Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Wot? Classical music on primetime tv? (or is it?)

(updated the morning after....) So are you following Classical Star on BBC2? This series, which brings the world of The Apprentice to a group of teenaged music students, is rather remarkable for how little serious coverage it's had in the national press. I guess nobody is taking it very seriously.

Cellist Matthew Barley, who's head honcho, is more Sugar than Sir Alan, and, with plentiful charm, charisma and a good way with youngsters, is possibly the only person in the country who could have pulled this series off with reasonable success. The thing is, the voyeuristic, ooh-aren't-they-nasty mentality of the Big Brother/Fame Academy/etcetc format is not exactly designed for hardworking youngsters who just want to get on with their practising. Also, the format itself is distinctly tired, music or none.

I'm fence-sitting. I can't decide whether I think it's A Good Thing because it gets music-making onto primetime TV for several weeks running (grand finale next week) or A Bad Thing because when it all goes belly-up afterwards it's the kids who will suffer. So here are a few reactions.

Hilary Davan Wetton in The Guardian:
A society that revels in others' public distress or humiliation, filmed in intrusive close-up, is a pretty sick society. Classical Star harks back to the worst excesses of the Roman arena. The children are exhibits in a human circus. The judges use the thumbs up/thumbs down technique of the Roman emperor; they offer us pretension, patronage and a deep sense of self-importance. We are all being coarsened by this continual diet of exploitation.

Anna Picard in The Independent on Sunday:
...the most enjoyable aspect of Classical Star has been seeing how fantastically resistant classical music is to being sexed up. What dreamy Emily, streetwise Tyler and the others have in common is their absolute respect for the craft they are learning. By the time most Big Brother contestants drag themselves out of bed for a snog or hair of the dog, the Classical Star competitors have been practising for hours. Indeed, the worst incidence of naughtiness to be seen on the series so far was when one violinist snaffled an extra 20 minutes of rehearsal time.

Will the series encourage more children to take up an instrument? Possibly, for it does at least show that kids who like Lutoslawski are not, on the whole, the freaks and geeks of popular imagination. Will it create a real Classical Star? No.

I think I'm inclining around 75% to the second. Any thoughts, people? Send 'em in!

Oops. Left out Lebrecht. Here you go:
Since the aim is to find a classical star, not a classical artist, the series is peripheral to anyone with a serious interest in music. It is mildly entertaining in the way the late-night weather forecast can be when seen through a bad head cold. I shall probably watch it again, with Lemsip. What it is doing on the BBC, I have no idea.

And if we do NL, we must also do Pliable, who's predictably with HDW on this, and adds in his Comments: "Jessica, did anyone ever tell you that public executions drew huge audiences during the French Revolution?" Pliable, did you read the other half of my point?

Not wanting to seem holier-than-thou, I'm surprised that nobody has discussed what's been done to the actual music. That is probably an indication of the degree to which it's been sidelined. We never hear any of the kids perform a piece right through. We can get a mild idea of how they might play, but we can't possibly judge properly on a few seconds at a time, and the way the music has been cut makes no sense. Clearly nobody at the BBC thinks the audience could possibly cope with hearing a whole movement of Mendelssohn - let alone knowing how f***ing difficult the D minor trio is to play.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

It's the anniversary of Fauré's death too

Gabriel Fauré died on 4 November 1924.

Here's a little extract from his Piano Quartet in G minor, apparently filmed in Apeldoorn by someone based in Bulgaria. The performers are Philippe Graffin (violin), Asdis Valdimarsdottir (viola), Colin Carr (cello) and Pascal Devoyon (piano). Because listening to Philippe playing Fauré is one of the great joys of life; because turning the pages for Pascal in Messiaen's incredible Visions de l'Amen in St Nazaire was one of the high points of my musical year; and because Gabriel 'The Archangel' Fauré is simply the best; I hope you like it too.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Meanwhile, in Hollywood...

...the writers are going on strike. Go, chaps, go! Tell it like it is! Because today's world doesn't know that without writers there would be nothing. No lines for those billion-dollar celebrities to mouth; nothing to make us think, reflect, laugh, cry, question the way we spend our time, deepen our understanding of the human condition, identify with in Grecian catharsis. No theatre, no books, no films, no philosophy, no politics, no poetry, no newspapers, no magazines and not much worthwhile stuff on the internet. Oh, and no TV. Yet individuals who would never steal a handbag or pirate a CD still can't imagine it's not OK to steal a writer's hard graft. The majority of writers are lumping along at the bottom of the heap, constantly exploited by everything from juggernaut studios to the all-powerful extortions that control chain store promotions, right down to small-time performers who think it's OK to palm them off without payment and sometimes without acknowledgment, let alone a fee that is proportional to the service they provide.

'Hollywood shakes', says the Indy's headline. I should think so too.

Here is 'Texts don't grow on trees': the Authors' Rights Awareness Campaign.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Constant Nymph

(Not my nickname, though should be at the moment! :-) ) No, The Constant Nymph is one of the rarest among Korngold's movies. How extracts found their way onto Youtube is a source of some wonder, as I'm told only one print exists, on 16mm film. When I last looked, there were 3 clips. All of a sudden, a whole lot more have appeared!

The film is based on the book and play by Margaret Kennedy. The novel is, as far as I can tell, virtually forgotten, but was a huge favourite of mine when I was about 12, when my mother - who adored it and Joan Fontaine and must surely have seen the film - bought me a copy that she stumbled across in a second-hand bookshop.

The story concerns an eccentric musical family, the Sangers; the 14-year-old daughter, Tessa, falls desperately in love with a gifted, unworldy young composer called Lewis who is in his twenties (he looks older in the film). But Tessa, though experiencing a woman's emotions, is still a little girl. Her heart condition includes not only intense passions but a physical weakness as well. Lewis doesn't take her affection seriously; he decides to marry her cousin, Florence, a sophisticated, rather too down-to-earth woman his own age. Disaster befalls the Sanger family and the all-but-uneducated Tessa is dispatched to boarding school. Eventually, if I remember correctly, she runs away; and ultimately Lewis realises his mistake, leaves his wife and elopes with Tessa; but it's too late. In the book, she attempts to open a very stiff window and the effort affects her heart. She collapses and dies in her beloved's arms. In the film, however, Lewis composes a cantata entitled 'Tomorrow', which goes through various permutations during the course of the action, its growth mirroring the progress of the composer's heart: first a piano trio, then a modernistic flood that Tessa loathes ("Banketybanketybang!") and ultimately the full-blooded Korngold work for mezzo-soprano and chorus that will have its FIRST EVER UK PERFORMANCE TONIGHT at the Festival Hall. And Tessa, listening on the radio, expires to its strains.

Excuse me while I go and find the Kleenex.
[snuffle. howl. sob. go back to the beginning of the book and read it all over again...]

...Here is Tessa, saying (among other things) 'Banketybanketybang!' The pianist on the soundtrack is Korngold himself. The musical attitudes espoused in the dialogue are likewise Korngold's - he had quite a hand in shaping the scripts and action of certain of his movies, was present at story conferences and made many suggestions. Especially here.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Going all Austro-Hungarian

Brendan Carroll gave a fascinating evening at the Austrian Cultural Forum last night devoted to Korngold's film music. With meaty extracts from Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1934) as well as Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk et al, and some rare interview recordings from those who were there at the time, the packed audience was transported to another world. Here's one of the stories:

Max Steiner, composer of King Kong and Gone with the Wind, among others, was a friend of Korngold's in Hollywood. One day he remarked to Korngold, "You know, Erich, since you've been in Hollywood, your music has got worse and my music has got better. Why do you suppose that is?" Without missing a beat, Korngold replied: "That's easy, Max, it's because you've been stealing from me and I've been stealing from you!"

I reckon it's time for a palette-cleanser before the LPO Korngold events kick in with tomorrow's film music bonanza at the RFH. I'm currently proof-reading novel number next, Hungarian Dances. So here, with an appropriately Danubian breath of fresh air, is Andras Schiff (evidently filmed some years ago and relayed somewhere interesting in the Far East) playing Schubert's Hungarian Melody. Just listen to that tone...