Showing posts with label LPO. Show all posts
Showing posts with label LPO. Show all posts

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Shostakovich: a warning from history

Shostakovich in 1950
Photo: Deutsche Fotothek
I'm not sure that listening to a completely terrifying performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 was the best way to spend my birthday. Of course there was no way the LPO could have known, when they scheduled it, that there'd be a general election the next day. Suffice it to say that this piece is an hour-long tone poem depicting an eerie silence, a people on the march, a horrifying massacre, its tragic aftermath and a renewal of elemental yet hideous energy beyond.

It is supposedly the Russian revolution of 1905. It was actually written shortly after Russia crushed Hungary in 1956. Shostakovich is living on the edge here - how could anyone have believed his excuse for the piece? - but his warning comes to us loud and clear: it could happen then, it can happen now, it can happen again, anywhere. The impact, as brought to us yesterday by Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO, is more than shattering. Hear it on Radio 3 iPlayer.

Totalitarianism doesn't begin as totalitarianism. It starts with crackpot ideology that speaks to a sect of zealots. It may be idealistically founded, but it bears no relation to helping ordinary people live in peace. Its perpetrators are sometimes elected when ill-informed electorates decide they want a 'strong man' to lead them. Gradually the promulgators face challenges to their power, from the judiciary, the media and more. They start taking control of such organisations to ensure they get rid of those that disagree with them and would stop them. The process continues, small step by small step, and it ends with people on the streets and those to whom ideology is more important than human life (as it will be by then) crushing them. And killing them.

Take a look at the state of Britain today and then consider what will happen if we allow a gigantic drop in GDP, starting from what's already a pretty grim position - a wealthy country that's home to some of the poorest places in Europe.

Yesterday's concert set Shostakovich beside one of the weirder British piano concertos of the last hundred years: John Foulds' Dynamic Triptych, which was brilliantly performed by Peter Donohoe, whose heroic effort for it should really be called upon for more than one outing. It's another piece of the jagged puzzle that is the music of the late twenties and early thirties (written 1929, performed 1931); a craggy, individual voice rooted in the concertos of the past but transformed with a wholly personal take. Each movement is based on a different motivating idea, respectively mode, timbre and rhythm. The result is bizarre, puzzling but also haunting, leaving one wanting to hear it all again to grasp a little more of what is going on within it.

I am mesmerised by Foulds' life story, but suspect that his music will not travel especially well, so far does it sit up in the tree of individual ideology. One would love to think it could have a wider currency, but in terms of realpolitik, sadly I doubt it. (Read more about him here, in an article I wrote for the Independent 12 years ago, in the days when a national newspaper would still take an article this size about a maverick classical composer.) Ahead of his time he may have been; out on a limb, assuredly; but with hindsight he represents another kind of Englishness that is not often acknowledged these days: the eccentric individual, an independent thinker, a person with a different creative outlook that does not tally with any party line in their art. It will never be easy to be a Foulds, or to get to grips with his creations, but we need these people more than ever, and not only in music.

If Shostakovich brings us a warning, Foulds brings us an alternative - but one that may not catch on strongly enough for long enough to prevent the juggernaut heralded by the side-drum and crowned by the demoniac roar of the tam-tam.

Today, Thursday 12 December, please get out there and vote against the mendacious monomaniacs who have taken a wrecking ball of greed, cruelty and lies to Britain and will take a worse one if we give them the chance. If you have a vision of a country that is open-hearted, international, sensible, long-termist and responsible to its people, its partners and its world, today is the day to get the new-look fanatic-Brexit Tories gone forever. It may be our last chance.







Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Curveball

It's Groundhog Day: everyone is dissing the Proms. Every year the same thing happens: the niche interests complain that their particular Thing isn't there, or is not there enough, there aren't ever enough women composers or conductors or musical figureheads of colour, and there'll be a couple of not-strictly-classical concerts to which the reactionaries, er, react. There is a lot of standard fare from decent orchestras, with famous pieces; some see this as padding, others might recognise that tickets have to be sold now and then.

Dissing the Proms is a sort of annual tradition, like cheese-racing or dancing round the maypole. We don't wholly interrogate the deeper reasons for why we're doing it, or what the context really is, or what the realities might be of programming a magnificent summer of concerts that truly can please everybody (i.e., there goes another of those flying pigs over Kensington Gardens). The fact is that we simply don't know how lucky we are to have them. And in the meantime, our eye is off the ball. The ball is: what happens the rest of the year. Beside this, the Proms measure up very, very well.

Lili Boulanger: the only deceased woman composer being played by a top London orchestra next season
(Photo from Seattle Symphony Orchestra website)

Here's a bit of context by way of a curveball. I've just looked through next season's programmes for the LPO, Philharmonia  and LSO to see what they're doing, or not, in the department of female conductors and composers. (Disclaimer: I haven't been through the seasons of every single orchestra in the country because I don't have time and neither do you, and we already know about wonderful Mirga in Birmingham. I've chosen these three orchestras because they are the capital's chief musical flagships.)

The LPO has ONE (1) piece by a woman in the ENTIRETY of its London season 19-20. It is by Kaija Saariaho. They have TWO (2) female conductors - Marin Alsop and Susanna Mälkki.

The Philharmonia is doing very slightly better. It is having THREE (3) concerts featuring composers who happen to be female: Lili Boulanger, Helena Tulve and Augusta Read Thomas, with a whole programme of the Music of Today series devoted to the last of these. There are FOUR (4) female conductors: Elim Chan, Shi-Yeon Sung, Xian Zhang and Joana Carneiro. Lili Boulanger is the only deceased woman composer being played by a top London orchestra next season.

The LSO is including pieces by THREE (3) composers who are female: Emily Howard, Elizabeth Ogonek and Kaija Saariaho. Among conductors, they score more highly, with FIVE (5) - yes, that many. We encounter Nathalie Stutzman, Elim Chan, Karina Canellakis and Susanna Mälkki, plus Emmanuelle Haïm conducting a baroque chamber orchestra incarnation at Milton Court.

And believe it or not, this lamentable total from the lot of them is progress. I hate to say it, but had we not been making such a fuss these past years, even such extraordinarily pathetic paucity of recognition for the talents of musicians who happen to be women would not now be taking place at all. Beside this, the Proms look positively angelic.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Sibelius 2:


I have not even touched upon the matter of BAME representation. The LPO has Ravi Shankar's opera, which is nice, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason is playing Elgar with them. The LSO is having a Gospel concert and is also welcoming Wynton Marsalis. Otherwise: ?

Here's a little anecdote about unconscious bias. On Monday night I went to Chineke's concert for Stephen Lawrence Day. They played, among other things, the beautiful Elegy: In Memoriam Stephen Lawrence by the black British composer Philip Herbert, in which 18 string players each represent a year of the murdered teenager's life. It is profoundly moving and in terms of style sounds a little bit like Barber's Adagio, but a lot more like Vaughan Williams. And what is the unconscious bias? It is that this surprised me. I discovered that I had not expected it to sound so English. And I was not pleased with my own expectations. I learned something. The trouble with unconscious biases is that they are unconscious. You don't know they're happening to you until one of them trips you up. I thought I was aware, or "woke" or whatever you want to call it. Was I heck. If this can happen to me, it can happen to you too, and it needs to happen to some musical decision-makers who were not at this concert.

Here's a performance of it from one of their earlier concerts:



The LPO and Philharmonia are both due new principal conductors in the early years of the next decade when their admirable, long-serving ones - Vladimir Jurowski and Esa-Pekka Salonen - move on to pastures new. These matters depend on circumstance, availability, money and much else. We'll all have our own views on who it ought to be. I can think of at least one person who should be under consideration, indeed who should be pursued around the world from Helsinki to California until she is persuaded. I have not the slightest idea who will actually be chosen and I am not party to any discussions at either orchestra. However, I am half tempted to go to a bookmaker's and put money on at least one of these two high-profile appointments being a British man (white) educated at public school and Cambridge. This is not a criticism per se, because he might be musically excellent, he might a totally lovely person whom everyone there adores, he might be an eloquent figurehead for the organisation and in the grand scheme of things he might indeed be a superb appointment. But why should it be so simple to guess? It's high time our orchestras started to be at least a little bit braver.

Avril Coleridge-Taylor
(photo from Wikipedia)

If the Proms can programme ten female historical composers, and moreover the splendid Chineke can go to the trouble of unearthing music by Avril Coleridge-Taylor (daughter of Samuel) and finding that it is really, really good (which it is - they played her Sussex Landscapes on Monday and it was wonderful, gorgeously orchestrated, rather Pucciniesque), then you'd think the bigger, better resourced orchestras could do likewise. And if it is still impossible for one of the UK capital's top orchestras to consider appointing a woman as principal conductor, then it's time for some very serious thought about who is doing what, how and why.

News came through recently from the ACE that they are planning to fund not quality, but relevance. Not the greatest prospect, admittedly - relevant to what, and for whom, and who decides? - but this may in the end force the issue. And the issue has to be forced, or else it will never move at all.







Friday, August 25, 2017

A steamy date in Snape

Spent most of yesterday driving to and from Aldeburgh with the OH to experience a very special night of Strauss and Elgar at the Snape Proms. Renée Fleming sang the Strauss Four Last Songs and the programme was topped and tailed with his Till Eulenspiegel and Elgar's Symphony No.1. On the platform was a familiar presence who's nevertheless unusual in the context of this orchestra. It wasn't his first concert with them by a long chalk, but the first in a little while. So, with apologies to The Guardian's 'Blind Date', here's what happened when Ed Gardner met the LPO.

You'd never think that just behind you is one of the best concert halls in the country

What were they hoping for?
A dynamic partnership of orchestra and conductor in which sympathy is found, sparks can fly and the audience can get really excited about the music. At least, that's usually what they want. 

What did they talk about?
The end of days, intentionally or not. Poor Till is hanged at the end of his Strauss tone poem (I must look up what he's supposed to have done to deserve it - maybe he spoke out about politics...). The Four Last Songs are, well, the four last songs, ending implicitly with the souls of Richard and Pauline rising towards heaven in the form of larks; and Elgar, in his Symphony No.1, takes an eloquent "idée fixe" melody with regular, walking-type accompaniment and then, to use a modern-day trendy word, 'disrupts' it in almost every way conceivable in England in 1908. It was hard not to read the second movement as a macabre, scherzoid battle scene. The final pages, in which the theme returns surrounded by a great musical firework display, seemed simultaneously a celebration and a fearfully pertinent farewell to a vanishing era.

Rehearsal in Snape Maltings
Renée Fleming's performance of the Four Last Songs, and the encores Cäcilie and Morgen, offered a raw revelation of innermost heart, at times almost spoken more than sung; however quiet she goes, her voice still shimmers through the music fabric as only hers can, drawing us in towards her and softly wringing us out. Explaining the encores, she noted that the two they had chosen were early works dating from around the time of Strauss's marriage, and adding: "I just want to say: thank God he married a soprano..."

Any awkward moments?
If so, very few and well masked. 

Good podium manner?
Splendid. Gardner is debonair, extrovert, charismatic, with plenty of audience appeal. For the orchestra, one has the impression he seems clear, positive and cogent, wearing his expertise lightly.

Best things about the meeting?
The freshness of it. Imagine a spouse who is used to - and loves - long, deep, intense conversations, in which each word is controlled with immense precision and the underlying philosophy must be considered at every moment...suddenly taking a walk with someone who laces up his boots, links his arm through hers and points out the dramas among passers by, the green parrots flying about and the sun sparkling on the water and says "great, so what do you want for lunch?"

Gardner is a splendid storyteller, pacing the narrative and sustaining tension over long expanses of music with vivid colour and detail around a rock-solid core. 

In addition, it was a massive treat to hear the home band in the Aldeburgh acoustic, which is warm and flattering, bloomy and gorgeous.

Would you send your friends to hear them?
Heavens, yes.

Describe the meeting in three words.
Energetic, inspiring, promising.

What do you think they made of each other?
Very different from one another, but they seemed keen to adapt, to find common ground and to, er, make beautiful music together.

Might they go on somewhere?
They might. We'll have to see.

And...did they kiss?
Definitely having a good old flirt. 

If you could change one thing about the evening, what would it be?
Distance. It's a long way to Aldeburgh and we didn't get home til nearly 2am. 

Marks out of 10?
Eight.

Might they meet again?
I reckon so.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Will power!



Happy Shakespeare's Birthday, everyone! 

There are Shakespeare concerts absolutely everywhere tonight and I'm off to do a pre-concert talk for the one at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, where Lahav Shani - the young conductor who won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition the time I went to watch it in Bamberg - is at the helm for the CBSO's one. The programme involves three very different works based on the same Shakespeare play: Romeo and Juliet. We'll be looking at how Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Bernstein all made this drama their own, each staying true to the spirit of Shakespeare as they viewed him, yet imbuing the story with their own time, place and personality. The talk is at 5.45pm - please note, half an hour earlier than usual! - and the concert starts at 7pm. Info and booking here. Do come along.

I am quite sorry not to be hearing the LPO's Shakespeare extravaganza today, though. They're doing everything from A Midsummer Night's Dream to Henry V and finishing with the end of Falstaff, and they've got Simon Callow and an amazing line-up of singers including Toby Spence and Kate Royal. Vladimir Jurowski conducts. Read Vlad's Shakespearean insights here.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Pop goes the Rachmaninov

How do you fill a large hall for 20th-century repertoire? Play Rachmaninov. Composers who lived through these turbulent and violent times but composed in their own styles, rooted in romanticism or not, rather than the supposedly prevailing avant-garde, should be indivisible from our complete artistic picture of their age. Yet it's taken a startling amount of hindsight to reach the idea that someone who died in the 1940s is not "really 19th-century". (Sergei Rachmaninov: 1873-1943.)

These composers - Strauss, Rachmaninov, Korngold, et al - were as much of their specific era in their own ways as anyone else. Well done to The Rest is Noise for taking such a radical step - which should have been obvious years ago, but, well, you know how it goes in this funny little world...

Tonight at the RFH it's Sergei's turn. The fabulous Simon Trpceski plays the Third Piano Concerto and the LPO top it off with the Second Symphony. Yannick Nezet-Seguin is sadly off sick, but Mikhail Agrest has stepped in to save the day. Oh, and it's full (might be some returns, though, from Yannick fans). Yes, 20th-century music is popular when it's allowed in from the cold.

The fact that Rachmaninov is a man for more recent years is all too obvious...

Brief Encounter, 1945


Eric Carmen, 'All By Myself', 1975


Dana, 'Never Gonna Fall In Love Again', 1976


It's also true that the greatest music has something indescructible about it. Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Chopin are just a few of the other towering figures whose works have been set, reset, ripped off, shredded and otherwise bowdlerised, and still survive and often sound as good as ever. That puts Rachmaninov in excellent company.

Try Chopin. Once a Parisian sophisticate, always a Parisian sophisticate.

Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin, 'Jane B', 1969



Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The rest is a lot of noise



"Join us to explore how war, race, sex and politics shaped 

the most important music of the 20th century"!


I've just been to the Southbank Centre to see the unveiling of The Rest is Noise festival: a jamboree to last right the way through 2013, inspired, of course, by Alex Ross's book of the same title. It is a complete embracing of the world of 20th-century music and the way it interacted with the politics, wars, science, arts, literature - indeed the total history of its time. And it's a magnificent effort pulling together the Southbank, BBC4, Radio 3, the Open University, various digital platforms and a lot of very incredible music and musicians.

You have to come to London for this. Perhaps such a festival could happen in New York, but in few other cities of the world; what a celebration of creativity, collaboration, artistic quality, storytelling and, hopefully, transformation we can expect. It strikes me - having spent much time this year in Switzerland and Austria - that perhaps one needs an element of financial unease to become truly creative (not too much, mind - just enough...). If the universe has provided excess security, there's no need to do anything half so exciting and you can end up as half asleep as the inhabitants of the hotel in which my jacket caught fire the other day.

If The Rest is Noise can turn around the fortunes of 20th-century music and let people listen to it with fresh ears, with new understanding thanks to the provision of vital context, and cleansed of prejudice, preconception and pernicious agendas, it will have made a major contribution to the transformation of modern-day culture and how it is perceived. As Jude Kelly explained, we need to put classical music at the heart of contemporary thinking about how we reflect our world and our place in it.

At the launch, Vladimir Jurowski spoke of breaking down the "cults" of the past and putting living, breathing music of our time onto the stage. That will be a tall order in Verdi and Wagner year (they can probably get away with it where Britten is concerned), but it's an admirable aim. You have to think big in this business, or you never get off the ground. You'd remain stultified by ancient anniversaries instead. Oh, wait...

Perhaps the most exciting thing of all, though, is that the London Philharmonic Orchestra is devoting its entire RFH concert schedule throughout 2013 to this festival. A little over a year ago, they saw fit to declare, er, that "AT THE LPO, MUSIC AND POLITICS DON'T MIX". I look forward to watching them spend a whole year proving themselves wrong.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Messing about in boats...

I don't think it was really meant to be funny. But I found myself glued to the webcast of yesterday's Diamond Jubilee River Pageant in the hope that someone, sometime, might bring on Captain Mainwearing and reveal the whole thing to be an episode of Dad's Army.

Like when the royal barge was turning round, just that wee bit weirdly, and nobody on the announcing panel seemed very sure whether or not it was meant to be doing what it was doing - "It's going sideways! Isn't that amazing!" Or when Tower Bridge nearly didn't do its thang in time (we do love Last Minute here). And a phalanx of increasingly desperate and chilled (in the wrong way) BBC reporters uttered the phrase "The rain can't dampen the spirits" so often that, had this indeed been a comedy script, it would have signalled a character's self-delusion that enough repetitions make something true. Now, I'm sure plenty of people indeed didn't mind - we're a tough nation, aren't we. But at the end, according to Channel 4 News, docking priority was given to the open boats with suspected hypothermia sufferers on board.

Meanwhile the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are getting on in years, but stood on their freezing barge throughout - never have the words "God Save the Queen" seemed so appropriate. Someone needed to save her, fast. Or at least take her a nice cup of tea.

June is the UK's monsoon season. We all know this. We just don't want to admit it. But if you plan a big outdoor event, which requires young singers to stand on the roof of a boat belting into microphones, it is surely your responsibility at least to let them borrow a brolly? The poor choir from the RCM gave Land of Hope and Glory everything they'd got, but they were absolutely sodding drenched. The people in the 1m-strong crowd lining the riverbanks had a choice: to be there or not to be there (incidentally, I know people who wanted to be there and tried to go, only to be told by the police that they might as well go home!). But the performers didn't.

The LPO-on-Thames was dry indoors, but I'm not sure about the musicians on other boats because we saw zippity-plunk of them on the TV. You know that joke about the holidaymakers at dinner? "This food is terrible," says one. The reply: "Yes - and such small portions." So, the BBC audience heard a bit of the Dambusters March while a chap from Horrible Histories rabbited through some  shtick. And we caught a glimpse of LPO-o-T, while the royals jigged about to the Henry Wood Sea Shanty piece. Just long enough for me to recognise the leader of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra at its helm, and for BBC News to say it was the LSO, and for @Queen_UK to credit the RPO, and for Norman Lebrecht to reveal on Twitter that it's looking for a new PR...

For about four seconds, earlier, a faint echo of Water Music emerged as the Academy of Ancient Music sailed by. The Royal Marines' brass band was slightly more audible - that's the nature of trumpets. Yet, dear readers, I'd tuned in wanting to hear the specially written new compositions by a raft (so to speak) of extremely fine British women composers - among them Debbie Wiseman, Rachel Portman and Jocelyn Pook - yet the BBC's TV coverage conveyed not a single note of them. Why not? Is contemporary music deemed too difficult for us poor uneducated general public to appreciate, or what? A desultory tweet from one of their performers went "Just spent 2 hours playing them and getting soaked" - followed by a plea of: "Could you really not hear any music?"

No, my friend. Not a bloomin' squeak. Only a special performance by a choir of sailors of a sea-shanty that said they were heading for South Australia, which seemed like rather a good idea.

But this is Britain. And what a day it was. Extraordinary. Unforgettable. Ever so British. World records were set. Boats were well messed about in. It was wonderful entertainment, just maybe not in quite the intended manner. I'm wondering who will be the first media person to crack, call a spade a spade and admit that it was a washout. Naturally, to misquote Oscar Wilde, I'm happy to say that I have never seen a spade.

[Photo: Press Association]