Written by: The Classical Source
Sullen faces, Birdwoman, and Christmas greetings
It’s a title that John Cage might have coined! It was a pleasure to read Leif Ove Andsnes’s editorial, published towards the end of November in connection with the then on-tour Risør Festival. for at the BBC Proms this year I very much enjoyed his playing of Sørensen’s La Mattina and Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto (K491) with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, but to read in his Classical Source piece of his enjoyment when performing is apposite to what follows.
It is unfair to pick out individuals; but, in contrast to Andsnes’s clearly expressed pleasure, why is it that so many of today’s orchestra-members (well at least the string-players who are the easiest to watch) display such an apparent lack of interest in what they are doing. Perhaps I’m asking too much, perhaps they see their performances simply as the “day job”, but most of us would wish we had their ability – do they not get pleasure from making beautiful music?
A recent concert I attended was a case in point, with hardly a smile to be seen amongst the string-players, except between pieces when they were chatting with colleagues. By way of contrast the soloists were all clearly enjoying themselves as was every member of the large choir, but the strings, no. Perhaps it is me, perhaps making beautiful music requires so much intense concentration that anything other than a deadpan face is impossible – but then Andsnes gives as much if not more and his pleasure is there for all to see.
My ticket cost £38.50, it was an early Christmas present, and although the concert was good it would have given so much more pleasure if the orchestra had displayed as much joie de vivre as the conductor and the rest of the performers. Times are hard, and although music is ultimately for the ears and the senses, I may not be the only one wondering whether to pay good money to see sullen faces.
Changing tack, as we approach the end of 2010, it is a good time to reflect on what has been a busy year for Classical Source. We continue to do what we do, and have expanded our New York coverage, as well as welcoming new writers. For the eighth year running we have covered every BBC Prom – with reviews often published within twenty-four hours of the concert. Many thanks to our hard-working reviewers who beaver-away the moment the concert is over, for deadlines have to be met. And particular praise to our Editor, Colin Anderson, for his dedication and loyalty, and to his assistant Kevin Rogers for adding pictures and other behind-the-scenes activities.
It only remains for me to wish all of our contributors and readers a very happy Christmas and as prosperous a New Year as possible. The photograph (used with permission) adorning these few words is a quickly-taken snap by Mike Langhorne (a Classical Source contributor) when the robin perched on his wife’s hand – an impromptu scene full of Christmas Joyfulness.
Oh, one final thing, Classical Source does not exist on bread alone, it needs your support if it is to continue to maintain the highest standards, so any donation you can afford, however small, would be very welcome! Thank you.
The Classical Source
15 December 2010
Can we have it louder, please?
It was on 23 November that I found myself in the Royal Albert Hall listening to vocalist and guitarist Michael Bolton, gig number 99 out of a tour of 115 such engagements. Not my usual sort of musical evening, but a friend had a spare ticket, and I’m always happy to try anything once; after all, a friend’s enthusiasm may also be a new-found one for someone uninitiated. Following some warm-up Soul, throughout his two-hour set Mr Bolton proved to be an energetic and personable performer with a friendly and light-hearted manner of speaking to his audience. Furthermore his accompanying musicians (including piano, saxophone, drums and trumpet) were first-rate as an ensemble and in taking solos. Although Mr Bolton would have been advised not (and never) to have sung ‘Nessun dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot – which, to a pre-recorded ‘music minus one’ soundtrack, was a travesty of phrasing, pitching, and the Italian language – he certainly engaged with a Sinatra medley, although it then took a while to register that he was singing ‘Summertime’ (the Gershwin brothers might have had the same problem, certainly Ira with the words), but it wasn’t a bad night, and Mr Bolton is an all-round artist, both versatile and popular – here treated as the Messiah. However, there was an insurmountable problem. Cue next paragraph…
It was insufferably, unrelentingly and unreasonably loud! By the end of the show the walls of the Albert Hall were ringing in agony, high frequencies blistering and the thick-thumping-bass kicking us in the nether regions. Thus I was wondering about EU Regulations and the breaking of them as well as whom I should sue if my hearing gives-in (Mr Bolton himself, his production team, or Royal Albert Hall’s management) as it surely must if exposed to this sort of noise-lunacy on a sustained basis. (One wonders the same for the owners of those pernicious ear-pieces that share their emissions with the rest of train carriage!)
Cinemas also relay films too loudly; maybe promoters take the view that people will be desensitised if something is deafening and leave no ability to be discerning beyond it. Not that one wants a quiet life – for the greatest music relays a subtlety of dynamics to help illuminate a symphonic trajectory, meaningful louds and softs as part of an overall masterplan. If a composer wants his music loud, then so be it (this should not be confused with an undiscerning conductor playing music over-the-top, or a pianist bruising a piano into submission, or an orchestra’s overloud brass section drowning-out colleagues) – for we can judge for ourselves a creator’s integrity. It may be that Christopher Rouse (the notable American composer) holds the record for the most decibel-crunching piece of orchestral music (without electronic enhancement) ever written – Gorgon (1984), its dynamics ranging from loud to loudest (and I believe once refused a performance by an orchestra, its members fearful of suffering damage to their hearing). That said, Rouse’s music is usually compelling, and Gorgon – “The Rite of Spring on steroids. It is also evil, evil incarnate”, says Leonard Slatkin on Rouse’s website (Slatkin having conducted this sonic blockbuster) – is no exception, persuasive in its force and sustained by underlying logic.
Of course if a composer has requirements additional to instruments and an acoustic to play them in, then such directions must be honoured, but amplification is these days thrown indiscriminately at too many things, with a resulting contamination of ‘true sound’ – certainly in the Bolton concert (a colourless piano, for example) as well as the whole being painful in its sustained intensity. Staying in London and the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is now using “light” amplification for its concerts. Shame! The RAH has served music admirably for decades without artificial stimulants, not least during the BBC Proms seasons (which has included, only recently, such intimacies as Chopin Nocturnes and Bach cello suites), so while it would be interesting to sample the RPO’s results (not least regarding timbre and dynamic range: is ppp quiet enough?), the idea itself seems regrettable. The Planets was the last RPO-enhanced piece played thus (25 November, Andrew Litton conducting): yet countless performances of Holst’s score have reverberated around the RAH, without difficulty as well as naturally, the music easily reaching those of us who know how to listen and who are actively rather than passively involved.
Silence (pause for thought) is now a rare commodity (‘muzak’ being imposed in shops and banks these days, despite all those customers who are never without their own in-ear ‘entertainment’) – and blighting sporting events, too: some insistent Rock number striking-up when a goal or a try is scored, or when tennis-players take a rest between games. And yet Jonathan Harvey suggests that concerts should be amplified in order to attract younger audiences. Harvey is an estimable composer, often using electronic elements (his IRCAM-realised Mortuos plango, vivos voco is stunning), and a thoroughly likable man (I have had the pleasure of chatting with him on a couple of occasions), but he is plain wrong with this suggestion. Catching the attention of young people for classical music is of course very important – perhaps the subject of a future editorial, not least regarding the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and its Night Shift presentations, which might just be breeding audiences that bring bad habits (such as left-on mobiles and wrong-place applause) to concerts that are away from the OAE’s anything-goes initiative.
So, no apologies for being thought snobbish or elitist; in fact it’s more to do with setting standards that best serve the music itself through the sitting-and-listening principle, no false aids needed, thanks! To be continued next year. The next Editorial will no doubt include Yuletide Greetings!
The Classical Source
The Joys of Chamber Music – Risør on Tour
Classical Source welcomes Leif Ove Andsnes – the distinguished pianist – as the guest writer of an editorial celebrating chamber music and the Risør Festival, which is soon to visit Brussels, London and New York…
As a pianist who is often travelling alone with a suitcase for company, performing chamber music is always a particular joy. First up you have someone else to travel with so you have company along the way, secondly it’s great to meet up again – like a school reunion – after long periods of going your own way, and thirdly it’s hugely satisfying to explore different repertoire together. I have never understood pianists who find it rewarding to tour the whole year, without ever touching chamber music. I could never imagine living a fulfilling life as a pianist, without Mozart violin sonatas, Beethoven piano trios, Brahms piano quartets, songs by Schubert and Schumann…
The joy of chamber music is particularly apparent at the Risør Chamber Music Festival which has been part of my life now for twenty years. Indeed I first performed in Risør when I was twenty years old at the very first festival, and found it a magical place for music-making. I was soon after invited by Lars Anders Tomter to join him as Artistic Director. Chamber music festivals are a great meeting place for musicians and in Risør we try to combine musicians that haven’t worked together before, mixing established international artists with the best Scandinavian or younger artists that don’t necessarily have solo careers. We have found it a very fruitful way of doing programs! Everyone is so keen and prepared. In Risør, we have avoided doing solo recitals featuring one artist. Instead, we put different groups together in each program, mixing songs, sonatas, works for chamber orchestra, and contemporary works with various numbers of musicians. People listen to each other perform, and there’s such a feeling of community. It’s an extremely rewarding experience.
This autumn Risør takes to the road. Instead of endless summer nights and flip-flops we shall be meeting up in our winter woolies and taking the spirit of Risør on tour. Following a 20th-birthday party concert in Oslo, we shall take our suitcases together to Brussels (Palais des Beaux Arts), London (Wigmore Hall, 26-28 November) and New York (Carnegie Hall) for residencies in each city. The last New York concert will be the end of an era for me as I step down as Artistic Director but nothing will stop me from returning to Risør as a guest in summers to come or stop me from exploring chamber music in venues as wonderful and supportive as the legendary Wigmore Hall!
For The Classical Source
20 November 2010
Something needs to be done
Classical Source welcomes John Boyden – Managing Director of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra – as the guest writer of the November editorial…
Simon Heffer’s article in the Sunday Telegraph (on 3 October) on the survival of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra sparked a debate, but one of so little public interest that the correspondence soon ended. No other newspaper, radio or TV station saw a story. It is clear that too few people give a toss for symphony orchestras or the music they play. In the face of such indifference why keep pretending there is a genuine need for the numerous UK orchestras (plus the several of the BBC) to employ players all-year-round, when interest is so low and when such a thing never happened in history before the formation of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1930? Musically speaking, permanency is no virtue.
This is not an argument about money, but about the sameness that denies the creation of ever-changing orchestras that existed before the intelligentsia adopted the Soviet model for the Arts Council. Russia’s culture may have belonged to the State in Stalin’s USSR, but we also know that the Trabant and the Lada fell far short of the cars produced in the free-markets of the West. As centrally-funded cars were deadly-dull, why should we be surprised when centrally-funded orchestras are equally dull?
Every day, concerts take place in the country’s prime venues, not because of any organic relationship with audiences, but because that is what the state’s orchestras do: they give concerts. They also undertake foreign tours, undermine commercial record companies with their own labels and hand far too much of the taxpayer’s money to foreign conductors and soloists. The time has come to question the point of sustaining interchangeable orchestras devoid of an artistic philosophy and whose instruments require their players to wear earplugs or to shelter behind Perspex screens.
Fifty years ago, when Walter Legge pulled the rug from beneath the Philharmonia Orchestra there was a terrific kerfuffle. Vast numbers of responsibly-minded adults demanded its survival. But, today when Heffer questions the need for these bureaucratic dinosaurs the only people to complain are their managers! Administrators are not entrepreneurs.
In the 1960s, orchestras had identifiable oboe-players in their sound, and, in the Philharmonia’s case, even a few differently manufactured instruments from the others. In Manchester, the Hallé’s strings played with portamento, while the LSO had only recently become an American orchestra, complete with Lenny Bernstein, Count Basie’s brass and annual trips to the festival at Daytona Beach. In short, orchestras had yet to become identikits.
If we had a free market, the funded orchestras would still have the edge over orchestras like the NQHO, because they are established and have existing contracts. Even so, the NQHO has so much to offer that it should be delighted to take them on. As politicians keep saying, we need fairness! So, why should unmusical tax-payers pay for music, which they don’t like and don’t care about? Let’s revert to the times when a Big Society was a reality and opportunities came from private passions, not public planning via the public purse.
For The Classical Source
The Slaying of the Emperor
I would rather be writing about Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto, Bartók’s (subject-related) Cantata profana or Hans Werner Henze’s opera König Hirsch (King Stag). But these following few words concern a recently-alive and cherished stag known to the inhabitants of Exmoor (in the West Country of England) as the Emperor, a nine-foot-tall beauty of a beast with proud antlers to match. It seems that a visiting bounty-hunter – one heartless and despicable – paid a landowner to shoot and thus murder this magnificent creature in the National Park despite the animal enjoying a protection pact by local huntsmen. Suitable words to describe the executioner(s) and all who conspired this killing to happen (either because of greed or through collusion) are unprintable.
Hopefully those responsible will be identified and brought to retribution. And while it may be thought surprising for a Classical Music website to be commenting on such a matter, it is a reflection of the wide revulsion that has been felt by this barbarous act (for example, the link below is to the Dallas News and its reporting of this very upsetting story and in which the photographer quoted seems decidedly callous in his comments). This is further proof that although Man can produce wonderful examples of Great Art (across many disciplines) and work miracles of medicine, he remains with the heinous potential for inhumanity, arrogance and vanity, as well as falling foul to the temptation of lucre, however bloody.
Classical Source Editorial
28 October 2010
New Age Music Directors
Our patron Leonard Slatkin offers some new-season reflections…
The new concert season is upon us, and here in the States there are some fresh faces at the head of various orchestral institutions. It was impossible not to see that most of the music directors, young and not so young, did not offer any American music for their initial appearances. Of course this assumes that we do not count The Star-Spangled Banner, traditionally performed at the commencement of each season. And the music is English anyway!
This inevitably brought up the issue of whether the nationality or age of the music director matters. The latter is easy to deal with. An organization must decide what kind of leader they wish to have. Those of us with many years of experience bring the stability of knowledge to the position. The young guns have the glamour factor plus the impetuousness that goes with naïveté. But with the economy still in shambles one must not discount the fact that the new faces also cost less. Still, every orchestra must weigh musical merits over the monetary arena.
The nationality issue is a bit trickier. Should a native of the country lead an American orchestra? For many years I felt that the answer was a qualified ‘yes’. There was a time when there were so few at the helm of top orchestras that it was embarrassing. Things have changed. Orchestras in New York, Boston, San Francisco – and Detroit – all have local boys. I would like to think that, just as in the question of age, it is the musical values that matter, not the place where one was born. We are a global society and our musical culture demands that many voices be heard.
In London, Paris and Berlin, the musical directorships of the major orchestras are not from those countries, much less the city. It is possible to argue that this makes the presentation of music from England, France and Germany more difficult, but we have all learned foreign repertoire. As it turned out, conductors who were born elsewhere introduced the majority of the major American symphonic repertoire. Ormandy, Stokowski and Reiner, and mostly Koussevitzky, were the ones who introduced audiences to Copland, Barber, Schuman and so many others.
In one of his first appearances with The Cleveland Orchestra during the 1940s, George Szell presented the Third Symphony of Aaron Copland. Bruno Walter led the first performances of Samuel Barber’s (revised) First Symphony. The list goes on and on.
So let’s salute the new kids on the block. I wish each of them well.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. Next season I will take over the helm of Orchestre National de Lyon. An elder American in France. At least my teacher (Jean Morel) was from Paris!
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
For The Classical Source
They’re all at it!
First we have the Pakistan cricket team shamed for alleged match-fixing; beforehand we had the financial director at the London Philharmonic admitting to “fiddling” the orchestra out of over £640,000.
In the case of Cameron Poole (formerly the LPO’s finance chief), he is said to have used the money to fund a lavish life-style, committing the fraud through the simple act of forging signatures on cheques and credit cards.
In the case of the three Pakistan cricketers the potential crime is similar but perhaps the reasons are different. In Pakistan you can still find countless examples of poverty; children run up to you on the streets of Lahore eager to sell you the latest something-or-other.
Lord Archer, himself familiar with the inside of a prison cell, has spoken up in defence of bowler Mohammad Amir saying “Which one of us at the age of 18, if we came from a poor background, might not succumb, if offered a vast sum of money, to bowl one no-ball…?” No one, it seems, has spoken up for Mr Poole.
Government ministers around the world are saying that things are going to get much more difficult. Many people, when faced with such a forecast, will do their best to preserve their status quo and either hold onto their money for longer or sell things in order to raise cash.
In recessional times it is too easy to succumb to temptation; the allure of extra money when there are wage-freezes and redundancies is easy to understand. But there are always victims – for the LPO which is reliant upon public funding – there may be fewer educational ventures; for the Pakistani cricket team there may be fewer chances for the children who idolise the game at home to ever play professionally.
Worldwide we are looking into a financial abyss and there will inevitably be more losers than winners. Let us hope that those that loose-out are not the poorest or those least able to afford it.
The Classical Source
Classical Source welcomes Roger Wright – Controller, BBC Radio 3 and Director, BBC Proms – as the guest writer of the July and August editorial…
We’re counting down to the start of the 2010 BBC Proms. It is always an exciting week – and it is incredibly heart-warming to feel the interest and warmth shown towards the festival. It seems that the BBC Proms simply grows in importance as each year passes. However I can assure you that no-one in the Proms team takes this for granted and it is a huge team effort to keep the heritage alive and also make it fit for purpose in the 21st-century.
This year we have again decided not to have any non-musical themes – as in recent Proms festivals there are featured performers and composers – and not just those celebrating particular anniversaries. Paul Lewis will be the first pianist in Proms history to play all five Beethoven concertos and I am proud of our focus on Parry and Scriabin. Parry deserves to be known by a broader audience for more than just Jerusalem and the big orchestral scores of Scriabin will sound magnificent in the Royal Albert Hall.
The planning cycles of the Proms are such that most of the following year’s Proms are planned before this year’s begins. So it is hard to build on successes from one year to the next – but I very much hope that we will continue to develop the Proms audience base. Proms last year such as the Ukulele Orchestra, the MGM Prom and late-nights devoted to Philip Glass and Michael Nyman certainly attracted new audiences and I suspect the Jamie Cullum and Penguin Cafe late-night Proms will do the same this year.
The Rodgers & Hammerstein Prom (with the remarkable John Wilson and his orchestra) and the Sondheim 80th-birthday celebration have already proved to be very hot tickets.
Luckily they will both be televised, so those not fortunate enough to be able to attend in person will be able to see them both. It is easy to take this TV coverage for granted but if you go back just a decade or so you will find less than a dozen Proms on TV, now there are almost 30 and on all five BBC TV channels – and in prime-time every Saturday night on BBC2 through the festival. It will be interesting to hear and read the feedback about the new-look TV coverage this year. And, of course, you can hear every programme live on Radio 3.
We begin with the largest-ever opening weekend, so expect long queues for Mahler 8, Die Meistersinger (with Bryn Terfel) and Simon Boccanegra (with Plácido Domingo) and then we will only have reached the first Monday with two months still to go! You’ll be able to spot the Proms team in the Royal Albert Hall or Cadogan Hall – they’ll be the ones reaching for the energy drinks and vitamin pills!
With so much music available and so many artists from which to select (all practical considerations apart!), I know that we will never please our individual audience members with every concert – but with the range on offer and with such value-for-money tickets (thanks to the BBC subsidy) I feel confident that there is something for everyone and that Henry Wood’s vision of quality classical music for the largest possible audience is alive and well.
Exciting days ahead!
For The Classical Source
July & August 2010
Classical Source plans, as it has done for the past seven seasons, to review every concert of this year’s BBC Proms, which begins on Friday 16 July. Details of programmes and much more on the following link.
Music and the World Cup? Who would have thought it?
With just a few weeks to go before the start of the football World Cup to be held in South Africa the red and white St George flag, the flag of England, is to be seen draped from nearly every English window and fluttering from every English vehicle as the start date, 11 June, grows ever closer. England play the USA on the 12th and the jingoism of the Last Night of the Proms will be as nothing compared to the patriotic outpourings of England’s football fans.
Recently I had the pleasure of attending the opening concert of a festival that also celebrates England – the English Music Festival. The patriotic outpouring was a little more subtle here: no flag-waving although, given festival director Em Marshall’s indefatigable energy, I would not put it past her to introduce it at next year’s festival. Just as with English football fans, those of English music are passionate and knowledgeable. They are also just as eager to call ‘foul’ when music of obvious quality is left neglected and underplayed.
Composers such as Elgar and Arthur Sullivan (through his operettas with W. S. Gilbert) are regularly performed in concert halls around the world but what of the others? Mention Holst and you will hear The Planets; mention Eric Coates and it will be The Dambusters March. But, any mention of Holst’s Savitri or Coates’s I Pitch My Lonely Caravan at Night and there are blank faces. There is such a lot of excellent English music and yet we satisfy our ears with just a small fraction of it.
So I set you a challenge: for those who are English when you hear of an England success over the next couple of months, be it in the world of sport, art or even music, you should try to discover for yourself a new piece of music by an English composer. There are lots of them: William Alwyn, Bliss, Delius, Finzi, Gurney and Harry (Birtwistle) to simply name some from A to H. Those of you who are not English might try the same for one of your country’s composers. Success in the World Cup is only possible with the support and encouragement of its fans. The likes of Em Marshall and her team at the English Music Festival can only go so far; we all, as music fans, should be particularly proud of our countries’ musical heritages and so in particular I, as one Englishman, turn to another to encourage all to Follow your spirit, and upon this charge, Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’.
The Classical Source
Do social-media websites and audience-interactive TV shows promote the popular over the truly great?
As reader-generated content creeps indefatigably throughout the World Wide Web and Wikipedia, itself a simplification having left the diphthong of encyclo-pædia behind, has usurped its former master, I wonder at the apparent consensus that every individual has an opinion that is as valid as everyone else.
With the regular airing of popular television shows in which the viewer can vote on the elevation or damnation of a contestant there is a growing belief that the public en masse knows best. This I find worrying. In a similar way many people are now using Google to self-diagnose their illness rather than visit their GP. With hospital wards packed to bursting perhaps stadia replete with sports fans should be considered as an alternative; after all 20,000 people will collectively know enough to diagnose a patient, won’t they?
In allowing ourselves the self-righteous belief that our opinion, however ill-informed, is as valid as any other, our egos are inflated and we are susceptible to media manipulation. Those producing TV shows from The X Factor to ‘search-for-a-Nancy-who-will-do-anything’ understood this from the start. They know that this public involvement is all about consumerism not longevity. Andy Warhol said that “everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes” – and there is a queue of hopefuls outside the door of Simon Cowell ready to start their personal clock ticking.
So if everyone has a say in what is good then is everyone’s opinion equally valid? Unfortunately there is no University qualification in applied-opinion. The ubiquity of the Web has given everyone, regardless of knowledge or experience, an equal voice. Now, in this world of information overload, consumers need to turn to trusted Internet sources, in the same way as they were encouraged to turn to trusted Internet brands a few years ago. The simple aggregation of individual views cannot have the same value as seeking out the few who have the experience to make an informed decision.
In music, what it is that distinguishes the good from the great is probably the passage of time. Almost by osmosis great works of music, literature and art rise to the surface given the passing of time. The public’s appetite for mediocrity is short-lived; what is popular today may be unpopular tomorrow. Only truly great art is able to stand the passage of time.
So without the hindsight of a hundred years how are we best placed to separate the wheat from the chaff? If all of music were judged by the contemporary listening public many works now considered a part of the standard musical repertoire would never have seen the light of day. Equally, music of a bygone age that was perhaps more fashionable than worthy has disappeared from view. Again the simple aggregation of individual views about a particular performance will not reliably give an unbiased opinion upon what is good and what is great.
The fact that you are reading this now is a good sign that you consider the Classical Source, and its reviewers, have the knowledge and experience to give you an unbiased opinion upon the musical good and the great. Would the ability of readers to challenge that opinion make it more valid or would it simply add noise to an otherwise individual and, hopefully, informed view?
In a world where we are more connected to each other than we have ever been before; with tweets and facebook and a host of other social networking sites we are in a unique position to quickly make recommendations to our facebook friends; to spread the word, whatever that word might be. We do however still need to consider the basis of the recommendation, about who is making it and any biases that they might bring with it. In this ‘new world’ where everyone has a voice that is equal, some voices surely need to be more equal than others.
The Classical Source
Simon Rattle Caged
Hermann Witzmann previews a new recording (available from 1 April) of Sir Simon Rattle conducting music by John Cage – 4’33”, Concerto for Piano and 17 Percussion Instruments, Atonal Adventure No.4, and Passacaglia. Sir Simon conducts Berliner Philharmoniker, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard is the pianist.
In 1990, Simon Rattle used his influence to encourage EMI to record Nicholas Maw’s Odyssey, a huge orchestral work otherwise unlikely to have made it to disc. Two decades on, Sir Simon has once again persuaded EMI to agree to a potentially non-commercial project, this time a disc of seminal works by John Cage, three of which have not been previously recorded.
Cage is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4’33”, a work of three movements that proceeds in absolute silence. Although its inclusion might be seen as being driven by marketing considerations, Rattle had apparently long wanted to make a recording but was concerned that audio techniques were insufficiently advanced to do justice to the work. During the last few years, however, EMI has sourced the latest audio transducer technology and equipped itself with 28-bit analogue-to-digital conversion modules, providing a digital output that can be under-sampled to provide a 24-bit signal suitable for mixing to disc. Rattle was finally convinced that a commercial release had become achievable. EMI further agreed to a provide Rattle with a 5.1 SACD release for this work (something of a surprise given the company’s embracement of DVD-Audio), with impressive sonic results.
EMI’s contribution was nothing, however, compared to the effort required in Berlin to make the recording possible. During rehearsals in the Philharmonie with Berliner Philharmoniker, it became apparent that EMI’s sensitive new equipment was picking up the sound of traffic on the nearby Potsdamer Strasse. Fortunately the orchestra has friends in high places. Calls were made to the Mayor’s office, meetings of concerned politicians took place, and rumour has it that even Chancellor Merkel was consulted. Suffice to say that traffic was halted on Potsdam Strasse and U-bahn trains through Potsdam Plats were suspended for the duration of the recording.
What of the Rattle’s interpretation of 4’33”? In 1996 he prepared a performance for inclusion in his Channel 4 documentary series Leaving Home. Unfortunately the producers did not realise that they had 4’33” on tape and, finding themselves with a gap at a convenient point in the programme, overdubbed Rattle’s carefully prepared performance with advertisements showcasing French cars and tea-drinking chimpanzees.
Although we will probably never know how Rattle’s earlier interpretation of 4’33” might have sounded, this performance suggests a conductor totally at ease with Cage’s creation. Rattle’s pacing of the score is idea, pushing ahead in the first movement, relaxing into the second, and allowing a surprising freedom of tempo in the finale. At times during this last movement it seems as if Rattle might finish too early, but a carefully managed rallentando concludes the piece at exactly the duration Cage intended. The interpretation as a whole demonstrates an untrammelled sense of reach and ardour.
Atonal Adventure No.4 (1947) was inspired by a caving trip that Cage had undertaken with college friends 15 years earlier. During the trip, the party’s torches all expired and they were left in complete darkness for 10 hours, uncertain of rescue. The piece represents the friends’ feelings of anxiety through the use of shrieking woodwind and low rumbles in the timpani and double basses. Rattle’s Berlin performance appears to have been set down in one take, the inevitable minor imprecision being more than offset by the remarkable warm and sympathy of the playing.
Concerto for Piano and 17 Percussion Instruments (1956) is one of many compositions that introduce everyday objects into the orchestra, here including four mousetraps and a bucket of frozen peas. Aimard delivers his performance with a lofty sense of command, and Rattle ensures that the accompaniment goes with a bang.
The disc concludes with Passacaglia (1959), with Rundfunkchor Berlin, a piece dating from a period when Chance played an important role in Cage’s output. Indeed, the whole of Passacaglia is left to improvisation, other than a low C alternating between two tubas, the music for the choir otherwise being left entirely to the conductor’s discretion. Rattle’s decisions involve the orchestra playing a series of falling fourths while the choir shouts “Goose”, “Lamb Chop” and “Bratwurst” at certain points. The choir’s interpretation is delivered with impressive clarity and repose.
The booklet contains an essay by Sir Simon entitled Rattle: My Cage, which describes his interpretative approach to the American composer.
For The Classical Source
1 April 2010
The Barbican Centre – Summer and Beyond
Classical Source welcomes Sir Nicholas Kenyon – Managing Director of the Barbican Centre – as the guest writer of the latest editorial…
At the Barbican Centre we have just announced our summer programme and some highlights of future seasons. These plans are built on a very strong foundation: we had a record year last year, selling 1.2 million tickets, and thanks to an outstanding arts programme from Graham Sheffield and his team, we increased arts attendances by 13 percent over the previous year. And this is still continuing now, with advance sales for our Great Performers season increased over last year, and our spring 2011 Berliner Philharmoniker concerts totally sold out.
This is exceptional by any standards. But what we have found –and we’re not alone, this is mirrored across the arts – is a real thirst and enthusiasm from all our audiences, not just for escapism in difficult times, but for challenging, important work that pushes the boundaries, for the diverse range of experiences we have to offer.
It needs saying at this moment that people want the arts, people rate the arts as important in their lives; and also that the arts are one of the most successful, most efficient, and most productive creators of public value and public good in our society. Theatres are full. Museums and galleries are buzzing. Every pound invested in the arts generates at least two or three pounds back in added investment. The support of the City of London Corporation as a major funder of the arts is critical to our work, and greatly valued. The Government’s arts budget is tiny 0.07 per cent of spend, that’s seven pence out of every hundred pounds, and it is complemented by a healthy mix of funding from the private sector, business, trusts and individuals. Politicians of all parties agree on the success of the arts: it is up to all of us to make the case that there is everything to be gained for our society in maintaining and enhancing the current levels of investment which have over the last decade been so phenomenally productive.
So it’s with that as our backdrop that we look forward to our packed programme of “101 things to do this Summer”. Offering a diverse range of activities in the Centre and throughout East London, we’re collaborating with more partners than ever before including the Hackney Empire, Theatre Royal Stratford East, CREATE, Whitecross Street, Shoreditch Park and Stoke Newington Town Hall. Taking in a major ground-breaking exhibition The Surreal House in the Art Gallery, our contemporary music festival Blaze, the return of the critically acclaimed come, been and gone from our Artistic Associate Michael Clark, and a Brazilian Film Festival, there really is something for everyone. Into Autumn 2010 and into 2011 promises a wealth of unmissable events from John Malkovich playing a serial killer in a stage play for a Baroque orchestra The Infernal Comedy, the LA Philharmonic with its new Music Director Gustavo Dudamel to the first-ever exhibition to survey avant-garde Japanese fashion Future Beauty and the return of the Olivier Award-winning Black Watch from the National Theatre of Scotland.
I hope to see you in the Centre or one of our East London events soon.
For The Classical Source
Sondheim at 80 – 22 March 2010
There are many contenders for the title of the “greatest American composer-lyricist of the twentieth century” and they could include Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerry Herman who have all written their own words for their music. The likes of Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe among others have to be eliminated because they only write either the words or the music. Cole Porter could never believe why it often took two people to write a song because he followed in the footsteps of the giant among American songwriters, Irving Berlin. Berlin, Porter and Herman have no equals in the sort of work they produced, which is mainly light musical-comedy songs, although Herman’s output has had its serious sides at times.
However, for his chosen subject-matter alone, which is often dramatic rather than comedic, or sometimes both, Stephen Sondheim wins hands down in the best composer-lyricist stakes. His contribution to the American musical has been phenomenal, culminating in his receipt of multiple Tony Awards, not to mention the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for Sunday in the Park with George, a musical portrait of the French painter Georges Seurat.
Who else but Sondheim would even have thought of that as a subject for a Broadway musical? But then, just look through his list of shows and you find an uncompromising assortment of subjects, from Anyone Can Whistle, about a town that cons it visitors with a fake miracle; through Company, about a man’s incapacity to commit to a relationship; Follies, about vaudeville performers trying to relive their golden days; A Little Night Music, a romantic comedy based on a film by Ingmar Bergman, described as “whipped cream with knives”; Pacific Overtures, or how America forced its way into Japan; Sweeney Todd, a musical thriller about a serial killer; Merrily We Roll Along, in which the cast start out as cynical oldsters and progress back to their promising youth; Into the Woods, a compilation of cruelty as seen through traditional fairytales; Assassins, a roll-call of those who killed America’s presidents; Passion, a tale of obsessive love by an old woman for a young army officer; and The Frogs, a musicalisation of a comedy by Aristophanes that premiered in a Yale University swimming pool.
Would you blame any theatre angel thinking twice about investing in any of these ideas? Maybe not, but somehow the shows got staged and have become part of the countdown in the best examples of the American musical in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Over fifty years ago Stephen Sondheim had his first theatre hit, but only by writing the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Relatively unknown until then, he had hitherto written shows at university and also while under the tutelage of Oscar Hammerstein II who gave Sondheim a real grounding in how to write a musical. In his early days he adapted George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s Beggar on Horseback which was performed at college, Maxwell Anderson’s High Tor (which wasn’t – but it later appeared as a musical for television by Anderson and Arthur Schwartz, with Bing Crosby and Julie Andrews) and Mary Poppins, which Sondheim found impossible to adapt. Later on he provided songs for the plays I Know My Love and A Mighty Man Is He, and incidental music for the play The Girls of Summer. Then came West Side Story, followed by Gypsy, the story of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, which he wrote with Jule Styne, in 1959, because its star, Ethel Merman, wouldn’t trust an untried composer with a new score.
However, it wasn’t long before the first musical with both music and lyrics by Sondheim came along. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum appeared in 1962 and was an enormous hit in the US and in London. Stephen Sondheim had arrived. If he never writes another word or another note, then Sondheim will still be assured of a place in the pantheon of the all-time-great American creators.
Classical Source sends greetings to Stephen Sondheim on the occasion of his 80th-birthday.
For The Classical Source
22 March 2010