Saturday, March 31, 2012

Saturday night fever: BACH! BACH! BACH!

Meet my new favourite piece: the Bach B minor Mass. I've just been to the Lucerne Easter Festival where Andras Schiff conducted it on Thursday, with his own Capella Andrea Barca and a fine line-up of soloists and choir. Two hours without a break, but I could happily have listened to it for 24. Heaven. And there were swans outside on the lake, taking off to fly towards the mountains...

I can't bring you the exact wonders of this spirited, humane, intimate and technicolour performance - no recording. But instead - although it is extremely different - here is Eugen Jochum with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1982. The same orchestra gave a concert last night that was equally one of those "this is what great music is really about" events - this time with Mariss Jansons and Vilde Frang. More on all of that soon, but now you know where I've been this week.

Meanwhile, this slogan is brought to us courtesy of the Monteverdi Choir & Orchestra:

Monday, March 26, 2012

How to conduct Boulez

Happy 87th Birthday, Pierre Boulez! Above, at the Lucerne Festival, the great composer-conductor helps budding maestros get to grips with his Eclat.

Unfortunately Boulez has had to withdraw from his planned appearances in London on 29 April and 8 May with the LSO - apparently he has an eye condition. Peter Eötvös will step into the breach. We wish Monsieur Boulez the speediest possible recovery.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to the concert platform...

My latest piece for The Spectator's blog, Coffee House, asks why music and comedy don't mix more often - and involved a pretty fantastic trip to see Rainer Hersch's Victor Borge in an attempt to find out.

Read the whole thing here.

And have a look at this:

And this:

Rainer is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 31st. Don't miss him!!!

A few more thoughts after the Sir Colin interview

The response to my interview with Sir Colin Davis has been fascinating to say the least. Those who have written/tweeted/blogged about it (special thanks to Boulezian and Unpredictable Inevitability) have been polarised, naturally, into those who agree with his words about the early music movement and those who don't. Though the latter have declared his words "insulting" and said they find his classical repertoire "boring" etc, there have,  to my surprise, been many more declaring themselves in full accord with him.

I have the impression his statements have been cathartic: many of us have been feeling this way for 30 years. But it needed a grand maestro to step up and speak out about some of the idiocies that have gone on in the name of "historical correctness" before anyone would take it on board.

Here's my own little journey. Back in the early to mid 1980s, as a student I found myself in places that now seem to me quite astonishing. By an odd series of coincidences I spent a lot of time in university holidays sitting, metaphorically, at the feet of people like Andras Schiff, Richard Goode, the Emerson Quartet and some experts on Schenkerian analysis in New York...

Then, come term-time, I was back in Cambridge being told that I was not allowed to play Bach on the modern piano - unless I would agree to play it with no dynamics, no pedal at all and a mode of expression only appropriate to a harpsichord. I promise this is not an exaggeration. That was rather a shock to the system, since - as you can well imagine - all I really wanted to do by then was to learn the Goldberg Variations.

Not that there was much chance to practise anything at all: so academic was the course that it involved a performance option only as one-seventh of one year of one's final degree, and the faculty seemed to believe - honest to goodness - that if you were going to play L'Ile Joyeux in your third year, there was no need for you to practise in the first two! All this accompanied by the immortal words "WE ARE NOT A CONSERVATOIRE". (Matched only by those of a London music college that I later attended for what turned out to be three weeks: "Well, we're not a university, you know - you can't just pick and choose..." Upon which, exit, pursued by a bear.)

The impression that lingered from that time was so negative, provincial, blinkered and anti-musical that it still rankles a quarter-century later. Today, though, I can recognise the good things I learned there too. These include a passion for Monteverdi (well, I already had that beforehand, but never mind); a familiarity with the Bach Cantatas that I would never otherwise have acquired; an inspirational course on German Romantic opera from Weber to Tannhauser (thank you, Prof Deathridge!); close-knit seminars on Gershwin and Schubert's Winterreise with Robin Holloway; and analysis with the late Derrick Puffett, the man who steered me - again by coincidence - towards Die tote Stadt.

Forgive the digression. In short, I found that the concentration on superficial details of instrument, articulation, lack of vibrato, etc, risked losing sight of the most important thing: the actual content of the music itself. There seemed an implicit assumption that nobody wrote music in order to express any form of emotion before about 1780. This is not to say that those superficial details of articulation, instrumentation et al are not important to some degree. They are. But they became an end in themselves - when they should have been only a beginning.

That was the 1980s for you: the era in which appearance became more important than substance. The era in which spin-doctoring, marketing and the hard-sell took over priority in place of quality content. The ingredients didn't matter, as long as you could sell it to the unsuspecting public. And all the government cutbacks at that time meant that it was far more practical - ie, cheaper - to use smaller ensembles so that you didn't have to pay so many musicians. If you could convince people that this was correct, so much the better. The giant performance of Handel's Messiah in Westminster Abbey that inspired Haydn to compose The Creation was quietly and conveniently ignored. Richard Taruskin has written much more eloquently than I can about how the HIP movement tells us more about our own time than it does about the 18th century.

But I don't believe that over time human nature has changed that much; music and its impact upon us hasn't changed that much either ("If music be the food of love, play on..." - Shakespeare); and if anyone doubts the importance of emotion in music, why don't they just listen to a bit of Monteverdi? Hear Orfeo's great aria 'Possente spirto', then try telling me its composer didn't write to express emotion and see if your ears don't turn red.

What counts most, ultimately, is authenticity of spirit. That means a full 360-degree understanding of the music's workings in terms emotional, spiritual, textual, historical, analytical, communicative, songful, expressive, harmonic, progressive, instrumental, linear, contrapuntal, technical, sonic, philosophical, inspirational and much, much more. It means acquiring the instrumental/vocal/conducting expertise to get this across without a struggle - which, as Sir Colin said, is where freedom really begins. Essentially it means fusing one's own powers as a musician with those of the composer, to empathise with a work and bring out the best in it, in a spirit that is faithful to its world.

I just listened to 30 different recordings of Schumann's 'Spring' Symphony for a piece in the April issue of BBC Music Magazine. My favourite? [drumroll]: John Eliot Gardiner with his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. This choice took me almost by surprise. But after listening to Bernstein, who made the slow movement sound like Mahler, Solti, who made the opening sound like Wagner, and Karajan, who just sounded like Karajan all the way through, here was a performance that sounded like - well, Schumann. (Buy the magazine to read more...)

I may be a HIP sceptic still. There is no doubt, sadly, that the movement has sometimes advanced the wrong people for the wrong reasons; it has promulgated approaches that may be radical, but that are often misleading, mistranslated or misinterpreted into going against the very grain of what it purports to do (see Sir Colin on Geminiani, or just read Leopold Mozart, to see how the words on 18th-century violin playing have been distorted for dubious ends).

It may have shaken away the Karajan-ness of Karajan, who (let's face it) was disliked for more than his music-making... But it has had the unfortunate side-effect of ghettoising the works of Bach, Haydn and Mozart so that few mainstream conductors dare touch them without applying supposedly "correct" mannerisms of phrasing, articulation and so forth - which often are not all that correct, especially when applied simply because they're a sound that's expected, rather than a concept that is properly thought through. Nothing is more dangerous than a little knowledge. I despair of ever hearing my favourite Mozart symphonies being played with any real gumption again, or without drums that sound like cornflakes packets, or without wince-worthy vibrato-less string tone - it's possible to make a good sound with no vibrato, of course, but frequently it doesn't happen. I am deeply unhappy about this: it's like being thrown into exile.

Thank almighty God that the odious phrase "authentic" was jettisoned after Rosalyn Tureck and her friends proved in the mid 1990s that there was no such thing anywhere, in any field. Still, there's also something inherently patronising in the term "Historically Informed" since it implicitly pre-supposes that everybody else is not. This is not true. The many great pianists who play Bach on the modern Steinway, Bosendorfer or Fazioli are perfectly well informed, often more so than their counterparts - they just choose to play on an instrument that can actually be heard in Alice Tully Hall. I'd defy any early music specialist to be better informed about Bach than, for instance, Angela Hewitt.

And soon I am going to Lucerne to hear Andras Schiff conduct the B minor Mass and I can't wait, because his performance of the St Matthew Passion with the Philharmonia a decade or more ago was the most inspiring, exciting performance I've yet heard of this work, shining out in technicolour with all its inner conviction, passion and spirituality.

I've often felt that too many supposedly "correct" performances are based simply on an orchestra turning off its vibrato and stringing up with gut. Bingo: two strokes and you're HIP.  On the other hand, hearing the OAE with Sir Simon Rattle doing Fidelio at Glyndebourne was simply magnificent. Besides, HIP orchestral musicians are often far better informed about the music they play, more passionately committed to their task in hand and generally more intelligent, upbeat and contributive than certain other strata of the profession who sometimes veer towards "Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die..." (Tennyson).

When HIP works, well played and deeply understood, it is fabulous. I would like to be the first to applaud JEG for his Schumann and his amazing Bach Cantatas series, which I'm potty about (I've also heard him screw up a couple of romantic operas over the years, but there is no reason why every conductor should be equally good in all repertoire, is there?). Ditto for Norrington: I'm a hundred per cent with Sir Colin on that total lack of vibrato - yowch! - and remember with sorrow an absolute carwreck of a Dvorak Cello Concerto at the RFH... Yet I've attended performances in which he's conducted Haydn's The Creation, Mozart's The Magic Flute (a Prom about 25 years ago), Schubert's Ninth and the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique - all of them thrilling, vivid and loving.

As for harpsichords, the playing of Andreas Staier has been a revelation. Just listen to the warmth, generosity and nobility of this:

Now, Staier plays equally wonderfully on a harpsichord, a fortepiano or a modern piano. And there's the rub. If the musicianship is good enough, the instrument stops mattering. Great musicianship transcends its medium. But if that great musicianship is not present, no amount of superficial "correctness" can ever replace it. So where does that leave HIP?

I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere. If there's a rapprochement taking place, if we are all starting to pull together rather than against one another, that is laudable. Chamber music playing is now being taught in Oxford (I don't know about Cambridge), while the music colleges today offer proper degrees, not just diplomas (or will do as long as they can continue to exist under the present government). Andras Schiff has recorded on early pianos and sometimes conducts from a harpsichord.

Alina Ibragimova plays solo Bach and more with inspired musicianship, great tone, yet no vibrato.

But the Emperor's New Clothes, even if they're looking a bit faded, are still being worn nonetheless. If Sir Colin's words can help to pull away the last remaining veils of illusion and refocus us on what really matters - the deep substance of the authentic musical spirit - then I'm happy to have been a channel through which he was able to do so.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Classical Revolution hits London

Classical Revolution, which started around six years ago in San Francisco and now has some 30 'chapters' across the US, Canada and Europe, is taking off in London at last. Simon Hewitt Jones is at the helm and the first event was last night at The Red Hedgehog in Highgate. There's another chance to sample the magic on Tuesday 27 March, 7pm, at The Green Carnation, Soho.

I asked Simon to tell us all about grass-roots chamber music...

JD: What IS 'Classical Revolution'? How did the idea begin and why do you think it is spreading so quickly?

SHJ: Classical Revolution began with some graduates of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music saying 'We want a different performance environment to play chamber music'. They took over a bar every Monday night for a 'Classical Jam Session'. Word spread rapidly, and soon they were doing several performances a week. It started off as an occasional event, but it soon became a fixture of the San Francisco music scene. People just liked the environment, the ambience, and how it allowed people to enjoy classical music in a different way. As more musicians passed through San Francisco and experienced the 'Classical Revolution' vibe, word spread, and before long it had started up in over 25 cities worldwide.

I first came across Classical Revolution when I was studying in Berlin, and later I played at several events in the USA. It was one of those 'wow' moments, where I just thought 'I don't know quite what's going on here, but I know I've been looking for something like this for ages'. Each event and location is different, and so are the models - it depends on who is organising it, what the local audience wants, and how that fits with the venue and the type of performers.

In London, we're starting out with a headline act, the fantastic cellist Richard Harwood (EMI Classics), and several featured artists including top performers like David Worswick (violinist from the London Symphony Orchestra), The Frolick (legendary 'Baroque-and-Roll' band), and a wide range of professionals from chamber music ensembles and major orchestras. In the local (north, west, and south London) versions of Classical Revolution, there will also be an 'Open Mic', where people can try out new pieces in front of a friendly audience, and new acts can get a foothold in the classical scene and start to build up a following. The central London (Soho) event will be a more formal 'Presentation Night'; a kind of showcase.

At the end of each evening, after the show has ended, there will be an informal 'ChamberJam', where musicians play chamber music that they know with people with whom they don't usually perform. It will be an exciting melting pot, where new collaborators and old friends can get together and play.

JD: What is different about Classical Revolution, compared to other projects that take music out of conventional concert halls - eg, Deutsche Grammophon's Yellow Lounge, the Southbank's Harmonic Series, and The Rite of Spring in a car park?

SHJ: For a start, it's been around for the best part of six years, so we know the format. But also, it's independent. Musicians always know loads of other amazing musicians and are great natural 'connectors'. By being a fairly free network, not reliant on a big label or cultural organisation, we're giving musicians an opportunity to try out different types of collaborations in a easy, low cost way. 

Plus, it's really focused on classical music first, and contemporary music second. But the biggest difference is probably the emphasis on classical chamber music, such as string quartets. You won't find big orchestral performances in the programming. It's all about the little groups, the individuals, the soloists and classical ensembles that make up the 'grass roots' of the classical music scene. It is providing an independent platform for classical 'indie' artists - somewhere to try out a new piece of repertoire in the open mic, or build up a fanbase, or launch a CD.

JD: Who is it for?

SHJ: The easy answer is 'everyone', but I think that's misleading. I think (my answer might be different after the first few shows!) we are aiming Classical Revolution London at two types of audience: 

1) People who already love classical music but want to have a choice of environments to enjoy it in. Sometimes you're in the mood for a full-blown tails-and-bow-tie evening out with a major symphony orchestra playing in a major concert hall. Other nights you want a really intimate, low-key environment in which to experience a Beethoven String Quartet at close quarters. You get a very different experience if you're on a sofa in a small room with a glass of wine, rather than sitting amid a large audience in a big auditorium. Neither is the 'right' way of doing it; they're just different.

2) People who aren't already into classical music, and who are coming to it fresh. How do we make classical music attractive to people who haven't spent several years going to classical concerts, and don't really have any preconception of what a classical music concert is about? (or perhaps have a negative preconception). This isn't an age thing - it's equally applicable to young and old people. What's important is that we're re-imagining the context in which this great music is presented, so that it feels relevant to a contemporary urban audience. Then it won't feel like a foreign or unapproachable culture to people who are new to classical music.

I'm not too worried about needing to reach out to new audiences - word of mouth will do that work if the event is good enough. But first we have to make sure we are presenting things in an exciting way, by tweaking the context and the presentation so that people who are new to it don't get scared off.

I've been saying this ever since I graduated from the Royal Academy of Music: if you meet the audience on their own terms by tweaking the context and the presentation of your work, then you can connect with them meaningfully, and ultimately take them to where you want them to be. With my own group, Fifth Quadrant, we have proved the point at countless festivals and installation performances; you use presentation techniques and popular music choices to engage the audiences and win their trust, and then offer them something more challenging. At that point, they are listening in a different way, and they trust you enough to take a chance on a new piece of music.

That's the way we create a new audience for classical music, and get rid of the stereotype that still exists in the world at large that classical is kind of 'elitist', 'stuffy' or 'dull'. Classical musicians know it's none of those things, but we have to meet people on their own terms first, before we can persuade them otherwise. Person by person, piece by piece, performance by performance. It takes a long time, but it's possible.

JD: What do you hope to achieve - and how?

SHJ: We want to create a creative platform for musicians to perform great chamber music more frequently, without the traditional 2-5 year booking periods, in a setting that's very different to a typical concert hall. By creating an informal environment, we are opening the possibility to all sorts of unique interactions and amazing musical experiences that musicians and audiences just can't get anywhere else.

JD: How does it work financially?

SHJ: We'll start off with a basic box office split (90% straight to musicians, 10% to cover operating costs) and refine it from there. The most important thing for people to understand is that MUSICIANS COST MONEY. If money doesn't come out of ticket sales and sponsors' pockets, then it comes out of musicians' goodwill. But you can't eat goodwill, or use it to pay the rent. Somehow, musicians need to be paid - and paid properly

So what we need to do is 'iterate' the club night model as rapidly as possible to find out where the value is. What value do the musicians get from taking part, what value do the audience get from the experience, what value do the organisations involved get from being associated with it? Then we need to work out how financial value supports that. Because the relation between musical and financial value is usually intangible.

Classical Revolution has a conference in Chicago next month basically to tackle this entire question. I expect lots of cultural differences here, and as the organisation is mostly based in the USA, it's going to be interesting to see how those ideas translate over into a British environment.

A final point on this - I'm thrilled that so many great musicians are getting involved and helping to make this happen in the first instance, and it's gratifying to know that the actual performers really understand the importance of initiatives like this to the whole ecosystem of classical music. But we can't trade on goodwill forever: the challenge is to make it sustainable.

JD: Why should we all get involved?

SHJ: Because there's nothing in the world quite like listening to a string quartet at close quarters, glass of wine in hand, on a sofa.

JD: Where do we book tickets / find out more / see the lineup / etc?

Friday, March 23, 2012

When JD met Sir Colin Davis...

...he had a real go at the early music brigade. Blimey, guv. The results of this are in today's Independent. Still, you don't talk to a man like Sir Colin Davis for twenty minutes if you can talk to him for an hour instead, so after the video you will find something meaty on a great many more topics than that - including what Stravinsky told him about metronome marks and why it's great that young conductors are so sought-after now. You won't need to add mustard; there's plenty already. Meanwhile, if you want to hear Sir Colin speak at the ISM conference on 12 April, booking details are here.


It’s slightly disconcerting to interview a great conductor while sitting beside a skeleton. It hangs in a corner of Sir Colin Davis’s Georgian music room, the skull decorated by pieces of shiny paper, like a Christmas tree. “It’s a reminder,” Davis glowers.

Perhaps it is no wonder if Davis feels himself haunted and his time limited. He celebrates his 85th birthday later this year. His wife, Shamsi, who was a leading advocate and teacher of the Alexander Technique, died in 2010 in a north London hospice while he was conducting a performance at Covent Garden; the loss has been a heavy blow to him. But he shows no sign of abandoning his musical vocation: this spring, besides giving a concert performance of Weber’s operatic masterpiece Der Freischütz with the LSO, of which he is President, he is due to appear at the Incorporated Society of Musicians conference in an April event dedicated to his life and work. 

“I don’t have the energy I used to,” he insists. “Performing a big piece really takes it out of me now – afterwards one feels one ought to be put out to grass, like an old donkey. I’ve given myself the task of reading the whole of Shakespeare once again. I did it before because I thought I might die. But I’m quite sure I’m going to this time, so I’d better hurry up.” 

Yet behind this somewhat doom-laden facade, he’s lost little of his sparkle and none of his ferocious devotion to music. I’ve arrived at his doorstep armed with a plethora of questions about how he sees the future of classical music, but it is the state of the present that really works him up, especially the domination of the music world by those who, in his opinion, misunderstand what music is all about, or don’t understand it at all. And, naturally, the future depends on the present.

Reports of the death of classical music and the decline of audiences are very much exaggerated, in his view. “All I know is that the orchestra I work with is very much alive,” he declares. “It has good audiences, interesting performers, soloists and conductors, and it seems to be all right. But things are not usually what they seem, so one wonders. There have been, in my lifetime, three or four suggestions that we only need two point seven orchestras in London, or something utterly ridiculous like that – rather like having three point five babies. Statistics are stupid; they sometimes have no foundation in fact. We shouldn’t start really worrying about that unless people don’t want to hear music any more, and I don’t think that’s the case. A mass of people have never been interested in music anyway, and those that are are stubbornly in favour of it. It’s such an interesting invention that it’s always going to attract the more curious and the more emotional individuals. 

“The youth orchestras have never been so well attended,” he adds, “nor have they ever played so well. That goes for the symphony orchestras, too – the standard is incredibly high now and it won’t be because of that that things fail. The promise of new musicians and people perpetually coming into the profession keeps the standard up and the accusation that only old people go in for it is absolute nonsense.” 

But then we come to something that for a conductor whose fans adore his Mozart (he recently did Così fan tutte at Covent Garden) can’t help but be a major issue: the domination of 18th century repertoire by period-instrument  ensembles and specialists in “historically informed performance” which has had the unfortunate side-effect of scaring symphony orchestras away from classical music’s ultimate core repertoire of Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart - and often beyond. 

Davis, of course, has refused to be intimidated. It’s intriguing to find that one of the finest musicians of our day has no time whatsoever for this dominant trend. 

“I think they just hijacked that repertory to give themselves something to do and something new to do with it,” he insists. “The way they play Baroque music is unspeakable. It’s entirely theoretical. Most of them don’t play it because it’s deeply moving – they play it to grind out their theories about bows and gut strings and old instruments, and about how you have to phrase it this way or that way. Music isn’t like that, is it? At least, I don’t think it is. A great composer, especially someone like Mozart, does not fit into that. We’re not alive then - what music means to us now is probably different, in a limited way.” 

Focusing on academic correctness in minute details of phrasing and articulation, he adds, means that too often the deeper meaning of the music is ignored. “The articulation comes from the line you happen to be expressing. Of course it’s about expressing. When you get married you don’t go to the public library to look up what’s going to happen! It’s so stupid – especially in music which is so alive, such a living thing when people play it.”

“There’s Roger Norrington, who plays Berlioz’s Requiem without any vibrato – it must be a foretaste of purgatory. And John Eliot Gardiner can be very horribly theoretical about things. People may say ‘well, they didn’t play it with vibrato’. Perhaps not – but perhaps if they had, they would have preferred it! 

"Playing without vibrato is one of the musical colours available in romantic music – if you play something without vibrato sometimes it can give something a most unnerving effect. But to set out to play all these vocal melodies without vibrato – it doesn’t accord with so much of what was written.  Geminiani [Francesco Geminiani, composer and violinist, 1687-1762] wrote that you should play the violin as if it was the most beautiful voice you’ve ever heard. I’ve never heard a voice sing in squeegee phrasing, with no vibrato. I’ve been to performances where the instrumentalists played like that, but of course nobody sang like that – because you can’t! So it doesn’t make any sense.I suspect some of these musicians are emotionally retarded. They’re afraid to let go.

His own mentors included Sir Thomas Beecham, who invited him to work at Glyndebourne with him on Mozart, something that helped to establish the young Davis as a leading Mozartian. He was much influenced, too, by musicians such as the Amadeus String Quartet – “We had a great number of Jewish refugees, particularly from Vienna, and they taught us a very great deal. They had tremendous discipline. But it was also an emotional matter. I’ve heard Beethoven quartets played sort of a la baroque, very fast – it’s utterly meaningless. What’s the point of that music? If you go too fast you can’t understand it anyway. It’s barmy. But people forget that when I was a young man, there was this early music thing, but it didn’t have the hold on things that it does now. 

“People like Robert Donington, Thurston Dart and George Malcolm played old instruments when they felt like it, but it wasn’t obligatory. I don’t know what it is that seduces human beings in such a way. It’s arid, in the end. I’ve heard Bach especially mangled, as though he has no emotional content, as though his harmonies aren’t the most weird things. And it’s all just swept through. It’s no good at all.They don't listen to the music.

“That’s another wretched business: the metronome marks. The academic freaks treat them as holy numbers. That was brought home to me by Stravinsky. We did Oedipus Rex when I was a young man, at Sadler’s Wells, and he came to a performance. He said to me, “Why did you go so slowly in Jocasta’s aria?” and I said, “Mr Stravinsky, I was just trying to do the metronome mark”. He responded: “ My dear boy, the metronome mark is only a beginning!” A lot of great music doesn’t have any metronome marks, so people are afraid of playing it – they’ll have to sit and puzzle over what they think it should sound like. I don’t find any problem with that. If you listen to the music it will tell you how it wants to go. But if you impose on it from the beginning, the poor thing’s in a straitjacket – you’re not discovering anything about it, you’re just saying ‘do that’. That’s daft – because music is one of the few things left where we have any freedom.”

How, then, can we ensure a strong future for classical music? “There are some relatively simple things – for instance, making sure every child is musically literate,” says Davis, “as the Hungarians used to. It’s a fantastic thing – and it could be done, if anybody had any imagination . These dull, dismal politicians who are encased in Plaster of Paris - they don’t listen to anybody, they don’t really entertain new ideas. They just juggle the old ones. And the famous Lady Thatcher took away money from schools for employing peripatetic music teachers because she didn’t think music was very useful. She was just a materialist, and that’s what they all are. But the LSO do what they can, and so do the other London orchestras, taking their instruments round to the schools, trying to get the kids interested. It’s a lovely job.” 

What does he think of El Sistema, the now fabled music education system from Venezuela that has transformed many deprived children’s lives with instrumental lessons? “It’s nothing new,” he insists. “We’ve always said that the way to keep difficult youngsters out of mischief is to give them enough to do. And music is one of the most wonderful ways of doing that.”

“The other thing that irritates me is ‘elitism’ accusations against classical music. Most of those wonderful composers came out of nowhere. Dvorak was a butcher as well as a viola player – they go very well together, don’t they?” (Viola players are, as ever, the butt of most orchestral jokes.) “Martinu was a wheelwright. Elgar and Berlioz were both largely self-taught. Mozart was the son of an indifferent court fiddler. Beethoven came from a drunken family. Look at them. None of them were from the aristocracy – except Gesualdo. And he got into trouble for running through his wife and her lover with a sword.”

 “I think the most important thing is that people just get back to playing musical instruments. On the great days of the calendar my family turns up and we play chamber music. That’s great.” He has five children: two are professional musicians and all of them play instruments. “Of course the best pieces of chamber music are extremely difficult, so we’re still struggling with them. But that’s where freedom really begins. Take a violin soloist like Nikolai Znaider – he can play the violin and he doesn’t have to worry about technique, so he can think about the music. The same with orchestras: when they’re very good, they’re not disturbed by technical problems. They just need an hour or two. When we started to play those Nielsen symphonies – I’ve never seen anything so difficult in all my life! The LSO’s eyes popped out when they saw it. But they sat down together and practised it.” 

You might imagine that a senior conductor who took a slow, steady path towards the top of his profession might be sceptical about the speed with which young conductors today become established – but Davis applauds the new generation with enthusiasm. “I think it’s great,” he insists. Doesn’t he think they do too much, too young? “If they do, they’ll find out later,” he quips. “The one I know best is Robin Ticciati. He’s coming over to dinner and we’re going to cook spaghetti – then we’ll find out what he’s really like! It’s important to do human things, to take time away from music.” 

That is his main advice to young conductors: “Some conductors, it’s true, fly from place to place, but they don’t give them time to think about anything and I don’t think that develops a person very much. It’s much better to take three weeks off, get a pile of books and read them. Things used to be like that – it wasn’t any better, but it was a little livelier.” There’s no need for conductors to be in such a hurry in career terms: “Fill your mind as much as you possibly can with anything else. Where are you going to get new ideas from if you don’t read? Music doesn’t feed itself.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

You know those TV phone-in votes?

Have you ever wondered what happens to the money from those expensive TV phone-in votes for BBC talent shows? It might be going on some pretty good causes. The BBC Performing Arts Fund has just announced £420,000 of funding for the music sector in two new schemes - Music Fellowships and Community Music. And a new talent show called The Voice, which aims to select its winners purely for the quality of their voices - yes, really - is going to raise money for the fund from its voting phone-lines.

The BBC Performing Arts Fund is a tad undersung, JD thinks, given that it has paid out around £3.8m in grants over the past nine years. It started out in 2003 as the Fame Academy Bursary Trust, and was later renamed. It gives money to both performing arts individuals and community groups and also offers them mentoring and career advice. So call in and vote: you might be helping someone.

Here's what they say about the new music schemes:
Launching in May, the Community Music scheme will award grants of up to £5,000 to grassroots music groups from across the UK, helping them to carry out training, attract new audiences, encourage new members and raise their profile in their community. Grants of up to £10,000 will be awarded to groups wishing to commission new music.

The Music Fellowships scheme will open for applications in August and is designed to support individuals through the early stages of their music careers; helping them to establish themselves in the professional world through bespoke placements within existing music organisations. 
Dorothy Wilson, Chair of the BBC Performing Arts Fund said: “Music has been part of the BBC Performing Arts Fund since it was formed out of Fame Academy. We will continue that support by investing in community groups such as choirs, bands and orchestras as well as nurturing new talent across the UK.”

Monday, March 19, 2012

Everyone's going to... Classical:NEXT

It's the big news in the classical music world: a new trade fair for the industry, to be held at the Gasteig in Munich at the end of May, organised by the same team that does WOMEX.

Classical:NEXT is not just about walking from stand to stand: there'll be conferences, discussions, a fantastic schedule of showcases both live and on video - from young artists to operatic productions - and of course there's a valuable chance to catch up with friends and colleagues from all over the world. It doesn't coincide with the Oktoberfest, in case you were wondering, but it so happens that I've been to that (if somewhat by accident...long story...) and all I can say is that if Classical:NEXT is even a fraction as well organised, then it's going to be something very special.

JDCMB won't have a stand as such, but I'll be there: I'm going to speak on a panel about "the future of music journalism" along with Oliver Condy, editor of BBC Music Magazine, and Carsten Dürer, editor of the German magazine Piano News.

More info, registration and everything you need to know here.

I've asked Jennifer Dautermann, Classical: NEXT's Project Director, some questions about why and how the event is being brought into being. It's all about synergy...

Munich Pictures
This photo of Munich is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Jess: What are the aims of Classical:NEXT and what do you hope it will achieve for the music industry?

Jennifer: Our aim is to gather all elements of the wide, mulitfarious world of classical together under one roof. All sectors (labels, distributors, publishers, presenters, managers, artists, journalists, etc.) all epochs (from early music to contemporary), all approaches (from traditional to experimental or genre-blending). These combined forces have boundless potential to create powerful synergy. Together, all these perspectives and specialities can become a force for positive energy and positive development for the sector as a whole as well as its individual parts. This first edition is just the start of that gradual process.

Jess: How did the idea come about? WOMEX has of course been a great success, but what has made the same organisation turn towards classical music?

Jennifer: The initiative goes back to CLASS - the association of classical independents in Germany. As a company that has concentrated on rich musical traditions from around the world, we naturally gravitated to their idea. It may sound like a paradox at first, but if you really love a tradition you not only have to preserve and honor it, you must also revitalize and perhaps even revolutionize it. That is our perspective at Piranha WOMEX.

Jess: Why should we all come to Classical:NEXT? What will distinguish it from any similar events that already exist? 

Jennifer: There actually is no similar event. Classical:NEXT is the only event which actively welcomes all sectors, eras and approaches. All players, big and small. And, of course, we try and focus on what will be "next": New formats, new ideas, new methods, new talent, new interactions and inspirations.

Jess: Will any of the events be open to the general public? 

Jennifer: Definitely. The evening showcase concerts on 1 June, the IMZ film programme and our partner programme "C:NEXT Level" in the Munich Clubs Bob Beaman and Harry Klein. And we have a heavy student discount on the whole programme. 2012 is just the first edition, a "beta" edition if you will. We hope to take the Classical:NEXT spirit out to the general public a little bit more every year with more events.

Jess: Why did you choose Munich as the best location?

Jennifer: Munich has a long and rich tradition in classical music which is, of course, very important.
There are many beautiful cities, but Munich's and the Gasteig's surroundings are ideal for a networking event and the city itself has been open and supportive.  

Jess: What do you think will be the highlights of this first Classical:NEXT? 

Jennifer: The scene is diverse and colourful and so are the participants and their individual tastes - thus I hesitate to identify highlights. The real strong point is that this diversity is finally gathering in one place. Delegates will have a unique opportunity to get to know people, scenes, approaches, and ideas which might be completely new for them.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

No word from Tom...

No word from Tom... he has been sent to perdition by the devil in disguise.

"Love hears, Love knows, Love answers him across the silent miles and goes..."

But as Scottish Opera stages The Rake's Progress for the first time in 40 years (opening night was yesterday), I had a bit of a ponder about why operatic rakes are so damned irresistible. Short version in The Independent the other day. Full-length director's cut below.

Things do not look good for Anne Truelove. “No word from Tom,” she sings, while her beloved vanishes to London, led astray by the sinister Nick Shadow. That is just the start of her problems. Stravinsky’s neoclassical masterpiece, The Rake’s Progress, concludes with a heartbreaking scene in which Anne sings her Tom a lullaby as he dies by inches in the lunatic asylum of Bedlam.

What does Anne see in this wastrel anyway? David McVicar’s new production for Scottish Opera – the company’s first staging of the work for 40 years – will no doubt offer insights of its own. But in general, women in operas do love their rakes too much. And so do we. From Monteverdi’s Renaissance glories onwards, through centuries of operatic drama, it’s not the devil who gets the best tunes: it’s the cads, the bounders, the nogoodniks. 

They cause heartbreak at best, multiple deaths at worst. Some redeem themselves musically, like Monteverdi’s Nero in L’incoronazione di Poppea. Having murdered and executed in order to secure a throne for his mistress, he finally sings with her such a heavenly duet that we forgive them everything.

Others get their come-uppance. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is dragged away to hell by a ghost, and good riddance to him. Puccini’s Lieutenant Pinkerton has to witness the suicide of his former beloved, Madame Butterfly. Perhaps we enjoy their punishments vicariously, for in real life there is usually no such satisfaction, unless it lies in watching news reports of the fall of Silvio Berlusconi. 

But even in opera it doesn’t always happen. The Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto is awarded one of Verdi’s most memorable melodies – and he gets away with everything, blithely unaware that the heroine has given her life to save his, while he sashays on towards his next victim. Typical tenor, some would say.

Yes, the good guys are left standing while the rakes loop the loop around our hearts. Don Ottavio, the kind, upstanding fiancé of Donna Anna and possessor of a pair of fine arias, is a wimp of the first order beside Don Giovanni and his sidekick Leporello; he is way too nice to be interesting.

Tom Rakewell manages to remain hero rather than villain, since his fate is not really his fault: Nick Shadow – the devil in disguise – has planned it all. Tom’s decline and fall is not punishment, but tragedy. His secret is nevertheless quite clear. He is that great operatic rarity, a well-rounded character.
That may explain the appeal of those stage rakes: we see more sides of them, especially their human frailties, and perhaps that inspires their composers to greater heights than a bland, single-facet ‘hero’ could. 

Wotan of Wagner’s Ring Cycle is the ultimate example. If it were not for his philandering and the punishment meted out for it in Die Walküre by his wife, the rest of the saga would not happen at all.
Wotan is the most fascinating figure of the Ring, his tortured self-questioning making him more human than superhuman. His anguished farewell to his daughter as he puts her to sleep in a circle of fire is, IMHO, the most beautiful passage in all four operas. Meanwhile, Siegfried, touted as a great hero, is a brawny dolt whom it is hard to empathise with, let alone like.

But in the end, this is all about human nature. Many are the women who have fallen for the irresistible rogue rather than his sensible brother with a faithful heart and a proper job. It’s always been that way and probably always will; and if opera reflects this, that makes it all the more true to life. 

Bring on the Rake, then – and the great music that goes with him.

The Rake’s Progress, Scottish Opera, opens at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, on 17 March.  Box office: 0844 871 7677

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Schubert forever! Or at least, a whole week on Radio 3

Just a few weeks back on JDCMB we asked "WHY SCHUBERT?" It turns out that BBC Radio 3 had decided to ask that too. They're doing wall-to-wall Schubert from 23 to 31 March - nothing but Schubert and Schubertian stuff, day and night, for eight and a half days. I'm not sure how the Schubert addicts amongst us will manage to do anything except glue ourselves to the airwaves while this is going on.

Radio 3 has more details here and yesterday I had a feature about it in The Independent, in which I talked to Professor Brian Newbould - the man who finishes unfinished Schubert and has finished some more for this occasion - and also to Roger Wright, controller of R3. Read it here. (I didn't post this yesterday because I went somewhere nice to interview someone very special - more of that in April.)