Wednesday, October 06, 2004

It was 20 years ago today

Well, yesterday. That was the day I went away to university. Thinking back I can't help noticing how much has changed in that time, not only in the world in general but music in particular. But the most obvious thing is that I well remember how chilly the weather was in early October 1984. I wandered around college in thick sweaters (including some knitted by my mother). And there'd be frost on the grass by the river when we walked back after concerts across town. Today the forecasters say it'll be 17 degrees and I'm at home in a tee-shirt. Makes you wonder what global warming will have done to us after another 20 years.

Otherwise, here are my top 10 musical changes:

1. The buzz-word then was 'authenticity'. Nobody talks about 'authenticity' any more because the concept has been so severely discredited. Now it's called 'historically informed performance' instead - a term that snobbily implies that any other kind of performance must be historically ignorant, which is nonsense. But in those days also, you could still hear a normal orchestra play Haydn and Mozart under great conductors in a style that didn't require toothgritting (some of those early instruments have the same physical effect on my teeth as chalk on blackboard). Today that is almost impossible - they are too frightened.

2. The buzz orchestra was the CBSO, rising and shining with Simon Rattle. If there is a buzz orchestra now, it's probably the LSO, though my ears tell me the only absolute edges they have over certain other bands are lots more money, a fantastic horn section and very classy PR.

3. My next-door neighbour in college used to put on recordings of Sibelius 5, Mahler 2 or the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony with the volume RIGHT up and we'd have a good wallow. I have a horrible feeling that music students today would probably say 'Who's Saint-Saens?'

4. A paradox, this, after No.3: rare repertoire was - well - rare. Hardly anyone had heard of Korngold and if they had, they weren't interested. Musicians just wanted to churn out the war-horses. Underrated composers are viewed, happily, in a far more upbeat way now.

5. There weren't many foreign music students, and in the orchestras there weren't many foreign players. Now, at least in the orchestras, they are pouring in from Russia, Poland, Hungary, China, Romania, not to mention France, Germany and Japan. Standards have rocketed commensurately as competition has increased. I was talking the other day to a young girl who is finishing her uni course and wants to go on to music college. She told me the postgrad entrance requirements - vastly more demanding than anything I had to do in 1987.

6. Conductors still alive included Tennstedt, Solti, Bernstein and Karajan. Pianists Richter, Arrau and Gilels (just). Violinists Milstein, Szeryng and, er, Menuhin. Special note for P: Krystian Zimerman had already made the big time and was 27 years old.

7. 20 years ago there was a massive split between academic music and practical music in this country. Each looked down its nose at the other. These days you can take a BA degree at the Royal Academy or specialise in playing an instrument at a university (though not at Cambridge, surprise surprise.)

8. It was quite difficult to find historical 'golden age' recordings in those days. Today they are as important as new ones and many young musicians cite them as their favourites.

9. The record industry was booming.

10. We did not yet have Symphony Hall Birmingham, the Bridgewater Hall Manchester or the new hall in Glasgow. Today most of Britain's major cities have a top-class, full-sized concert hall. Except, of course, for London.

Any more contributions to the list?