Showing posts with label Elgar. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elgar. Show all posts

Monday, August 13, 2012

London 2012: A few things we can learn from the Olympic Games...

This was the fortnight in which Britain learned the value of clibing nachas. One of those all-but-untranslatable Yiddish phrases, its meaning is somewhere in between "taking pleasure in your family's achievements" and "basking in reflected glory". When you feel you're part of the success of something, even when it's someone else's success. (see left.)

I mean, it was amazing, wasn't it? After all the buss and fother, after all the warnings about impossible transport and raised prices and overcrowding and 'get ahead of the Games' (to which I flippin'well listened, and went on holiday, and missed half the fun), after the security debacle and the certainty that no way could the UK ever be organised enough to put on the greatest show on did. And pulled in in third place on the medals chart. How did that happen? World-class achievement in sport has much in common with other world-class achievements, so what can we learn from it?

1. Success takes damn hard work. We celebrated people pushing themselves to be extraordinary. We celebrated people being exceptional, and training for years to become exceptional. All the building of the Olympic Park, all the planning, all the peripheries, that took hard work too. Finally the hard work paid off, and everyone could share in it and clibe nachas.

2. Success takes investment. How did the UK get from one paltry medal in Atlanta 16 years ago to third place in the world? By investing in training. About £250m - mostly from the National Lottery - was thrown at the training of our athletes. The "treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen" attitude that's usually levelled at the arts in the UK didn't apply - because it is, of course, bollocks. True, money without good management solves little, but without financial investment you're nowhere. Now can we please have a reversal of the ongoing disinvestment in our wider education and culture? Otherwise we'll be back at the bottom in everything else.

3. Success takes dedication and sacrifice from the artists/athletes involved, but also from their families. Much was made by the BBC TV presenters of how the athletes' families have given their all to support their youngsters; so, too, the fact that the families were overjoyed to see their loved ones in Olympic action (ie, they were clibing nachas). Now, if a child is gifted at music and his/her parents put immense energy into helping him/her along and then take pleasure in the results, someone inevitably accuses them of being "pushy" or stopping their son/daughter from having a "normal childhood". Why the distinction? Sport and music alike require an early start, in every sense. It may be possible without familial support, but it's a heck of a lot harder. For instance, if your dad won't get up at 5am to drive you to the ice-rink/swimming pool/practice room for a few hours of training before school, but others' dads do, the others will be ahead of you and you won't make the grade.

4. Success needs moral support. The importance of this has been underestimated. Who could have had better moral support than the Team GB athletes this past fortnight? It's in the air we've breathed here in London: everyone has been rooting for them, cheering them on, and when people believe in you so much it's like a big fluffy trampoline that helps you to bounce higher, take off and fly.

Our arts practitioners don't usually meet that kind of moral support. In music particularly, we have to fight and fight and fight and FIGHT just for the teeniest glimmer of recognition that what we do does not happen by magic, but takes the same kind of graft that an athlete puts in. Without moral support from families, schools, colleges, arts managements and indeed the country, performers - who are only human - have to throw more energy into surviving emotionally without it, energy that could have been better directed at the task itself. It's difficult already, and lack of moral support makes it more difficult. That's why they need us all to clibe nachas.

5. Elitism shmelitism. There's nothing more elite than the training required for a gifted individual to become the best. But without an "elite" training - high quality, full-on, time-consuming and, yes, probably quite expensive - people do not generally rise to become the best. Yet we're all interdependent. Without the people who prove they are the best at what they do, the rest of us become demoralised, because lack of world-class success reflects on our country and our society as a whole. We need the gifted and successful to pull us all up to a better level. That's what clibing nachas does for the ones doing the clibing.

6. One person's success brightens the lives of everyone who partakes in it. There've been a great many tears shed this fortnight as Jess Ennis and her team-mates showed the stuff they're made of. I mean, if I can be touched by all this - I'm one of many who was put off sports by school PE, and my enthusiasm as viewer rarely stretches further than Wimbledon - then anybody can. And just think of the joy, emotion and insight that music brings us, via those who excel at it. That's what it's for, for goodness' sake. To stir us to great emotions, to catapult us above the everyday. To make the world feel like a better place. See the point above about us all being interdependent.

7. You reap what you sow. The more you put in, the more you get out. But you do have to put in enough to begin with. Billions went into the London 2012 Olympic Games. What came out of it has been priceless.

8. Musical Olympics don't really exist - but where they sort of do, Team GB needs to get on board. If there's an equivalent, it's still the big competitions - eg, the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. These are not an end in themselves for their entrants, but a beginning, a launching pad - which, in a way, makes them all the more vital. The latest Tchaikovsky Competition, in which ace pianist Daniil Trifonov shot to international stardom, attracted not a single British entrant, let alone a medallist. British musicians do not often win international competitions and we have to face the fact that that is probably because other countries take musical training more seriously, invest more money in it and do so much earlier in youngsters' lives. It's easy to say "but we have some great teachers", etc, but the facts demonstrated in the international context tell the true story. Stripping state funding from our music colleges - along with all the other arts and humanities higher education courses in England - will make the situation worse. The lesson of the Olympics is not just that we should invest more in training for sport because all of a sudden we're good at it. It's that we should invest in education and training for many, many other things so we can become equally good at those.

9. From now on, we need to appreciate real ability instead of quick-fix, appearance-driven dross. In sport, this is relatively easy because you can see who's crossed the finish line first. In music it's more difficult, because assessment is about taste, personal judgment and, unfortunately, being well informed enough to know how to assess what you're hearing. Hopefully, though, the Olympics have shown up the vacuity of manufactured "stars" and the notion that you can be famous without being able to do anything. With any luck, this might produce a shift in national awareness of how we're too often fooled by rubbish. Despite all the hype about sponsors, branding and exclusivity, nobody can force us to eat hamburgers, swallow fizzy drinks, buy diamonds or download a particular recording. If we're in charge of our own brains, we don't have to be taken in. Interestingly, exercise can help this. Be inspired: go running. It helps you think.

10. Apart from a little Elgar at the start of both, and a surprise appearance by Daniel Barenboim, carrying a corner of the Olympic flag, there wasn't a lot of classical music in the London 2012 opening and closing ceremonies. And a lot of the pop singers were out of tune. What we learned, though, is that the real classics of British music in the 20th century are mostly by the Beatles. See point 8.

11. So who's on Music Team GB? Here's one of our truest golds. You can hear him at the Prom tomorrow, playing Saint-Saens's Piano Concerto No.2. This interview is a promotional thing for his new CD of that concerto, Ravel's G major and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Go, Benjamin, go!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Not Messiah

It's not Handel's Messiah. It's a playlist from a very naughty music-lover.

I've been listening to the thing again - it's hard to avoid it at this time of year - and OK, yes, it does have that certain je ne sais quoi. It's a great piece. He wrote a good old tune or several. But just every so often, wouldn't you like to hear something else instead, or even as well? Leave aside obvious substitutes like Bach’s Christmas Cantata, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and much nice music by John Rutter; as for The Nutcracker or The Four Seasons – Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi are great, but enough’s enough. My list features some seasonal music that rarely gets a look in, having been shouldered aside by wall-to-wall Hallelujah Choruses.

Elizabethan Christmas music
If ideal Christmas music is decorative, celebratory and sumptuous on one hand, and intimate, domestic and fun on the other, then the Elizabethan era had it all. Families with space and cash tended to be musically literate in those days, and they might have gathered on winter evenings to sing madrigals or play music for viol consort. Red Byrd and the Rose Consort of Viols recorded their selection of Elizabethan Christmas Music in 1989, complete with a quirky attempt at ‘authentic’ pronunciation. Composers include William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins and more.
Recommended recording: Elizabethan Christmas Anthems, Red Byrd, Rose Consort of Viols, AMON RA CD-SAR46

Praetorius: Renaissance Christmas Music
Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) was a Lutheran from North Germany. His works are characterised by rich and sympathetic choral writing, similar at times to his greatest contemporary, Claudio Monteverdi – but Praetorius’s music remains rooted in Lutheran chorales, so the effect is gentler, simpler and more streamlined than that of the musical lion of Venice. His most often-performed work is probably the gorgeous carol ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’, but I’ve picked a recording of some Christmas-friendly choral pieces that doesn’t include it.
Recommended recording: Viva Voce, BIS, BISCD1035

Bach transcriptions for piano
The term ‘Baroque’ was originally coined to evoke something extravagant, irregular, complex and extraordinary. If you enjoy musical pearls at their most baroque in every sense, then try transcriptions for solo piano of movements from Bach’s cantatas, violin works and concertos, made by some of the finest virtuoso composer-pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are hundreds, and Hyperion has been releasing a substantial series of CDs of them. The latest disc features transcriptions by Saint-Saëns and Isidor Philipp: life-enhancing, high-spirited triumphs of virtuosity that would spice up any Christmas.
Recommended recording: Bach transcriptions, Vol 10: Saint-Saëns and Isidor Philipp, Nadejda Vlaeva (piano), Hyperion CDA76873.

Liszt: Weinachtsbaum (Christmas Tree Suite)
Franz Liszt’s bicentenary is nearly over, but not quite. It’s a good excuse to seek out his Christmas Tree Suite, a set of 12 short piano pieces based on carols and lullabies, including ‘In dulci jubilo’ and ‘Adeste Fideles’. Written in 1866, they are tender, charming and lyrical, far indeed from the barnstorming heft of the Hungarian Rhapsodies and the romantic tumult of his B minor Sonata. Instead, this is Liszt as besotted grandfather: he dedicated the suite to his five-year-old granddaughter, Daniela. Coincidentally, her mother – Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, who later eloped with Wagner – had been born on Christmas Eve in 1837.
Recommended recording: Alfred Brendel (piano), Regis RRC1378

Saint-Saëns: Christmas Oratorio
This is a real buried treasure. Possessing extraordinary gifts himself, maybe the 23-year-old Saint-Saëns, writing in 1858, also expected much from his performers: the solo parts are extremely demanding to sing, which might be why the ten-movement work doesn’t pop up often enough. Involving chorus, five soloists, organ and a small orchestra with prominent role for the harp, it strikes a lovely balance between Bach-inspired churchliness and the boulevardier charm that came so easily to Saint-Saëns. Christmas with the French bourgeoisie at its tasty best.
Recommended recording: Noël, French Romantic Music for Christmas – Bachchor Mainz, L’Arpa Festante München/Ralf Otto, Deutsche HM 88697366582

Honegger: Une cantate de Noël
The Swiss-born Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) was among Gabriel Fauré’s last pupils at the Paris Conservatoire. This short Christmas cantata was his final composition and has proved one of his most popular – not that that is saying much, since his works remain shamefully neglected. Written in 1953, it captured something of the spirit of the times. The opening section, on the words ‘De profundis clamavi’, seems a postwar evocation of an existential ‘dark night of the soul’. But from there the music opens out, as if candlelit by the succession of carol fragments that flicker through the musical fabric, weaving a spell of increasing enchantment. Combining texts in French and German, it’s perhaps a message of hope for lasting peace.
Recommended recording: James Rutherford (baritone), Robert Court (organ), Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum, Dean Close School Chamber Choir, BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales/Thierry Fischer, Hyperion CDA67688

Messiaen Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus
Messiaen’s most famous piano work – 20 ‘regards’, or meditations, on the image of Baby Jesus – includes a movement entitled ‘Noël’, but there is far more to this pianistic tour-de-force than that; more, too, than the vivid colours, crunchy textures and dizzying intricacies of the French composer’s unmistakeable style. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, wrote these astonishing pieces for Yvonne Loriod, whom he later married: she was a virtuoso pianist whose abilities inspired him to new heights of invention. His passion for her, for God and for music unite in a kind of mystical celebration that has rarely been matched. Super-demanding yet also super-rewarding, Messiaen’s music can cast Christmas in a whole new light.
Recommended recording: Steven Osborne (piano), Hyperion CDA67351/2

Piazzolla: Cuarto Estaciones Portenas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires)
Who needs Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons when you can have Astor Piazzolla’s? The Argentinian composer, who would have been 90 this year, studied in Paris with the eminent professor Nadia Boulanger. He aspired to haut-classical grandeur, but Boulanger spotted that his heart lay in the music of his homeland and advised him to go home to Buenos Aires and explore it. His personal sound-cocktail mingles sophisticated classical expertise with the sultry flavour of the tango.  His Four Seasons were inspired by Vivaldi’s; the ‘Winter’ Tango is a wonderful example of vintage Piazzolla.
Recommended recording: Tianwa Yang (violin), Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Giancarlo Guerrero, Naxos 8572271

Elgar: A Christmas Greeting
A gentle parlour song accompanied by a piano and two violins, this is the most intimate of all these Christmas suggestions: a setting by Elgar of a poem by his wife, Alice. It seems to conjure a cosy and very British type of Christmas in its domestic, hearthside greeting from one partner to the other and back again. And it is heartrendingly Elgarian, with those wonderful arched melodic contours and sense of yearning characteristic of his finest music.
Recommended recording: Worcester Cathedral Choir, Donald Hunt (conductor), Jeremy Ballard (violin), Robin Thurlby (violin), Keith Swallow (piano), Hyperion CDA66271/2

MacMillan: Veni, veni, Emmanuel
James MacMillan’s percussion concerto, taking its title from the medieval plainchant for Advent on which it’s based, was written for Dame Evelyn Glennie in 1991-1992. It is possibly the celebrated Scottish composer’s biggest hit, clocking up hundreds of performances. Structured in one arch-shaped movement, it lasts some 25 minutes, fills with mesmerising rhythmic trickery and marvellously imagined noises, with percussion instruments both pitched and unpitched, from vibraphone to cowbells. Impress your Christmas guests with your contemporary music savviness by playing it full blast.
Recommended recording: Evelyn Glennie (percussion), Scottish Chamber Orchestra /James MacMillan, RCA 828766428520

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Elgar's 150th anniversary...

Edward Elgar was born 2 June 1857 in Broadheath near Worcester. Here's the latest in a spate of articles about him - this by Richard Morrison in yesterday's Times, on the perennial enigma of the Enigma Variations.

It's kind of strange hearing Elgar the morning after Bosnian sevdah and Romanian Gypsies. Thank heaven there's room in the world for all of them.

UPDATE: Monday 4 June, 8.50am - discovered a pretty interesting take by Stephen Pollard in The Times the other day, in which he makes it clear that our own dear Arts Council doesn't think there is room in the world...

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Sticking up for Edu

Everyone else is busy writing about Elgar now. His birthday isn't until next weekend, but here's conductor Sakari Oramo in The Guardian with a ream of good sense. What Elgar needs, he insists, is foreign champions. Dead right. With the same peculiar nationalist whateveritis that insists you have to be Russian to play Rachmaninov, English musicians have tended to prevail in Elgar - whose fault? Promoters? Record companies? Elgar's perceived 'Englishness'? Sakari says something I've been saying for a while, which is that Elgar's music is not particularly English: his principal influences are Strauss, Schumann and Wagner.

Michael Kennedy takes the Englishness line in a different direction in The Telegraph, but I guess he/they would. He begins with 'Windflower', Alice Stuart Wortley, talking about Elgar coming from the heart and soul of England etc etc.

Oh lordy, and The Times says we're wrong to downplay his love of Empire. That's all he needs... but at least they are offering free downloads (only short ones, mind).

Pay your money and take your choice. Or alternatively have a look at my angle on the matter in my archive.

Tasmin Little is going off to the Far East and Australia next week to tour the Elgar Violin Concerto around Kuala Lumpur, Perth, Adelaide and, appropriately enough, Tasmania (which is what will take over Launceston and Hobart when they hear her play!). Meanwhile I missed Philippe Graffin's performance of the piece in its pre-Kreislerised version in Liverpool with the RLPO and Tod Handley on Thursday night. I had to give about a talk about Schumann and Brahms down the road in Manchester at the same time - this went well, by the way. It was in the Bridgewater Hall, one of my favourite venues, combining good modern design, excellent acoustics and a relatively intimate atmosphere. My fellow Indy journalist Lynne Walker and I discussed the cross-currents between the composers and persuaded the resident CD player to cooperate with illustrations now and then.

I'm still overwhelmed with relief when I walk on to a concert platform and find that I do not have to play a piano.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Good morning

Woke up to find my name and Elgar's splashed all over the business section of today's Indy. Stephen King argues that poor old Edu should never have been on the £20 note at all and represents 'a peculiar celebration of mediocrity'. I got very excited for a second, thinking a world-famous thriller writer was reading my work; but no, this Stephen King is head of economics for HSBC. He says that Elgar would never have got onto a banknote at all if Mozart, Beethoven or Bach had been British. He accuses all British composers of being second-rate, with the exception of Lennon & McCartney.

He's right in that we've had a handful of worthwhile composers, but never anybody to touch the top-notch greats (I still think Elgar's concertos are top-notch, but I take his point). The question is: if Elgar's mediocre but the best we have (King doesn't appear to mention Britten, let alone Orlando Gibbons), why should that be? I've been thinking this over for the last three hours and have a number of ideas on the subject, but after drafting a lengthy post at least five times I reckon they require a book, not a blog, and would upset an awful lot of probably blameless people. Come on, folks: your ideas, please!

By the way, I wouldn't dream of trying to write about economics, though I deeply regret having missed director Adam Curtis's new series The Trap so far.

UPDATE, 5pm: Blimey, guv'nor, my Elgar story has made it to Italy - Operachic found it in Milan's Corriere della Sera... Mille grazie, amica! [sorry, my Italian is hopeless...]