Showing posts with label Chetham's School of Music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chetham's School of Music. Show all posts

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Gove "could close Chetham's"

This report from Channel 4 News last night is about the latest developments at Chetham's in Manchester. It suggests that after ISI findings and a Manchester City Council report, the institution has until May to address alleged failings in its management structures and child protection systems and that if this is not done satisfactorily, the education secretary Michael Gove might have the powers to close it down.

This school is too vital and precious a presence in British musical life to allow such a thing to occur. We always hear bad news first, but the number of fine musicians and happy people who have also emerged from its portals over the years is high, and now many devoted, honest, hard-working and non-abusive teachers are there to guide musical youngsters through top-level training and see them into the profession. We hope profoundly that the necessary issues can be addressed rapidly and thoroughly and put right once and for all. We need specialist music schools, we need more of them, and we need them to function reliably.

Of course, the National Union of Teachers has just passed an unprecedented motion of no confidence in Gove.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Brewer sentenced to 6 years

Michael Brewer, formerly conductor of the National Youth Choir and before that director music at Chetham's, has been sentenced to six years imprisonment for a catalogue of abuse against a pupil at the school in the 1980s, the late Frances Andrade. His wife, Kay Brewer, was sentenced to 21 months.

There is more information in the Independent here and the story has been extensively covered on the TV news. Pianist Ian Pace has much more to say on the matter, plus further links, here, and he has organised a petition calling for an inquiry.

The judge's sentencing remarks are available to read in full here. Among many other things, he says this:
"Indeed, perhaps one of the few positive features to have emerged from this case is the resulting close scrutiny of the seemingly wider acceptance of this type of behaviour amongst those who should know better."
It is essential now that the institutions involved in these appalling events should be able to "bounce back" and clear their reputations in order to keep on educating the finest young musicians in the country. We need specialist music schools for gifted children; the entire edifice should not be demolished because of these events. Regulations have been changed, the modus operandi is different now and the whole climate is notably (and thankfully) more censorious today.

But psychological abuse by teachers as well as sexual abuse needs to be under scrutiny - something that the more outspoken of my interviewees have talked about over the years, incidentally, regarding advanced music colleges in mainland Europe and the US as well as here. Some very prominent figures have reminisced about their studies in a pretty dim light. I can think of one musician who left his home country because of such abuse, another whose experience in New York seems indefensible, and several who have said that after studying with x or y they had to find ways to put themselves back together in a musical or artistic sense...and heaven knows what else. Many of the teachers involved are now deceased, but the syndrome is, arguably, more difficult to guard against. Perhaps that is the next step.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Kaufmann sings Parsifal

I'm not a well Jess right now (spring lurgy) and haven't got anything very useful to blog about. While the Guardian says that 9 (nine) former Chet's/RNCM teachers are under investigation, Sarah Connolly as Charpentier's Medea is producing the sort of rave responses you see once in a lilac moon and all sorts of wonderful people are giving fantastic concerts all over the place (try pianist Jean Muller at Kings Place this evening), I regret that I don't feel up to doing anything except curling up with peppermint tea, an indignant cat and a hot laptop.

So there is only one thing for it...indulge in a spot of Kaufmania. Jonas Kaufmann is singing Parsifal in NY and the Met has posted on Youtube an extract from the final dress rehearsal. Reviewing his new CD the other day for Sinfini, Warwick Thompson sounds the question we've all had in mind since hearing JK's voice for the first time: is he going to sing Tristan someday? 

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Today The Guardian has run Charlotte Higgins's interview with Martin Roscoe, who talks in depth about what really happened when he tried to blow the whistle about Layfield.

But also, they report that another Chet's/RNCM teacher, violinist Wen Zhou Li, has been "arrested on suspicion of sex offences".

Elsewhere, there is slightly better news.

While we were away last week, Harriet Harman intervened to stop Newcastle Council's plans to cut its arts budget by 100%.

Also, education secretary Michael Gove was forced to drop his noxious EBacc project and is now looking instead at a reformed version of GCSEs with an eight-subject base that may even include music. Triumph is scented over at the brilliant and tireless ISM, but the fight won't be over yet.

And much better news: Benjamin Grosvenor has been nominated for The Times Breakthrough Award at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards. Over the Pond, David Patrick Stearns has been listening to the star wars of the 20-something new generation pianists and lets us know that Trifonov's Carnegie Hall debut recital last week was sold out. But he picks Benjamin as the tip-top "artistic space alien": "Never have I not heard him boldly re-imagining the music he plays in ways that made complete sense, had conviction right down to the smallest detail but was completely unlike anything I’ve previously heard. How such depth of brilliance could be housed by somebody so young is enough to make you believe that reincarnation can come with accumulated wisdom." 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

More of it

Depressing news today that two more teachers from Chetham's and the RNCM are being accused of abusing their pupils in the 1970s-80s. See The Guardian. One has not been named (yet). The other is the late Ryzsard Bakst (who died in 1999) - a pianist and professor who used to be revered as a living legend, if a difficult and eccentric one, and who taught some of the finest pianists in the country. No doubt there is more of this to be revealed.

An interesting comment reached me from a musician on social media after I vented my thoughts on the whole principle of boarding schools. It wasn't the schools that were to blame, he said, it was the people in them. Ah... a bit like guns, then?

Note, all these events took place several decades ago. One hopes profoundly that the different climate, culture and awareness that has sprung up since makes such matters a thing of the past. All the places involved have new administrations these days, as well as many, many devoted, honourable and top-notch professors. As we said the other day: keep calm and ask the right questions.

More reports here:
and here:
and here:

Monday, February 11, 2013

An appeal for calm

As further allegations surface of sexual abuse at Britain's top music schools, it's becoming clear that we've only seen the beginning. It has taken the suicide of a fine violinist and mother of four to bring to light the scale of exploitation, mismanagement and cover-ups within the various establishments through which she was unlucky enough to pass. As a result, everything that contributed to the death of Frances Andrade is under scrutiny: the legal system that she felt accused her in court of lying, the police that allegedly advised her not to seek psychological help during the arduous two-year trial of Michael and Kay Brewer, and, of course, the educational institutions in which it all happened in the first place.

The wider domino effect began with the publication the other day of Martin Roscoe's correspondence with the then head of the Royal Northern College of Music, Edward Gregson (who has since retired), pertaining to the appointment of Malcolm Layfield as head of strings - an appointment over which Martin and some other professors in his keyboard department resigned their posts, after expressing concerns about the nature of the violinist's relationships with some of his students. It appears that the college was more eager to defend its decision than to retain the services of some of the best-respected pianists in the country.

Martin has now claimed that after he chose to make a stand over Malcolm Layfield's appointment, he was subjected to a vicious smear campaign against his own (unimpeachable) character that has had long-term repercussions on his health. "For the next 2 years I had panic attacks, agoraphobia, claustrophobia and heightened performance anxiety. I have been on medication for high blood pressure ever since," he has stated.

Expect more about this soon in The Guardian. It's a clasic case of "shoot the messenger" and, unbelievably, it has taken nearly 11 years for the truth to be publicly revealed, even though many of us could see exactly what was going on back in 2002.

Now ten women have come forward to allege that they suffered sexual abuse by yet another teacher at Chetham's around the same time, this time a violinist named Chris Ling. More on this here. Rumblings offstage suggest that there is yet more to come, involving other top music schools in the UK.

Amid this disgraceful state of things, people are inevitably asking: what is wrong with these musical establishments that such events could take place there?

I think that isn't quite the right question - at least, not completely. And while the inevitable witch-hunt commences - there'll be finger-pointing, hysteria, 'lists of shame' and so forth - we should appeal for calm and look beyond that at the underlying problems of culture, attitude and atmosphere if any of this is to be healed in the long term.

First of all, the combination of the intensive one-to-one relationship necessary between a music student and his/her teacher and a boarding situation in which the student is far from home and, in certain cases, in an isolated setting, is undoubtedly noxious. But the vital question is not only about ths music: it's about the boarding. After all, sexual abuse of the young and vulnerable is anything but confined to the music world.

Britain. as you know, is famous for its boarding schools. I can think of no other country in which the finest education is supposedly achieved in places which families pay through the nose for the privilege of sending their children away from home into the "care" of strangers. I don't need to remind you of the number of people at the top of British establishments of all kinds that have been through these places. When I was preparing the ground for Hungarian Dances, I decided, in order to give the heroine's husband a measure of verisimilitude, to interview a few people who'd been sent away to boarding school as young boys, in some cases aged only five. What was the worst thing about it, I asked. The sense of abandonment, entrapment, betrayal? "Being buggered," said my first interviewee, loud and clear. But this strand never quite made it into the book: apparently being buggered at boarding school is so common that to include it in a novel would be "a cliche".

But why are UK music schools, on the whole, boarding schools too? Other countries around Europe don't have this situation. We have very, very few music schools. In France there's a structured national system of local conservatoires. In Russia, local specialist music schools cater for gifted youngsters. Supposing Britain were to encourage more music schools, spread around the country to take in the local gifted children without necessitating boarding?

In a country where the boarding school culture is ingrained at the very top of society, along with other organisations that have been exposed for their cover-ups of sexual abuse, notably certain branches of the Catholic Church, it's perhaps no wonder that a sense of entitlement pervaded the decades of permissive atmospheres that preceded the advent of AIDS. It's about power; it's about corruption; it's about celebrity, adulation, talent, charisma, woolly ideals and structural failure.

There are no easy answers, of course.; only many, many questions to ask. And many of these remain about why the abusers were so often protected instead of the vulnerable young people around them, why some individuals at the RNCM - apparently fearing that its name would be "brought into disrepute" if the situation was discussed - preferred to exercise power over good sense. It's that other endemic matter in Britain: bad management. Beware those mealy-mouthed words "bring into disrepute" and "moving on" - they are often employed by organisations that are afraid of the former (rather than actually suffering it) and unable to do the latter. Several motivations are possible in such cases: a) headless chicken syndrome, where a management simply has no clue how to handle the situation; b) cover-ups and scapegoating that mask deeper, still more sinister issues; c) as Schiller wrote, "Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain."

But it shouldn't take a death to make society listen. It shouldn't take a death to make us wonder why it is easier for establishments to accuse women of lying rather than to investigate properly. It shouldn't take a death to bring so much iniquity out of woodwork in which it's been gnawing away for the better part of 30 years. If Frances Andrade is not to have spoken and died in vain, we need to keep calm, ask the right questions and make sure it never, ever happens again.