Thursday, March 04, 2004

New music; concert halls; and The Emperor's New Clothes

I spent yesterday evening listening to the London Philharmonic - my orchestra-in-law, with Tom sawing happily away at the back of the first violins. The event raised several eminently bloggable issues.

1. The centrepiece of the concert was Truls Mork playing Dutilleux 'Tout un monde lointain'. A glorious piece, full of imagination and colour, reflecting Baudelaire most eloquently. OK, I'm a Francophile and I love this kind of thing. But the hall was so not full that they closed the balcony and moved anyone from up there into the stalls. People see a contemporary name on a programme - even that of Dutilleux, who I regard as not only the greatest living composer but the loveliest to listen to - and they run a mile.

Modernism, New Complexity, Serialism, etc, have spent over half a century scaring audiences for contemporary music fresh out of our concert halls. Now nobody wants to give anything unfamiliar a chance because they 'know' they're going to hate it.

Critics who routinely trash any new music that is pleasant on the ear are doing music a great disservice. Fortunately, nobody trashes the said Monsieur Henri. But Howard Blake? Roxanna Panufnik? John Adams? These are highly accomplished, immensely talented individuals with something personal to communicate through their music. They haven't reduced music to a mathematical system or an instrument of aural torture. But our critical establishment has to take the hardline modernist stance and as a result Birtwistle is still being held up as the greatest thing since Hovis.

What future can there be for music without new music that people want to hear? Imagine the 1880s-90s when Brahms and Mahler and Tchaikovsky were new. The last concert that Brahms attended at the Musikverein…his Fourth Symphony was played and the composer, desperately ill with cancer, listened to the standing ovation with tears in his eyes...

I'm not suggesting the typical media route of pandering to the lowest common denominator. Just a plea for good music with a personal voice and a message for humanity that is nevertheless 'musical'. Is this asking too much?

Besides Dutilleux, the composers I rate include Roxanna Panufnik; Thomas Adès; Kurt Schwertsik; Steve Reich... What about the rest of you?

2. Is a concert hall any place to listen to music? You close your eyes and become absorbed into the magical universe that is The Firebird. Then you open them to have a look at the first horn and, oops, you're in the RFH with its pigeon-hitting-wall acoustic and god-awful green carpet. The only purpose-built concert halls I actively enjoy the experience of visiting are the Wigmore and, er, the Musikverein, Vienna.

There's a lot to be said for small, intimate venues of the type that I rounded up recently for Classic FM Magazine. Dartington Hall is my favourite. But you can't fit the LPO into it and you can't trek to South Devon every time you want to hear a concert. What's the solution?

3. After the concert we ended up in the Archduke - unofficial Artists' Bar for the South Bank Centre - having a drink with a friend who is a baroque cellist. She had been rehearsing continuo for the St Matthew Passion all day, applying years of careful study of performance practice and specialist style. Only to find that the Evangelist came along and sang Bach Molto Con Belto. She regarded this with a certain wry humour. She's an accomplished musician and a fine player and what follows is in no way to denigrate what she does for her living. But her experience yesterday is a symptom of a certain idiocy in the musical environment that those of us who should be questioning it have so far failed to address, perhaps because it's such an enormous and explosive issue.

It's time to take a long, hard look at what is now usually called HIP - 'historically informed performance'. The discrepancies, loopholes, idiocies and Chinese whispers that permeate this area of musical activity are really beyond a joke and are having detrimental effects on musical life that few people dare to comment upon. Well, guys, I dare. HIP IS IN THE ALTOGETHER.

HIP is so deeply flawed that it has become the Emperor’s New Clothes. The philosophical premises on which it is based are frequently questionable and its application, while having a few pleasant results now and then (the St Matthew Passion now takes about 3 hours to play, and sit through, instead of 4+), is limiting at best and destructive at worst.

How can one tolerate a situation where string quartet students are afraid to play Haydn, which should be the heart of their repertoire?

How could the leaders of the LPO, the fabulous Boris Gartlitsky and his superb disciple Pieter Schoeman, fail to be deeply offended when a baroque/classical specialist was drafted in - no audition necessary - to lead The Creation last week?

How dare any academic actively set out to destroy a young musician's enthusiasm for Bach by telling him or her that they are playing it on the Wrong Instrument (the piano), when Bach himself could quite happily set the same music for one solo violin or for full orchestra, choir and organ?

And, perhaps most extraordinary of all, how can we put up with the squeaky, out-of-tune chugging that passes for HIP when a quick glance at Leopold Mozart's treatise on playing the violin reveals how wrong this is?

Leopold makes it abundantly clear, in his most often quoted remark, that round about 1750 - before his genius son was born, and only 20-30 years after the St Matthew Passion was written - not only were violinists using what we now call vibrato, but they routinely used far too much of it (a criticism sometimes foisted upon Itzhak Perlman today). What he says is not that they shouldn't; or that they don't; but that he, personally, would prefer them not to. The fact is, they did.


Let alone - Heaven help us - in Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Mahler.

Leopold's ideal was that the violinist's sound should emulate as closely as possible that of the human voice. Would any self-respecting singer want to make noises like that? As my continuo-playing friend discovered yesterday, the answer these days is no. And it probably always was.

I can feel a book coming on. But will anybody publish it? Are they afraid too?