Monday, June 14, 2004

Yay for the global village

Just back from a long weekend in Denmark, celebrating our sixth wedding anniversary with friends in Aarhus. Tom's first job was in the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, back in the early 1980s. He still speaks the language fluently (incredible) and loves going back. It's a delightful place, pretty and friendly, gentle and fun to be in - and the northern light is sharp and silvery and marvellous, especially at this time of year. We spent yesterday celebrating with friends who are respectively a nurse (Danish), a microbiologist (Danish) and a radiologist (originally Canadian) - walking by the sea and enjoying a bottle or two of champagne in the afternoon on a deserted beach.

In this laid-back, international context, it was depressing to hear about the strides made by the UK Independence Party in the elections the other day. The world has become such a small place that you really can't turn the clock back and pretend that it's unnecessary to team up with anybody but your own little island and its island mentality. I feel very sorry for people who can't see past the end of their own noses. They don't know what they're missing.

In the musical sphere, we're better placed than most to appreciate the benefits of the increasingly international society. Tom's orchestra has recently appointed a Hungarian, a Chinese girl, a Spaniard, someone from Holland, a French violinist, a South African and several Russians. There are several Germans already, an Italian or two and a particularly charming and infamous Brazilian cellist who seems to get tickets for the finals of every World Cup. For Glyndebourne, take all of this, add singers and stir well. Everyone is pulling together towards the same end. Everyone has concerns in common and friends are made across every boundary. Hence boundaries cease to exist.

I'm losing track of the number of international couples that we know. My brother is about to marry an Italian. Our friend Paul Lewis, hotshot British pianist, has just married the Norwegian cellist of the Vertavo Quartet, Bjorg Vaernes - many congratulations to them!! We know couples who are French and American, Russian and Canadian, Tartar and Welsh. And countless others. That's one of the best things about the modern western world: this cultural exchange is endlessly stimulating.

As it happens, I love England. I am proud of our heritage in cathedrals, great houses, beautiful gardens, pretty villages, literature, certain kinds of music, cricket on the green etc etc. But, being privileged enough to live among music and musicians, I don't see any sign of the threat that so many people in this country think that Europe poses.

When Tom moved to Aarhus, he'd spent the past few years at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, living in a cramped bedsit where he had to put coins into a meter to get any heating. He practised all the time and lived on peanut butter sandwiches and orange juice. Manchester in those days was a pretty vile place, grimy and depressed and gloomy. Then he got his job in Aarhus and suddenly found himself in a clear-aired, friendly, clean environment with a thriving cafe society, an easy-going population, lots of bicycles and thousands of Danish blondes. He thought he'd died and gone to heaven.

ALSO - ARTICLE IN TODAY'S 'INDEPENDENT' by yrs truly, about Beloved Clara and the increasing spate of music & words projects going on. Link on the sidebar.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Epiphany time

Since my fellow music-bloggers are doing their musical epiphanies at the moment, I thought I'd do some too.

It's not easy, because I learned most of my music rather subconsciously. My father, who was a neuropathologist, lived for music when he wasn't at work and used to have BBC Radio 3 on all the time, from 7am onwards. So over breakfast before school I'd probably have absorbed the Dvorak Czech Suite, a Mozart concerto, a Haydn symphony, usually conducted by Dorati - ah, those were the days! - and a piece or two of Debussy or Saint-Saens. I've always been fortunate in having a good aural memory (though I'm fairly useless on visual imagination) so the BBC provided me with a basis for My Life Since Then that has proved more than a bit useful.

Dad also used to take me to the Conway Hall chamber music concerts on Sunday evenings, where I got to know the string quartet repertoire, plus various piano quintets, a trio or three and the Ravel Introduction and Allegro. The latter must have made a big impression because I have a vivid memory of watching Marisa Robles and being transfixed by the sounds she was conjuring out of the angelic contraption under her hands. I still adore the piece. The Conway Hall has a text on its proscenium arch that says TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE. Interesting contemplation material...

More vivid still, however, was something I once heard in the car coming home from the Conway Hall when I was eight. We'd come out from some string quartet performance, got in the car, Dad of course switched on R3 - and out poured the most astonishing sound. A soprano singing passionately in a weird language. An oboe; throbbing off-beat strings; and then a horn melody that transported me to a world I didn't know existed. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard, bar nothing, and I was left (so they told me) speechless.I already loved Tchaikovsky ballet music, but I'd never heard of Eugene Onegin. This was the Letter Scene. Now, however much I enjoy my French stuff, however far I travel to see Korngold's Die tote Stadt and however often I sing through the whole of The Magic Flute in my mind, there is still no opera dearer to me than Eugene Onegin.

I sometimes wonder what my father would think of Radio 3 today if he was still alive.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Pelleas premonitions

Attention everyone who wants to go to Glyndebourne: there are tickets =still available for Pelleas et Melisande. It's an extraordinary production with world-class singing by John Tomlinson et al and the LPO at its absolute finest under Louis Langree. And you can picnic in the interval. Book NOW - more info on the website, link on the sidebar.

What I want to know is why there are tickets. Usually you can get into Glyndebourne for neither love nor money. (Well, sometimes love, but not always - Tristan was chockablock last year and I only saw the dress rehearsal.) This year, Carmen and The Magic Flute are sold out. But not the Debussy. Nor, I believe, Jenufa or Rodelinda.

Pelleas is not easy listening. It's unbelievably beautiful, detailed, hypnotic, magical, but it's not strong on The Big Tune. It doesn't get played on Classic FM. Pelleas is like no other opera on earth, despite a few wisps of Tristan and Parsifal creeping in on occasion. It's haut-Symbolism, in which every image represents a range of unspoken allusions. That is partly why I love it so much: every time you hear it you can hear something new, something you didn't quite get a handle on before. Could it be that it is entirely lost on 85 per cent of Glyndebourne-goers?

In our consumer age, it often seems to me that people like to sit in an opera house and consume the opera. They pay their money and they take in the returns. Heaven forfend that they should do any spadework to make sure they get the most out of what they see. Why should anyone have to make an effort after paying £100 for a ticket? "I don't think the producer has read the synopsis," was one haughty comment I heard on the way out of the show the other day (Vick's circular flashback trick works wonders on Pelleas, but you can only see that if you have heard the word Symbolism before). I remember going round a spectacular Art Nouveau exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum a few years ago and hearing a woman complaining to her companion about the use of the word 'sensibility' in one of the commentaries on the wall. She didn't know what it meant - worse, she didn't see why she should.

With music education stripped to bare minimum, hundreds of TV channels offering nothing worth watching and, hovering over everything like great vultures, the mind-numbing curses of the Cool and the Correct, a masterpiece like Pelleas doesn't stand much chance. Cultural 'Sensibility' - that word one shouldn't use because someone mightn't know its meaning - is under a general anaesthetic. If I have the chance to see this production of Pelleas again, I shall do so - because God alone knows when there will be another opportunity. Are operas like this going to vanish from our stages because of audience indolence?

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Publishers be damned...

I've just been reading Alex Ross's article 'Listen to this' from The New Yorker, which you can find on his Blog. It's a superbly written, perceptive, spot-on critique of the concepts and preconceptions that are too often associated with the word 'classical'; and it serves to underline several gripes I have with the outside world's attitude to 'us', especially the attitude of publishers and bookshops.

As Alex points out, when people hear the word 'classical', they think 'dead'. Music is alive. Try telling this to the publishers of books on music. Browsing through the few remaining shelves in shops like Waterstones and Books Etc devoted to music - almost all have cut back to the bare minimum - I look at the offerings and wonder what planet these people are on. One noteworthy thing about Alex's aforementioned article is that it is so well written. There are not many writers on music with such a fine grasp of style. That's possibly why, when they exist, they get snapped up by a public that does have a hunger for intelligent writing about culture in general. Norman Lebrecht also springs to mind - even if what he says raises your blood pressure, the way he says it is so well-turned that some of us forgive him virtually anything.

Music begins where words end. Therefore expressing the essence of a musical experience in words is unlikely to be adequate. Usually it is rather worse. The bookshelves, such as they are, feature volumes intended for university libraries and perhaps the private collections of what we in Britain commonly call 'anoraks'. Publishers perceive a specialist market for books on music in which anything basically 'accessible' (awful word) or 'readable' is wide of the mark. At the opposite extreme, the number of books on classical music addressed in their titles to 'dummies' or suchlike is staggeringly large. Publishers seem to think that to want to read about music, you have either to be so intellectual that you can't bear to step outside your ivory tower, or alternatively that you regard yourself as thick. Most of us are neither.

Music books are segregated in the music shops like women in an orthodox shul. I dream of the day when my biography of Korngold will live on a shelf of mainstream biographies rubbing shoulders with Kafka and Kokoschka, and my Faure book will happily cohabit with tracts on Foucault and Flaubert. Composers have made as great a contribution to the history of culture as writers and artists, but are seen as something to be handled with kid gloves, graphs and Schenkerian analyses, kept well away from the superbug infections of the mainstream. Music is boxed out, away from literature, away from art, away from real life. (It is also boxed out of absolutely everything by lazy marketing and promotion departments...) This is not only ridiculous but also damaging.

About a year ago I made a little academic discovery... The full story will be coming out in The Strad later this year. All I can say for now is that this discovery has been lurking in the depths of fin-de-siecle Paris for more than a century, but has so far gone unremarked. Perhaps that is because music, art and literature tend to be studied in isolation from each other. If experts on certain writers also bothered to look at the lives of certain composers who were close to them, this would have been spotted decades ago. And if experts on composers looked in any detail at their contact with the writers in question, who knows what could turn up? About 110 years ago in Paris, these segregations were unheard-of. Chausson was friendly with the artist Odilon Redon. Faure married the daughter of a well-known sculptor. Pauline Viardot virtually lived with Ivan Turgenev, an opera libretto by whom her friend Brahms once rejected (!). Most of them met at each others' salons. I rather enjoy Schenkerian analysis on occasion, but what can it tell us about the way these circles of artists fed off each other's creativity and what cross-fertilisations this could have produced that we enjoy, unknowingly, today?

Here are a few recommendations of books on music that are well written, well researched, serious and still enjoyable to read:

Edward Elgar: a creative life, by Jerrold Northrop Moore

Beyond the Notes, by Susan Tomes (as mentioned the other day)

Parallels and Paradoxes, by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said

Wagner and Philosophy, by Bryan Magee

Tchaikovsky, by David Brown

The Maestro Myth, by Norman Lebrecht

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Fragile! [or Handel with care...]

Spare a thought for the box office staff and the organisers of the International Piano Series at the South Bank Centre as the news breaks this morning that Krystian Zimerman has cancelled his Royal Festival Hall recital tomorrow. This wasn't unexpected. Krystian is rather prone to lung infections and pneumonia and had to cancel an entire US tour last month; now apparently he's had a relapse.

When I was 15, the non-appearance of Krystian (then my hero, today, by fabulous chance, transformed into a truly exceptional friend and colleague) was enough to send me into the darkest of depressions for several weeks. Even now, it's a source of sorry disappointment. We all need something to look forward to through the daily grind, and a recital by a favourite musician is almost the equivalent, for concert-goers, of a longed-for summer holiday.

People make a huge investment in concert-going. We buy tickets way in advance. We plan evenings with friends, think about where to eat beforehand, how to get there (for Tom and me, this often involves standing on Mortlake station for ages waiting for trains that get cancelled at the last minute) and turning down every other possibility for that evening. I'm missing the London Philharmonic gala tomorrow night because nothing, not even my husband's orchestra with the wonderful 'Vladi' Jurowski conducting in the exquisite Guildhall with a swanky fundraising dinner afterwards to which I was invited as journalist, could keep me away from hearing Krystian playing the Chopin B flat minor sonata. Tant pis. I shall probably go to see the new Harry Potter movie instead.

The problem is the psychology of musical admiration, and it is not with our heroes but ourselves. It seems to us that musicians of Krystian's calibre have a superhuman ability, something godlike, something that lifts them out of the general mass of humanity onto another level - something that proves that humans can exist on that level, that we are not just consuming animals, that we can be something greater than the sum of our physical parts. By following in their angelic wake, we can pull our own level up a few notches. That's why we put them on pedestals.

Trouble is, in the end they're not angels; they are only human too. Sometimes they come tumbling off those pedestals and we're the ones who feel bruised when that happens. There's nothing worse than disillusionment with someone whose ability you've worshipped, rightly or wrongly. (I'm not referring to Krystian here, by the way, as he's the one person I've never been disillusioned with! He's just got bad lungs.) Maybe we expect too much of our artists, our exemplars, our role models. Or maybe we don't expect enough of ourselves? We turn them into gurus and expect their example to sort out our lives for us. It never works. In the end we can't sort out our lives by escaping into music or dreaming of a better existence in Planet Concert. We have to roll up our sleeves, plunge into the mud and do it ourselves.

How's that for a little profundity on a wet Tuesday morning?