Friday, July 13, 2012

Musicians against playing for free at the Olympics: latest update

The news story I wrote for Classical Music Magazine about the pay, or lack of it, for musicians at the the Olympics is here:

The story has been taken up by Sonia Poulton at the Daily Mail. Rare for musicians to find a tabloid trumpeting on their behalf, and it's probably some indication of the widespread strength of feeling on the subject. Very good piece. Read it here.

The Facebook group now has nearly 11,000 members and rising. 

After talking to several of the Facebook group's movers and shakers as well as the ISM and LOCOG itself, here's what I think is happening: a genuine case of absolute cluelessness in the non-musical population about what musicians do. Some suggest that it's something to do with the way everything seems to happen as if by magic for amateurs on TV shows like Britain's Got Talent. But I think it's much more than that. This attitude has been prevalent in Britain for decades, indeed probably centuries.

There needs to be a national campaign - preferably involving schools, colleges, mainstream TV, tabloids and popular radio stations - to show everyone exactly what is involved in becoming a musician and remaining one. Not celebrities trying to conduct in three weeks. Not just the little angels of BBC Young Musician. Something that eavesdrops on the endless hours of practising, the stress of auditions, the anguish of disappointment, the aches and pains and anxieties, and all the rest of it. Oh yes, and the misunderstandings and the insults (intentional or not), and the school bullies (which is where it all begins)... And also the rewards and the standing ovations and the joy of giving a really fabulous performance - in other words, why we do it at all and why, given the choice, most musicians just wouldn't do anything else. Until that's understood by a lot more people, nothing will change.

In the meantime, signing the petition about LOCOG is a good start:

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Le nozze di Chico?

Supposing the Marx Brothers had got hold of The Marriage of Figaro? It would have been perfect for them: Groucho as the Count, Chico as Figaro and Harpo as Cherubino, aided and abetted by Margaret Dumont as Marcellina and Kitty Carlisle as Susanna. Of course, they didn't. Yet...just look at this poster for A Night at the Opera. There's Susanna on the left, the Count behind her, Figaro taking her hand, Cherubino dreaming alongside...

It's no coincidence. The Marx Brothers, Fawlty Towers and The Marriage of Figaro all share the same root: Commedia dell'Arte. The Count, Basil and Groucho could be seen as derivatives of Pantalone, Chico and Figaro as Harlequin or Pulcinella, Susanna and Polly as Columbine, Harpo and Cherubino as Pierrot, while Fawlty Towers's Manuel is straight from the 'Zanni' character - the immigrant worker - and Sybil is, in certain ways, not all that far from Mozart's Countess...

It's perhaps one of the strengths of Glyndebourne's much-vaunted new production of Le nozze di Figaro, directed by Michael Grandage, that through a series of apparently zany juxtapositions it makes clear the archetypal, timeless nature of its drama - and the connections it leaves in the brain keep clicking into place for days afterwards.

It's a tad startling at first. The scene outside the mansion that accompanies the overture is relatively timeless - hustle, bustle, cleaning and gardening - and it's only when the Count and Countess swing into view inside a magnificent red vintage sportscar that we twig we're in the sixties or early seventies. The sets throughout are so Sevillian that they could be the Alcazar itself (pictured, left - almost certainly the model for the final scene in the garden...)

A medieval Moorish palace; 18th-century music on period instruments; action in an era in which menswear was seriously naff. Yet Grandage focuses intensely on the relationships and their nuances - which could have been taking place five centuries ago or last week. We live, we die, but the nature of love doesn't change. Strange how such an apparently post-modern approach with supposedly clashing eras delivers this indication so much better than the old Glyndebourne production by Graham Vick, apparently set in a rehearsal studio and now often referred to as "the one with the radiators". The stumbling block is, of course, the 'droit du seigneur' - all we can do about that is suspend disbelief.

The highlight of a fine cast was in many ways Sally Matthews's Countess. Her voice and her artistry just keep on growing. Now, equipped with considerable amplitude, a wider vibrato and terrific emotional intensity, she sounds almost Violetta-eque (though there's no actual sign of her singing Traviata any time soon). Lydia Teuscher's ideal Susanna ran her a close second, becoming better and better as the evening went by. Luxury casting, too, for Marcellina - Anne Murray, no less; and Don Basilio - Alan Oke, who despite popping up to fabulous effect in everything from Mozart to Anna Nicole, remains a bizarrely well-kept secret on the British opera scene. He should be better recognised as the consummate star he is, for his warm tenor tones, his magnificent acting and the best diction on stage.

Plaudits all round to the remaining cast, and if the Count appeared unconvincing from time to time, that was not the fault of the excellent Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen, but more that his costuming made it difficult to take him seriously.

At the helm was Robin Ticciati, crown prince of Glyndebourne - he takes over in two years' time when Vladimir Jurowski moves on to pastures new. Young he may be, but this was a thoroughly personal statement. The tempi are characterful and not too fast; there's enough space around the rhythms to hear everything fully; and from time to time the whole ensemble combined to produce a few moments of quiet and radiant tenderness: true Mozart magic.

The OAE did everyone proud, though I can't help wondering whether the decision to play at a pitch of A=430 is all that useful. It may have been the nature of the wind instruments of the correct time and place, but it isn't necessarily the nature of singers of today. During the recitatives, several of them were starting to drift up the teeniest notch, during the unaccompanied passages, towards the level to which they are presumably more accustomed, especially in the early part of the opera (it settled as the work progressed). Perhaps there are now apps to help singers to prepare with tweaked tuning, but you can't practise your recits with a bog-standard piano if everything has to be a quarter-tone flat. If the woodwind sounded truly revelatory, that would be another matter. But they don't.

On balance, then, a beautiful and fascinating evening in which the marriage of Figaro to this legendary tradition adds an enriching dimension. I'm going to clock off now, because otherwise we are going to end up matching the Ring Cycle characters with Fawlty and Harpo and co, and then goodness knows what will happen.

Saturday, July 07, 2012


They open on Friday 13th and they have to hold their own against nothing less than the Olympics. Can they do it?

You bet they can. Here's my Proms preview, cover feature for the 'Radar' section of today's Independent:

Friday, July 06, 2012

Music + Art = Magic?

Spent Wednesday morning at the preview of the new exhibition From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts, talking to the curator MaryAnne Stevens and the French conductor Fabien Gabel about the correlation of music and art in the Impressionist era, and why it was that it took about 20 years for composers to cotton on. Then we had a go at matching some of the paintings with appropriate music...Above, Degas's Dancers in a Studio; an exercise in form and perspective made up of images of preparation. Debussy Etudes?

Results are up now on the new and still developing music portal intriguingly entitled Sinfini, which word seems to suggest an infinite symphony of sins... In reality, though, the site is clean, enthusiastic and friendly, while the most sinful thing about this assignment is probably Duparc's gorgeous setting of Leconte de Lisle. The exibition, at the RAA's Sackler Wing, opens tomorrow.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Musicians against playing for free at the Olympics

A Facebook group, Musicians Against Playing for Free at the Olympics, has been started by Ashley Slater (formerly of Loose Tubes). Ashley says:

Musicians are being asked to play at peripheral Olympic events for free 'for the exposure'.

This is simply unacceptable and I feel we should withdraw our participation.

Sign the petition:

LondonJazz has run the full text of an engagement letter to participating musicians (which he says has appeared elsewhere in the public domain). It has to be read to be believed.

Peter Bacon at The Jazz Breakfast doesn't mince his words on the subject, either. Read him here.

The ISM has a further platform for support:

The short message is that it's vital to make a stance now about the attitude towards musicians of this huge and powerful organisation, because it pushes performers not to the status of liveried servants, 18th-century style (and there's plenty of that elsewhere), but to that of slaves. And if the Olympics get away with it, others will think they have carte blanche to follow suit.