Written by: The Classical Source
Strike One and They’re Out
A warm welcome to Leonard Slatkin – Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Patron of Classical Source – as the guest writer of our latest editorial…
It has been my assumption that most of you who read Classical Source regularly are primarily Europe-based, even though there are reporters commenting on the New York music scene. So it is possible that you are unaware of what has transpired in Detroit.
Let me try and fill you in.
The majority of major American orchestras have three-year contracts between themselves and the boards of directors. The Musicians Union represents the players, and management is at the other side of the table. The Detroit Symphony contract expired at the end of August and was up for negotiation. The state of Michigan, where Detroit is located, has been one of the hardest hit during the economic downturn which commenced in 2008, so everyone was expecting a less than favorable settlement for the orchestra.
The two sides were so far apart that there was virtually no way an agreement would be reached in time to begin the season, and so a strike ensued. Work stoppages in the States are a bit different than their European counterparts, as they can last for quite a long time. Ours went on for six months. There was much vitriol and anger as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. The governor of the State as well as a Senator got involved, to no avail.
The prime issues were salary and working conditions. The Music Director’s role during a strike is simple: stay out of it. I met privately with musicians, board members and others, in an attempt to understand all the feelings, which were extreme to say the least. The musicians put on concerts in many areas of the community but Orchestra Hall was off limits. Our public was denied the visual and acoustic splendor that is our musical home.
Finally, after a marathon weekend session of negotiating, an accord was reached. However, the prolonged work stoppage had already started to take its toll. Several musicians found positions with other orchestras or chose to retire, including our concertmaster, Emmanuelle Boisvert. Such losses are to be expected after a strike of this length but it is never good for the morale of an orchestra or its public.
The good news is that we have some new blood on our board, and the majority of the orchestra members wish to make the DSO a strong, viable institution. A shortened seven-week season was put on, with sold-out houses for most of the concerts. Enthusiasm was rampant and showed the musicians that the public still cared. In addition, the board now saw that the orchestra had relevance in this day and age. All of our programs are now streamed as both video and audio. New outreach into the suburban communities began to take place, with concerts in various parts of the Detroit neighborhoods.
My job was to be the prime healing force between all parties. It must be remembered that the music director leads the orchestra but is also answerable to the board. It is a fine line and one that can easily be crossed, but I have been around for a long time and have weathered other storms. My feelings are that we will emerge a better and stronger ensemble, with musical vision and fiscal responsibility standing side by side.
This is a great orchestra, playing in a great hall and with a great public. You can catch us on our website. There will be replays of these past few weeks of concerts as well as a whole new season starting in October. Shameless plug coming … you can also catch up on the latest news by checking in with me monthly. As an aside, the last couple of entries include some very rare audio clips of my parents, including the world premiere performance of the Korngold Cello Concerto.
For The Classical Source
But for the cost of a bassoon…
Recently a young English musician, Linton Stephens, contacted The Classical Source seeking assistance with acquiring a bassoon. Linton is at the beginning of a professional career and currently in Weimar, Germany (he’s originally from Bebington, in the Wirral, Merseyside) after graduating from the Royal Northern College of Music. His plight – raising the money to buy an instrument – raises questions about the immense difficulties talented musicians have in acquiring what are very expensive if essential tools of their trade so that they can pursue their career and passion.
Linton’s experience is not unique. In his case six-hundred e-mails and letters to companies and charities over the past two years brought just the one offer – of £200, very gratefully received. The Musical Instrument Loan Fund offered £5,000, but on condition that Linton purchase a £17,000 bassoon – Linton is not complaining, but this seems deeply cruel.
Of course, musicians like Linton do not expect something for nothing. He wrote telling me of his attempts to scrape as much money together as possible through teaching and playing gigs, though this leaves precious little time to practise, so undermining the very career he seeks to further.
So, this editorial highlights the great difficulties that many upcoming musicians face, especially in the current financial climate, which means that possible benefactors now find it difficult to give. If, in any way, you can offer assistance to Linton, please e-mail him by clicking the link below. Perhaps readers have other ideas for young musicians at the start of their time in the potentially very rewarding world of music.
The Classical Source
19 May 2011
Click here to e-mail Linton
The March of Crossover
On 12 May Classic Brits comes to the Royal Albert Hall. Established in 2000, with a mandate to honour and recognise all forms of classical music, the ceremony has changed its name this year to reflect the diverse range of musical genres that the awards embrace, including musical theatre and ballet.
It has not always sat well amongst the classical music elite: Norman Lebrecht described it as a “carbuncle on the body politic of British culture and of British arts”. Yet despite other disparaging comments, Classic(al) Brits is now in its twelfth year and as popular as ever – and reflected in a prime-time slot on ITV1. Well-liked classical music events continue to attract large audiences, with cash-struck record labels and orchestras clambering to play their part, and reap the financial rewards of this success, sometimes, but not always, at the expense of quality.
By way of contrast, BBC Proms 2011 starts on 15 July, also at the Royal Albert Hall. The prospectus has recently been released, the usual eclectic mixture of the new (a comedy prom on 13 August with Tim Minchin) and the traditional. The brilliant Roger Wright effortlessly manages once more to bring the highest calibre of performers to an enthusiastic and varied audience with only a hint of Crossover – John Wilson makes a welcome return after his 2009 MGM film-music debut.
With 117 years of history behind it the Proms’ organisers have had many more years to get it right – though not always with success. The Crossover movement, to coin a phrase, is a much-more recent phenomena and it is still finding its feet, though it’s learning fast! Wynne Evans, the experienced opera-house performer and part-time insurance tenor, has a new release of music, which he describes as “Michael Bublé for classical music lovers” and it has become a critical success; quality is not always compromised.
On 12 May Classic Brits is honouring John Barry for his film music and exactly three months later the Proms is celebrating the music of Ennio Morricone’s Western soundtracks, so clearly the two camps have more things in common than not. Perhaps critics need to keep this in mind before issuing vitriolic condemnation of the flourishing musical genre that is Crossover.
The Classical Source
The recent Guardian article contrasting the Berlin Philharmonic with the London orchestras upset musicians and concert-goers. Many took umbrage, others nodded that because our orchestras are British they simply cannot be as good.
I have recorded more than seventy orchestras around the world and ours are not second best – and as a bonus our musicians have incomparable skill at sight-reading. The article compared apples with oranges, which seldom works. I have made dozens of recordings in Berlin and it is a great orchestra of character. The string sound is especially polished. However there is also great lustre and style when I work with British orchestras performing with top conductors. And Simon Rattle has just conducted the LSO (7 March)…
We in London should value our orchestras which I know first-hand hold their heads high alongside great ensembles in Berlin, Vienna, St Petersburg, Boston … wherever. We should not only respect them but treat the players reasonably, which the Berliners do get right. Last year one greedy City executive of Barclays earned enough to pay all the annual operating costs for three London orchestras, and that tells something about the capital’s strategic political priorities of which we should be less proud. Other nations have tax regimes which encourage sponsorship, and it is time we did the same here.
On 10 March the Financial Times published an interview with Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, which included mention of a new initiative of an £80m package to boost private-giving to the arts in a scheme that sees the culture department match every £1 of private funding raised by cash-strapped arts bodies. This looks a positive step.
For The Classical Source
8 March 2011
Classical Track of the Day
Record companies are always looking for new ways to promote their latest recordings, often leaving the back-catalogue to fend for itself. Decca this month has done something quite unique in launching its iPhone App “Classical Track of the Day”. It takes as its theme a daily event in history; so far we have had seven tracks (the service started on 7 February) with selections including John Williams’s Theme from Star Wars (John Williams was born on 8 February) and the ‘Liebestod’ from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (in memory of the composer’s death in 1843 – on 13 February).
While the information about each track is sadly very simplistic without reference to either the performers or the conductor, the implementation works very well on both the iPhone and the iPad (though sadly there is no HD version for the iPad yet). Tracks from previous days may also be listened to and the tracks shared on a multitude of social-network sites including Facebook and Twitter. As I managed to listen to a number of tracks while driving, it also appears to work very well over the 3G mobile network in the UK. Perhaps in the next version, a facility to allow tracks to be played one after another would be useful, since selecting tracks whilst driving is not to be encouraged.
Mobile music on demand is nothing new. LastFM and a number of other entities (including Apple’s Genius offering) have the provision to allow users to find music of similar styles, but nobody to my knowledge has done something quite like Decca has: it should be applauded.
The Classical Source
HD or not HD – That is the question…
Classical Source welcomes Tony Faulkner – the eminent recording engineer and audio restorer – as the guest writer of the January 2011 editorial…
In December last year the BBC issued a press-release about improving Radio 3 broadcasts to “HD” sound quality. Maybe I was simply over-excited as well as incorrect in interpreting HD as meaning “High Definition” – for the initials seem to stand for something different at Broadcasting House. The news was thrilling for me and for many listeners … how disappointing then to read the small print. First of all the improvement in sound is only available on live broadcasts relayed via the BBC website. Secondly the upgrading to 320kbps data-rate from 128kbps still leaves Radio 3 degraded by lossy compression (i.e. intentionally quality reducing) to a level below 25 percent of the data-rate for standard-definition Compact Disc. The recording industry faces similar quality challenges, but for us HD does mean High Definition and “better than CD”, not inferior.
There is already a precedent in the BBC’s misuse of the term HD. For those with Plasma, LED or LCD screens, HD in video transmission means 1920×1080 pixels at a data-rate of around 16Mbps. Since August 2009, for UK licence-paying viewers, BBC HD satellite bit-rates on Astra 2D dropped by nearly 40 percent (from 16Mbs to 9.7Mbs) and pictures have been typically 1440×1080 pixels. Yet BBC HD continues to broadcast to non-licence-paying viewers in the rest of Europe at around 16Mbps with the proper resolution of 1920×1080 pixels. To compound such degradation on transmission for us in the UK, during the BBC Proms last year several of the video-relays were made using webcam-style cameras with sub-broadcast-quality images that can only be compared with those from the camcorder we take on holidays.
BBC Radio 3 was an inspiration to me when I decided on a career in recording. In the 1970s the classical recording business was indulging itself in control-room interventions of knob-twiddling, multi-microphones and multi-track, and with some particular audio atrocities emanating from the USA. Radio 3 was a highly-valued refuge for honest sound in the service of music and musicians, and for the pursuit of excellence delivered by FM radio. If I were present at a concert being relayed by the BBC there would have been a simple main stereo microphone set-up placed not so far behind the conductor’s head, plus maybe a couple of other microphones to compensate for a deep sound-stage or to help boost a soloist who could not quite cut through a heavy orchestral texture. The philosophy was that the reproduction was conceived as a channel or as a window, eavesdropping on the event.
Now what I see, and especially hear, can be a complete turnaround. Adding more and more microphones can, and often does, create as much muddle as it does detail. A typical BBC Prom or a relay from the Barbican Hall uses dozens of microphones all over the stage and with more strung together overhead, being mixed into an unnatural anonymous similar-sounding mush coated with a gloss of digital reverberation. During the Proms last year I often heard more fader-driven detail of inner parts than the integrated and convincingly weighty sound of a symphony orchestra. Some smaller-scale relays from, say, the Wigmore Hall still sound a lot more natural, so do a higher proportion of broadcasts originating in BBC Regions (Scotland, Wales, Manchester) for which we must be grateful.
The BBC faces many challenges in the future. One thing it can do in order to maintain its justification is to strive for premium quality in how programmes are delivered to us, and in the production-values of how they are created. Most classical-music lovers have a massive soft spot for Radio 3. Nowadays it faces a lot of heavy competition. Naxos’s subscription service offers a very powerful variant of ‘Radio 3 on demand’ because it gives instant access to a huge range of musical catalogue. Classic FM delivers approachable programming, although this broadcaster’s compression of musical dynamics for ‘easier listening’ is not appealing to those with good and high-end equipment; and, furthermore, its choice of music lacks the breadth and challenge that is Radio 3’s remit. Linn offers HD audio downloads at higher-than-CD digital-sampling rates. YouTube delivers a mountain of video content, admittedly of variable quality, but some of it is comparable with that of webcam BBC Proms broadcasts during 2010, while such as www.wfmt.com from Chicago is impressive, entertaining and informative with many high-grade concerts from around the world.
At the PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) AGM on 9 June last year, it was proposed that the BBC is entitled to define itself as universally admired, and further that it is equable with the NHS in some respects. That R3 is treasured by many of us is undeniable, but such loyalty cannot be counted upon as unconditional when quality is being ‘dumbed-down’. Without supreme and imaginative quality in origination and delivery, sadly the requirement for the BBC will shrink by force of gravity. If the best on offer is a future of sub-CD audio-quality of over-mixed sound (FM is due for the chop, leaving us with DAB and Internet Radio), and home-video TV picture-quality, then those attitudes in combination seem to presage a growing problem, not least when politicians note that the service comes at such a high price for a diminishing audience.
For The Classical Source
A Happy New Year?
Welcome to all our readers, both regular and new. Colin, Kevin, Alan and I, together with the other contributors and helpers at Classical Source, wish you all a safe and musically rich 2011.
As some of you may have noticed, the site was hacked – beginning on New Year’s Eve and into 2011. While little damage was done (and including a few messages to say, in very bad English – “your site is vulnerable”), what happened led me to question whether it is all worthwhile. I spent the whole of New Year’s Day trying to secure the issues that had allowed the hacking to occur and can only hope that I have done enough. There is no such thing as a totally secure website; Google and Facebook were famously hacked during the last year and their respective budgets to protect against this kind of thing are huge.
With one unpaid and part-time developer (me) and an army of reviewers and other staff (all giving their time and skills voluntarily) it would be easy for me to say, “I am not going to subject Classical Source’s staff and readers to the whims of the script-kiddies who deface websites across the world”, give in and, like many other sites have done, close down. I remember the days after the London bombings in 2005; the massed populous of the capital gave the deafening reply that we will continue as normal as not to do so would be a victory to the perpetrators of atrocities.
It may seem outrageous to compare the events of the past couple of days to those of July 2005 – but while the two actions are completely different as orders of magnitude, the sentiment of not giving in is the same. At Classical Source we do not have the money, time or resources to protect ourselves completely from these attacks and we do not collect sensitive data about our readers so there is little monetary value in defacing the site.
My promise to you is that I shall do everything in my power to remove site graffiti that may occur, keeping Classical Source as the valuable resource that is has become. And for those that wish to knock down what has been built-up over the eleven years, here is a message to the bastards that try to break us: You may have the ability, time and inclination to destroy what is good, but what you demolish I shall rebuild and shall continue to do so until you leave us alone.
The Classical Source
2 January 2011