Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Knockout

Went to the dress rehearsal of Jenufa at Glyndebourne yesterday. Dress rehearsals are for invited audiences of company family & friends and orchestra family is often seated in the front row of the stalls. Therefore I got the full knockout impact of what must be one of the most powerful, horrifying and inspiring operas in the whole repertoire. It is an emotional roller-coaster second to none, with a libretto so fine that, enhanced by this marvellous Lehnhoff production, all the violence and misery is entirely believable. By the end I felt as if I'd been hit by a truck. I can think of few other works quite as upsetting as Jenufa, other than the Mahler Kindertotenlieder, which I now refuse ever to attend because I am so gutted by it.

Nor was there a single weak link in the performance - and this was just the dress rehearsal. Marcus Stenz makes his Glyndebourne debut in the pit - he told me it's not only his first Glyndebourne but his first Jenufa too. It's a huge achievement and I'm sure he'll be back for more. Orla Boylan is enchanting and convincing as Jenufa, a bright girl horribly betrayed by those closest to her; Kathryn Harries as Kostelnicka managed to make this monstrous woman completely human, showing that she acts out of love for her step-daughter and genuinely believes she is doing the right thing until the guilt drives her mad. The men are excellent, the mayor looks like Alf Garnett and the leader of the orchestra, Pieter Schoeman, plays his big Act 2 solo with a beauty and intensity that wouldn't disgrace Pinchas Zukerman.

I adore Janacek but don't know nearly enough about him. That has to change, because this evening begged one question: what on earth drives someone to create an opera like this? Time for a trip to the library.

Unconnected note for UK readers: get The Independent tomorrow... and if you're overseas, have a look on-line after lunch UK time.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Gillinson goes west

Blimey, this really is news.

Clive Gillinson is leaving the LSO and is going to be head of Carnegie Hall

Clive Gillinson has run the LSO for yonks. So why exactly is he leaving now? Of course Carnegie is the tops and you can't blame anyone for jumping at that particular opportunity. But it does feel ironic, since the LSO, the most moneyed orchestra in Britain, hasn't been in such great financial shape recently thanks to the costs of building St Luke's (education/rehearsal centre in City church).

As a majority of my readers seem to be overseas, I should point out that in dear Little Britain, it is almost impossible for any arts organisation to get any government money for anything unless it's seen to be doing Something Socially Useful. An extreme example would be that orchestras wanting to put on Mahler 9 with a world-class maestro will only get any money towards that if they are also teaching Newham schoolkids to play Twinkle Twinkle. Demoralising, perhaps, but true. People in Britain still seem to feel they have to apologise for the fact that classical music is a good thing in itself, that it enriches life in a way that nothing else can...well, we've said all this before. But I wouldn't blame any top arts administrator for wanting to get the hell away from this country with its political footballs, its double standards, its hypocrisy...

Apropos of the Guardian's report (see above link), good old Charlotte just had to get in a dig at the LPO, didn't she? 'had to look as far afield as Australia...' For your information, dear colleagues, half of London's music is now run by Aussies: the Wigmore Hall, the South Bank Centre, English National Opera as well as the LPO. The press stands by, daggers at the ready, waiting for them to do something wrong. But they don't. They are bloody marvellous, most of them, full of creativity and spark, and they're here because a) there's not much for them to do down under, b) we need them because our old boys' network can occasionally make a pig's ear of things if left to its own devices. The only Aussie who boomeranged was the guy who came over to run the Royal Ballet a few years ago.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Blogging for books

Through an early morning blog ramble (earlyish, anyway), I came across this clever idea:

Blogging for books

It's an invitation to write a blog entry about the worst experience you've ever had working for someone else; when finished, one posts the url as a comment to thezeroboss. I've been self-employed for about eleven years now and the time has flown by, so thinking back to the Big Bad Days of Employment induces more than a little shudder. It's just a question of which really was the worst...

OK...this one...

I once worked for three years for a magazine company in central London. My first day in the office should have been a sign of things to come. This was August 1990, humidity was high and the thermometer beside my desk registered 94. Charles Dickens would have adored this company, with its heaps of paper, reusable jiffy bags, battered and filthy 'battleship grey' paint on the walls and a carpet made in the Jurassic age (I don't think the "cleaner" did more than empty the bins). The computer screens were green on black, and they blinked. This was an "open plan office" - neither very open, nor remotely planned - and about ten people were squeezed into an editorial department that must have measured about 25 foot by 15. The phones went all the time and as I was a) the youngest, b) the junior staff member ("assistant editor"), c) the girl, I mostly had to answer them even when I was trying to write my articles.

In such conditions, perhaps it's not surprising if people were sometimes astoundingly rude to each other. Little patches of friendliness occurred - now and then someone would bring croissants from the Italian deli over the road, or offer one another press tickets for something nice. I owe one colleague my only experience to date of the complete Ring Cycle at Covent Garden. Once, however, I dared to suggest that just as there was a rota for 'doing the post' in the evenings, there should also be one for sorting out the morning's delivery (as you'll have gathered, secretaries there were not). One response to this was so nasty that I am not going to attempt to repeat it. As the junior, you can't venture answering back to tell someone he has no business talking to anybody like that.

Then I met a man. A composer, or would-be composer. He sent me a poem on Valentine's Day - an original one, too, and it was beautiful. I was living with someone else, but Mr Composer wouldn't take no for an answer. He used to phone me at work, since he couldn't phone me at home, and although I'd try vainly to get rid of his calls, it didn't go down too well with my cheek-by-jowl superiors, who could never let me do anything, however trivial, without making snide comments. I couldn't nip into the loo to do my mascara, at 6pm before going out for the evening, without Boss being sarcastic about it - listen, mate, you'd have loved it if I'd done it at my desk.

I decided to divest myself of Mr Composer once and for all. I spent a whole lunch break in the phone box opposite the building chucking him, as I didn't want to do it from the office...but he rang me back mid-afternoon. In the office. And he threatened to kill himself. I didn't know whether this was genuine; but if you tell someone to f off and then he jumps under a train, you have to live with that forever. So I didn't; I tried to talk him out of it. Boss, who was living through a protracted midlife crisis, blew his top and the next day effectively told me to get the hell out of the company because I hadn't been listening to him. He wasn't remotely concerned whether a dead composer might have resulted from my listening to him. Nor was he remotely concerned about union procedures for getting rid of troublesome staff. My sister told me I should sue the company for constructive dismissal - looking back, I'd have had a case to do so - but I was so glad to get the hell out of there that that was its own reward.

I've been freelance ever since, and happy as the day is long. After a number of years I took my nice sane violinist husband in to that company to meet the gang. He took one look at the state of the place and wanted to call in the Health and Safety Executive.

Postlude: I went out with Composer for about a year; but then my mother died and two months later he left me for one of his students. I should have listened to Boss in the first place.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Further reading...

This is excellent over at ArtsJournal, which I should have put on my blogroll ages ago. This latest section is conversation of classical music critics on the future directions of music. It's the kind of thing the internet does best.

The central thrust of the discussion is over whether the absence of a big, unifying idea in contemporary music is a bad thing or not such a bad thing. Interesting contributions include Alex Ross, who sensibly says he's most interested in musical voices with a distinctive personality.

I wonder whether past greats ever sat down to talk these things through? Wagner, Liszt and co certainly had a big idea, but there was nothing unified about their age either, since they encountered a powerful opposing factor in Brahms, Hanslick et al. Programme music/gesamtkunstwerk versus pure music. Theoretically. And when you consider that Wagner had it in for Brahms because Brahms had given Mathilde Wesendonck the brush-off, and Brahms continually embedded Clara-saturated musical ciphers in what we supposed for so long to be 'pure' symphonies, the argument does become somewhat fragmented.

As for Mozart, Haydn, Handel and Bach, did they work according to A Big New Idea? Nope. They were trying to make an honest living in a service industry. I'd love to know what they'd make of today's attitudes. Probably they'd be writing film scores, conducting choirs or co-ordinating community music and trying, vainly, to get a commission from the Proms.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

What think you of music exams?

I don't know exactly what went wrong, but I got a terribly nice, polite letter the other day saying that I haven't been accepted as an examiner for the ABRSM.

At first I thought that the slightly vague comments - appreciative of one's musicality and friendliness to the candidates, but concerned about "procedural errors" - were specific criticisms of my 'performance' in my training days. Then I compared notes with a good friend, a composer, who also had a rejection letter. The letters were identical, word for word. Hm.

Not that it's a problem. Quite a relief, in fact, not to face the idea of having to tell some innocent editor, 'sorry, no, I can't go to Verbier next week, I have to go to Bloggingham High School in Scunthorpe to examine 16 Grade I pianists and a prep test trumpet instead'. My composer friend and I did scratch our heads, however, wondering exactly where it was that we didn't fit the ABRSM blueprint. I am somewhat annoyed that I spent four very intense days being 'trained', but I don't remember anyone particularly 'training' me. Instead, they throw you in, let you watch a few on the first days, and then expect you to know how to do it straight away. If you go wrong, sometimes they'll step in and tell you, but by the final day, it seems, it has to be perfect. And if they haven't told you where you went wrong, how do you know?! Also, once or twice I found that I adopted procedures copied from one or other of my 'trainers' , only to be told by the next trainer that what I was doing was incorrect!

Perhaps my inner state, so well concealed (I thought), got through somehow - namely, a suspicion that the whole concept of music exams is, well, kinda flawed. Pros: an exam is a good motivator, something to work towards, something to pull your level up, something to give you a sense of achievement. Cons: you develop a dread of performing because Daddy is going to kill you if you get anything less than a good merit, you have a horror of hitting a single wrong note in case you get marked down for it, and you don't bother learning any scales other than the ones that are set for your particular grade. I can think of plenty more cons, but not a vast number of pros.

And then there's 'Creepy Crawly'. Oh boy. 'Creepy Crawly' is a Grade I piano piece. It's got a jazzy rhythm and some blue notes and it's not meant to go too fast. I reckon it is causing incipient dementia in music examiners all over the world. ALL the candidates play it. Ninety per cent of them play it horribly. About forty per cent of most exam candidates seem to be Grade I Piano. You get the idea.

What's more alarming is that 'Creepy Crawly' was written by someone I knew at university. He was the star of his year, two years ahead of me. He sang marvellous counter-tenor, he played the horn gloriously, he was completely brilliant in every way. Everyone adored him, thought he was going to be the next Andreas Scholl/Denis Brain/Simon Rattle (delete as applicable). So what's he doing now? He's teaching singing at a private school in London - and he wrote 'Creepy Crawly'. I just hope he's made a fortune from it.

My friend says she will now go and write loads of music instead. I told her I'll go and write loads of books. Wondering whether to entitle my next attempt at a novel 'Goodbye Creepy Crawly'...