Showing posts with label Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. Show all posts

Friday, August 26, 2016

Not much in praise of exams

There's been a little flurry of attention towards music exams following an article by the excellent Rosie Millard about the pride and joy that success in them has brought to her kids - and countless others all around the world (the article is entitled somewhat misleadingly, 'Why I'm proud to be a pushy music parent').

A badge makes a nice post-exam present. (pic: zazzle.co.uk)
There's a huge sense of satisfaction, she explains. She took Grade V piano herself, learned the necessary pieces for two years, had a "horrendous experience" on the day and passed. The system is "a gold standard which everyone understands" and a "useful byword to sling around CVs..." It shows you have guts, courage, patience, application. And you feel proud of yourself. Great. What's not to like?

The day that article came out, we went to a pianist friend's place to hear her perform Bach for a small audience including two elderly Holocaust survivors. Our friend is one of London's more magical musicians and she played us a selection of JSB's less often-programmed music - Two-Part Inventions, Three-Part Sinfonias, some Capriccios (the one graphically depicting the departure of a beloved brother is a delight!) and more. But in two instances - the D minor Invention and the B minor Sinfonia - within two notes I felt a chill descend on my shoulders. Images assaulted me: Oh My God, That One.

I did the D minor Invention for goodness knows which exam, when I was I forget how young. The B minor Sinfonia was a set piece for Grade VII when I was 14. And the struggles came straight back. I worked on that bit for weeks and months. It was terrifying. I didn't know what the flippin'heck to do with the music and I didn't like it very much. You need fast fingers that aren't sweating and shaking, a light touch, preferably not too much pedal. You need to understand Bach's dance rhythms, his own instrument, his glittery, humorous flair. I don't think I'd ever heard of any of them at that age.

Glenn Gould plays the B minor Sinfonia. What a mean thing to set for Grade VII!



Exams? I was terrified. I didn't know what the piano was going to do to me (the keys are usually sticky and sweaty from all the other terrified students' fingers before you). You're shoved through the process as fast as humanly possible, because there's a time limit and a lot of kids waiting their turn outside in the waiting room, pasty-faced and nauseous.

None of that has the first thing to do with making music, enjoying music, understanding it, taking in the spirit-food with which it provides us. It's all about building up the CV, same as any exam. And 35 years later, the music is still laden with the ghastly associations of that miserable day: warming up from the chilly corridors by soaking your hands in a basin of hot water in the ladies' loos, simply counting the minutes until the whole thing will be over and you get given a nice treat of tea and cake as your reward (or I did - I was lucky).

Our friend plays Bach as if it's music to which angels dance. Among the guests were a sparky and elegant woman in her eighties, born in Hungary, who survived Bergen-Belsen, and a retired doctor of similar vintage who was deported from Amsterdam, where he'd lived a few blocks away from Anne Frank, at the age of five. He plays a little and has a clavichord at home. He and I followed the score of the Inventions together until he decided to stop and listen only, since there were tears in his eyes.

Of course, there's room for music to do both these things: to bring CV enhancement and "life skills" and to offer spiritual sustenance and oneness with the universe. That's an amazing thing about music: it's like a tree, which can pump out oxygen that we breathe, grow fruit that we eat, burn to help us keep warm, make furniture that we can sit on, make a violin that we can play, build a house or a ship, be carved to make a beautiful work of art.

Not enough of us, though, have the chance to realise that there is more to music than horrible experiences in exams. They should never be the be-all and end-all, but it worries me that perhaps, to many modern families, they become so, and they could actually put the kids off music. After all, if your first experiences of performing are in an exam situation, those associations might stay with you and they can be awfully difficult to shake off. You're ingrained to feel you are being judged from the start, not sharing music with other human beings.

Another downside is that they hold people back. You become psychologically tied to your level. "Oh, I can't play that - it's Grade VIII and I'm only Grade V." I remember being stuck with Grade VI for two years because for some reason my entry forms didn't arrive when they were meant to, so it had to be put back, but the syllabus changed, I had to learn the new set pieces and so forth. And you needed Grade VI for A level, I think, so I had to do it. When I could have just said "what the heck", and moved on to something more challenging, and maybe progressed faster.

Like various other great Victorian inventions (the first syllabus was developed in 1890) this system was possibly designed via a mindset that liked to keep people neatly in their place, like kitchen utensils. I once interviewed a quartet leader who'd been teaching the Sistema kids in Venezuela; we'd all been marvelling at the joy and enthusiasm of the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra. What do those kids have that we don't, I asked. "They don't do graded music exams," my violinist growled. "Nobody tells them they can't do this or that piece because they're only Grade IV."

The Simón Bolivár Youth Orchestra in 2007. I know it's fashionable to denigrate El Sistema these days, because of the appalling conditions of life in Venezuela, but I don't think they'd have been playing like this at the Proms if they'd been stuck shivering in a corridor waiting to do their Grade V.


I don't know many professional musicians who went through the grade exams. If they're going to make a career, they'll probably have exceeded Grade VIII by the age of 12 in any case.

So do the grades, by all means, but don't forget about making music. If your children are tackling these exams, invent ways for them to practise performing for fun, with other kids, with ice cream and balloons, with a celebratory atmosphere. Take them to fun and social musical events - kids' operas, youth orchestra concerts, holiday courses. Let music-making be a natural and integral part of life, about giving, about sharing an enthusiasm, something to look forward to, something to love. If the exam associations - being judged, being frightened, longing for it to be over - can stay with you for decades, so can the joy of that other way forward.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Several Marias, reimagined...

Last Sunday I got up at 4am to travel to Stansted Airport on the far north-east opposite end of not-really-London, thence to fly on our beloved institution of Ryanair to a wet, chilly, Sunday-sleepy Austrian town full of images of its most famous son, one WA Mozart, to meet one of the world's most famous mezzo-sopranos and hear her sing the role of Maria in West Side Story (different from that august town's more usual Maria, on the Sound of Music hillsides), accompanied by the Simon Bolivár Orchestra and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel: a dazzling show, full of verve and passion, all about "juvenile delinquency" in 1950s New York, attended chiefly by those who could afford tickets that make Glyndebourne look a snip at £300 (top price for Meistersinger).

Cecilia Bartoli as Maria 1 © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

A long sentence, that. Nevertheless, there's something magic about Cecilia Bartoli. Every time she began to sing I found myself in tears, and not only because I was knackered. It's possible to pick holes, if you want to: her vibrato is large and fast, she was performing the role from the sidelines as Maria's older self (Bartoli is 50 this year, Maria is 16) looking back at her memories while a younger actress played 'Maria 2' and a certain amount of disbelief had to be suspended, not least because Tony - the otherwise excellent tenor Norman Reinhardt - was not similarly doubled and looked more like Maria 2's dad. Bartoli was therefore obliged to sing duets and ensemble numbers from far-distant parts of George Tsypin's vast, multilevel set and it is much to her credit and Dudamel's that this was pulled off with seamless ensemble. In the end, she has a knack for letting her sound strike us straight in the gut, as if her entire heart is given in the voice, and it grabs and twists you and wrings you out, no matter what your mind says. If you go to this show, do not wear mascara.

Predictably the whole thing has been panned elsewhere, but musically that judgment would seem unfair. Yes, it's miked. It's a musical; it's supposed to be miked. Someone complained that the words were unintelligible, but I could hear everything clear as day; the New York 1950s street-speak, though, is more than a little dated and may seem as Martian to today's youth as the 2016 equivalent does to those who share a ball-park vintage with Maria 1. Meanwhile, all plaudits to the magnificent Karen Olivo as a smoky-voiced Anita, electric physicality from the boys in striking new choreography by Liam Steel, and the Sharks girls who nearly stole the whole show with their sizzling "America".

The company on stage. © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

Above all, the white-hot orchestra was the star of the day - they can probably play that "Mambo" standing on their heads by now, as it's become almost a signature piece for them, but Bernstein's score deserves luxury treatment (one can't help cringing when hearing it delivered by a tiny pit band in West End standard mode): drafting them in was one of Bartoli's most inspired ideas. She is the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival - a short, Maytime relation of the giant summer shebang - and for Shakespeare anniversary year she filled it with works inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Incidentally, Norman Reinhardt is not related to Max Reinhardt, the summer festival's founder.

Verdict: moved to tears despite a flawed concept. But what's the real problem with that concept?

The director Philip Wm. McKinley came up with the notion of two Marias after wondering what becomes of Maria after the show ends. Unlike Shakespeare's Juliet, she does not die, but delivers a blistering speech over Tony's body that proves the futility of this cycle of violence that has taught her how to hate. Unfortunately, according to this reimagining, what happened next is that she went on working in the wedding dress shop, became its manager, never married, never stopped missing Tony - and now throws herself under a train, after which her soul and his are reunited in the Felsenreitschüle stratospheres.

Oh, come on! Maria is way too clever and spirited for that. Has she learned nothing from losing Tony? Of course she has. She has learned that hatred is terrible and life is short. Instead of mouldering away, would she not be spurred to devote herself to stopping the violence she could not prevent as a young girl?

She mourns Tony, of course. But let's remember, she's only known him for two days. She saves hard, works nights and sets up a youth support centre on the Upper West Side. She goes into gangland and recruits those affected by violence and trains them to work with their own communities to stop the killing. She cares for the frightened, lost youngsters as she would for her own children. She has quite a voice, and she learns how to inspire people with the power of her orations. She galvanises New York with her charisma and determination. She is elected mayor of New York City. And then she becomes the first woman president of the USA, long before Hillary Clinton. "Somewhere" can become her great, idealistic, political anthem. "We'll find a new way of living" is her campaign slogan.

That would be our Maria. That could be our Cecilia, if she were given a chance.

Bartoli interview to follow in due course.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Trouble with Sponsorship

More people these days are making their feelings known about where sport and the arts get their necessary lucre. And it's not a moment too soon. But where do we go from here?

Mark Rylance, probably today's finest Shakespearean actor, appeared the other day on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show (catch it here for the rest of the week) and didn't mince his words about certain fast-food chains that are sponsoring the Olympics and building their largest-ever outlets on location in East London. It shouldn't be allowed, he insisted.

As the Olympics approach, more and more Londoners are starting to find the surrounding morass cringeworthy: big money, black markets, shuddery transport, the alleged attempt not to remunerate performing musicians, and so on. Junk food is not the jewel in the crown. It's the nail in the coffin. 

After tweeting about Mark Rylance, I found I'd acquired a new Twitter follower called BP Or Not BP. "We are the Reclaim Shakespeare Company," says its mission statement. "We cometh to rescue the RSC from the slings and arrows of outrageous BP." And considerable attention is also being drawn to the involvement of the oil industry with fine art.

I recently went to hear the Simon Bolivár Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel at the Royal Festival Hall, playing the Beethoven 'Eroica' Symphony. As the Venezuelan musicians took their places, a woman in the audience began shouting. I couldn't see her or hear the details of what she was yelling about; the assumption that it must be a human rights issue about Chavez’s government didn't seem unreasonable. But then, briefly, a banner the size of a tea-towel became visible and made clear that her protest was environmental, directed not at the performers, but against the sponsors of the series in which they appeared, which goes by the title Shell Classic International.

Only a couple of people appeared to be involved; they were quickly booed down and all was peaceful thereafter. A few days later, at an opera, I found myself surrounded by big-money types sporting interesting languages, sharp suits and trophy wives. Their exceedingly powerful company was sponsoring the event. It has a somewhat mixed history regarding both the environment and politics, but here there were no protests. Indeed, the company's personnel seemed to account for most of the audience.

Government subsidy is reducing. The latest dollop of extra money from ACE, 'Catalyst Arts', has been awarded to various entities - the Wigmore Hall and some top orchestras among them - on condition that they raise private funds themselves to match the amount. Arts companies, as well as sporting events, must court private sponsorship more actively than ever before. And sponsors with the inclination and spare dosh to invest in the arts are not as plentiful as they might have been five or six years ago.

I don't need to give you a run-down here about banking and LIBOR, or environmental disasters, or how smoking kills people, or the connections between the arms trade, organised crime and blood diamonds, and so forth. You can find it all with a few judicious Googles. Scratch away at the paintwork of many big events and you might well discover something lurking beneath that could justify unfurling a tea-towel. 

Now, there are wonderful people who practise philanthropy on a daily basis; admirable individuals who, having made money through hard graft, are devoting the fruits of their labours to supporting the arts that they love - for example, by helping young musicians, sponsoring recordings and financing good instruments. This needs real encouragement. No company brand is involved, no subliminal message designed to implant the idea that maybe if you eat this, you'll be able to do that.
 
But beyond that, arts organisations, along with international sporting fixtures, are sometimes having to cosy up to people they might rather not. They do have to be cosied up to. They have to be wined and dined and played to and publicly thanked. Sometimes they become power-hungry. The worst scenarios involve the whitewashing of public images and the cleansing of charred souls. 

Arts audiences - the ordinary ones who'd like to buy tickets to see and hear something inspiring – are people who care about Shakespeare and Mozart and talented kids, and they're likely to care about the environment, human rights and good health as well. With issues as high-profile as the Olympics and that recent Formula One event to prove the problems loud and clear, more are waking up. Will they begin to vote with their tickets? I'm starting to wonder.

If an organisation can please either its natural audience or its sponsors, but not both, chances are they'll plump for the sponsors every time. Are we to end up with a state of affairs in which our arts organisations are mere playthings for the super-rich? 

The arts need big money. The audience wants good ethics. Where do we go from here? Answers on a postcard, please.  

Meanwhile, a good proportion of the shoppers in our local supermarket are now so fat that they can only waddle. It couldn't be more obvious that Mark Rylance is right. 

UPDATE: LondonJazz has forwarded this story from Simon Tait's Arts Industry newsletter, describing the way that Jeremy Hunt is pushing the sponsorship agenda and pulling state support back. Look out for this bit, with JH saying “I hope the state will continue to be able to support the arts” - implying for the first time from him that it might not – and admitting in his next sentence that “the state has become a less reliable partner” in arts funding. The fear of the likes of Nick Serota is that it is about to become even less reliable, bringing forward the Comprehensive Spending Review a year to this autumn and piling still more cuts on the arts. http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=a11ee4dbf1f30d899385efb31&id=6d0bda3e74&e=d8f9c6cad9

Monday, August 08, 2011

Happy Monday



"When 5000 people pay to listen to Bach on a solo violin, there's hope for Western civilisation," says The Times. My colleague Ed Seckerson at the Indy says it was 6000 people, so the news is perhaps even better. Either way, bravo Nigel Kennedy. The markets are in turmoil, people have been looting in Tottenham, Enfield and Brixton, but over at the RAH, or in front of our own radios, we're listening to the Proms and feeling lucky to be alive.

Honest to goodness, guv, I really believe the world would be a better place if we could all spend more time making or listening to great music and less time on greed, envy, accumulation, materialism and...oh well. It's worth saying now and then, even if only one person takes it on board.

How anybody could have failed to take the lessons of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra on board with that Mahler 2 on Friday is beyond me (pictured left: the queue at 1pm). Music for all. Music as the resurrection of hope (to quote Gustavo's words to me). I went to the rehearsal and sat mesmerised by them - these guys give everything. So, too, did the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, so you don't have to be Venezuelan... The churlish have been out in force, predictably, carping on about tempi being too slow, edges being too rough, and so on. There's still an element in British life that loathes anything too successful. Most of us saw past that to the essence of the event, and took it all to our hearts, where it belongs. The point of this Prom was not to offer benchmark Mahler to compete against the recordings of Tennstedt, Bernstein et al. What had to be definitive was the honesty and passionate nature of the music-making, the symbol, the life-affirming pulling-together of it all. Yes, it was the event that came first, and there is nothing wrong with that - not when it's an event you'll remember until your last breath. If every concert could be an event on such a scale, nobody would ever have talked of classical music 'dying', because it couldn't be clearer that that is not true, never was and certainly won't be as long as these guys are around.

Hope resurrected? You bet. Besides, give Gustavo another ten or 15 years and he could potentially grow to be a figure comparable to Bernstein. I can't think of another conductor working today who has quite that type of energy. It's easy to forget that he's only 30 as he is so much a part of the musical landscape at present. Watch that space. (Right: The Dude in rehearsal, flanked by Miah Persson and Anna Larsson, and in discussion with assistant.)

It's been one thing after another at the Proms, and yesterday I caught up not only with the Mahler but also with the National Youth Orchestra with Benjamin Grosvenor and Vlad, plus Nigel's very late-night Bach. Benjamin played the Britten Concerto - a terrific piece and much underrated. It's very much of its 1930s day, a British cousin to Bartok and Prokofiev, and Benjamin's coolly ironic eye and deft, light-sprung touch suited it to a T. Vlad wrought dynamic stuff from the orchestra, too - they're not the Bolivars, but they're the creme-de-la-creme of what young British musicians can be. And full marks to everyone for bringing Gabriel Prokofiev mainstream, putting his Concerto for Orchestra and Turntables centre stage in the Royal Albert Hall. Sergey's grandson may have 'Nonclassical' as his brand-name, but the piece, even with all its 21st-century irony, humour and imagination, still reminded us at times of The Rite of Spring. Character, precision and charm were everywhere; and the Radio 3 announcer's apparent bemusement about the whole spectacle had a type of charm all its own. He even considered DJ Switch's light-blue tee-shirt worth remarking upon.

I missed Saturday evening in London because I went to work with Tomcat. Which means I cried my eyes out over Rusalka. Watch out for the marvellous Dina Kuznetsova (left), a big Russian voice with a great heart to match, her every phrase serving Rusalka's searing emotional journey. Melly Still's production is magical - a timeless fairy-tale taken on its own terms, mildly modernised and exquisitely imagined. We know the Freudian ins and outs of the story's psychological implications well enough these days to add our own interpretation, if desired - it's refreshing that directors need no longer bash us over the head with it, and we can enjoy Dvorak's folksy joys and quasi-Wagnerian ventures with a view to match.

And Nigel? He's still working his own brand of magic; and it's as irresistible as ever because beneath the famous image is a passionate and phenomenally accomplished musician. He has not only magic, but the staying power that comes from true underlying solidity. Others may try, but there's still only one Nigel.

Friday, August 05, 2011

COMETH THE HOUR, COMETH THE DUDE



Here is my exclusive interview with Gustavo Dudamel for today's Independent - the interview that most of the music business said I'd never get in a blue moon.

"I think we have to make everyone understand that it's important to have a future for the people. It's important to give the best level of art, the best level of culture and the best level of music to ALL the people, not only to one part of the community. This is the message of El Sistema..." 

He and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra are at the Proms tonight doing Mahler's Second Symphony. "Resurrection is happening every day," he says. "It's the resurrection of hope."


Remember my Fred & Ginger clip the other day? This is what it was all about... "They laughed at me, wanting The Dude, said I was reaching for the moon...But ah, he came through - now they'll have to change their tune..." 


Here's what happened last time they came to the Proms. You've seen it before. See it again. If you can't get to the show tonight, it's live on BBC Radio 3 as usual and on TV tomorrow.