Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Aladdin's Cybercave

(FURTHER UPDATE: Norman Lebrecht told me he'd had virus complaints about the recordings, but a distressed message from Brompton's tells me that there's no reason this should be so and that the intention is simply to issue the best historical recordings for free.)

How to win a lot of musical friends very fast: offer free historical recording downloads, just like these ones here. British auction house Brompton's has uploaded a music library which, for historical recording junkies like me, can only be described as an Aladdin's cybercave. Legendary string players all: Huberman in the Beethoven Concerto. Jacques Thibaud in Mozart. Rabin plays Ysaye. Sammons plays the Elgar Concerto. The Budapest String Quartet, Kreisler, Heifetz, Gioconda de Vito, the gang's all there. On your marks - get set - register! (Unless you're in America, which cannot access the collection because of copyright.)

It's amazing how we take the availability of historical recordings for granted, though. When I was a student, back in the 80s, they were rare nuggets of gold-dust to be run to earth on LP in Garon Records (conveniently it was 3 minutes from my bedsit) or dug out, remastered and reissued on those new-fangled CDs from mysterious sources by those in the know, eventually coming to light on labels like Pearl, Biddulph and EMI References. I will never forget the first time I heard a recording of Rachmaninov. I was in Oscar Shumsky's front room outside New York sometime in 1986 and he asked me if I had heard Rachmaninov's playing. When I admitted I hadn't, the great violinist brought out a big, cherished box of LPs and put on some of the preludes and song transcriptions. We all sat there as if hypnotised - partly by reverence at the notion of listening to this beloved composer playing his own works, in person, and partly by the playing itself, rich-toned, multi-nuanced, many-voiced, the phrasing as vocal as Chaliapin. Magic.

While it's fantastic to be surrounded on a regular basis by recordings of the golden greats, it's also good to remember that we have to keep valuing them. On the other hand, if you're a performer today, the downside of all this means that you have to compete for an audience not only with the living, but also with the dead. There are some great musicians around today, too. I hope to be very near one of them this weekend...

Monday, February 21, 2011

And the answer is...

Our mystery opera yesterday was Puccini's Madama Butterfly, which closed after one night. Bravo to "Zerbinetta", who got it in one.

There was monkey-business afoot at that premiere: the owner of the newspaper that published that statement had a vested interest in the theatre and the success of another opera that was scheduled to replace Puccini's, so it was all horribly manipulated.

Back to the present day. Very sad news from Detroit informs us that the management of the beleagured Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which has been on strike for four-and-a-half months, has cancelled the rest of its season. More about this from the New York Times, here.

Today I am off to take part in the jury of a section of the Royal Philharmonic Awards, and am much looking forward to it. The nominees list is as long as both my arms and they are all fantastic. Of course I will not be revealing any names until the night of the awards in May, but looking at the list is a vibrant reminder of just how excellent the music scene in the UK is, and just how much there is to lose were we to allow government cutbacks to remove as much artisitc activity as they can from our lives.

Here is a question for those who think that music should be funded entirely by the private sector: if something gives your life pleasure, meaning and passion, why would you not wish those less financially fortunate than yourself to be able to experience it too?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Guess the Opera

Here is a review that followed the world premiere of an opera (with clue-like words excised). Your challenge: guess which one it is.

"...A second performance would have provoked a scandal among the XlocalsX, who do not relish being made fun of. The opera is not one of those like XanotheroperaX that carry within them the seeds of resurrection. It shows that XthecomposerX was in a hurry. Importuned as he was to bring out the work this season, sick as he was, he failed to find original inspiration and had recourse to melodies from his previous operas and even helped himself to melodies by other composers...The opera is dead."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Turnage, Thomas and a tale for our times

Here's my write-up of ANNA NICOLE from today's Independent.

I want to see it again - and will do in a couple of weeks. It really is a brilliant show, and when you start trying to decide whether that is chiefly thanks to Mark Anthony Turnage's music, Richard Thomas's words, the roller-coaster staging by Richard Jones, the relishful performances from every singer or the verve of Tony Pappano and the orchestra and band, you realise that it's the whole load of them together, forming the perfect team. I'd like to know, though, if Richard Jones has a thing about smiley faces. Smileys grace the back of the drained, "low wages" blues-number WalMart employees; Smileys too, incongruous likewise, back in his Macbeth at Glyndebourne. Signature image?

A few issues to explore at slightly greater length here. The opera moves from life to death in the most visceral way: the first half is all brilliance, colour, images of fairy-tale scale - Anna's big plastic-golden throne from which she narrates the first part of her tale into the willing microphones, and the pole dancers gleam like Rhinemaidens out of a bronzy, hazy tank. The libretto bounces and twirls, not taking itself too seriously, super-ironic and often very funny. Stern the Lawyer - Gerald Finlay in max-evil mode - puts in an appearance in Act 1 and the chorus flings insults at him. Beelzebub! Shiva the Destroyer of Worlds! Worst of all: Not Cool! Then he comes back and they do more of it. He rounds on them: "Anything else?" "Yoko Ono!" they cry. And Anna reminds him: "Honey, you're not in the story yet!"

By the interval I thought I'd got it: hooray! It would have been so easy for this opera to turn out judgmental and salacious; instead it's a celebration of life. They're not saying "she sold her soul for a boob job and then look what happened to her, yah boo sucks", they're saying: "milk life for its joys, because they're gone too fast - be extreme and love it because tomorrow we..."

Oh, but hang on - they aren't. The second half grows increasingly chilly: the thronging, noisy, bright-suited chorus is slowly replaced by black-clad silent dancers with film cameras for heads, slinking around like Harry Potter dementors that suck away the will to live. The fairy-tale lighting becomes bleaker and starker. Anna's beloved son sings only after he's dead. Anna's mother, who is moral but extremely judgmental, has more and more to do. The chorus melts away. All that's left are those camera-dementors and some pretty harsh judgments. "Oh America, you dirty whore, I gave you everything and you wanted more," Anna sings, about to die. Yes, Anna Nicole is a brilliant metaphor for the decline and fall of western excess, maybe capitalism itself. But we can see that. Would it have been better not to bash us over the head with it? I hoped the story would speak, and sing, for itself and allow us to draw our own conclusions.

Thumping blame onto America in an opera for Covent Garden is just...too easy. Yes, Anna Nicole was American, but western culture as a whole has willingly lapped up the world that destroyed her. A theme that sounds derived from Fanfare for the Common Man runs through the score; the curtain that covers the passage of ten years is laden with images of hamburgers. "Supersize me!" the initially reluctant Anna says to the plastic surgeon who's about to give her back pain for life. Come on, we all bought into this. We can't just shift the blame.

I also wonder slightly about the reportage style of the storytelling. This is an opera about the culture of living under constant observation and it is not least the media intrusion, milked so horribly, that helps to destroy Anna. So in that sense, the slant is in keeping with the thrust, so to speak. But if you are telling rather than inhabiting a story, the emotion tends to stay at one remove. The music itself is good enough to induce a lump in the throat when Daniel utters his requiem of drugs and when Anna, taking a few leaves out of Dido and Aeneas's book, mourns him. It certainly doesn't leave you cold. Still, I wanted more set-up to the tragedy - more of the closeness of Anna and her son and why he took to drugs, for instance; some of the second act's drama is a little sketchy, given the horrors it portrays (Anna giving birth on pay-per-view is another step on the downward plunge). And I wanted to reach the very heart of the humanity, to get inside the characters' heads and live the tragedy with them as Verdi, for instance, would have; but this very post-modern take ultimately doesn't permit the identification that would make it possible.

As for Turnage, though - I think this may be the opera he was born to write. His style really crystallises in it: the basis is atonal and full of rough-edged textures and crunchy harmonies that you can really get your teeth into, yet it's also melodic and shot through with jazz, blues and a bit of rock 'n' roll in the party scene (hints here of his alleged flirtation with Beyonce and 'Single Ladies' at last year's Proms). It's a personal voice and a very contemporary one, but it's always listenable, memorable, focused. He's always had a good instinct for zeitgeist-trapping - remember Greek in the 1980s? - and here that instinct comes of age.

It's a tale for our times -- and only future experiences will tell whether it'll become a classic, revivable in ten, 20 or 50 years with more rewards to be gleaned on every hearing. Yesterday was its world premiere, remember. Oh, and yes, it was attended by a lot of so-called celebs -- the place was brimming with people I thought I recognised only wasn't sure whether or not I did. Seems that Boy George was there, and Norman Lamont - and just about every critic on earth.

One last observation. Two major premieres are happening this nearly-spring. The Royal Opera gets Anna Nicole. The Royal Ballet gets... Alice in Wonderland. Same planet, same theatre, different worlds...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Today's newsround...

  • It's the world premiere of Turnage's Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House tonight. After all the hype, will it match expectations? And after 100 years of "epater les bourgeois", can art still shock us? More importantly, will it do more than that? We Shall See...meanwhile the discussion on Twitter has been about what we ought to wear to attend it. Norman Lebrecht, Fiona Maddocks and I are all going in thongs. (At least, I think we are. We agreed on *something*, but that may have been: to cover up. It's very easy to get your tweets in a twist, so I am now completely confused...Anyway, I'll be the one in the sensible shoes.)
  • Next, the hills are alive with the sound of hollow laughter as yet again the media portray orchestras as many things they are not. This caused the biggest bellyache: an American site suggesting that being an orchestral musician is a stress-free, well-paid job. Ha bloody ha. [heavy sarcasm] I bet they loved that in Detroit... Oh, and it says similar crap about writing. Where do they get this stuff?! I see around me a world in which many orchestral musicians -- just for starters -- travel for hours each day because they can't afford to live in the city where they work, and have a reputation (sometimes justified) for popping beta-blockers in order to get through a concert without shaking. Stress-free, schmess-free.
  • Meanwhile, in The Guardian, the excellent Tom Service doesn't seem to have noticed that seat-of-pants music-making is usually the conductor's responsibility and that the same orchestra can sound completely different, depending on who's waving the stick. In any professional orchestra these days, the standard required to be accepted as a member means that the guys and gals can play anything, technically speaking; but it's the maestro's job to make it more than that. Tip-off: try that Russian bloke beginning with a V. and often found at the helm of the LSO. That other Russian bloke beginning with V. at the helm of the LPO is also not 'alf worth hearing. And the third Russian bloke beginning with V. up in Liverpool is bloody marvellous. But we could usefully surmise from Tom's piece that maybe, apart from Valery, Vladimir and Vassily, there aren't enough really galvanising stickwavers around...until you remember Andris at the CBSO, Mark at the Halle, that extraordinary chap at the Northern Sinfonia, and...
  • Sir Colin Davis, one of the finest of them all, apparently tripped and fell over at the Royal Opera House last night and pulled out of conducting The Magic Flute. The ROH promises us that he's had a check-up and is absolutely fine.
  • On a more serious note, though, I was absolutely horrified to hear today of the death of our colleague Lynne Walker, who has passed away after a battle with cancer. Lynne was a joy: one of the most positive people in the business, always with an interesting question or a fresh angle at the ready and author of many fascinating, insightful and lucidly written reviews. I did a couple of pre-concert talks with her at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, her home base, and loved her upbeat attitude, plus her fount of information and funny stories. All our thoughts are with her husband, Gerald Larner.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Green Mountain Strikes Back

In the earliest days of the year I went to something truly glorious in Spitalfields and never got round to running my review (OK, it was intended for somewhere else, and they never got round to it, but it comes to the same thing). So here it is...followed by a video that I hope proves my points better than I can. Please welcome La Venexiana with Roberta Mameli in Lamento della Ninfa, and the freshest, ripest view I've yet heard of that glorious Mr Green Mountain...

Christ Church, Spitalfields, 5 January 2011

A jewel of a Hawksmoor church, an accolade-showered ensemble and a feast of music from the 16th century titan, Claudio Monteverdi: fine fodder for a winter festival par excellence, as Spitalfields Music’s current series undoubtedly is.

Monteverdi is best known today for his operas and his Vespers of 1610, but until he was 40 he wrote madrigals almost exclusively; over his long life he produced nine volumes of them. These short pieces for small vocal ensemble with accompaniment on harpsichord, theorbo or both can blaze out unexpectedly as the more subtle forerunners of the modern pop song.

La Venexiana, proud winners of numerous recording prizes, are currently without peers in this music, offering a sense of freedom, theatricality and no-holds-barred emotional engagement that make it leap into being as freshly as it must have done 400 years ago. It still sounds incredibly daring: there is nothing Monteverdi will not risk in the service of the poetry (which includes Petrach and Tasso) and his harmonies are full of scrunches, clashes and innard-churning concatenations of unlikely sounds.

La Venexiana is a flexible-sized group; tonight they were five singers plus theorbo player Gabriele Palomba, with their versatile director Claudio Cavina nipping effortlessly from singing contralto to playing the harpsichord. Each singer is a master of character; and so charismatic a vocal actress is the lead soprano, Roberta Mameli, that I nearly mistook her for Anna Caterina Antonacci doing a spot of moonlighting. Her solo in Lamento della Ninfa was utterly astonishing: as sophisticated, sensual and raw as the finest jazz singer (she’s performed this elsewhere with an accompanying saxophone), while the Lamento itself is powerful enough to make Purcell’s Dido seem downright insipid.

Elsewhere, star spots found the three men -- Cavino with the romantic Raffaele Giordani (tenor) and the deep yet sparkly bass Salvo Vitale -- turning the parallel of love and war in Gera il nemico insidioso into hammy fun with a venomous sting in its tail; and Mameli and soprano Giulia Peri duetted celestially in the birdsong of O come sei gentile.

The only complaints around the church were that the encore was a madrigal we’d already heard; and that the concert -- 75 minutes with no interval -- was too short. We’d have loved hours more of it.

(NB: The following video is from a different occasion & in Spitalfields we didn't have certain elements of this performance. "No sax, please, we're British"?)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Schubert in memoriam

February 12th - the anniversary of my mother's death in 1994. It doesn't feel like 17 years ago; it doesn't fade. Here is her favourite piano piece, Schubert's Impromptu in G flat, Op.90 No.3, played by her favourite pianist, Krystian Zimerman. This doesn't fade either.

Friday, February 11, 2011

This is by Bartok - yes, really

Almost a Friday historical - the Andante, or Albumblatt, by Bartok, written for the then 15-year-old Adila d'Aranyi (elder sister of Jelly) in 1902. Bartok fell for the d'Aranyis in turn (oh, and Stefi Geyer), but it seems that neither of those feisty sisters returned his feelings. Which, to judge from this performance (1978) by Gyorgy Pauk and Peter Frankl, must have been pretty powerful. Enjoy.

How friendly are Friends?

No, not Facebook... This is about our leading cultural institutions and their membership systems. Friends schemes are a wonderful thing if you're in them; and as public subsidy shrinks we'll be seeing more and more developing. But with demand for membership starting to outstrip the supply of seats, the most sought-after events can sell out before booking has opened to the general public.

Now, in an ideal world, I personally would like the government to support the performing arts wholeheartedly, delivering high-quality performances and making low-cost seating available to all at the same modest price. Museums are free; why not music? But this is looking increasingly like a pipe-dream, at least in Britain. Instead, here is what's happening, as written by muggins in today's Indy:

The other day, public booking opened for this year's Aldeburgh Festival. Helen Hayes, who runs a recording studio at the nearby Potton Hall with her husband, dashed to her phone, hoping to book seats to take their small son to hear the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. It wasn't to be. "I've just tried to book for the CBSO Rattle concert and it is sold out – before public booking opens!" she declared on Facebook, adding: "Talk about access to music... and they get most of the public funding for music in this area. Elitist? Classical Music?"
So what happened? Well, Aldeburgh's Snape Maltings concert hall seats a modest 800. The 16,000-odd Friends of Aldeburgh Music receive priority booking. And everyone wants to hear Sir Simon Rattle in action.
Non-members can keep phoning the box office and hope for returns. The alternative is to become a Friend...
Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


I know I've been neglecting you all this week. I've been away - more of that in a moment - but while I was gone the Henley Report on music education in England was published, as was the government's response. It seems very positive. Darren Henley's recommendations are spot-on, and the government, Michael Gove in particular, appears to be taking on board the majority of the points made. The term 'ring-fenced' even appears in relation to funding for music education, which is fabulous. But - and there are some big buts - the excellent In Harmony, in effect the British version of El Sistema, is only awarded funding for one more year... It's easy to talk... As Tom Service says, it's what happens next that will really count. And the National Union of Teachers is extremely sceptical about the likely results, not least because many local councils haven't waited for the report and the response and have already started handing out redundancy notices to music staff. Here are:

The Henley Report;
The government's response;
The ISM's response;
Tom Service's response in The Guardian;
The NUT comment. 
UPDATE: Follow the link from here to the 9 February 2011 release to see the response from the CBSO - again, welcoming the report, but nudging the government for firm commitment to ongoing support.

Meanwhile I was having the week that was...

Last Wednesday I gave a talk on Mahler and Musical Endgames at Symphony Hall, Birmingham. The next morning Tomcat and I travelled to Mainz to see Schott's fascinating historical headquarters. There you're greeted by a bust of Big Richard himself; there's a beautiful room, now replete with treasures of memorabilia, in which he presented the text of Meistersinger to the company for the first time; and the corridors are adorned with costume designs for Strauss's operas. Thence we went to Freiburg, just to see Freiburg; and Stuttgart, where we sat down to bask in pre-spring sun on the opera house steps, got talking to someone who turned out to be the former prima ballerina Julia Kramer - and ended up spotting numerous ballet stars wandering by, including the legendary Marcia Haydee herself. They were all there for the company's 50th anniversary festival. As an underage balletomane a few decades back, I always longed to go to Stuttgart to see the renowned Stuttgart this afternoon was an extraordinarily fine surprise. Here is Julia:

Back home I took part in the launch on Tuesday of The Road to Jericho with the devoted and idealistic team of Simon Hewitt Jones, Drew Balch, Candace Allen, Antony Pitts and friends, which involved test-driving something I'm trying to write about my visit to the West Bank last year. On 10 June at the Spitalfields Festival the London performance will take place and I'll be doing an open pre-concert interview with Simon, Drew and the inspirational Ramzi Aburedwan, head of Al Kamandjati in Ramallah, who will be here with his ensemble Dal'Ouna. Here is the video for The Road to Jericho:

Yesterday I went to Amsterdam and back to interview a Very Important Maestro. (And also passed a beautiful Amsterdam afternoon walking in the park with Norman Perryman, creator of magnificent kinetic paintings to music (you may have caught our double-act interview on Dilettante Music a few months back).

Here is the maestro.

Blimey, guv, it was quite a week. Back now, with a cold.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Down with "moronic melodies"!

Sometimes I'm afraid I may be the only one who loathes music as noise. And it is transformed into noise by its extreme prevalence in all forms, all over the place, all the time. But according to Terence Blacker in today's Independent, now the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen's Music, has described taped music in public places as "some kind of commercial and cultural terrorism".

Too right. It stops us thinking. It stops us feeling. It stops us questioning. It stops us speaking (you can't talk to someone who's hooked up to his headphones having the head within banged to breaking point by some synthetic beat). Why do we put up with it? And when will shops learn that it's sometimes not productive at the counters? Now and then it persuades us to buy things we absolutely shouldn't - try resisting a boutique full of women all humming along to 'Dancing Queen' - but often it has quite the opposite effect. I beat a hasty retreat from shops, even nice ones having good value sales, if I don't like the aural assault they subject me to. They lose my custom. Simples.

From Terence Blacker's article:
The composer revealed that he had recently been driven out of a branch of Waterstone's by the rubbish being played on the book shop's sound system. The "moronic melodies" of mobile phone ringtones were every bit as bad. The Performing Rights Society (PRS), collecting cash on behalf of musicians, was, said Sir Peter, contributing to a general process of dumbing down...

The reason piped music is used by business is to reduce customers to a state of blissed-out receptiveness. "Audio architecture is emotion by design," the Muzak website creepily explains, "Its power lies in its subtlety." But there is something alarming about a society so afraid of silence or the sound of human communication that it is prepared to have its privacy invaded in this way.
What went wrong? When did music turn into mass-produced mind control? I would dearly love to persuade Adam Curtis (The Power of Nightmares, The Trap, etc) to make some documentaries on the subject. Meanwhile, here's a simple message to the shops, lifts, hotel lobbies and self-deafening, noise-polluting headbangers out there: turn it off!

UPDATE: Demetrius, in the comments box, has suggested we ask you to post your worst experiences of piped music. Good idea, so please -- go for it! And, if you have any good ones that make you love it, please post those too...