Saturday, January 22, 2005

Beethoven blues

Thanks to everyone who replied to the composition/groves of academe post! It's always nice to know that one is not alone in these kinds of experiences - what's more worrying is to realise just how widespread they really are!

Anyway, onwards and upwards. What think you of present-day Beethoven interpretation? I've been attending some of my hubby's orchestra's latest Beethoven series under Kurt Masur. Tom has thoroughly enjoyed the concerts and the audiences have been going bananas even if critics have been slightly grudging. The last is tonight and it's completely sold out.

I am not trying to be disloyal to my orchestra-in-law, but actually the concerts I've heard have left me a little cold. There were beautiful moments: bits of the Pastoral, a lovely light touch in No.1 and so on. But No.7, which is my favourite, felt relentless and the finale of the Pastoral, which has to be one of the most wonderful moments in musical history, didn't expand and sing and give thanks the way I long for it to.

On the other hand, I'm reluctant to put all of this down to Masur alone. I think it's a global trend. I certainly wouldn't trust any of the period bands with this repertoire (the clunky drums alone would put me right off, never mind the squeaky violins), but it seems to me that too many modern conductors just don't give the music room to breathe. Where are the Klemperers, the Furtwanglers, the musicians who don't need to sound as if they have to catch a train, who can bring to life the full measure and depth and breadth of the music? And I don't mean they have to sound like Karajan.

It's possible to give something breadth and depth without it being 'boring' or 'old fashioned'. You can still articulate the slurs and staccatos and shape the phrases without losing the big picture, if you try. You can capture the sense of worship, the transcendence, without fear of association with some bygone political aberration whose practitioners unfortunately liked this kind of thing. And yet I can't remember the last time I was able to listen to a Beethoven symphony and have the really good, exhilarating wallow that I want to have. I'd rather listen to a recording of Barenboim or Schnabel or Kovacevich playing the piano sonatas because they do achieve this atmosphere. Am I being obtuse? Am I missing something marvellous somewhere? Is my taste hopelessly outdated? I just don't know. But one way or another, I didn't feel inspired to go to No.9 tonight.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Composing memories

A particularly fascinating correspondence thread attached to my recent post about contemporary symphonies leads me to the following, in the wake of a comment about how audiences have been alienated by modernism. It's not just audiences that have been alienated.

I used to be interested in composing myself, believe it or not. Once, at high school, I was put into a corner at the emotional equivalent of gunpoint and instructed to write a setting of Psalm 150. It was to be part of a theatrical presentation on the theme of Music and Revival that the school was putting on to celebrate the opening (by a minor royal) of its new hexagonal theatre. I did it, somehow, and it came off rather well, mainly because the theatre had a beautiful resonant acoustic, the group performing were up in the balcony and the opening phrase had a nice arch to it which, especially in the dark, made a reasonably OK impression. The headmistress liked it and wrote me a glowing reference, without which I probably wouldn't have got into my university so easily (incidentally, that was 1983 and systems have changed here since then).

So I trotted off to college thinking I might try composing - until I discovered a few things about the composing scene. First, it was entirely male dominated. I did have one female friend who refused to be put off by this and went for lessons with one of the place's resident eminent composers, but it was very clear, very fast, that we were not welcome in the clique - meanwhile, the place was full of arrogant little s**ts (male ones) who thought they were the next Beethoven and strode around the music faculty saying things like 'Prokofiev's rubbish'. But the attitude towards music that did not match accepted party lines - into serialism/modernism/systematic crafting evident only on paper and never to the ear - was the most destructive element. I well remember one friend - an extremely talented fellow - coming round for tea and saying, thoroughly perplexed, that his professor had just told him that he thought too much about the way his music sounded.

I doubt that I'd ever have been suited to life as a composer, but the fact remains that I've never set note to page again even though, at least in student days, I probably could have (if to no great effect) had the climate been just a little more encouraging to those who weren't male or super confident or inclined towards serialism/nasty noises. I once heard that someone in this university, in the 1960s, had submitted a cabbage as his composition portfolio. I can't say I blame him. At least you can eat a cabbage.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Return of the native...

Tom is just back from a tour to Athens with the band & Kurt Masur, playing all the Beethoven symphonies in four concerts in four days. Knackering - not least because they had to get up at 5.45am today to catch the plane home, after an extremely late night post-No.9. But it was also more rewarding than he had expected. In over 20 years of orchestral slog, he says, he's never done the complete Beethoven symphonies in a few days before; having got through it successfully, he wouldn't mind doing it all over again.

It's an intriguing thought. Given that many critics here have given Masur's Beethoven RFH cycle short shrift (they think: it doesn't say enough/has all been done before/predictable programming), here's a London orchestra stalwart who's never done it before and absolutely loves it. I know that my hubby is perhaps unusual in being one of very few orchestral musicians who still get a tremendous kick out of the job and come home from rehearsals whistling the tunes. But maybe it's the critics who are the truly jaded, not the orchestras. Maybe all those accusations are merely projection!

In Tom's absence, Tippett has been taking pride of place. I've learned a lot by writing about him - not least that I don't always love music for its own sake. I'm actually not that crazy about Tippett's music and I don't go out of my way to hear him (although 'A Child of Our Time' does make me cry, and I'm one of few people who thoroughly enjoyed 'New Year'!). What I love is what he stands for. I love the fact that here is a maverick composer who always had enough conviction to do his own thing. Someone who isn't afraid to splurge in the face of a critical establishment that thinks splurging is naive and therefore Bad. Someone who sticks up for what he believes in, even if it ends him in Wormwood Scrubs. I don't actually like the fact that he was a conscientious objector, because I don't see how anybody on earth could conscientiously object to fighting the Nazis - but that's not the point. While Britten, the beloved of the British Establishment, slunk off to the States for the same reason, Tippett stood his ground and did time for it and I admire him for that in a weird kind of way. I like his humanity and the generosity of spirit that he puts across; it's very rare.

Funnily enough, Korngold had a similar generosity, naivety and overambition; and Korngold is often criticised in a remarkably similar way. There, though, I think that comparison ends!

Friday, January 14, 2005

Wagner in Australia

Ken Nielsen writes from Australia, eager to get a discussion going about the problems of Wagner. I'll let him speak for himself:

"We went to the Adelaide production of The Ring in November and I have been thinking since about The Ring phenomenon.
First of all, I have to admit that Liz and I enjoyed the production mightily. That was a bit surprising, as we are a long way from being Wagnerians. Our tastes start in the baroque (Bach was the greatest ever) then jump pretty much to the 20th Century with light hops through the classical quartet repertoire. (I sometimes think I might spend the rest of my life with LvB's
Quartets). So, for most purposes, Wagner isn't on my list.

"What we enjoyed was the theatre. When I want to annoy Wagnerians I suggest that his music is really like a film score -great at accompanying the action but not of much value on its own. That is an exaggeration of what I think, but it's fun to see the reaction. I think the key to The Ring phenomenon is that it is a fairy story for grown-ups. If you allow yourself to be drawn into the myth you can follow with great enjoyment the broad brush of the story. It is fairly simple, it isn't very subtle though by overlaying Freud and other myth makers some manage to manufacture complexity.

"The amazing thing is to realize you have sat through 16 hours of music theatre without any boredom or loss of attention. I can't think of anyone else who can make me do that. I know people who booked for all 3 cycles. I can't imagine doing that. (Though at the end of each of the 3 Beethoven Quartet cycles I have seen, I would have willingly turned up the following week to do it all again). But, having said that, I don't fully understand why the show works the way it does.

"The other aspect that needs study is why any city with pretensions to artistic taste wants to do a Ring Cycle. A quick look at shows that they are breeding at alarming rate. It is alarming because the Ring is so expensive it takes up a huge amount of the financial resources available for music and opera. So that is not available for anything else.

"The Adelaide Ring began about 8 years ago when the city lost the Formula 1 Grand Prix to Melbourne. The City looked for another major event to bring the tourists. Someone thought of Wagner. In 1998 they borrowed a production of the Ring from the Chatelet in Paris which went over so well they immediately announced that in 2004 there would be a new production presented straight through in 3 cycles. And so it was.

"The cost ended up at $A19 million (about 7.6 million pounds). On my arithmetic that is $4000 a seat for each cycle. The highest ticket price was about $1000. The balance came largely from government with smaller contributions from corporate sponsors and individual donations. Is any opera worth $4000 a seat, no matter who is paying? The government justified the expenditure on an increase in economic activity from tourism, which (pardon me) is nonsense. I am sure more tourists could have been attracted at much less cost: imagine offering to give tourists $1000 in cash as they got off the plane. But then similar nonsense is used to justify the Olympics and the Grand Prix.

"Please don't misunderstand, I am not objecting (here and now, anyway) to government funding of the arts. I just think there are better ways of doing it. I would rather subsidise artists with something to say than audience members.

"Some of this explains why we started our own opera company ( ), but that is another story..."

Ken Nielsen
Sydney Australia

Off we go, then! Here's my contribution: Wagner is so demanding to stage, even at its simplest, that the cost without public subsidy would be prohibitive in any country that does not have the same levels of private money as America. That would mean that most countries would never hear any Wagner live. And I believe Wagner has to continue to be heard live; if such things are rendered eternally impossible, it will mean the end of real, educated, creative culture (as opposed to dumb&dumber TV-centric 'culture') in the western world.

So costs do have to be trimmed. What pushed up the cost in Australia? Generally, do conductors and big-name singers really need to be paid the kind of extortionate fees that they demand (orchestral musicians suffer freezes on their already low pay because of these greedy windbags). Time, I think, to re-read Norman Lebrecht. It may not have 'killed classical music' yet, but there's an evident risk that it could, at least at the pricier end. I do wonder why orchestras/managers/promoters didn't just say NO WAY ON EARTH when agents demanded ever-more astronomical sums?!?

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


Current excuses for lack of frequent blogging are topped by a sprained ankle, a touring husband and rather a lot of Tippett. I'll be back online as soon as I can think straight.