Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Historical: Cage and Cunningham

This interview with those long-time partners and collaborators John Cage and Merce Cunningham - composer with choreographer - is about half an hour long. Make yourselves comfortable. Enjoy. And don't miss the John Cage centenary Prom tonight:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Heifetz Face"

Yesterday I mentioned the syndrome of "Heifetz Face" - the directing of energy into the music rather than into emoting or histrionics. It doesn't mean the performer demonstrates nothing at all of his/her ongoing musical response, just that he/she keeps it to a minimum and the music speaks for itself - often rather well. Here are a few examples of it.

Heifetz himself, of course:

Daniel Barenboim:

Yuja Wang:

And here is the opposite.

Lots of different ways of doing things, of course. It's all part of life's rich tapestry.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Benjamin goes for gold

The Prom was packed out last night for Benjamin Grosvenor's performance of the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No.2. "HEAVE!" shouts the arena as the piano lid goes up. "HO!" responds the gallery. Then the leader of the Royal Phil presses the A for the orchestra to tune up and everyone claps and claps and claps.

Now, different leaders respond to this little Proms tradition in different ways. Last year, the concertmaster of the Budapest Festival Orchestra had a field day on encountering it and looked ready to continue with an impromptu piano recital. Duncan, though, kept his back firmly turned upon the audience and stayed put. Perhaps he was trying to make the note heard amid the din. Could it be that it was, er, drowned out?

The concerto opens, as you know, with a cadenza - that florid, organ-like toccata that leads into the far-flinging first subject (which was kindly donated to the composer on request by his star pupil, one Gabriel Fauré, who'd dreamed it up for a Tantum Ergo he'd left unfinished). Then in came the orchestra...about an eighth-tone sharper than the piano.

Benjamin went for gold, unperturbed by the hit-and-miss noises going on around him. The best is the enemy of the good, and of the vaguely OK. It is, even more, the enemy of the seriously naff. Amid a rigid, why-bother-with-rubato accompaniment (come on, Maestro Dutoit, it's not illegal to let your hair down), abysmal intonation and all the usual balance problems of the RAH, the pianist's voice shone out as a sliver of truth: genuine, unsullied 100-carat musicality. The work's ferocious technical challenges flew past as though effortless - the concerto's popularity and the catchiness of its tunes somehow mean that its exposed writing, chock-full of finger-whirling yet melodic passagework, is not always appreciated. He took the closing tarantella at a terrific lick, and the gorgeous central scherzo barely touched the ground.

Though sporting a scarlet shirt, Benjamin isn't an overt showman - he has a modest air and no pretentions. Instead, the energy of his virtuosity goes where it needs to, straight into the piano. You use your ears first to appreciate it, and so you should. I sometimes call this syndrome 'Heifetz Face'. That great violinist gave away nothing in his facial expression and indulged in no physical histrionics while performing. He stood and delivered, highly concentrated, directing the energy into the music - and what came out sounded perfect. A lot of the finest musicians do something similar. Visit your local Alexander Technique teacher for a fuller explanation about the channelling of physical energy.

I can't help foreseeing a day - 15 years ahead, perhaps? - when Benjamin might wish to put together an orchestra of his own and start directing from the keyboard. Last year at the Proms, too, he had to perform with a sort of golf handicap in the form of a boxed-in conductor ill at ease with the romantic rhetoric and grand gestures of the work in question (that was Liszt No.2 - and Liszt was a prime influence on Saint-Saëns). And yesterday, once again, it was down to the encore - Godowsky's transcription of 'The Swan' from Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals - to show what the pianist can really do in terms of limpid ebb and flow, songful, natural voicing and flowering musical instinct. It was pure magic.

Benjamin's half-hour of world-class pianism was sandwiched between a rarely heard Delius orchestral work, Paris: The Song of a Great City (pleasant, curious, rather forgettable) and a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony so crass that several times I thanked heaven that I didn't have to review it for the paper. I am through with being nice to poor old orchestras because they're doing their best under difficult circumstances and all that. I've heard the RPO do a lot better than this on many occasions, so I know they can. Cringeing in the back row, I wished they would.

This wasn't a happy night for Team GB in the orchestral world. Up at the Edinburgh Festival, the LPO's Usher Hall concert - an ambitious bells-themed programme with Vlad at the helm - was cancelled at the last moment due to a massive power failure (Edinburgh's, not theirs). They spent a relaxing evening in the pub.

Monday, August 13, 2012

London 2012: A few things we can learn from the Olympic Games...

This was the fortnight in which Britain learned the value of clibing nachas. One of those all-but-untranslatable Yiddish phrases, its meaning is somewhere in between "taking pleasure in your family's achievements" and "basking in reflected glory". When you feel you're part of the success of something, even when it's someone else's success. (see left.)

I mean, it was amazing, wasn't it? After all the buss and fother, after all the warnings about impossible transport and raised prices and overcrowding and 'get ahead of the Games' (to which I flippin'well listened, and went on holiday, and missed half the fun), after the security debacle and the certainty that no way could the UK ever be organised enough to put on the greatest show on did. And pulled in in third place on the medals chart. How did that happen? World-class achievement in sport has much in common with other world-class achievements, so what can we learn from it?

1. Success takes damn hard work. We celebrated people pushing themselves to be extraordinary. We celebrated people being exceptional, and training for years to become exceptional. All the building of the Olympic Park, all the planning, all the peripheries, that took hard work too. Finally the hard work paid off, and everyone could share in it and clibe nachas.

2. Success takes investment. How did the UK get from one paltry medal in Atlanta 16 years ago to third place in the world? By investing in training. About £250m - mostly from the National Lottery - was thrown at the training of our athletes. The "treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen" attitude that's usually levelled at the arts in the UK didn't apply - because it is, of course, bollocks. True, money without good management solves little, but without financial investment you're nowhere. Now can we please have a reversal of the ongoing disinvestment in our wider education and culture? Otherwise we'll be back at the bottom in everything else.

3. Success takes dedication and sacrifice from the artists/athletes involved, but also from their families. Much was made by the BBC TV presenters of how the athletes' families have given their all to support their youngsters; so, too, the fact that the families were overjoyed to see their loved ones in Olympic action (ie, they were clibing nachas). Now, if a child is gifted at music and his/her parents put immense energy into helping him/her along and then take pleasure in the results, someone inevitably accuses them of being "pushy" or stopping their son/daughter from having a "normal childhood". Why the distinction? Sport and music alike require an early start, in every sense. It may be possible without familial support, but it's a heck of a lot harder. For instance, if your dad won't get up at 5am to drive you to the ice-rink/swimming pool/practice room for a few hours of training before school, but others' dads do, the others will be ahead of you and you won't make the grade.

4. Success needs moral support. The importance of this has been underestimated. Who could have had better moral support than the Team GB athletes this past fortnight? It's in the air we've breathed here in London: everyone has been rooting for them, cheering them on, and when people believe in you so much it's like a big fluffy trampoline that helps you to bounce higher, take off and fly.

Our arts practitioners don't usually meet that kind of moral support. In music particularly, we have to fight and fight and fight and FIGHT just for the teeniest glimmer of recognition that what we do does not happen by magic, but takes the same kind of graft that an athlete puts in. Without moral support from families, schools, colleges, arts managements and indeed the country, performers - who are only human - have to throw more energy into surviving emotionally without it, energy that could have been better directed at the task itself. It's difficult already, and lack of moral support makes it more difficult. That's why they need us all to clibe nachas.

5. Elitism shmelitism. There's nothing more elite than the training required for a gifted individual to become the best. But without an "elite" training - high quality, full-on, time-consuming and, yes, probably quite expensive - people do not generally rise to become the best. Yet we're all interdependent. Without the people who prove they are the best at what they do, the rest of us become demoralised, because lack of world-class success reflects on our country and our society as a whole. We need the gifted and successful to pull us all up to a better level. That's what clibing nachas does for the ones doing the clibing.

6. One person's success brightens the lives of everyone who partakes in it. There've been a great many tears shed this fortnight as Jess Ennis and her team-mates showed the stuff they're made of. I mean, if I can be touched by all this - I'm one of many who was put off sports by school PE, and my enthusiasm as viewer rarely stretches further than Wimbledon - then anybody can. And just think of the joy, emotion and insight that music brings us, via those who excel at it. That's what it's for, for goodness' sake. To stir us to great emotions, to catapult us above the everyday. To make the world feel like a better place. See the point above about us all being interdependent.

7. You reap what you sow. The more you put in, the more you get out. But you do have to put in enough to begin with. Billions went into the London 2012 Olympic Games. What came out of it has been priceless.

8. Musical Olympics don't really exist - but where they sort of do, Team GB needs to get on board. If there's an equivalent, it's still the big competitions - eg, the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. These are not an end in themselves for their entrants, but a beginning, a launching pad - which, in a way, makes them all the more vital. The latest Tchaikovsky Competition, in which ace pianist Daniil Trifonov shot to international stardom, attracted not a single British entrant, let alone a medallist. British musicians do not often win international competitions and we have to face the fact that that is probably because other countries take musical training more seriously, invest more money in it and do so much earlier in youngsters' lives. It's easy to say "but we have some great teachers", etc, but the facts demonstrated in the international context tell the true story. Stripping state funding from our music colleges - along with all the other arts and humanities higher education courses in England - will make the situation worse. The lesson of the Olympics is not just that we should invest more in training for sport because all of a sudden we're good at it. It's that we should invest in education and training for many, many other things so we can become equally good at those.

9. From now on, we need to appreciate real ability instead of quick-fix, appearance-driven dross. In sport, this is relatively easy because you can see who's crossed the finish line first. In music it's more difficult, because assessment is about taste, personal judgment and, unfortunately, being well informed enough to know how to assess what you're hearing. Hopefully, though, the Olympics have shown up the vacuity of manufactured "stars" and the notion that you can be famous without being able to do anything. With any luck, this might produce a shift in national awareness of how we're too often fooled by rubbish. Despite all the hype about sponsors, branding and exclusivity, nobody can force us to eat hamburgers, swallow fizzy drinks, buy diamonds or download a particular recording. If we're in charge of our own brains, we don't have to be taken in. Interestingly, exercise can help this. Be inspired: go running. It helps you think.

10. Apart from a little Elgar at the start of both, and a surprise appearance by Daniel Barenboim, carrying a corner of the Olympic flag, there wasn't a lot of classical music in the London 2012 opening and closing ceremonies. And a lot of the pop singers were out of tune. What we learned, though, is that the real classics of British music in the 20th century are mostly by the Beatles. See point 8.

11. So who's on Music Team GB? Here's one of our truest golds. You can hear him at the Prom tomorrow, playing Saint-Saens's Piano Concerto No.2. This interview is a promotional thing for his new CD of that concerto, Ravel's G major and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Go, Benjamin, go!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Our own local Olympian

Back from summer holiday just in time to give a big cheer for the extremely cheering London 2012 Olympic Games and offer a special tribute to our own local Olympian, Mortlake station-master Daniel Opoku.

Daniel carried the torch in the relay on 22 July from Erith to Bexley - then, he says, handing it on to Lennox Lewis - and he's the winner of three national awards for public service. He even puts in an appearance, by name, in my Rites of Spring, something that's noted on the station poster celebrating his participation in the relay. Were there an Olympic race for kindness, helpfulness, taking pride in your work and brightening the day of everyone you see, this man would take gold. He has become a local hero simply by being A  Wonderful Person.

Here's what South West Trains says about him:
Daniel Opoku has worked for South West Trains for 17 years and was put forward to participate as a torchbearer because of his passion and commitment to customer service. Daniel Opoku, commented: “Being a part of the global showcase is very exciting as the Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world. I feel jubilant about being put forward to participate in this historic event and have been walking and jogging in Erith to prepare for the big day.”
As well as helping customers plan their journeys, making announcements and maintaining the ticket machines at his station, Daniel Opoku knows many of his customers by name and thrives on giving his customers a warm welcome. Over the years, Daniel Opoku has received a number of prestigious accolades for his outstanding customer service skills; National Railways Employee of the Year (2000), Personality of the Year (2000) and Frontline Customer Service Professional of the Year (2008) are just three examples.
And here's a recommendation for anyone in or visiting London who wants to sample the city's best scenic views: a handy new guidebook to some capital vistas has just been published. It's Skyline London, written by Blue Badge guide Caroline Dale. I've lived in London all my life, but there are spectacular views in this book that I've never seen before, and as soon as the crowds calm down a bit I'll be off to sample some. Caroline shows you where to go for the best ones and presents an expert explanation of what you see when you get there. Plus plenty of photographs and maps to whet the appetite. Skyline London is available from Amazon, here.