Thursday, June 11, 2020

Finding our roots: a guest post by Rebeca Omordia

In solidarity with BLM, I'm handing the floor to the pianist Rebeca Omordia to tell us the hows and whys of her African concert series, which goes online later this month. Her CD of music by Nigerian composers was proof that we need to hear a great deal more of them! 
You can also watch a preview of the series on the African Concert Series Facebook page, here.
Over to you, Rebeca...
jd




The African Concert Series London was launched in 2019 and its mission was pioneering repertoire by African Art composers. Bringing African classical music to the Western audience was right from the start an endeavour meant to unravel the cultural diversity of the African continent, reflected in its music, and to create a platform for the African classical music to be performed.

Africa is very colourful - each country in Africa has a multitude of ethnic groups and each ethnic group has a music of its own, with characteristic melodies and rhythms -, quality which I have tried to emphasise in the programmes of The African Concert Series, through individually themed concerts: Nigerian Odyssey, The South African Double Bass, String Quartets by African Composers, Arabesque: Piano music from the Arabworld, and many more.

After the success of the 2019 series, I had hoped for other performances in 2020 but the Coronavirus pandemic forced us all into our homes. The 2020 online series is not a resignation, an acceptance of “The New Normal”, we are not bending our heads down and pretend we still have jobs as performers; it is the continuation of our pioneering work, of taking the message forward despite circumstances. During the current social and racial climate, I believe returning to one's roots is the best form of self-care and I truly hope it inspires others to research their origins and explore their heritage. 

The online series features one week of very short performances, especially recorded for this programme, streamed daily on The African Concert Series Facebook page starting on 22 June that will reveal music never heard before by the social media audience, giving us the opportunity to reach a wider audience.

African classical music, known as African Art music, emerged in West Africa in the 20th century and its founding father is Nigerian composer Fela Sowande (l905-1987). Most of the African composers studied in Europe then returned to their African countries where they began broadcasting and lecturing in universities. Eventually, Music Societies were formed (e.g. MUSON – Musical Society of Nigeria founded in 1983) allowing for classical concerts to be performed. All composers wrote music in a Western classical style while using African traditional melodies and rhythms. Composers from Ethiopia, South Africa, the Arab world – Morocco, Algeria, developed their own style of art music.

The African Concert Series 2020 - online edition opens on 22 June with multi-award winner St Louis (USA) based Nigerian-Ghanaian composer and pianist Fred Onovwerosuoke and his wife flautist Wendy Hymes. FredO, as friends call him, became internationally renowned when his chant Bolingo was featured as a soundtrack in Robert de Niro's film The Good Shepherd. FredO wrote music for many instruments including the flute, music featured on The African Art Music for Flutealbum released by Wendy in 2008. 

The second performance in the series is by Nigeria’s leading tenor Jo Oparamanuike, accompanied by Babatunde Sosan, the third in his family to be organist at Christ Church, Lagos, who will stream from Nigeria. South African virtuoso bass player Leon Bosch will play music featured on his new Meridian Records CD The South African Double Bass– music composed especially for him. Nigerian pianist Glen Inanga, founder of the first ever Arts Festival in the Cayman Islands, will perform music from Nigeria. Moroccan-Hungarian pianist Marouan Benabdallah has been touring the world to great acclaim with his programme Arabesque: Piano music from the Arab world, project which lead to the discovery of 90 composers from countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. 

I will close the series on 29 June with a selection from 24 Studies in African Rhythms by Fred Onovwerosuoke. FredO travelled the whole Africa where he gathered material that he used in his 24 Studies in African Rhythms, each study is inspired by a song or a dance from a different country in Africa.
Rebeca Omordia

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Rattle and Elder step up to shout

Many thanks to everyone for your fantastic response to yesterday's post. Keep yelling!

We shouldn't underestimate the quiet and devoted behind-the-scenes beavering that is taking place on behalf of the music world: missions that hopefully will start shouting in due course, but may not have done so yet. I am getting the impression that there are spaces to watch...

Today The Guardian is carrying an open letter from Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Mark Elder regarding the plight of British musicians of all genres. You can read the whole thing on the site, but here's a taste of it:


There are so many pressing problems to solve in the UK that it takes courage even to mention the desperate situation of classical music in the time of Covid-19.
There’s a real possibility of a devastated landscape on the other side of this; orchestras may not survive, and if they do, they may face insuperable obstacles to remain solvent in our new reality. What we write applies, of course, to all types of music, not just classical music which is our area of expertise. Our music is essentially a live experience and requires all the participants, performers and listeners alike, to be in the same room together. What we may do individually over the internet in these months is all well and good, but the living core of our work is a live communion, a sharing of space, art and emotion which is both vital and healing.
This healing will become ever more necessary in the coming time as we attempt to bear witness and understand what we have all gone through. In such an existential crisis, the realisation of our shared vulnerability will surely change and deepen our relationship to all the arts. In our own field we are asking ourselves; how can we get back to live music? How can we give our audiences the courage to gradually return?
More immediately, how can we maintain musical continuity when orchestras are silenced? And how do we nurture a generation of young musicians whose prospects look bleak just as they embark on a career in this ever more uncertain world?...

Meanwhile (not directly related to the above), I promised some music on a regular basis, so here is something I heard the other day - live via my phone while in the middle of Richmond Park, surrounded by greenery. Wood magic from Schumann, and Fauré's Cello Sonata No.1 - Steven Isserlis and Mishka Rushdie Momen at the Wigmore Hall. Please watch it on the Wigmore's own site and do make a donation if you can. I was horrified to see that one of the concerts the other day had raised a grand total that was well under £100, and I'm sure we can do better than that. https://wigmore-hall.org.uk/live-streams/steven-isserlis-cello-mishka-rushdie-momen-piano

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

"The position of the perpetual spectator"


I'm reading Music Comes Out of Silence, by András Schiff and the Swiss journalist Martin Meyer, which has just been published in English translation. Its first part is a discussion between them which veers from the fascinating to the eye-opening to several hilarious anecdotes. The second part consists of essays, letters and reflections by Schiff himself. The passage above is from a piece he wrote in 2000 in response to the far-right politician Jörg Haider's election in Austria. Haider was killed in a road accident in 2008, but otherwise Schiff's words are as true today as they were 20 years ago.

Today, while the few newspapers that accord any space to classical music are pointing out that in the UK the industry faces collapse within months, somehow only a handful of musicians are speaking up about the dangers. Many are talking online about music, streaming performances from home or doing both, finding ways to keep motivated and keep their, and our, brains engaged with our art. It needs, nevertheless, to go further than that.

There's no shortage of anger and anxiety, and at first I was convinced that a large part of the problem is simply that newspapers are just not interested enough in classical music to give it the sort of airing that exists for theatre, in which stars like David Tennant and Sam West are household names. There is an excellent piece in today's Guardian by Charlotte Higgins - which asks why we are not putting up more of a fight.

Part of the issue is the lack of cohesion between various organising bodies. I have been wondering where the Musicians' Union is in all this. All I can find at the moment is a report in which it appears to suggest that two musicians sitting next to each other facing forward shouldn't be a problem because they're not breathing on each other. Um. [UPDATE 5.15pm: Today the MU General Secretary, Horace Trubridge, speaks up eloquently in The Evening Standard - in an article that is headlined by theatre. Music is placed second, under cover - as is so often the case. Another indication that media attitudes must shoulder a lot of this blame.] Organisations such as the ISM and the ABO have been active and energetic, but chiefly behind the scenes, lobbying the necessary forces-that-be; and they are only occasionally picked up and yelled about on Radio 4.

What about actual musicians? Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of Chineke!, has been a fabulous spokesperson for the art form, especially in the crucial area of race relations, and has been featured on LBC. Nicola Benedetti speaks out eloquently on behalf of music education. But there has to be the airtime. Tasmin Little, liberated months too early from the stage commitments she was preparing to relinquish amid much celebration this summer (she should have been giving her final Southbank Centre recital on 5 June), has been on Radio 4 current affairs programmes several times - but too often her contributions have been curtailed by the programmes. On one occasion a guest performance she had recorded for them was reduced to seven notes of "Somewhere over the rainbow". She has nevertheless revealed that she earned £12.34 for 5 million streams and this figure is now being quoted everywhere to show how appallingly our sector is served by the multi-million-pound giants who provide the streaming. Any classical soloist would be able to say the same, so why do they not? Too shy? Too scared? I honestly have no idea.

Here is Sam West, speaking up about why the UK's arts scene is more affected than those of our neighbours in France and Germany. Basically, it's the funding model: we have been trained to rely on commercialism because government subsidy accounts for a comparatively minuscule share of the funding. When commercial activity ceases, therefore, we are harder hit. Please listen:


Samuel West introduces the latest Arts Index - June 2020 from National Campaign for the Arts on Vimeo.

It begs the question: where is everyone? I'd like to think that the philistine media is chiefly to blame for not allowing the oxygen of publicity into the music sector. But I am also aware that musicians are not accustomed to what we journalists shrug away as "the rough and tumble". In times of trouble, the ostrich instinct in many of them runs deep. It's fair enough to be scared. Also, however, when I remember the music college in which I lasted three weeks before fleeing in despair, feeling that if I stayed I'd be turned into a lemon, I'm actually not surprised. How I wish that education for musicians more often included education beyond music itself.

There would be a benefit in this for all. You'll note that the illustration at the top of this article comes from one of the world's most justly celebrated pianists - and indeed the musicians who reach the very top are often those with the laser-sharp minds. Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Thomas Adès and Schiff have reached the heights in part because of their extreme intelligence. Igor Levit and Mahan Esfahani are among a newer generation who fully grasp the essential nature of the connections between music and the wider world, the community and what it means to be a full human being with responsibility for our fellow human beings.

Musicians who speak up certainly receive abuse for it, but this is par for the course: there'll always be someone to snipe "shut up and play" if they disagree with you. All it means is that you said something true that got under their skin. Take it as a badge of honour.

If your training has provided no scope for writing and speaking, let alone broader education, don't worry. You can do this for yourself at any time. You don't have to be 18 (it's possibly better if you are older anyway). You don't have to sign up to a course. You can download from the internet any book on philosophy, society, economics, history or global warming that you desire. You can learn languages on Duolingo (I'm finding this quite addictive). There are plenty of actors and acting coaches who need work as much as you do and will train you in public speaking techniques. No time to go to museums, and now they're shut? Look at the online exhibitions. Explore ancient Egypt and the splendours of Pompei, from the screen of your phone if nothing else. Listen to the great gurus of Indian classical music; explore cultures you haven't encountered, their ways of thinking, their traditions, problems and means of expression. Look at what is really going on in Syria, Afghanistan, the refugee camps, the Mexican border, the diamond trade, the tobacco industry, the Palestinian territories. Read the first-hand accounts. Talk to people who have been through it. Read the damn news from a reliable source, and distinguish it from conspiracy theories and propaganda. If you feed your creativity, your curiosity, your strength of character and opinion, it will feed your musicianship. Indeed, you will quite possibly become a better musician for it (OK, you need to remember to do enough practising too.)

Dear musicians, in this hour of trouble do not on any account "shut up and play". Get out there and start yelling. 

Tell people what music means to you. Show them what music can and does mean to them. Demonstrate what music does for us all. The financial figures speak for themselves - the UK's music industry is worth billions more to our exchequer than the fisheries the tabloids shout about - but the worth of art music in education and wider western culture has been eroded until swathes of the population are disinclined to give it the time of day. It's up to us to tell them - and you more than me. Though I was also a trained musician, I'm a writer and always have been; I'm used to it and my voice comes through. That's why you're reading this. You need to be able to do it too. Get talking. Get writing. Get shouting. The internet is an open platform and you don't need to wait for someone to do it for you. Get it? Got it? Good. Now, go for it.

Friday, June 05, 2020

Solidarity: Chineke! revisited



The concerts by Chineke!, Europe's first-ever majority BME orchestra, have been among the most uplifting of any I've attended. The phrase "a breath of fresh air" has often come to mind. It is not a question of sitting primly to listen thinking proper thoughts like "Ah, multi-racial, very good...". And it is certainly not about suddenly making classical music "cool" by, ooh, including performers of different races who might wear something relaxed and smile now and then. No. It's a direct and gut-based reaction to the atmosphere in the hall.

There's enthusiasm, delight, revelation - for lots of people come to these events who have rarely or never attended a concert before - and a sense of discovery for us all. For example, music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his daughter Avril Coleridge-Taylor that we have never heard programmed in "mainstream" concerts, or the music of wonderful contemporary composers such as the Errollyn Wallen, Philip Herbert and Daniel Kidane. The excitement in the audience, though, is a response to that on stage.

This week the term "a breath of fresh air" has acquired a whole new meaning. George Floyd's last words "I can't breathe" have swept the world as the emblem signalling, over entrenched racism, that enough is enough.

As a tribute and in solidarity, here is an extract from Chineke!'s concert four years ago at the Queen Elizabeth Hall: this is their "signature" piece, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade. Wayne Marshall conducts.

Coleridge-Taylor, like Barack Obama, was the son of a white mother and a black father. In 1912, aged 37, he collapsed on West Croydon station and died several days later of pneumonia, brought on through exhaustion and overwork. This was partly because although he had written the most popular oratorio of Edwardian England, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, he had sold the rights for a one-off pittance and received no financial recompense whatever for its wild success. Among those who had defended him against the racism he encountered for much of his short life was his teacher at the Royal College of Music, Charles Stanford, who on hearing another student making racist remarks, informed him that Coleridge-Taylor had more talent for music in his little finger than the rest of the students put together.

I want you to hear this music and reflect on where we could all be, instead of the fearsome and disgraceful situation that lies before us now. We could be making music together, in joy, freedom and equality, no matter who we are or where we come from.

You cannot stand in front of something you know is wrong and do nothing. To make a change, one has first to recognise the need for it. And maybe that's where Chineke!'s power comes from: a recognition, an idea, a plan - and action. A breath of fresh air.


Thursday, June 04, 2020

Triumph, tragedy and trying very hard

Another week, another litany of bungles, idiocies and the counting of "excess" deaths (where's Beckett when you need him?) and in the arts world a paradoxical mingling of unjustified pessimism, unjustified optimism and unjustified attacks on one for the other are doing little to help. However, some things are moving, and they are not always the things you'd expect.

The Wigmore Hall has started a series of live-streamed lunchtime concerts in front of a physical audience of two (the head of the venue and the Radio 3 announcer). Taken up first by Radio 3 and subsequently by the European Broadcasting Union too, they are already reaching vast international audiences. Today you can hear Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and Julius Drake (piano). The Royal Opera House is planning to start a similar idea later this month. Everywhere there's streaming, creativity, resourcefulness. And everywhere I hear opinions like, "Oh, the big places will be fine because they have money. It's the smaller ones I'm worried about..."

Actually - no. It's the big ones that are at most risk: those that are too large to adapt easily. A smaller organisation that is not fixed to a large, costly venue stands much more chance of surviving through changing its own practices, because it can. For example, Viv McLean and I were booked some while ago for a performance at a local music society in November, at a small neighbourhood venue of which we are very fond. The other week I had a call that I expected to reveal the cancellation of the event. Instead, the director asked if we'd mind playing somewhere larger, where the audience would be able to be seated with social distancing. They moved the concert by one day and about 500 metres to a beautiful, spacious church. We currently expect the performance to go ahead. They can do that.

A venue like the Royal Albert Hall or the ROH has a different problem. Their bricks and mortar, their red plush and their histories are as much their selling point as the artistry they house - and the costs of running huge venues are, in a nutshell, ferocious. The ROH has warned that it risks folding if social distancing has to continue past the autumn, because the economics of running a theatre that way simply cannot work in the long term. A lean, mean entity that can be flexible about its numbers, its venues, its pay and its programming is a tree-climbing mammal alongside the immovable brontosaurs that we love so much.

Overseas, in places where the pandemic has been bettered managed and more swiftly conquered, where transport by road from other parts of Europe is a little easier, and where funding is more readily available, some festivals are starting to reconstitute themselves. In the latest move, an email from Pontresina tells me that the Engadin Festival, based in St Moritz, is going ahead, again using larger venues than planned to enable audience distancing, and due to reconstituting of attendance numbers, involving a surprise recital by Renaud Capuçon and Martha Argerich and not one but two, for two socially distanced crowds, by Grigory Sokolov.

Here in plague island, where we can also look forward to the double-whammy joys (not) of a fantasist government of zealots foisting hard brexit upon us in the new year, it's not so easy. Streaming and Zooming seem to be if not quite the future then certainly the present. Resourcefulness certainly pays off. The LPO held its annual fundraising gala online the other day, included an individually pre-recorded movement from the 'Eroica' and got its guests to put on DJs for the occasion. Idagio has launched a Global Concert Hall in which specially filmed performances are available live and for 24 hours afterwards and cost £4.99 to watch, with "80% of net proceeds" going direct to the artists, which I hope might mean they receive something worthwhile, rather than the price of a pizza for 6 million streams.

On the one hand, streaming is great, with the potential for truly globalised audiences. But on the other hand, it's tragic. The performances I've enjoyed watching the most during this time are those previously filmed in packed venues with cheering audiences throwing flowers on stage at the end. I am listening to various livestreams, or catching up on them afterwards, but there's a cracking noise that interferes and it's my heart. I shall keep listening, in the hope that somehow or other I will get used to it...

The empty shell of a theatre or hall turns out to be a poor substitute for one that is alive with coughs, sweet paper rustles, chattering, shushing, canoodling and clapping between movements. Who knew: all those things so many people loved to hate and to mouth off about in fury on social media are in fact the very lifeblood of a concert hall.

It is better than nothing, but it has got to be a temporary, not a permanent solution. Whatever you do, don't start thinking of this as that blood-curdling concept "new normal". There is nothing normal about any of it and nor should there be. This is the thin end of a very wobbly wedge. It's as welcome as can be, because it keeps those stages, those artists and that music pulsing along in our lives and hearts. We need music in our lives. But those stages and those artists and that music, with composers hard at work, need us, too. There in person. Showing we love it. Supporting them.

In order to show that love and support, I'll include in postings, wherever possible, a performance from Youtube for you to enjoy. Today's is Imogen Cooper's 70th birthday concert from the Wigmore Hall, given last autumn.