Saturday, January 22, 2005

Beethoven blues

Thanks to everyone who replied to the composition/groves of academe post! It's always nice to know that one is not alone in these kinds of experiences - what's more worrying is to realise just how widespread they really are!

Anyway, onwards and upwards. What think you of present-day Beethoven interpretation? I've been attending some of my hubby's orchestra's latest Beethoven series under Kurt Masur. Tom has thoroughly enjoyed the concerts and the audiences have been going bananas even if critics have been slightly grudging. The last is tonight and it's completely sold out.

I am not trying to be disloyal to my orchestra-in-law, but actually the concerts I've heard have left me a little cold. There were beautiful moments: bits of the Pastoral, a lovely light touch in No.1 and so on. But No.7, which is my favourite, felt relentless and the finale of the Pastoral, which has to be one of the most wonderful moments in musical history, didn't expand and sing and give thanks the way I long for it to.

On the other hand, I'm reluctant to put all of this down to Masur alone. I think it's a global trend. I certainly wouldn't trust any of the period bands with this repertoire (the clunky drums alone would put me right off, never mind the squeaky violins), but it seems to me that too many modern conductors just don't give the music room to breathe. Where are the Klemperers, the Furtwanglers, the musicians who don't need to sound as if they have to catch a train, who can bring to life the full measure and depth and breadth of the music? And I don't mean they have to sound like Karajan.

It's possible to give something breadth and depth without it being 'boring' or 'old fashioned'. You can still articulate the slurs and staccatos and shape the phrases without losing the big picture, if you try. You can capture the sense of worship, the transcendence, without fear of association with some bygone political aberration whose practitioners unfortunately liked this kind of thing. And yet I can't remember the last time I was able to listen to a Beethoven symphony and have the really good, exhilarating wallow that I want to have. I'd rather listen to a recording of Barenboim or Schnabel or Kovacevich playing the piano sonatas because they do achieve this atmosphere. Am I being obtuse? Am I missing something marvellous somewhere? Is my taste hopelessly outdated? I just don't know. But one way or another, I didn't feel inspired to go to No.9 tonight.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Composing memories

A particularly fascinating correspondence thread attached to my recent post about contemporary symphonies leads me to the following, in the wake of a comment about how audiences have been alienated by modernism. It's not just audiences that have been alienated.

I used to be interested in composing myself, believe it or not. Once, at high school, I was put into a corner at the emotional equivalent of gunpoint and instructed to write a setting of Psalm 150. It was to be part of a theatrical presentation on the theme of Music and Revival that the school was putting on to celebrate the opening (by a minor royal) of its new hexagonal theatre. I did it, somehow, and it came off rather well, mainly because the theatre had a beautiful resonant acoustic, the group performing were up in the balcony and the opening phrase had a nice arch to it which, especially in the dark, made a reasonably OK impression. The headmistress liked it and wrote me a glowing reference, without which I probably wouldn't have got into my university so easily (incidentally, that was 1983 and systems have changed here since then).

So I trotted off to college thinking I might try composing - until I discovered a few things about the composing scene. First, it was entirely male dominated. I did have one female friend who refused to be put off by this and went for lessons with one of the place's resident eminent composers, but it was very clear, very fast, that we were not welcome in the clique - meanwhile, the place was full of arrogant little s**ts (male ones) who thought they were the next Beethoven and strode around the music faculty saying things like 'Prokofiev's rubbish'. But the attitude towards music that did not match accepted party lines - into serialism/modernism/systematic crafting evident only on paper and never to the ear - was the most destructive element. I well remember one friend - an extremely talented fellow - coming round for tea and saying, thoroughly perplexed, that his professor had just told him that he thought too much about the way his music sounded.

I doubt that I'd ever have been suited to life as a composer, but the fact remains that I've never set note to page again even though, at least in student days, I probably could have (if to no great effect) had the climate been just a little more encouraging to those who weren't male or super confident or inclined towards serialism/nasty noises. I once heard that someone in this university, in the 1960s, had submitted a cabbage as his composition portfolio. I can't say I blame him. At least you can eat a cabbage.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Return of the native...

Tom is just back from a tour to Athens with the band & Kurt Masur, playing all the Beethoven symphonies in four concerts in four days. Knackering - not least because they had to get up at 5.45am today to catch the plane home, after an extremely late night post-No.9. But it was also more rewarding than he had expected. In over 20 years of orchestral slog, he says, he's never done the complete Beethoven symphonies in a few days before; having got through it successfully, he wouldn't mind doing it all over again.

It's an intriguing thought. Given that many critics here have given Masur's Beethoven RFH cycle short shrift (they think: it doesn't say enough/has all been done before/predictable programming), here's a London orchestra stalwart who's never done it before and absolutely loves it. I know that my hubby is perhaps unusual in being one of very few orchestral musicians who still get a tremendous kick out of the job and come home from rehearsals whistling the tunes. But maybe it's the critics who are the truly jaded, not the orchestras. Maybe all those accusations are merely projection!

In Tom's absence, Tippett has been taking pride of place. I've learned a lot by writing about him - not least that I don't always love music for its own sake. I'm actually not that crazy about Tippett's music and I don't go out of my way to hear him (although 'A Child of Our Time' does make me cry, and I'm one of few people who thoroughly enjoyed 'New Year'!). What I love is what he stands for. I love the fact that here is a maverick composer who always had enough conviction to do his own thing. Someone who isn't afraid to splurge in the face of a critical establishment that thinks splurging is naive and therefore Bad. Someone who sticks up for what he believes in, even if it ends him in Wormwood Scrubs. I don't actually like the fact that he was a conscientious objector, because I don't see how anybody on earth could conscientiously object to fighting the Nazis - but that's not the point. While Britten, the beloved of the British Establishment, slunk off to the States for the same reason, Tippett stood his ground and did time for it and I admire him for that in a weird kind of way. I like his humanity and the generosity of spirit that he puts across; it's very rare.

Funnily enough, Korngold had a similar generosity, naivety and overambition; and Korngold is often criticised in a remarkably similar way. There, though, I think that comparison ends!

Friday, January 14, 2005

Wagner in Australia

Ken Nielsen writes from Australia, eager to get a discussion going about the problems of Wagner. I'll let him speak for himself:

"We went to the Adelaide production of The Ring in November and I have been thinking since about The Ring phenomenon.
First of all, I have to admit that Liz and I enjoyed the production mightily. That was a bit surprising, as we are a long way from being Wagnerians. Our tastes start in the baroque (Bach was the greatest ever) then jump pretty much to the 20th Century with light hops through the classical quartet repertoire. (I sometimes think I might spend the rest of my life with LvB's
Quartets). So, for most purposes, Wagner isn't on my list.

"What we enjoyed was the theatre. When I want to annoy Wagnerians I suggest that his music is really like a film score -great at accompanying the action but not of much value on its own. That is an exaggeration of what I think, but it's fun to see the reaction. I think the key to The Ring phenomenon is that it is a fairy story for grown-ups. If you allow yourself to be drawn into the myth you can follow with great enjoyment the broad brush of the story. It is fairly simple, it isn't very subtle though by overlaying Freud and other myth makers some manage to manufacture complexity.

"The amazing thing is to realize you have sat through 16 hours of music theatre without any boredom or loss of attention. I can't think of anyone else who can make me do that. I know people who booked for all 3 cycles. I can't imagine doing that. (Though at the end of each of the 3 Beethoven Quartet cycles I have seen, I would have willingly turned up the following week to do it all again). But, having said that, I don't fully understand why the show works the way it does.

"The other aspect that needs study is why any city with pretensions to artistic taste wants to do a Ring Cycle. A quick look at shows that they are breeding at alarming rate. It is alarming because the Ring is so expensive it takes up a huge amount of the financial resources available for music and opera. So that is not available for anything else.

"The Adelaide Ring began about 8 years ago when the city lost the Formula 1 Grand Prix to Melbourne. The City looked for another major event to bring the tourists. Someone thought of Wagner. In 1998 they borrowed a production of the Ring from the Chatelet in Paris which went over so well they immediately announced that in 2004 there would be a new production presented straight through in 3 cycles. And so it was.

"The cost ended up at $A19 million (about 7.6 million pounds). On my arithmetic that is $4000 a seat for each cycle. The highest ticket price was about $1000. The balance came largely from government with smaller contributions from corporate sponsors and individual donations. Is any opera worth $4000 a seat, no matter who is paying? The government justified the expenditure on an increase in economic activity from tourism, which (pardon me) is nonsense. I am sure more tourists could have been attracted at much less cost: imagine offering to give tourists $1000 in cash as they got off the plane. But then similar nonsense is used to justify the Olympics and the Grand Prix.

"Please don't misunderstand, I am not objecting (here and now, anyway) to government funding of the arts. I just think there are better ways of doing it. I would rather subsidise artists with something to say than audience members.

"Some of this explains why we started our own opera company ( ), but that is another story..."

Ken Nielsen
Sydney Australia

Off we go, then! Here's my contribution: Wagner is so demanding to stage, even at its simplest, that the cost without public subsidy would be prohibitive in any country that does not have the same levels of private money as America. That would mean that most countries would never hear any Wagner live. And I believe Wagner has to continue to be heard live; if such things are rendered eternally impossible, it will mean the end of real, educated, creative culture (as opposed to dumb&dumber TV-centric 'culture') in the western world.

So costs do have to be trimmed. What pushed up the cost in Australia? Generally, do conductors and big-name singers really need to be paid the kind of extortionate fees that they demand (orchestral musicians suffer freezes on their already low pay because of these greedy windbags). Time, I think, to re-read Norman Lebrecht. It may not have 'killed classical music' yet, but there's an evident risk that it could, at least at the pricier end. I do wonder why orchestras/managers/promoters didn't just say NO WAY ON EARTH when agents demanded ever-more astronomical sums?!?

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


Current excuses for lack of frequent blogging are topped by a sprained ankle, a touring husband and rather a lot of Tippett. I'll be back online as soon as I can think straight.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Symphonic blues?

I am wearing sackcloth and ashes over missing the world premiere of Matthew Taylor's Symphony No.3 on Friday night. Helen played the harp at the concert and has a full report at Twang Twang Twang. I fear I had to stay in and practise/rehearse (we had a gig yesterday) and so it has been and gone and I feel desperately guilty. (Not least because Matthew once dedicated a very touching piano piece to me. Matthew being a great Schumann fan, it's called Blumenstuck. I remember thinking the title beautifully ironic because at the time I did indeed feel bloomin' stuck...but, thank goodness, that's a long time ago...).

Helen asks in her report why symphonies aren't generally being written these days; Lisa has some succinct and pertinent replies. But what's worrying me about Matthew's new piece is when we will ever have the opportunity to hear it again. Writing a symphony takes so much time, effort and spiritual blood & guts that it seems nothing less than tragic if there's to be only one performance. Sobering, of course, to think of symphonies over the centuries whose composers never heard them at all - Schubert's Ninth being the prime example. To Lisa's list of reasons, however, I should add that concert promoters who refuse to take risks must shoulder some of the blame. By being over-conservative, they have steered audiences towards further conservatism - if you feed people nothing but familiar music, they will come to expect and accept nothing but familiar music. As indeed, they now do.

Hats off to Matthew and his few symphony-writing colleagues who dare to stand their ground and speak their musical minds, even if it means swimming against the tide and even if it means busting every gut every day of their lives. Bravo.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Viva Jacqueline

My biggest assignment this Christmas was writing a mega-article about a mega-musician: a very substantial piece for the Indy about Jacqueline du Pre, who would have celebrated her 60th birthday later this month. The article is out today and turns out to be the cover feature for the review section. It's also trailed on the front page of the main paper. I may have been a journalist for 15 years but I still get a real kick out of things like this!....and I'm overjoyed to have been able to make some contribution to celebrating an artist like 'Jackie', who meant so very much to so many people - and still does.

Raphael Wallfisch is at the heart of this because he has organised two impressive days of commemorative concerts - on 25 January he and pianist John York play all the Beethoven cello sonatas at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and on 26th Symphony Hall Birmingham is hosting a whole afternoon & evening of special events with Wallfisch, Christopher Nupen and friends. All proceeds to the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Book now!

By Strauss

To the most stunning and luscious chamber music concert last night: the Razumovsky Ensemble at Wigmore Hall. The Razumovskys are a flexible-sized group of London's top orchestra leaders and freelance chamber musicians/soloists, given their much-deserved chance to play at the Wig and elsewhere in groups that show what astonishing players they really are. Last night the ROH leader Vassko Vassilev, LSO principal second David Alberman, LPO principal viola Sasha Zemstov, ROH principal viola Andrey Viytovych and cellists Oleg Kogan (who runs the whole thing to perfection) and Alex Chaushian got together to play an entire programme of string sextets: the one from Capriccio by Strauss, the Brahms G major and the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence. We sat and wallowed all the way through. The sound quality! The vigour! The textures! The fabulous music that is never performed often enough! Glorious musical chocolate, 100% cocoa solids.

A thought about Capriccio: the crux of the opera is whether Countess Madeleine, pursued by a poet on one hand and a musician on the other, decides that music is more important than words, or vice-versa. We never learn what her decision is. BUT Strauss starts the opera with - a self-contained string sextet. He must have realised that it would be taken out and performed in chamber concerts as a work in its own right. Without words. Could this sextet represent Strauss's reaction to his story? The answer is music, music, music...

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Essential reading

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch & Helen Radice, I've just come across Adaptistration, a blog by musician, teacher and orchestra manager Drew McManus in the US. It's part of Artsjournal and concerns the evolution of orchestral management, but using a sharp mind and fine arguments to do so. Well written, to the point and most insightful. Anyone in the music business, or with a serious interest in orchestras for any reason whatsoever, should read it.

Footnote: Drew, like me, is married to a professional violinist. Is there something about the instrument that induces its player's spouse to blog?!?

Saturday, January 01, 2005

New year, new start

Among things that need a serious restart are our front room shelves, groaning with LPs that haven't been played for 20 years. Today Tom decided we should have clear-out. He has a vinyl buff friend who'll be coming round to take away most of our collection. So this seemed an apposite day, hangover notwishstanding, to sift out what we want to keep.

Ouch. Memories flood back. Tom kept anything that said JASCHA HEIFETZ on the front; I kept anything that said KRYSTIAN ZIMERMAN. Some of his early recordings have never been transferred to CD and the pictures of him aged around 21 are seriously cute. And many of them are signed (in 1982/83 I was a goggle-eyed teenaged groupie!).

Anything that has been transferred to CD went into the OUT pile - even things that nearly broke my heart because I remember listening to them again & again & again as a kid, years before my parents died: things like Mendelssohn ' A Midsummer Night's Dream' and Zukerman playing the concerto. There's a boxed set of 'Carmen' starring Teresa Berganza that has never even been opened...I remember buying it with my Dad on the day I took Grade VII piano aged 15 and somehow we never got round to playing it... All the Andras Schiff Bach recordings that helped me survive Cambridge in the mid 1980s (music faculty ethos in those days was Christopher Hogwood=God; Bach on Piano=Evil Subversive Forces) - I have them on CD now, but the big Decca double LPs were so lovely... Various recordings signed by musicians, not just Zimerman; others affectionately signed by ex-boyfriends with cryptic initials, meanings long forgotten. And recordings that have probably been transferred to CD but also possibly Frederica von Stade, accompanied by Jean-Philippe Collard, singing Faure. Wonderful disc, surely, surely we must be able to find it on CD? But still, I haven't listened to it in over 15 years.

I can't quite imagine feeling this sentimental over CDs. Too much plastic, too many broken boxes, too small. But at least they don't warp.

We listened to one very special LP: Hugh Bean and David Parkhouse playing the Elgar Violin Sonata. Wonderful, rich,singing tone, masses of fantasy, perfect atmosphere. Warped, however. Have ordered it on CD now.

One end result, other than the agony of seeing one's childhood memories slung into the OUT pile, is that I want to get hold of the RCA Heifetz edition. Loads of CDs, but Tom deserves them for his next birthday. Unfortunately, though, as is so often the case in these alarming days, it now seems to be unavailable from Amazon and the various second-hand CD sites I've tried online have only bits and pieces from it. Anyone know where I might be able to run the whole lot to earth?