold them about their left hands...

BS: The orchestra's programmes are very much rooted in the mainstream classical tradition. Do you see that changing and the repertoire widening?

OH: We are at the intersection of two ideas: a need to develop our sound, to continue to work our repertoire more and more, and the need to open up. Here are some of our upcoming projects: Mahler, Stravinsky, Sibelius and Wagner! As for 20th and 21st century works, they will come gradually.

BS: Maurice Ohana was born in Casablanca in 1913. Are there any plans to perform the music of this seriously underrated Moroccan-born composer? Or is that a step too far?

OH:... yes, like Graciane Finzi. I like Ohana but it’s too soon. His compositions require too much solo work, style and modern ways of playing that we haven’t had the time to explore together or individually. Playing 20th century music poorly is like disfiguring baroque music with a keyboard....

BS: The orchestra's programmes do not include fashionable fusion projects such as concertos for kora. What are your views on that kind of blending of classical traditions?

OH: There have already been projects like that. The orchestra has often played mixed programmes with specially orchestrated Andalusian music. There is something in the works soon with Scheherazade.

BS: I mentioned that you conducted the world premiere of Dominique Probst's opera Motherland. Are there any notable living Moroccan composers that you would like to programme?

OH: Yes, Ahmed Essyad [seen in photo below] who was born in Salé in 1938 and was a student of Max Deutsch in Paris, who himself was a student of Arnold Schonberg. What an impressive heritage!

BS: I couldn't help but notice at your concert in Essaouira that there were very few women players in your orchestra. Do you see that changing?

OH: The new generation is on its way, because the orchestra is involved in the Mazaya project and the balance is 45% girls. We will need to wait another 8/9 years before bringing them into the orchestra.

BS: What is the most amusing culture clash that you have experienced in your time with the l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc?

OH: The orchestra has the same tendencies as other orchestras around the world. It slows down in the same places, and speeds up when it shouldn’t.... When something wasn’t working right the musicians would say to me "Inch'Allah" (if Allah is willing). After a while I explained that I didn’t want to hear "Inch'Allah" any more during rehearsals, that God had other things to do besides worry about us, and that we needed to work... Now we don’t say "Inch'Allah" during rehearsal any more, but always outside after the work is done, just for laughs!

BS: I was very impressed with that Mozart Requiem in Essaouira, despite the town's Salle Omnisports not being an ideal venue for Western classical music. How do the other auditoriums the orchestra plays in compare?

OH: The orchestra is very familiar with its five or six venues in Morocco, but like a teenager it sometimes has a hard time finding the right sound, its identity, in the different acoustic environments. It’s a problem all musicians face when touring around the world, like pianists who have a new instrument in every concert hall.

BS: Does l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc tour outside Morocco?

OH: Not for the moment, but last February they came to Paris to play Verdi’s Requiem with other musicians from North Africa. The orchestra played by the name of l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maghreb.

BS: To conclude let's take a wider perspective. At the start I talked about your work founding l’Orchestre Symphonique d’Europe, a professional orchestra of young musicians from across Europe. Attracting a wider and younger audience for classical music in Europe and North America is the hot topic. What do you think is the key to reaching new audiences?

OH: This is a vast area for work but in the world of classical orchestras progress is under way. Remember Bernstein and New York in the fifties (and all North American orchestra). In France we have been slow to open up to diverse cultures in this field and reach out to young people. Now all organizations are doing it. Fortunately, in Morocco this effort has been made from the start. The keys are education, performances for schoolchildren, blending cultures and repertoires. We owe it to ourselves not to leave anyone behind. That’s our mission, to always strive to touch people, not only with Bach through all the rest, to delight the musicians and the audiences, to provoke curiosity, joy and sharing.

BS: Olivier, your observation that the conductor's mission should be to provoke curiosity, joy and sharing is so important and so true, but it is so often forgotten today. We also forget too often that great music is being made not only by the prestigious ensembles of Western Europe and North America, but also by a diaspora of committed musicians like you working in often challenging conditions around the globe. Thank you for taking time out of your busy itinerary to talk to me, and I look forward to hearing more of your music-making in Morocco, Inch'Allah!

Text is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2016. Photo credits: header Soufiane Bouhaliu, Bernstein photo is (c) Olivier Holt, Ahmed Essyad via Blanee, photos 4 & 5 via le 360. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). On An Overgrown Path is on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Let's start a conversation

In 2010 I wrote about Hamid Qabbal's novel of dissent The Spirit of a City, which is set against the background of the celebrated Gnawa Festival in Essaouira, Morocco*. Hamid Qabbal teaches English at a lycée in Essaouira, and when I returned there recently with my wife he invited us to participate in an English conversation class with his pupils - see photo above. I only wish that the malcontents who lurk on social media and post caustic comments every time Muslims are mentioned could have been there with us. Not only do we have nothing to fear from these young people, but we can also learn a lot from them.

* Hammid Qabbal's latest novel The Road to Mogador fuses the two themes of political unrest in the Mahgreb and the continuing marginalisation of women in Moroccan society. Unfortunately, despite written in English - as is The Spirit of a City - the book is very difficult to buy outside Morocco.

Friday, May 27, 2016

This is most definitely not health and safety territory

In recent years I have followed in the footsteps of Alma Mahler on the wartime refugee route from Vichy France into Spain, descended through the Samaria Gorge in Crete, and travelled overland from Delhi to the Tibetan Buddhist heartland of Ladakh. My peregrinations continued this month with a trek in Morocco's Atlas Mountains which started in the village of Setti Fatma, seen in the photo below.

Nestled in the Ourika Valley at 1500 metres, Setti Fatma is where the road into the Atlas Mountains ends, and it is a favourite bolt-hole for Moroccans escaping from the desert heat and tawdry commercialism of Marrakech on the plain below. There is scarcely space for the road and houses in the narrow valley, so the restaurant tables are set on the riverbed; in the photo below a waiter is crossing the river carrying the Moroccan national dish, the tagine.

This is Berber country; the unique music of the Berbers (Amazigh) was captured by Paul Bowles' 1959 field recordings in this region, and Dust to Digital's exemplary remastering of these seminal recordings were on my iPod during my Moroccan travels. From Setti Fatma a path climbs following the route of a stream that plunges down the mountainside in a series of breathtaking waterfalls. In fact the description 'path' is a misnomer as the route up involves leaping from boulder to boulder, many of which are submerged in the stream. Somewhere in the photo below is the trail.

Ascending is more like rock climbing than trekking. I hired the Berber guide seen in the photo below and with me in the footer image; he was a cross between a rock climber and a mountain goat, and the expedition was something of a challenge for his charge, a 66 year old vertigo sufferer.

As can be seen here, this is most definitely not health and safety territory.

The photo below shows one of the hi-tech climbing aids used on the trail. Getting my feet back onto the top of that ladder when descending was interesting - those rocks are lethal when your boots are wet.

There is a Sufi saying that life is a gift that consists of three days and two are gone. So I am determined to make the most of that one day remaining on my mystical timescale, health and safety not withstanding. This view back down the mountain was for me the visual equivalent of a transcendental experience.

The descent was if anything even more scary than the ascent. When we returned to Setti Fatma I was treated to a meal in one of the riverside restaurants; this involved eating meat of somewhat dubious provenance while water lapped around my Gore-Tex approach boots. Which just goes to prove that it is better to have your head in the clouds than your feet in a stream eating a dodgy tagine.

My thanks go to Youssef of Riad Tibibt in Marrakech for logistical support. But no complimentary goods or services were involved in this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Until bloggers deliver hard facts …

Expressions of dismay at the demise of music criticism in the paid for media leave me puzzled. Do not get me wrong, I vociferously condemn the demise of quality music journalism. But the commentators expressing dismay at the axing of music critics are all providers of free online content, which is exactly the disruptive development that has undermined professional journalism. Moreover these clickbaiting online commentators are an established part of classical music industry 2.0 and receive unqualified support - including regular juicy 'exclusives' - from the very musicians, music industry executives, and indeed readers who piously lament the termination of yet another music critic. Norman Lebrecht is not renown for getting it right. But what he wrote on 8 November 2006 in the then paid for but now free Evening Standard - see above - is still very true:
'Until bloggers deliver hard facts… paid for newspapers will continue to set the standard as the only show in town ... online blogs won't become required reading until they start focussing on the facts’
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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Music should be dangerous

Silky darkness of the Maghreb night is the forge, and the Gnawa are blacksmiths turned alchemists. As the bass notes of the guembri penetrate the subconscious, they reverberate in the nervous system and induce a trance. Seven colours represent the saints in the Gnawa pantheon, and that white blur above is the cloth covering an ecstatic trancer at a Gnawa lila. White is the colour of the spirit company of Mulay Abdelkader Jilali, and during his veneration white benjoin incense burns. A Gnawa lila is a ritual of possession during which trancers, like the one above, fall into a trance and assume the identity of spirits from the pantheon.

Gnawa music has become yet another commercial property, and concerts by Gnawa musicians are now commonplace. But my photos, which were grabbed discretely in impossibly low light with no flash, were not taken at a concert. Due to my work with mystical traditions - I broadcast the Gnawa spirit ritual of the Sons of the Forest in 2008 - I was recently invited to the real thing, an all-night Gnawa lila. This was held in the 18th century Zawiya Sidna Bilal in Essaouira, Morocco seen below, which is the only Gnawa zawiya (lodge) in Morocco. The Gnawa, who practice a form of folk Islam, migrated from black sub-Saharan Africa. They claim descent from Bilal ibn Rabah who was the only black companion of the Prophet, and inhabit a parallel spiritual universe, as the ethnologist Bertrand Hell explains:

The Gnawa call themselves the people of the khla, the hidden part of creation where the genies reign. They are in fact and in essence marginals playing the game of the strange stranger (in the double sense that is contained in the Arabic term gharib). Gatekeepers of a counter world, the Gnawa move in the night and on the limits of the licit. Marked by a fundamental ambiguity, they are transgressors who can handle blood with impunity and can control the most dangerous of forces. Embodying a “troubling strangeness,” these descendants of black slaves see themselves as invested with the most powerful supernatural powers
Canadian composer and sound ecologist R. Murray Schafer declared that art should be dangerous, and a Gnawa lila is one of the more dangerous art forms. The cavorting of the ecstatic trancers made moshing look tame, and the Gnawa equivalent of paramedics were on hand to cart their inert forms away and revive them. And there's no chance of faking it, because the trancers are administered a pinch of tobacco - if they really are trancing and in another world they don't sneeze, if they sneeze they are faking it.

Some of the lila was deemed too dangerous for me. The ritual is preceded by a torchlit procession through the town's narrow alleys - see photo below. My host entertained me away from the zawiya until I had seen the procession pass,and I was puzzled as to why we kept talking for thirty minutes instead of following the procession to the start of the lila. It was only later I discovered that immediately before the lila, these "transgressors who can handle blood with impunity" offer a sacrifice in the courtyard of the zawiya to propitiate the spirits. By tradition it should have been a black bull, but I suspect a smaller creature was despatched before I arrived. Later in the night as the lila reached the black segment which invokes the malignant spirits of the sons of the forest, some of the trancers started to wield ugly looking knives. At that point my host suggested that as it was very late it was probably time for me to leave...

When I first looked at my almost abstract photos, I was struck by their similarity to the kinetic art that Norman Perryman improvises to classical music, and I don't think that resemblance is a coincidence. Norman's art explores synaesthesia - the multi-sensory experience caused by crosstalk between the hearing, seeing and smelling sensory channels. A Gnawa lila with its trance inducing rhythms, colours and scents - an incense brazier can be seen in the background in two photos - is the ultimate synaesthetic experience. There is much that Western classical music can learn from the Gnawa; because a lila is a multi-sensory healing ceremony, and similarly a classical concert should be a healing ceremony that placates the spirit. New technology means that we live in a multi-sensory environment, yet despite the visionary work of Scriabin and others classical music remains a strictly mono-sensory experience. William Goldman, the Hollywood script writer, explained that the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment either tells us lies or tells us comforting truisms that we know already, while art tells us uncomfortable truths we probably don't want to hear. By that definition too much classical music today is entertainment, but by the same definition a Gnawa lila is most definitely art. And if anyone still doubts the relevance of a synaesthetic ritual to Western classical music they should look closely at my blurred photos - the audience for the lila is strikingly young.

Sources include:
The Gnawa and Mohammed Tabal by Abdelkader Mana
Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace by Deborah Kapchan.
Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trancing by Judith Becker

Thanks go again to Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb for his time and wisdom. Photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2016. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Now that's what I call World Music

Photo was taken in the serendipitously named Bob Music in Essaouira, Morocco. Jimi Hendrix has a local connection, while Karl Munchinger's Bach is naughty but nice. Posts now become intermittent while I travel.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Your cat is a music therapist

A recent post told how a cat crossed my path at the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. Cats are cherished in Islam, and in response to my post a friend who is an adept of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order sent me a link to an article on a Sufi resource. This is about the healing power of cats, and I thought it worth sharing an edited and annotated extract with my readers. The article can be read at two levels. At one level it can be taken as an amusing mix of fuzzy science and New Age babble, as indeed can this whole and many other Overgrown Paths. But drilling down further reveals another level. The power of music to nourish and heal the human spirit and body has been conveniently forgotten in the headlong rush to turn classical music into just another tawdry entertainment. Classical music is not about snackable access, celebrity maestros, live tweeting, self-promotion, free streaming, and all those other big new idea. It is about only one thing - sound. Ancient wisdom tells us that Nada Brahma - sound is god. And both science and visionaries such as the Sufi master and musician Hazrayt Inayat Khan tell us that sound is about only one thing - vibrations.

The article explains how medical research has identified that low frequencies can trigger changes in the human body. This takes us on to themes that will be familiar to Overgrown Path readers, including the overlooked importance of infrasound (very low frequencies), the damaging effect on music of limiting frequency range, the role of bass in connecting with new audiences, and above all the healing power of music. The opening reference to the healing power of trance rituals such as the Sufi dhikr (and also the Gnawa lila) is also relevant to classical music. One of the most popular and enduring Western classical compositions is Ravel's Bolero, and this is thought to have been inspired by a Sufi dhikr that Ravel attended in Tunisia (Claudio Naranjo). Research has shown that the frequency of brain waves determines our moods, and trance and other beneficial moods are induced by low frequency Theta waves; while the the theory of auditory driving postulates that rhythmic low frequencies can 'drive' brainwave frequencies down.

That classical music must change has become a mantra. But to date the change has been no more than ineffectual cosmetic surgery aimed at enhancing the art form's mass market appeal. The article's conclusion that if you are recovering from an injury you should hug a purring cat may be pure whimsy, but recognising the power of great music to nourish and heal the human spirit and body is not. Now here is the article:

A cat's purr is often compared to the dhikr, the rhythmic chanting of the Sufis, which was also used in early Islamic hospitals as a healing process. Research has identified the healing powers of a cats' purr, specifically how the sound frequency of the purr has as an anabolic effect which stimulates growth and maintenance of the human body. Dr. Clinton T. Rubin of the SUNY Department of Biomedical Engineering is an authority on the use of vibration for non-invasive, non-pharmacological treatment of bone injuries. His research has confirmed that exposure to frequencies between 20-50 Hz* (at low dB) assists healing and increases bone density.

The frequency of a cat's purr falls well within this optimum range for bone growth and fracture healing, and extends up to 140 hertz. Which confirms the old veterinary saying that is still repeated in veterinary schools: " If you put a cat and a bunch of broken bones in the same room, the bones will heal." (Research in China independently corroborates the beneficial effects of low frequencies on fracture healing, and biomechanical stimulation using frequencies between 18 - 35 Hz is widely used in sports medicine to relax strained muscles and increases the stretching ability of tendons.) Other research shows that low frequencies can alleviate pain and speed the healing of soft tissue injuries in tendons and muscles. Exposure to frequencies between 50-150 Hz has been found to relieve suffering in 82% of persons suffering from acute and chronic pain. The non-profit Fauna Communications provides an online resource drawing together the studies of the cat's purr as a bio-mechanical healing mechanism.
Vibrations at frequencies between 20 and 140 Hz are therapeutic for bone growth, fracture healing, pain relief, swelling reduction, wound healing, muscle and tendon repair, increasing mobility of joints and the relief of dyspnoea. Research has identified that the dominant frequency of a cat's purr lies within this range, while prominent harmonics enhance and extend the therapeutic effect. In summary there is powerful evidence that the cat's purr is a healing mechanism - so if you are recovering from an injury, you should hug a purring cat.
* Frequencies of low register instruments: Piano - A0 (28 Hz) to C8 (4,186 Hz or 4.1 KHz), Cello - C2 (65 Hz) to B5 (988 Hz), Double Bass - E1 (41 Hz) to B3 (247 Hz), Drums (Timpani) - 90Hz to 180Hz, Tuba (Bass) - F1 (44 Hz) to F4 (349 Hz), Trombone (Tenor) - E2 (82 Hz) to D5 (587 Hz) Organ - C0 (16 Hz) to A9 (7,040 KHz).

My thanks go to Yahya Lequeux of the Naqshbandi Haqqani Order for the heads up on the article and for his continuing wisdom. All the Sufi cats were photographed by me in Essaouira, Morocco; the cat in the header photo was one of three resident on the roof terrace of our rented apartment. 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 13, 2016

There are two sides to every argument

Yesterday the European Union Youth Orchestra announced it was to cease operations from September 2016 due to the termination of funding from the European Union. That is truly terrible news and everything possible must be done to allow that fine orchestra to continue its invaluable work. But the EUYO's case is not being helped by the classical music establishment. For example, Norman Lebrecht led with the hysterical headline that the European Union had "abolished the orchestra". Which is simply not true. The EU chose not to continue their funding; which may be a very bad decision. However the decision to cease operations was made by the orchestra itself, and the circumstances leading up to that decision deserve closer examination.

Funding in roughly three equal parts from box office income, sponsorship, and public sources has been the model in other music institutions - see my article on Aldeburgh Music. Public subsidy for classical music is being reduced, and audience numbers are not increasing. Which means - whether we like it or not - commercial sponsorship has become a vital source of income for orchestras. But available information shows that although the EUYO is supported by a number of trusts and charitable foundations, its first and only 'multiannual corporate partner' did not come on board until spring 2015. However the orchestra's longstanding EU funding stream ended early in 2014, since when it has have survived on interim EU funding which "could not sustain the Orchestra". Which means the financial crisis must have been on the horizon since 2013.

The orchestra states that it "has been in regular contact with the EU to attempt to find alternative funding from the EU", but makes no mention of other attempts to restructure its finances and become less dependent on the frangible EU subsidy. The EU has directly financed the EUYO for 38 years, which makes the ending of funding particularly unbearable. But can the EU, which faces catastrophic change triggered by the Middle Eastern humanitarian tragedy, and which is under schismatic pressure to reduce its own expenditure, really justify funding an orchestra in these very different and difficult times?

For every complex problem there is an answer that is simple and wrong. And, quite predictably, the classical music establishment led by Norman Lebrecht has come up with the simple and wrong answer of launching a vitriolic personal attack on the EU commissioners. These, incidentally, are the same commissioners who are responsible for the policies that allow music students to move freely within the European Union, a policy that Lebrecht and others have praised lavishly recently.

The EU is wrong to end the orchestra's funding in this way. But from the available facts - and I welcome clarification and correction - it appears that both the EU and EUYO could have done a much better job of managing the transition to a different funding structure. If classical music is to be taken seriously in Brussels and elsewhere it needs advocates who can argue its case persuasively while recognising that the geopolitical and financial landscapes are undergoing seismic change. We need the European Youth Orchestra. But we also need music advocacy that is both convincing and balanced. Information on how to support the European Union Youth Orchestra in its fight for survival is available via this link.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Has Edmund Rubbra's time finally come?

Will the directive in today's government White Paper that the BBC must put "distinctive content" at its heart means less Mahler and more Rubbra at the BBC Proms?

Banging the drum for oppressed women musicians

Quite rightly the gender balance in classical music is being corrected. But too much emphasis is being placed on the women musicians who achieve celebrity status in an art form eviscerated by celebrity fixation, and too little attention is paid to the less fortunate women who are at last being given the opportunity to make music.

While in Morocco recently I attended one of the music workshops that Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb has been running for local women in Essaouira for five years. That is Ahmed in my photo above; he is an adept of the Derkawa Sufi Order, and as a musician has performed extensively in Europe. His workshops have a particular importance because although they are not repressed in the same way as their counterparts in the Gulf States, women still play a subordinate role in Moroccan society and suffer from low levels of literacy.

Unlike more orthodox branches of Islam, Sufism has an enlightened attitude to women, and the mystic and poet Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya who lived in the the 8th century was the first female Sufi saint. In Essaouira there is a unique variation of the celebrated Gnawa lila trance ritual known as the hadra which is performed exclusively by women - Les Haddarates Souiriyattes. Falling numbers threaten the tradition of the hadra, and Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb hopes to keep this threatened tradition alive through his workshops. He is also an artistic advisor to the town's Festival Joudour, and this year the festival's female strand - Festival Hadra Féminine et Musiques de Transe - is showcasing no less than twelve ensembles of women musicians representing mystical traditions from as far afield as France, Algeria, Tunisia and Senegal; a video of the 2015 festival can be viewed here. Trance music - of which Gnawa from Marrakech and Essaouira is the most celebrated form - is performed in healing ceremonies, and Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb is also a music therapy practitioner. His latest album Parfum d'Amour is a collaboration with French classical cellist and transpersonal therapist Emmanuelle Robert which combines musical improvisation and Sufi verse - sample the fusion of a Bach Cello Suite and a transcendental text via this link.

My time with the women musicians of Essaouira reminded me of the wise words of Percy Grainger that I quoted when I wrote about Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb's transcultural collaboration Shore to Shore last year:
I firmly believe that music will someday become a 'universal language'. But it will not become so as long as our musical vision is limited to the output of four European countries between 1700 and 1900. The first step in the right direction is to view the music of all peoples and periods without prejudice of any kind, and strive to put the world's known and available best music into circulation. Only then shall we be justified in calling music a 'universal language.

Thanks go to Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb for his time and wisdom. My Moroccan travels and accommodation were self-funded. Photos were all taken by me and are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2016. Any other 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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

It's OK to program something that isn't perfect

Couldn't agree more! We need more variety in classical programming, that's for sure. And we also need to have orchestras that are willing to try new things. I think that management is often tasked with finding a huge crowd, forgetting that if you appeal to a core group of adventurous (but REGULAR) patrons, the "gamble" should pay off. However, I have to say that I have met my share of very "un"adventurous conductors - they really couldn't care less about anything new. To them, Mahler teeters on the edge. What to do with them, as they often make the programming decisions? Because like anything else, when you have a good advocate for a piece, it all falls into place, and the audience will have a fantastic time. I honestly think management gives the audience too little credit for being able to spot great music. But that gets me on another topic. Why must it necessarily be a "masterpiece" or a symphony with a proven track record? It's OK to program something that isn't perfect - very little music is after all! We seem to be thinking too much inside a narrower and narrower box.
That comment was made by Stephen Evans about yesterday's post Reach is equally important in repertoire. The header image shows my LP set of exactly the kind of music Stephen is talking about; the main works are John Foulds' Pasquinade Symphonique No 1, Hubert Parry's Symphony No 3 (The English), and Havergal Brian's complete Symphonic Movements from The Tigers. That boxed set of masterly non-masterpieces featured in a 2009 post which explained that "I'm not going to start all that nonsense about rediscovered masterpieces. But if English music of this period floats your boat this is worth worth exploring".

In another comment Rob Collis says "I gave up going to the Proms (other than those in which I've sung) some years ago precisely because the repertoire is so sclerotic and frankly dull". Striking confirmation of the foolishness of narrowing repertoire choice in order to expand demographic reach is provided in a new article titled "Almost half of Opera Philly’s audience is under 35: Here’s how they did it". Explaining how Opera Philly did it, general director David Devan outlines their strategy of presenting adventurous and observes that "Customers want more variety".

To put David Devan's observation into perspective, Mahler's First Symphony - which is one of four Mahler symphonies programmed at the 2016 BBC Proms - has been played seven times in the last ten years at the Proms, and 2016 is the third consecutive year that symphony is being performed. This year also sees the sixth performance in seven years of Mahler's Fifth Symphony at the Proms, and the 2016 outing will be the fourth consecutive season that the symphony has been played. Please could BBC Radio 3 controller Alan Davey and Proms director David Pickard note that not only is it OK to program something that isn't perfect, it's also OK to program something that isn't Mahler.

With thanks to reader Jerry White for the heads up on the Philly Opera article. 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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Reach is equally important in repertoire

A reader has pointed out this YouTube trailer for the new recording of Donald Fraser's orchestration of Elgar's Piano Quintet which featured here yesterday. If we accept social media reaction as a meaningful measure of audience engagement, then this new expression of Elgar's chamber music masterpiece is engaging a lot of people. Proms founder Sir Henry Wood was a celebrated advocate of orchestrations; which raises the question as to why Ken Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra were not invited to perform the orchestration at the 2016 Proms instead of one of the four Mahler symphonies. And if anyone accuses me of repeating myself about the predictable and uninspiring BBC Proms season, I will respond by saying that if yet another appearance by Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, by Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, and Rattle and the Berlin Phil is not repetition, what is? The credo of Sir William Glock, whose strong commitment to the new transformed the Proms, should be painted in bold letters on the wall of the Proms planners' office. Here is that credo as recounted by Robert Simpson*:
Glock argued with some energy that the 'central' repertoire was by now continually available at other concerts (of which there were many more than there used to be) as well as on radio or records. This 'freed' the Proms to become a festival of wider reach..."
Today classical music is making the grave error in its obsessive search for new audiences of trying only to extend demographic 'reach'. Reach is as important in repertoire, particularly if the core audience is to be retained. However the addiction to demographic reach is truncating repertoire reach, which in turn abrades the vital core audience. But there is a very good reason for this: classical music is locked into a vicious circle whereby the inflated financial demands of the repertoire-challenged celebrity circus can only be met by the income generated by huge audiences. How long before the Proms move to the O2 Arena for stadium Mahler?

That quote comes from Robert Simpson's attack on repertoire myopia The Proms & Natural Justice. The quote is somewhat ironic as Simpson was a vociferous critic of Glock's Proms programming, particularly his exclusion of English neo-romantic composers such as Edmund Rubbra. 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.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Rarely, rarely comest thou spirit of delight!

The Sufi teaches us that the music is the first thing that changes. When you have ordinary times you get ordinary music, and everything follows the ordinary music. When you have a creative time, that's when you have the powerful, creative music, not just here but all over the world. But when the music changes, when you get the junk and things are copied, you get an ordinary society.
That parable comes from the autobiography of African American jazz pianist Randy Weston, and perusing the record company release schedules simply confirms that we live in very ordinary times. But there are notable exceptions, and one is the release this month of Donald Fraser's orchestration of Elgar's Piano Quintet with the English Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods. Randy Weston tells how "when you have a creative time, that's when you have the powerful, creative music". The Piano Quintet was composed in the last year of the First World War, a terrible time that, perversely, inspired powerful, creative music. Speaking of the incomplete sketches for his Third Symphony, Elgar famously told W.H. Reed ""Don't let them tinker with it, Billy - burn it!"; which did not stop Anthony Payne realising the Elgar/Payne Third Symphony. But orchestrations and Elgar are less contentious: last year I enthused about the CD of David Matthews orchestration of Elgar's String Quartet with Ben Palmer conducting the Orchestra of St Paul's, and the composer himself transcribed Bach, Handel, Chopin and Parry. Donald Fraser's orchestration of Elgar's Piano Quintet is released on Avie; so once again it is an independent label bringing that rare spirit of delight to the release schedules. Or, to put it another way, I am buying the Elgar disc, but passing on Deutsche Grammophon's new disc of Gustavo Dudamel's score for the Simón Bolívar biopic The Liberator.

Elgar described his Second Symphony as 'the passionate pilgrimage of a soul', and the score is headed by a quotation from a poem by Shelley: "Rarely, rarely comest thou spirit of delight!" No review samples used in this post. 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 06, 2016

Mozart in Morocco

My photos show players from L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc performing al fresco in the medina at Essaouira, Morocco last weekend as part of the annual Printemps Musical Des Alizés festival. The orchestra and their choir had travelled 480km south from Rabat to give two evening concerts culminating in the Mozart Requiem. For those of us saturated in the celebrity merry-go-round of classical music in Europe expectations were not high. There is no strong tradition of Western classical music in Morocco, L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc is an unknown quantity and the concert venue was the town's sports hall dressed artfully as a Bedouin tent. But the orchestra's artistic advisor and conductor Olivier Holt neatly inverted Furtwängler's maxim that there are no bad orchestras just bad conductors, to prove that there are no good orchestras, just good conductors. Olivier Holt, whose mentors include Charles Mackerras and Leonard Bernstein, is noted for his operatic work in his native France, and his mastery of vocal forces resulted in a Mozart Requiem of a power and intensity that contrasted sharply with the polished and soulless 'London today Edinburgh tomorrow' jet set music making that dominates the European festival scene.

The Printemps Musical Des Alizés festival also provided some outstanding chamber music played by young European ensembles, including a notable Beethoven Quartet op. 132 from the Quatuor Arod. Essaouira is fortunate to have two acoustically outstanding chamber music venues: the principal venue Dar Souiri is a large traditional riad with enclosed courtyard that provided some of the best sound I have heard in many years of concert going, while the town's Catholic Church has a richly resonant acoustic. This was one of the few festivals where I did not pay for my tickets; for the simple reason that - quite unbelievably - all the concerts are free. With direct budget flights from Paris and London to Essaouira, the Printemps Musical Des Alizés should be on the radar of readers in Western Europe. Essaouira is a beautiful unspoilt seaside town just like Aldeburgh, and the Printemps Musical Des Alizés has all the appeal of the Aldeburgh Festival, with swimming in the morning and superlative chamber music in the afternoon. But, thankfully, there are no Ben and Peter cufflinks on sale in Essaouira, and obtaining tickets for the concerts is not a loaded lottery.

My travel and accommodation were self-funded. 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.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Spooky music

We can only speculate as to why an FBI agent was perusing a post about the admirable but neglected English composer William Wordsworth. My theory is that the spook had visited the 2016 BBC Proms website and deterred by the bland fare on offer there - six Mahler programmes plus the mandatory appearances by Dudamel, Rattle and Barenboim - was investigating On An Overgrown Path for something more nourishing.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Tuesday, May 03, 2016