Showing posts with label ISM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ISM. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

"The position of the perpetual spectator"

I'm reading Music Comes Out of Silence, by András Schiff and the Swiss journalist Martin Meyer, which has just been published in English translation. Its first part is a discussion between them which veers from the fascinating to the eye-opening to several hilarious anecdotes. The second part consists of essays, letters and reflections by Schiff himself. The passage above is from a piece he wrote in 2000 in response to the far-right politician Jörg Haider's election in Austria. Haider was killed in a road accident in 2008, but otherwise Schiff's words are as true today as they were 20 years ago.

Today, while the few newspapers that accord any space to classical music are pointing out that in the UK the industry faces collapse within months, somehow only a handful of musicians are speaking up about the dangers. Many are talking online about music, streaming performances from home or doing both, finding ways to keep motivated and keep their, and our, brains engaged with our art. It needs, nevertheless, to go further than that.

There's no shortage of anger and anxiety, and at first I was convinced that a large part of the problem is simply that newspapers are just not interested enough in classical music to give it the sort of airing that exists for theatre, in which stars like David Tennant and Sam West are household names. There is an excellent piece in today's Guardian by Charlotte Higgins - which asks why we are not putting up more of a fight.

Part of the issue is the lack of cohesion between various organising bodies. I have been wondering where the Musicians' Union is in all this. All I can find at the moment is a report in which it appears to suggest that two musicians sitting next to each other facing forward shouldn't be a problem because they're not breathing on each other. Um. [UPDATE 5.15pm: Today the MU General Secretary, Horace Trubridge, speaks up eloquently in The Evening Standard - in an article that is headlined by theatre. Music is placed second, under cover - as is so often the case. Another indication that media attitudes must shoulder a lot of this blame.] Organisations such as the ISM and the ABO have been active and energetic, but chiefly behind the scenes, lobbying the necessary forces-that-be; and they are only occasionally picked up and yelled about on Radio 4.

What about actual musicians? Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of Chineke!, has been a fabulous spokesperson for the art form, especially in the crucial area of race relations, and has been featured on LBC. Nicola Benedetti speaks out eloquently on behalf of music education. But there has to be the airtime. Tasmin Little, liberated months too early from the stage commitments she was preparing to relinquish amid much celebration this summer (she should have been giving her final Southbank Centre recital on 5 June), has been on Radio 4 current affairs programmes several times - but too often her contributions have been curtailed by the programmes. On one occasion a guest performance she had recorded for them was reduced to seven notes of "Somewhere over the rainbow". She has nevertheless revealed that she earned £12.34 for 5 million streams and this figure is now being quoted everywhere to show how appallingly our sector is served by the multi-million-pound giants who provide the streaming. Any classical soloist would be able to say the same, so why do they not? Too shy? Too scared? I honestly have no idea.

Here is Sam West, speaking up about why the UK's arts scene is more affected than those of our neighbours in France and Germany. Basically, it's the funding model: we have been trained to rely on commercialism because government subsidy accounts for a comparatively minuscule share of the funding. When commercial activity ceases, therefore, we are harder hit. Please listen:

Samuel West introduces the latest Arts Index - June 2020 from National Campaign for the Arts on Vimeo.

It begs the question: where is everyone? I'd like to think that the philistine media is chiefly to blame for not allowing the oxygen of publicity into the music sector. But I am also aware that musicians are not accustomed to what we journalists shrug away as "the rough and tumble". In times of trouble, the ostrich instinct in many of them runs deep. It's fair enough to be scared. Also, however, when I remember the music college in which I lasted three weeks before fleeing in despair, feeling that if I stayed I'd be turned into a lemon, I'm actually not surprised. How I wish that education for musicians more often included education beyond music itself.

There would be a benefit in this for all. You'll note that the illustration at the top of this article comes from one of the world's most justly celebrated pianists - and indeed the musicians who reach the very top are often those with the laser-sharp minds. Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Thomas Adès and Schiff have reached the heights in part because of their extreme intelligence. Igor Levit and Mahan Esfahani are among a newer generation who fully grasp the essential nature of the connections between music and the wider world, the community and what it means to be a full human being with responsibility for our fellow human beings.

Musicians who speak up certainly receive abuse for it, but this is par for the course: there'll always be someone to snipe "shut up and play" if they disagree with you. All it means is that you said something true that got under their skin. Take it as a badge of honour.

If your training has provided no scope for writing and speaking, let alone broader education, don't worry. You can do this for yourself at any time. You don't have to be 18 (it's possibly better if you are older anyway). You don't have to sign up to a course. You can download from the internet any book on philosophy, society, economics, history or global warming that you desire. You can learn languages on Duolingo (I'm finding this quite addictive). There are plenty of actors and acting coaches who need work as much as you do and will train you in public speaking techniques. No time to go to museums, and now they're shut? Look at the online exhibitions. Explore ancient Egypt and the splendours of Pompei, from the screen of your phone if nothing else. Listen to the great gurus of Indian classical music; explore cultures you haven't encountered, their ways of thinking, their traditions, problems and means of expression. Look at what is really going on in Syria, Afghanistan, the refugee camps, the Mexican border, the diamond trade, the tobacco industry, the Palestinian territories. Read the first-hand accounts. Talk to people who have been through it. Read the damn news from a reliable source, and distinguish it from conspiracy theories and propaganda. If you feed your creativity, your curiosity, your strength of character and opinion, it will feed your musicianship. Indeed, you will quite possibly become a better musician for it (OK, you need to remember to do enough practising too.)

Dear musicians, in this hour of trouble do not on any account "shut up and play". Get out there and start yelling. 

Tell people what music means to you. Show them what music can and does mean to them. Demonstrate what music does for us all. The financial figures speak for themselves - the UK's music industry is worth billions more to our exchequer than the fisheries the tabloids shout about - but the worth of art music in education and wider western culture has been eroded until swathes of the population are disinclined to give it the time of day. It's up to us to tell them - and you more than me. Though I was also a trained musician, I'm a writer and always have been; I'm used to it and my voice comes through. That's why you're reading this. You need to be able to do it too. Get talking. Get writing. Get shouting. The internet is an open platform and you don't need to wait for someone to do it for you. Get it? Got it? Good. Now, go for it.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Power cut

Grim reports emanate from the US about an alleged incident involving of one of its leading conductors - James Levine, no less. This is under investigation and in the meantime people must stick to the facts. But here the ISM has released statistics suggesting that 70 per cent - SEVENTY per cent - of self-employed people working in the classical music industry have experienced sexual harassment. This indicates not just a few salacious whispers; it suggests an entrenched, industry-wide problem.

Come hither...
Of course this is far from unique to classical music. I've encountered colleagues in the fields of law, universities, publishing, pretty much everywhere, in which sexual harassment has been a blight on lives and careers for as long as anyone can remember. But there are particular issues in our little corner that make music a particular hot-house.

As far as I can tell, these sexual abuse scandals aren't chiefly about sex. They're about power. They're about those with power over others enjoying wielding that power, and the fact that there's very little to stop them. Where power is an issue, you have to look at who has that power, and what structures, or lack of, are providing it.

Most of the music industry is self-employed. Very few practical musicians in the UK have an actual, salaried, regular-income, full-time job - a few orchestras out of London, but that's about it. Many orchestras, while a primary commitment for their members, are set up so that their members are technically self-employed, which can be artistically a good thing since they can't be ordered not to play in chamber ensembles, not to teach and not to pop off and do a concerto from time to time. But they don't have any employment rights. Get into any form of trouble and employment lawyers will swoop, offering help, but then take one look at your terms and conditions, or lack of, and say: "Oh." Wholly freelance musicians have perhaps an even more difficult situation, though there's more freedom to turn elsewhere if one situation goes pear-shaped.

This doesn't only apply to musicians, of course, and sometimes things are worse when you are employed, because you can't escape as easily. I've been technically freelance since 1993: after working for various magazine companies, each of which treated its staff worse than the last, I decided it was better not to be dependent on one bunch of jerks for an income, but at least spread the load, keep options open and stay at a safe distance. (To say nothing of working from home and avoiding the hellish Open-Plan Office; the latter must surely play some role in the UK's appalling productivity record.) Nearly a quarter-century later I still burn with fury about how certain institutions and individuals behaved, and there are plenty who have it worse than I did.

Why do people behave this way? Why why why? Because they have problems of their own. Because they want to feel powerful. Because they do have a tiny amount of power, and it's the only way they can feel themselves [sorry] experiencing that power. Still, sometimes the psychology behind the larger structures at play can be jolly interesting.

An orchestra, for example, is set up like a classroom. You sit at "desks" in pairs - just like school (or school in the 1970s-80s, at least). You have set, 20-minute breaks after Double Mahler or whatever. There's a Big Person up in front of you, giving the lesson, and you have to be quiet and concentrate on what he/she is telling you to do, and do it, or else your parents will get a Letter (OK, not quite, but you see my point). If the result is an infantilised mentality, it's possibly that pushing the psychological buttons of school makes people regress to the age of 13.

The thing is, those people are adults and should be responsible human beings. But the set-up is not designed for responsible human beings. It's designed - like so much in society - to keep people 'in their place'. At root, it's the same mentality that makes musicians use the trademen's entrance, entrenched across centuries. And so if there are 'personnel problems', it can be difficult to solve them. Few orchestras employ a trained, responsible, personnel manager (or "Human Resources", that hideous '80s term devised to transform people into commodities). The closest thing, usually, is the fixer, but his/her job is more about making sure there are enough violins present to make the requisite sound, rather than stopping them from tearing each others' eyes out. A section leader might be expected to "line-manage" his or her section, but just find me anyone who's OK with that and knows how. They're trained to play music, not to make other people behave themselves. Higher up the tree, individuals who are good at programming seasons or booking fine soloists aren't necessarily comfortable - despite splendid salaries - with facing, investigating and cautioning/firing someone. This seems to be a fundamental weakness in the system.

Other elements in the atmosphere facilitate nefarious goings-on, too. When some managers, record companies, journalists and more focus on how young women look, rather than primarily on how they play, a fervid, charged, sickening atmosphere is encouraged. Basically, this industry can look like it's a pimp to its young women. Why? Sales. Money. And sometimes the women want careers, so they put up with it, and in some cases are even accused of encouraging it themselves. But social media threads (especially "below the line" comments) occasionally turn into something resembling a verbal gang-rape.

This is not just nauseating; it facilitates the normalisation of sexual harassment. It stops those in the industry taking the matter seriously. In a law firm, a harassment situation would be investigated and those responsible held to account. It would be taken seriously, extremely seriously. But in the classical music world, from what friends and contacts have told me, raise the problem and you'd probably get back a snort of derision, advice to watch your own back or a declaration resembling "she were askin' for it, weren't she..."

And so if those who wield the power are people who enjoy misbehaving, it's unlikely that anyone would stop them. There aren't defences. The union's power appears quite limited. In the main, you have to fight back for yourself. But the self-employed person, as we've noted, has no employment rights. When your income can vanish in the twink of an eye, no wonder most people don't dare to speak up.

We need better, stronger structures for musicians. We need stronger unionisation - which means more people joining the union and making it work. We need more solidarity among those in the profession, rather than the every-person-for-themselves mentality that prevails when life is insecure, the field is ferociously competitive and there's an imbalance of supply and demand. We need well formulated, sensible, thorough, up to date codes of personal conduct (pun unintended) in institutions that can hold everyone to account, top dogs included. And we need, urgently, to put an end to the salacious objectification of women musicians and of gay male musicians too.

There will almost certainly be more accusations against more powerful men. As innumerable threads have noted since last night, people in the music industry have been hearing "rumours" about Levine for years. That doesn't make any of it true; rumours are just rumours and you can't go around accusing people on the basis of hearsay. But I can think of several conductors who could be next, people about whom other people have attempted to warn one another for decades. I'd hazard a guess that there'll be more women speaking out, and men too.

As I write, my cats are having a tiff in my doorway. Ricki is bigger than Cosi. He bullies her. He's the bigger animal, so he seems to think he's entitled to unseat her from the best perches, the comfiest cushions, the warmest snooze spots. We try to intervene, but it's difficult to explain to a cat that this is wrong, because they are animals, however cute, and they don't understand. But we are people. We have sophisticated language, philosophy, civilisation, art, comprehension. We have the inherent capacity to rise above base instinct and become fine, enlightened individuals and build fine, enlightened societies. We should be able to do better than animals. Instead, we're doing much, much worse.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Tax relief for orchestras: the small print...

Please note: orchestras haven't actually got tax relief yet. But a government consultation is beginning to explore the proposal. Here is the Incorporated Society of Musicians' latest statement on the matter, pointing out some small print that needs a little attention.

Good news for musicians as orchestral tax relief consultation begins
‘Consultation on tax relief is good news’ say professional musicians, ‘but don’t forget to respond to the consultation to make it even better.’
Professional musicians have welcomed the Government’s consultation on a proposed tax relief for orchestras.
The consultation proposes a tax relief for orchestras which will be welcome news in the orchestral and composing communities, matching tax reliefs already in place for theatre productions and benefitting the UK’s orchestras.
The ISM – the professional body for musicians – has been supporting the efforts of the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) in securing this tax relief.
Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the ISM said:
‘This is excellent news for composers, performers and orchestras. A tax relief on orchestras – including commissions for new music – will be a valuable asset to the sector. We welcome the news from the Treasury and will be responding to the consultation by 5 March 2015; we urge all those who care about the future of music in the UK to do the same.’
‘We are, however, disappointed with some of the details of the proposals. In particular, the proposed very narrow definition of orchestras and the size requirements – will exclude a huge number of excellent ensembles which should be supported in this way: chamber ensembles, contemporary classical ensembles which often combine an innovative range of instruments, brass bands, jazz orchestras to name just a few. We will be asking in our consultation responses for these limits to be revised so that some of the UK’s best groups and ensembles can also benefit from this good news.’
The less welcome detail of the consultation:
·         The current proposals rule out many smaller orchestras and chamber groups consisting of fewer than 14 performers.
·         The consultation also proposes excluding instrument specific groups (such as brass bands and wind bands) insisting that only orchestras made up of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion will qualify for the tax relief.
1. The less welcome detail of the consultation
3.3 Proposed definition of an ‘orchestral performance’ for the purposes of tax relief
To qualify, the majority of performances for which relief is being claimed must be played by a musical ensemble consisting of 14 or more performers and must include players drawn from each of the following four sections: string instruments, woodwind instruments, brass instruments and percussion instruments.

2. Other elements excluded from the proposal have been accepted: Ineligible performances include those for ‘entertainment with a competitive element, performances where the sole or main purpose is for advertising, performances intended solely or mainly for recording or broadcast.’
4. The Chancellor George Osborne first announced that tax breaks will be extended across the creative industries to include orchestras in his Autumn Statement in December 2014.
5. Twitter: @aborchestras tweet on 6 January: Productive meeting at HM Treasury on orchestra tax relief along with our friends @ISM_Music

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

More good news! This time, music education

It's in short supply out there in the wider world, but in the UK's musical sphere, hot on the heels of Judith Weir's official appointment up top comes more good news. Protect Music Education says that their efforts have secured a £18m increase in funding for the country's "music hubs" for 2015/16, totalling£75m. Led by the Incorporated Society of Musicians, 134 musical organisations have been involved in Protect Music Education and their tireless campaigning has borne fruit.

And now, hot on the heels of that news, comes a further triumph: the government has backed down on its ghastly plan to recommend that local authorities cut back their funding for music education. Here is an extract from the government statement:

And here is a link to the govt's press release:

Protect Music Education continues to campaign for firm funding commitments from all the political parties. 

In a nice footnote, they suggest that we all share pictures of our celebrations of the news on social media with hashtags #protectmusic and #musiced. Cheers!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Government backs more cuts to music education funding

While we ate chocolate, they were busy with the axe.

It has not been a happy Easter for anyone who cares about music education in the UK. And, you know, many of us do - not that you'd ever guess that from the actions of a government that first commissioned a report broadly welcomed for its positive recommendations on the topic - - yet now is apparently telling local authorities that they should have no money to fund music education.

This article from Arts Professional sets out the situation neatly:

Deborah Annetts, head of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, has pointed out the chaos instigated by mixed messages from government and lack of joined-up thinking from those wielding the purse-strings. She says:

‘Following the confusion caused by the EBacc and other mixed messages around the value the Government places on music education, we now need an unequivocal commitment from the Department for Education that it supports music education and is fully behind the National Plan for Music Education.

‘Last week we celebrated as music was included in the Government’s GCSE reforms, but this week, we find that the Government is backing additional cuts to the music education budget worth millions.

‘The National Plan for Music Education supported by the Department for Education, was a visionary strategy for music education in England. The demand that local authorities should stop funding music services risks derailing this flagship Government initiative.’

The ISM is stepping up its Protect Music Education campaign. Please sign up to it. 

UPDATE, 22 April: this piece by Jonathan Savage contains more detail - please read.

Meanwhile, this article from the Guardian raises the idea that dismantling our youngsters' creative abilities may be more sinister a move still: "Indeed, it may not be too cynical to suggest that it actually suits some if the creative noise is kept down in poor areas. Talented working-class youngsters who learn how to use the tools of their artistic trade are notoriously prone to asking awkward questions with them." 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Protecting music education: a vital message from the ISM

The ISM has emailed today with the following message. Please support their call!   

Take action now to protect music education
Thank you for supporting the Protect Music Education campaign.
We still don’t know for certain whether or not funding for music education hubs in England will continue after 2015.
Whilst the schools budget has been protected from cuts, the Education Services Grant is to be cut by £200 million: that’s almost four times what the Government will be spending on music education by 2015!
We have asked the Government to confirm their continued support for music education; whatever the reply, we need as many people as possible ready to fight to protect music education.
Here is what you can do to help today:
1. Tell us why music education matters to you
With more than 30 music organisations now backing the campaign, from the Music Industries Association through to NMC recordings and Conservatoires UK we now want to hear what you have to say!
Each organisation has contributed approximately 100 words on the importance of music education and we want you to do the same - all you need to do is tell us why music education matters to you by using the forum on our petition page.
For some inspiration, our newest supporters, Yorkshire Music Education Service said:
'The inspirational work done by music educators across the country transforms the lives of young people every day. The effect of music on personal development is phenomenal - it promotes dedication and teamwork, and can provide a lifetime of enjoyment. It is essential that ring-fenced funding to support high quality music education is retained - without it, access will be diminished and our society will be poorer for it.'
We now want to hear why music education matters to you!
2. Tell others about the campaign
As well as telling us about the importance of music education, you can also encourage others to sign up. Ask your pupils, parents, friends, family and colleagues to sign up to the campaign today.
And you can tweet about the campaign and tell people about it on Facebook using the #protectmusic campaign hash tag.
Thank you again for your support. Please spread the word about the campaign as wide as you can. Together we can make an impact on Government policy and ensure that music education is protected for the generations to come.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


* Hungarian Dances yesterday at the St James Theatre Studio was a fabulous experience. A treat, a privilege and a joy to perform with amazing musicians in such a great venue. Huge thanks to everyone concerned! More Hungarian Dances later in the year at the Musical Museum, near Kew Bridge, on Sunday afternoon 8 September and Pen Fro Literary Festival, Pembrokeshire, on 12 September. Watch this space for further dates...

* Please read this eloquent piece by Tasmin Little in the Telegraph re sexism in the classical music. She tells it like it is.

* If you're near a big screen tomorrow, go and see the FREE, live, open-air relay of Mayerling from Covent Garden. It is top ballerina Mara Galeazzi's farewell performance with the Royal Ballet and features Edward Watson as Prince Rudolf. I went to see them both in action in the ROH a couple of weeks ago and emerged utterly wrung out by the combination of intense emotion and astonishing dancing. Is Mayerling the greatest ballet drama ever created? Personally, I think it might be. Don't miss it. Take a brolly if you must, but just don't miss it.

* Please support the ISM's campaign to secure funding for music education beyond 2015. There's a petition to sign, here.
Every little helps, or we hope it does.

* Here's a discussion from Voice of Russia radio that I did last week with Alice Lagnado and John Riley about the lasting importance of The Rite of Spring. The writes, the rights, and sometimes the wrongs too.

* And here's a Friday Historical in advance, because I will be otherwise occupied this week: Fritz Kreisler and his cellist brother, Hugo, with pianist Charlton Heath, playing one of my favourite pieces from the Hungarian Dances concert: Kreisler's Marche miniature viennoise. (Did you know Kreisler had a cellist brother? Neither did I. They're a gorgeous team.)

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." 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Breaking news: Music is left out of education reform again

Legacy? What legacy? The runaway success of the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival looked set to prove to everyone that the UK's arts scene is second to none. But that's meaningless without the follow-up of lasting care and attention at grass-roots level - ie, in education. And as our dear government - specifically Michael Gove, the education minister - announces further plans for the reform of the schooling system, this time replacing GCSEs with something called the EBac, creativity and the arts are not just out in the cold, but nowhere to be seen.

Of course, the government has already excised state funding in its entirety from all arts further education in England, including from all the music colleges. While many of us have felt it best to give the directors of those institutions the space and privacy to negotiate behind the scenes for the most positive outcome possible, I can't help feeling we should have yelled a bit more about it from the start. To trumpet the excellence of British arts during the Olympics, while simultaneously removing the hope of training for anyone who can't access the funds to pay for it, represents mendacious hypocrisy at its zenith.

The Incorporated Society of Musicians has produced a strong response to the omission of arts and creativity from the EBac, pointing out that in the end it's the UK economy that's going to suffer. Here's the ISM's statement.

Missed opportunity for the economy as Government forgets the Olympics lessons

The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) – the UK’s professional body for music teachers, performers and composers – has condemned the proposals for GCSE reform which threaten to damage not just our children’s education but also our economy.

Having criticised the English Baccalaureate (EBac) in its original incarnation, the ISM is even more concerned at the present proposals which will increase pressure on pupils to study the six areas of maths, English, sciences, languages and humanities with no creative subjects at all being present.

Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the ISM, said:

‘These proposals represent a missed opportunity to reform our education system. Michael Gove will ensure with these so-called reforms that the UK loses its competitive edge in the fields in which we are world class. It is as if the Olympics never happened. Design – gone, technology – gone, music – gone.

‘This short sighted, wholesale attack on secondary music education will emasculate not only our world class music education system but also our entire creative economy which is estimated as contributing up to 10% of our GDP.

‘In its present form, intellectual and rigorous subjects like music are nowhere to be seen in the EBac offer. In its present form, the CBI, Creative Industries Council, ISM and Cultural Learning Alliance are all seeking reform of the EBac to include at least some of what the UK economy is good at: creativity and culture.’

Diana Johnson, Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education and a former education minister said:

‘The Secretary of State for Education has clearly forgotten all his warm words about music education in the past to launch an assault on music in secondary schools. Music education in the UK is world class, contributing hugely to our economy. The absence of music and any other creative or innovative subject from the EBac will further undermine the UK's progress in some of the growth generating industries of the future. We just saw Olympic and Paralympic closing ceremonies showing off some of the best of British music, design and creativity. The Government should at least include music in the English Baccalaureate.’

Fact checker: Gaps in the Secretary of State’s statement

1. In his statement to Parliament, whilst warning that the previous ‘examination system [had] narrowed the curriculum’ Mr Gove continued to promote the EBac, a course which is causing schools to drop music and other creative and cultural subjects.
2. Whilst claiming that higher education providers back the English Baccalaureate, Mr Gove forgot to mention that advice from the Russell Group only refers to post-16 study, not pre-16 study, and forgot to mention some Universities – like Trinity College Cambridge – make their own list of rigorous subjects which include music.
3. Whilst claiming that the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) had backed ‘widespread view among business that we needed to reform GCSEs’ Mr Gove forgot to mention that the CBI has explicitly criticised the EBac in its present form for omitting creative and technical subjects from the EBac.

Deborah concluded:

‘This Government was formed with the claim that they knew how to get the economy moving, yesterday, they proved that this was not the case. You would be forgiven for forgetting that the Olympics, Cultural Olympiad and Opening and Closing ceremonies had just taken place. You could be forgiven for missing out the importance of creativity, technology and the UK’s leading position in the music industry to our economy.’

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.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

About time too...

Small-scale live music in Britain has been hobbled in the Helf'n'Safeteh Years by regulatory tourniquets that have seemed determined to prevent any blood flowing into what should be a vibrant scene and a valuable testing ground. Good news arrives from the Incorporated Society of Musicians this morning: parliament is progressing well towards passing laws that seek to stop the hamstringing. (Assuming, that is, that there'll be any parliament left after Rupertgate.)

Here's the ISM's statement - but first, a nice little example of what's possible with just two instruments, courtesy of Jascha Heifetz and William Primrose. I have this piece on the brain after the delectable Capucon brothers gave it some serious welly in their Proms encore yesterday. Yes, I know, I know - that's not at all what the bill means by 'small-scale', but I'm happily clutching at musical straws in the hope of bringing you something beautiful to brighten your day.

ISM welcomes continued progress of Live Music Bill
Government confirms entertainment de-regulation plans

Proposals to de-regulate small scale live music events could become law in 2012 after the Live Music Bill made it through its committee stage in the House of Lords.

Speaking in support of his own Bill, Lord Clement-Jones highlighted the ‘great encouragement’ it would give to young musicians ‘performing in all kinds of venues, who will be able to take advantage of these provisions.’

The Bill has just two readings left (usually carried out together) before it reaches the House of Commons.

Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) said:

‘With Lord Clement-Jones winning further support for his Bill the continued progress is fantastic news, and the Government’s continued support – given the concession made – is also welcome.

‘This Bill will provide real help to musicians and make it far easier to put on live performances. We now hope to see the Bill make rapid progress through parliament and if successful it will reverse much of the devastating impact of the 2003 Licensing Act.

Baroness Garden of Frognal re-iterated the Government’s support of the Bill in the Lords in light of a concession to change the time limit from midnight to 11pm and announced that the Government was ‘planning to consult shortly on wider reforms to live entertainment’.

Deborah Annetts added:

‘We welcome this news, and urge the Government to bring forward its planned consultation on the de-regulation of entertainment as swiftly as possible.’

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara backed the Bill on behalf of the Labour Party.