Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Classical music's new saviour is gourmet pizza

Slipped Disc blames poor classical attendances at Croydon's Faifield Halls on the lousy quality of the pizzas sold there. These poor classical attendances are, of course, nothing to do with the gross oversupply of classical music triggered by streaming services such as Idagio. Which, incidentally, Slipped Disc partners with.

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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Beethoven beyond the concert hall

There is little doubt that the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is grossly over-exposed, and it takes an artist of quite exceptional ability to make us listen to the old warhorse with fresh ears. But Iranian film director and writer Mohsen Makhmalbaf does just that with his 1998 film 'The Silence' [Sokout], which provides the accompanying screen grabs. The acclaimed film's non-linear narrative depicts the blind village boy Khorshid who is forced to work in a luthier's workshop in a city in in Tajikistan. Khorshid can 'see' with his ears and this leads him to a hypnagogic encounter with Beethoven's symphony as his mother faces eviction from their home for rent arrears.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf is a creative maverick. His 2001 film Kandahar is highly critical of the Taliban, and speaking of the infamous destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan he said: "I reached the conclusion that the statues of Buddha were not demolished by anybody; it crumbled out of shame. Out of shame for the world's ignorance towards Afghanistan. It broke down knowing its greatness didn't do any good". The Sufi saint Rumi is one of Persia's most famous sons, and The Silence' is celebrated for its Sufi symbolism. But I kept that aspect of this masterpiece out of the headline in deference to classical music's subliminal Islamophobia*. (I await news of the tribute concert for the nine victims of today's terrible shisha bar shootings in Germany, but I'm not holding my breath.)

There are other universal messages in 'The Silence': most notably the importance of seeing with our ears as well as eyes, a skill painfully relevant to Beethoven. Transpositions of Western classical music to other cultures can seem contrived, but the enigmatic closing scene in which Khorshid 'conducts' Beethoven's Fifth played by a folk orchestra - see header image - shows how genius can transcend cultural mindsets. It is typical of Mohsen Makhmalbaf mischievous but inspired direction that the demanding central role of the blind boy Khorshid is played brilliantly by a girl, Tahmineh Normatova. Watch the moving and magical final minutes of the film by opening this link.

All the classical social media addicts who are leaping to defend the BBC license fee should note that 'The Silence' is available to Amazon Prime subscribers, as is Mohsen Makhmalbaf's other visual masterpiece Gabbeh. I have flesh in the broadcasting game, as what few creative skills I have can be credited to my training with BBC Radio. But, as I wrote previously, in recent years technology and consumer behaviour have changed radically and continue to change at a pace that nobody could have predicted, which means media must also change. Instead of whining about the speculative demise of BBC Radio 3 and the Proms, the license fee remainers should address the real dilemmas facing the BBC. How can the BBC respond to the profound structural shifts driven by streaming and personalisation? How can a license fee structure created in 1946 to reflect high broadcasting infrastructure costs be justified when digital technologies have slashed broadcasting and webcasting infrastructure costs and eliminated barriers to entry?

Why should the UK public subsidise through a quasi-poll tax the BBC when its mission is to compete head-to-head in a race to the bottom with unsubsidised commercial networks? In a market where the supply of classical music has been increased exponentially by streaming while demand remains static or decreases, how can the BBC avoid reducing its stable of five house orchestras? There seems to be no awareness by the license fee remainers of these very real challenges. Now please can the license fee fans repeat after me one hundred times 'Tweet bombs and online petitions had absolutely no impact on Brexit'. Then can they write to the BBC demanding the airing of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 'The Silence' as a diverse contribution to the Beethoven anniversary celebrations.

* See also the approved by site moderator comment directed at me by 'DW' towards the end of the comments on this Slipped Disc post.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Good enough for the Berlin Philharmonic but not for the BBC

That evocative photo above shows Rudolph Dunbar in the US war correspondent battledress he wore in 1945 when he became the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The photo* appears in an article on the website of San Francisco classical station KDFC. This article is linked to my 2007 post which first drew attention to the remarkable story of Rudolph Dunbar who was born in British Guiana, now Guyana, in South America. Subsequent posts by me highlighted the disturbing allegations that Dunbar's career was derailed by a a 'producer/director' of music at the BBC. KDFC picks up this theme and concludes by saying 'To this day, there is still mystery surrounding Dunbar’s blacklisting from concert appearances. Although for Dunbar, it wasn’t mystery, it was racism'.

But now the fate of Rudolph Dunbar is no longer a mystery. Because while preparing this new post I discovered research from the BBC archives that details how the Guyanese conductor's career was derailed. This research was carried out by Professor Wendy Webster of the University of Huddersfield and is published in her 2018 book 'Mixing It: Diversity in World War Two Britain' which provides the primary source for this article. This new information is of great importance: because the story of Rudolph Dunbar's demise is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago.

Prof. Webster explains how after an Albert Hall concert in 1942 the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies and future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave a lunch in Dunbar's honour. (Was this the concert with the London Philharmonic when he became the orchestra's first black conductor?**) Following the lunch an article was published in the Sunday Express by Bernard Bracken, Minister of Information; this was headlined 'Colour bar must go' and opened with the sentence 'Mr. Rudolph Dunbar has asked me to write an article about the Colour Bar'.

At this time Dunbar worked closely with the Colonial Office to provide positive coverage of efforts in Britain to suppress racism. One example was an article written for the Associated Negro Press headlined 'Men and Women of Colour Rise to Prominence in England' which took the optimistic view that 'there is a real effort being made on the part of the heads of government departments to abolish colour prejudice and to employ West Indians and Africans in positions worthy of their intellectual attainments and capacities'. Dunbar was adopted by the Colonial Office and BBC as a poster boy of racial integration, and was used to counter allegations of colonialism. As an example, below is a page from a 1943 Radio Times listing a talk by Rudolph Dunbar on the BBC Home Service titled 'Colour Bar'.

As a result of this exposure the head of publicity at the Colonial Office wrote to the BBC proposing that Dunbar should be invited to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and supported this proposal by citing the conductor's successes with London orchestras and with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. But not only did the BBC not take up the Colonial Office's suggestion of guest conducting work, but following an interview with Dunbar in August the unnamed BBC Director of Music noted: 'Partly, I believe through the insistence of the Ministry of Information his musical talents have been praised by the press on political grounds out of proportion to his actual achievements, and this has given him an inflated idea of his actual achievements'. More seriously the unnamed Deputy Director of Music wrote the following to Radiodiffusion Française in 1946, the emphasis is mine.
[Rudolph Dunbar] is from the West Indies and a British subject,and the reason why he got so much encouragement and support during the war was that he represented the West Indies in our Ministry of Information. Recently he seems to have devoted his programmes to American music*** - hence, I presume the similar support from the American press. It is a pity he cannot conduct, because he must have done harm rather than good to the cause of the coloured people. He was a clarinet player - but again not quite good enough to play the interesting pieces he offered - and I think he was always more at home with a band than an orchestra.
Just like today, the BBC wielded huge influence in the classical music world. These were not private observations: the statements that "It is a pity he cannot conduct" and that he was a mediocre clarinet player were made, presumably, in response to a query from Radiodiffusion Française who were considering giving Dunbar work, and similar views were almost certainly propagated elsewhere. These are damning words, so the allegations that senior BBC executives derailed Rudolph Dunbar's career is correct. At this point we must consider the argument that the BBC judgement was correct and that Dunbar could not conduct and was only an average clarinet player. Was his celebrated Berlin Philharmonic appearance just a politically expedient shoo-in by the Americans?

Sadly, precisely because his career was stymied, there are no recordings from which we can judge Rudolph Dunbar's skill as a conductor. But there is fairly convincing evidence from his track record that his reputation was deserved. Today the all-powerful agent network means conductors of questionable talent can be shood-in to prestigious concerts. But not so in the 1940s; times were very hard and finding work as a conductor - irrespective of your colour - must have been even harder. Dunbar conducted the London Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras, bands that do not suffer fools gladly. In their proposal to the BBC the Colonial Office noted that Dunbar had 'scored a considerable success' conducting at the Albert Hall and with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Below is the programme for Rudolph Dunbar's appearance in a 1942 concert series by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The other two conductors in the series showed the exalted company that Dunbar was keeping on the podium - the Ukrainian Anatole Fistoulari who was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and the acclaimed but capricious master of Wagner's music Reginald Goodall. Below is the repertoire for Dunbar's concert (Rawicz and Landauer played light items for piano duet either side of the interval):
Weber: Overture 'Oberon'
Coleridge-Taylor: Petite Suite de Concert Op 77
Dvořák: Symphony No 9 'From the New World'

It is easier to refute the verdict that Rudolph Dunbar's mastery of the clarinet was "not quite good enough". He played jazz clarinet soloist with The Plantation Orchestra and can be heard on archive recordings. While studying in Paris he was invited by Debussy's widow to give a clarinet recital in her home; then in 1931 when he settled in London he founded the Rudolph Dunbar School of Clarinet Playing and wrote columns on technique for the Melody Maker for seven years. In 1939 he wrote his 'Treatise on the Clarinet (Boehm System)', which became and remains a standard text about the instrument for both jazz and classical players.

But despite clear evidence of a remarkable talent, Machiavellian machinations within the BBC irreparably damaged Rudolph Dunbar's career. While compiling this article I uncovered the photo below of him. It was taken for a City Limits magazine interview in 1986; this was two years before Dunbar died in obscurity and to my knowledge it has not been published since. The interview tells how at the age of 79 Dunbar was still studying scores for 40 hours a week, but had no opportunity to conduct them. Look at the first photo above showing a man with the classical music world at his feet. Now look at the photo below showing a broken bitter man. That is what ignorance and racism does.

We must not let the sabotaging of Rudolph Dunbar's career become a mere footnote in history, because history has a habit of repeating itself. Rudolph Dunbar was exploited as a diversity poster boy by the BBC when it suited them, and he was subsequently discarded ruthlessly and dishonestly. Today the stranglehold of the BBC on classical music in Britain is even greater. Admirable progress has been made in giving female conductors their rightful place on the podium. But considerably less progress has been made in giving musicians of colour similar recognition. But there are exceptions - a few poster boys and girls who are opportunistically being given high media profiles to prove there is ethnic diversity within the art form. Racism is a systemic disease that has ravaged classical music for decades, and continues to ravage it. The BBC's deplorable treatment of Rudolph Dunbar is an important case study for classical music in the 21st century. Because, in the words usually attributed to writer and philosopher George Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

* Header photo is © Van Vechten Trust/Beinecke Library.
** This concert prompted the Nazi propaganda radio masterminded by Joseph Goebbels to highlight how Britain's 'low cultural level' was exemplified by the promotion of a black conductor.
** Presumably music by William Grant Still. Dunbar conducted the composer's Symphony No. 1 'Afro-American' at his Berlin concert.

My deep appreciation goes to Professor Wendy Webster, without her research and book the solving of the mystery of Rudolph Dunbar would not have been possible. My thanks also go to John McLaughlin Williams who continues to inspire on this important subject. Deep appreciation also goes to another very important native of Guyana in my life - my wife. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Classical purists will loathe it but this is a massive PR win

A reader has added this comment to my recent post Classical music needs to make its diversity more diverse:
I certainly agree with both what you and John McLaughlin Williams have said. On a somewhat related note, I was rather surprised to see that my old hometown [Detroit Symphony] orchestra was partnering with Rap Royalty for what promises to be a pretty memorable night. Now, orchestras playing live soundtracks to accompany films is certainly nothing new. Even Pops concerts now regularly feature some Rap or Hip Hop artist, but what really surprised me, was the response the event received on the local entertainment weekly's social media page: nearly 3000 comments and SHARES! That was considerably more attention than the DSO received for its recent Grammy wins!
Purists will probably loathe it, but this is a massive public relations WIN for the DSO! And yes, it's bringing new audiences into the concert hall!
Classical music views social media exposure as the holy grail. So 3000 comments and shares on social networks is indeed a big win. But the observation that purists will loathe the partnering of a symphony ochestra with hip hop legend Wu-Tang Clan is sadly undoubtedly true. Because classical music has a self-destructive mindset. It wants to connect with the big new young rewired audience, but only on its own purist and fundamentally elitist terms.

Looking back over sixteen years of my Overgrown Path posts it is easy to find expressions by me of that purist and elitist mindset. However I am not embarrassed to admit that my views have changed radically. Because technology and consumer tastes have also changed radically and continue to change at a pace that nobody could have predicted. When I joined BBC Radio from university in 1972 we edited reel-to-reel tape recordings using razor blades. My first home computer bought in 1993 was a Dell 486 running DOS with a 66MHz processor, 8MB of RAM and a 320MB hard drive bought for almost £2000, which included an external 9,600-baud modem. Facebook was launched as a "hot or not" game for Harvard students in 2004 - the same year I started writing this blog - and Twitter was launched two years later. Since starting On An Overgrown Path music media has morphed from physical CDs through downloads to streaming, and today mobile listening is the way most people hear music.

My Dell 486 was a PC, and the digital revolution was triggered by the arrival of Personal Computers. 'Personal' was the defining characteristic of this new technology, and the cultural revolution it has driven is defined by personalisation and customisation. New technologies mean we now define our own personal comfort zones. My music comfort zone is very different to everybody else's. Which means there is no longer a single monolithic classical audience that wants to sit in acoustically perfect concert halls listening to 24/7 Beethoven and Mahler.

Classical diversity is about more than the conductor's gender. Today's art music is a granular culture. Of course it embraces Simon Rattle conducting Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives. But it also embraces the London Philharmonic advocating Ravi Shankar, Steve Roach's ambient electronica, John McLaughlin Williams mixing Strauss' Four Last Songs with Sinatra arrangements, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra collaborating with a hip hop legend. The classical purists need to get over that and start open-mindedly embracing every aspect of the new rewired culture, instead of cherry-picking the parts that suit their own preconceptions and prejudices.

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Friday, February 14, 2020

Classical music needs to make its diversity more diverse

Back in 2014 after attending a work-in-progress outing for the realisation of Ravi Shankar's opera Sukanya I wrote that "Sukanya, with its trans-cultural pedigree and message that there is life beyond Western materialism, may be just the opera to show that Anna Nicole is not the only way to attract new audiences". Now, after semi-staged performances of the completed opera comes an admirable double CD release on the London Philharmonic's own label captured at a 2017 performance. It is pleasing to see Sukanya growing in stature over the years while Mark-Anthony Turnage’s click bait opera Anna Nicole fades from memory. But it is sad to see so little attention paid by the classical twitterati to David Murphy and the LPO's brave advocacy of Pandit Shankar's opera. Classical music resounds with self-congratulation about its embrace of diversity. But in reality that diversity is no more than a cosmetic dash of box office-friendly colour painted on a resolutely monochrome establishment. As was confirmed by the Amazon algorithm that recommended Sheku Kanneh-Mason's Elgar album based on my interest in Sukanya.

No review samples used in this post. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).