Monday, February 28, 2011

Do late works really sound late?

My column for the March issue of Standpoint Magazine is based on the pre-concert talk I gave for Mahler's Ninth Symphony in Birmingham a few weeks ago, in the CBSO's My Mahler series. The question - which also takes in Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and a bit of cultural conditioning - is whether a composer's late works sometimes really do 'sound late', even if the composer is not exactly over the hill. And if they do, why and how is this possible? No answers on postcards, but I hope you enjoy the piece.

Friday, February 25, 2011

When Jess met Valery...

My interview with Valery Gergiev is out now in today's Independent. Read it all here.

Among other things, I asked him whether - since he can move mountains to make things happen in Russia - with his LSO hat on, he would also fight for the continuing health of our arts scene here.

"Not only if I am asked," he says at once. "I am always ready to do it – and whatever possible will be done at the right moment. When a new government comes in, it takes up to a year to understand what the promise is, or was; then what the reality is; and the big economic reality outside. Nobody can grant any country or city in the world a leadership for five years unless there is a very dynamic process of thinking, not only about economic developments, but also cultural developments; if these become nationally important then they become also globally important. I believe that the LSO, the Royal Opera House and the British Museum are national symbols...
... "Support for cultural institutions should not become smaller and smaller – it's dangerous," Gergiev declares. "It's not going to be the American way in the UK." He points out that the tradition for private philanthropic support for the arts in the US has been in place for more than 100 years.
"Many great institutions there have been supported for decades; sometimes more than 50 per cent of their strength comes from individuals' or corporate support – which now is also changing. It would be very dangerous and naive to think this will happen overnight in the UK, to think that the state support for certain arts institutions can reduce because the individuals' contribution will increase. I am afraid both will reduce. And that would be deadly."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Aladdin's Cybercave

(FURTHER UPDATE: Norman Lebrecht told me he'd had virus complaints about the recordings, but a distressed message from Brompton's tells me that there's no reason this should be so and that the intention is simply to issue the best historical recordings for free.)

How to win a lot of musical friends very fast: offer free historical recording downloads, just like these ones here. British auction house Brompton's has uploaded a music library which, for historical recording junkies like me, can only be described as an Aladdin's cybercave. Legendary string players all: Huberman in the Beethoven Concerto. Jacques Thibaud in Mozart. Rabin plays Ysaye. Sammons plays the Elgar Concerto. The Budapest String Quartet, Kreisler, Heifetz, Gioconda de Vito, the gang's all there. On your marks - get set - register! (Unless you're in America, which cannot access the collection because of copyright.)

It's amazing how we take the availability of historical recordings for granted, though. When I was a student, back in the 80s, they were rare nuggets of gold-dust to be run to earth on LP in Garon Records (conveniently it was 3 minutes from my bedsit) or dug out, remastered and reissued on those new-fangled CDs from mysterious sources by those in the know, eventually coming to light on labels like Pearl, Biddulph and EMI References. I will never forget the first time I heard a recording of Rachmaninov. I was in Oscar Shumsky's front room outside New York sometime in 1986 and he asked me if I had heard Rachmaninov's playing. When I admitted I hadn't, the great violinist brought out a big, cherished box of LPs and put on some of the preludes and song transcriptions. We all sat there as if hypnotised - partly by reverence at the notion of listening to this beloved composer playing his own works, in person, and partly by the playing itself, rich-toned, multi-nuanced, many-voiced, the phrasing as vocal as Chaliapin. Magic.

While it's fantastic to be surrounded on a regular basis by recordings of the golden greats, it's also good to remember that we have to keep valuing them. On the other hand, if you're a performer today, the downside of all this means that you have to compete for an audience not only with the living, but also with the dead. There are some great musicians around today, too. I hope to be very near one of them this weekend...

Monday, February 21, 2011

And the answer is...

Our mystery opera yesterday was Puccini's Madama Butterfly, which closed after one night. Bravo to "Zerbinetta", who got it in one.

There was monkey-business afoot at that premiere: the owner of the newspaper that published that statement had a vested interest in the theatre and the success of another opera that was scheduled to replace Puccini's, so it was all horribly manipulated.

Back to the present day. Very sad news from Detroit informs us that the management of the beleagured Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which has been on strike for four-and-a-half months, has cancelled the rest of its season. More about this from the New York Times, here.

Today I am off to take part in the jury of a section of the Royal Philharmonic Awards, and am much looking forward to it. The nominees list is as long as both my arms and they are all fantastic. Of course I will not be revealing any names until the night of the awards in May, but looking at the list is a vibrant reminder of just how excellent the music scene in the UK is, and just how much there is to lose were we to allow government cutbacks to remove as much artisitc activity as they can from our lives.

Here is a question for those who think that music should be funded entirely by the private sector: if something gives your life pleasure, meaning and passion, why would you not wish those less financially fortunate than yourself to be able to experience it too?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Guess the Opera

Here is a review that followed the world premiere of an opera (with clue-like words excised). Your challenge: guess which one it is.

"...A second performance would have provoked a scandal among the XlocalsX, who do not relish being made fun of. The opera is not one of those like XanotheroperaX that carry within them the seeds of resurrection. It shows that XthecomposerX was in a hurry. Importuned as he was to bring out the work this season, sick as he was, he failed to find original inspiration and had recourse to melodies from his previous operas and even helped himself to melodies by other composers...The opera is dead."