22 August 2014

Pointless Promotions

At what point should we draw the line when describing somebody as “one of the finest” ?  There has to be a finite number of people whose skills exceed the average sufficiently to place them in the implied elite group of “the finest”.  Is that panoply of “finest” measured in the tens, hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands?  Is it a percentage of all those who claim to possess that skill, and if so, what is a realistic percentage; 5%, 10%, 20%, 50%?  Judging from musicians’ biographies, it seems as if just about anyone who can touch a musical instrument can join the ranks of “finest”, and when I read in a new disc sent to me for review that the performer is “one of the finest organists of our time”, while among his repertoire he performs music by “one of Britain’s leading composers”, I recoil in horror.  The sad fact is that, not entirely unacquainted as I am with the names of the great and the good in the organ and composition worlds, I had never heard of either.  I’ll keep you guessing, but warn you that if you are thinking Olivier Latry, Cameron Carpenter, Thomas Trotter, Naji Hakim or even Gillian Weir as the former, or Peter Maxwell Davies, Oliver Knussen, John Rutter, James MacMillan or even Judith Weir as the latter, you are not so much barking up the wrong tree as in entirely the wrong forest.
The sad fact is that, when it comes to promoting musicians, agents (and, increasingly, the musicians themselves) seem terrified of standing out from the crowd. As soon as one of them pops their head over the parapet and declare unequivocally that “x is the finest”, they lay themselves open to all and sundry to take pot shots, rubbishing the claim and putting up their own contenders.  Of course, “finest”, “best”, “most outstanding” and the like are subjective assessments and, correspondingly, open to debate.  To describe in a biography a musician as any of these seems a daft thing to do, and watering it down to the utterly meaningless “one of the…” simply diminishes the artist’s stature.  What no artist or agent seems prepared to do when promoting a musician is to find and promote a Unique Selling Point.  For a reason which defies all logic, their intention seems to be to show that said musician is just like everyone else.  Why otherwise lump them together in the vast heard of “one of the…”?  And certainly the vast swathes of standard repertoire, concert venues and other comparable or better artists listed in biographies seems only to reinforce the notion that the musician is one of the crowd rather than an individual artist with something special to offer.
Read this real biography from a singer.  The sad thing is, I have expunged his name but left the entire biography intact.  I bet you nobody can guess who he is.  Worse than that, I wonder whether if he were to read it himself he might not be too sure whether it refers to him or someone else, so totally anonymous is it with its long lists of standard repertoire and famous concert halls/conductors added to legitimise an artist who would seem to be, on the strength of his biography, nothing very special:
“Xx has appeared at many of the world’s leading international opera houses including the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Glyndebourne Festival, Opera Bastille Paris, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, La Monnaie Brussels, Teatro Comunale Florence, Theatre du Capitole Toulouse, Staatstheater Stuttgart, Teatro Real de Madrid and Teatro La Fenice. He has also sung leading roles with all the British companies including ENO, Scottish Opera, WNO and Opera North. Operatic roles have included Alberich Der Ring des Nibelungen, Scarpia Tosca and Paolo Simon Boccanegra for Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Falstaff and Pizarro Fidelio for Scottish Opera, The Traveller Death in Venice in Lyon, Bregenz and Aldeburgh, Klingsor Parsifal in Nice, Faninal Der Rosenkavalier in San Francisco and Chicago and Balstrode Peter Grimes at the Bastille and in Geneva. Equally at home on the concert platform, he has appeared in all the major UK concert halls and appears frequently at the BBC Proms. Conductors he has worked with include Richard Armstrong, David Atherton, Martyn Brabbins, Paul Daniel, Andrew Davis, Christoph von Dohnányi, Mark Elder, Bernard Haitink, Richard Hickox, Oliver Knussen, Sir Charles Mackerras, Antonio Pappano, Carlo Rizzi and Edo de Waart.”
Each year I set my performance students the task of creating their own biography to promote themselves to concert promoters.  They are told to confine it to 200 words and to make it read as if they have something special to offer; to make them stand out from the crowd.  Almost without exception, far from trying to stand out from the crowd, they seem intent on burying themselves in it with the customary lists of repertoire and associated artists and the inevitable “one of the finest…” assessments.  Only once has one of my students come up with a biography which would make me think about hiring him.  An otherwise inoffensive young Indian student added a photograph of him as a baby and began the biography, “Since screaming louder than any of the other kids in his nursery, xxx has been set on a career as a rock drummer”.  I’d book him for a gig on that alone; irrespective of his true musical talents.
I am drawn to ponder on all these matters after a week spending revising, checking and editing artists’ biographies for the forthcoming concert season.  With the demand to keep all artist biographies to under 250 words, I find myself expunging pages of lists of “orchestras he has performed alongside include”, “prestigious venues she has graced with her playing include”, “conductors with whom he has appeared include” or, worst of all, “her repertoire includes such concertos as” (as if music was just one homogenous lump and none of it has any distinguishing features).  But I have also tried to farm out the ubiquitous “one of the finest”, be it “in the world”, “of today’s” or “of their generation”.  Too often several thousand words boil down to less than 10 when I do this, so thin are the unique selling points in any artist biography.  And worse still, so intent is the artist on listing one-off achievements that they forget all about telling us what they do.  How about this:
“XXX has won numerous prizes and awards in international piano competitions including the ‘ 28th Alessandro Casagrande International Piano Competition’ in Italy in 2008; the Fifth Prize at the ‘16th Leeds International Piano Competition’; a semi-finalist at the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, and the Georges Leibenson Prize in the 67th Geneva International Piano Competition.  She was awarded numerous scholarships including ‘The Robert H.N.Ho Family Foundation Scholarship’, ‘The Coutts Bank Scholarship’, ‘Lee Shuk Chee Memorial Scholarship’ , ‘Hong Kong Music Scholarship’ and was sponsored by the ‘Simon K.Y. Lee Foundation’ . In 2011, she was awarded the ‘ Hong Kong Jockey Club Music and Dance Fund Scholarship’, ‘Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation Scholarship’, ‘Bernard van Zuidan Music Fund Scholarship’ and ‘School of Music Staff Prize Scholarship’. As a recognition for making outstanding achievements in the promotion of arts and culture in Hong Kong, she was awarded the ‘Certificate of Commendation’ by the Hong Kong Government in 2004. In May 2010, she received the ‘Award for Young Artist 2009’ presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. She was also invited to take part in many prestigious international music festivals including the 9th Musical Olympus International Festival in Russia ,The International Chopin Festival in Duszniki, Poland, Virtuosos of Planet 2006 in Kiev, Ukraine, The Festival Transeuropéennes in Rouen, France, Miami International Piano Festival and the Golandsky Institute International Piano Festival”.  Does this performer do anything other than enter for competitions and win scholarships.  Is there any evidence here that she has given a public performance before a ticket-buying audience?.
Would any self-respecting advertising agency survive in the commercial world spouting such drivel.  Imagine a similar sort of promotion for a chocolate bar:
“Cadbury’s Dairy Milk is one of the finest chocolate bars currently available in the market place.  It can be found in shops such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s, W H Smith’s, John Menzies, Waitrose, Cold Storage, Jason’s, Giant, Fairprice, Carrefour, Woolworths and Coles, and on shelves alongside Belgian, Swiss, American, Australian and Malaysian chocolate bars.  It can be found at airports where flights take off and land to such places as Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Americas, and has been bought by members of the governments of the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore and by CEOs of the such companies as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, the Boeing Aircraft Corporation, Ninja Plastics and China Waste Management and the like.”  Is there anything in that which would make you prefer it over, say, a similar bar of Hershey’s?  I cannot imagine that any advertising agency presenting that to Cadbury’s would keep their contract; yet this is exactly the kind of mediocre drivel we use to sell musicians. 
So when I read of the organist who “is renowned in the UK and abroad for virtuosic, intelligent and engaging repertoire from the 14th to the 21st centuries” and stands as “one of the finest organists of our time”, I am profoundly unimpressed.  I am even less impressed by the fact that he “performs throughout the UK, Europe, Australia and Singapore” (how can any organist “perform throughout Singapore”? – but that’s by the by).  Which is all a bit of a shame since, on the evidence of his CD, Daniel Moult is quite a good player and, ironically, far better than his over-inflated biography suggests.  I do, however, remain unconvinced that there is any substantial cohort of composers who would happily feel led by Graham Fitkin, despite his claim to be “one of Britain’s leading composers”.  His six-minute organ piece Wedding despite claiming to be “frequently complex” rehearses so much familiar territory that it loses all sense of identity (the composer categorises himself as “post-minimalist”, which I take to assume he studied composition by means of a very short mail-order correspondence course).
While I wish all musicians and their agents would spend a few months learning the real art of writing promotional literature in a proper advertising agency, it can go a bit too far.  I wonder if anyone could ever take this psycho-babble seriously?:
“If one word applies to Lang Lang, to the musician, to the man, to his worldview, to those who come into contact with him, it is “inspiration”. It resounds like a musical motif through his life and career. He inspires millions with open-hearted, emotive playing, whether it be in intimate recitals or on the grandest of stages –such as the 2014 World Cup concert in Rio, with Placido Domingo, to celebrate the final game; the 56thGRAMMY Award, where he played with Metallica; the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where more than four billion people around the world viewed his performance, the Last Night of the Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall, or the Liszt 200thbirthday concert broadcast live to more than 500 cinemas around the US and Europe. He forms enduring musical partnerships with the world’s greatest artists, from conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel and Sir Simon Rattle, to artists from outside of classical music –among them dubstep dancer Marquese “nonstop” Scott and jazz titan Herbie Hancock. As he inspires, he is inspired. As he is inspired, he inspires others. It is this quality, perhaps, that led the New Yorker to call him “the world’s ambassador of the keyboard”.  And the child Lang Lang was and who, perhaps, is always with him, would surely have approved of the way he gives back to youth.”  As a famous editor of the Sunday Express newspaper used to be so fond of writing; “Pass the sick bag, Alice”.

22 July 2014

Serving Queen and Country?

Congratulations to Judith Weir on being appointed Master of the Queen’s Music.  The first female holder of the post and the first, I think I’m correct in saying, to have been appointed while her predecessor is still alive - two more fundamental changes to a post which itself changed beyond all recognition over the previous decades.

It would be lovely to say that Judith Weir is the ideal choice for this post.  But is she?  And, frankly, what does the post entail that would allow anyone to define what “the ideal choice” would be?

Perhaps the best way to show the real significance of this post during the reign of the current monarch is to ask how many people can tell you the name of Weir’s predecessor?  What impact did Peter Maxwell Davies make while holding the role? We thought his predecessor, Malcolm Williamson, was a pretty inactive Master of the Queen’s Music; especially coming after Arthur Bliss whose fanfares and ceremonial marches defined the early part of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.  But who can list what Max has done in the role?  There was a royal wedding (William and Kate) – memorable pieces by John Rutter and Paul Maelor – and a fair crop of state visits, royal occasions, important national occasions, all of which passed by without any obvious contribution from the man honoured as being a major figure in British music. He did write a Christmas carol, which was privately performed to the Queen, and both Charles and Camilla and William and Kate asked for one of his (pre-Master of the Kings Music) compositions to be played during their respective weddings, but that is hardly in the same league as, say, Purcell’s Birthday Ode for Queen Mary or Elgar’s Nursery Suite.  Will Judith Weir, who for many people is still best known for her Christmas carol, Illuminare, Jerusalem, do anything to bring music once again into the arena of major state events, or will she see it merely as a badge of honour in recognition of past achievements?

I hold out little hope, not least because music no longer matters to the mass of people.  Saturated with musical sounds the very ubiquitousness of which breeds a comfortable and comforting familiarity, the general public has lost its ability to be stirred by new music.  When every tiny journey, every visit to a shop, every meal or drink taken and every piece of visual and aural entertainment is done accompanied by music (I watched TV footage of the grisly aftermath of the crash of MH17 and was almost as upset by the faint but inevitable background music added by a producer convinced that reality can only exist with a musical accompaniment as I was by the horrors of that reality), what purpose is there in adding music to a major national event?  And when for most people music is confined to “playlists” comprising familiar “songs” they have, through continued exposure, come to regard as quite nice, there is no market for something new beyond a few fringe weirdoes, like myself, who use rather than abuse their ears. We have almost reached that point where, to mark some very special event, we need silence as being the exception to our daily life
The promise of a Musical Monarch?

In her public life, at least, music is not something which Queen Elizabeth puts high up on her agenda of genuine interests; but her successor does have a reasonable musical pedigree and has shown an alert interest in music.  Criticised as he is for his interventions in matters of environment and social inequality, I wish the Prince of Wales could intervene on the issue of music?  He would be shot down in flames by those who choose to criticise any utterance from a member of the royal family, but at least he would have sparked a debate which might, just might, give some credence to a post which has become grotesquely devalued and seems largely redundant today.
Explore Judith Weir's choral music with this excellent disc from Delphian (DCD34095)

20 July 2014

An English Ring

There is a certain religious undercurrent in Wagner’s Ring, but at heart these four connected operas tell a story which is based on mythology and legend rather than either historical fact or religious belief.  However, less than 25 years after The Ring, another major composer embarked on an interrelated series of substantial works telling one of the most epic stories of all time - the founding of the Christian church - giving the Kingdom of Heaven and the work of the Disciples every bit as much musical stature as was afforded Valhalla and the resident Gods.  Sitting through last night’s opening of the Proms, there were times when memories of The Ring flooded in; not least in the extreme length of the work and the almost endless stream of wonderful musical moments, both orchestral and vocal.  We were experiencing the second of what Elgar had intended as a trilogy of oratorios, The Kingdom.

Stephen Johnson has written about the origins of Elgar’s projected oratorio trilogy; “Elgar remembered the event that first set his imagination working towards this exalted goal. A teacher at his Worcester school, Francis Reeve, told Elgar’s class: ‘The Apostles were very young men and very poor. Perhaps, before the descent of the Holy Ghost, they were no cleverer than some of you here.’ Gradually, the young Elgar began to think in terms of a religious work about those lowly, uneducated men who had laid the foundations of modern Christianity. The idea stayed with him into adulthood – the first sketches date from the early 1880s – but by the time he sat down to compose in earnest, it had become clear that one work, however ambitious, could hardly contain all he wanted to say. And so Elgar arrived at the idea of the trilogy: three full-length oratorios depicting the calling of the twelve young men (The Apostles), the beginning of their evangelical mission on earth (The Kingdom) and – most ambitious of all – the outcome at the end of time (The Last Judgement). Wagner’s monumental operatic Ring cycle would at last have found its religious counterpart”.

The first oratorio in the projected trilogy is The Apostles.  About 20 years ago I was involved in a performance in Bangor, North Wales, and became so utterly captivated by this that I have since spent much of my time pursuing performances and recordings of what I regard as a truly epic choral work, with some of the most spine-tingling moments you would find in all of music.  I have never had quite such a feeling about the second instalment – the “slow movement of the choral symphony” as some of the publicity for last night’s performance put it – and despite Andrew Davis’s inspired and inspirational direction, I’m not entirely sure I have been won over to The Kingdom in the way I was with The Apostles.  It is certainly, and deliberately, a more subdued work, although there are some truly exciting moments, and I have to say in the Albert Hall and with the vast numbers of performers involved in last night’s concert, these had a shattering (if not always really clearly audible) impact.  Despite a voice which seemed once or twice to be suffering in the heat, you would have to go a very long way to find as good a baritone soloist as Christopher Purves; the baritone carrying the bulk of the solo work in The Kingdom.  Focused and pitch perfect, his sparkling diction and complete conviction of delivery contrasted very favourably with the two female soloists – Erin Wall and Catherine Wyn-Rogers - both of whom seemed a little too reminiscent for my taste of those days when both vocally and visually female soloists felt they were the most important part of any performance (in much the same way as did tenors in Italy).  The tenor in this performance was Andrew Staples, a very impressive voice but a little too transparent always to be wholly convincing.

But to get back to the work itself, it is one of music’s most tantalizing “what ifs”.  What if Elgar had completed the third part?  Would we have had an English “Ring” presenting to the world the image of England (and its Colonial possessions, at their most numerous around the time Elgar was working on these three oratorios) as the symbolic recreation of Heaven on Earth, just as Wagner’s Germany was the actual embodiment of the mythical Valhalla complete with heroic deeds and a world-beating attitude?  If the belief that “God is an Englishman” (a sentiment sometimes expressed – and not always tongue-in-cheek – in the early decades of the 20th century) allowed the English to believe that their church was the only true avenue by which Christian faith could be channelled, then Elgar’s projected trilogy was to be a work which also celebrated England itself.  What would the world have made of that?  Might not it have led to the re-evaluation of English composers in the pantheon of great composers, and re-written the Classical Canon to dilute the overwhelming Germanic flavour?    

So the question is why, with two parts already completed, did Elgar never complete the third?  He certainly continued working on it for most of the rest of his life, but the completion of The Kingdom coincided with (or maybe caused) a marked deterioration in Elgar’s health.  Johnson suggests that as the work neared completion “he began to suffer seriously from anxiety and depression”.  In Elgar’s own time, the influential critic Ernest Newman understood and voiced the concerns Elgar had about tackling such a huge project:  “He has seen fit to fasten upon his own back the burden of an unwieldy, impossible scheme for three oratorios on the subject of the founding of the Church; and until that scheme is done with, and Elgar seeks inspiration in a subject of another type, the most sanguine of us cannot expect much from him in the way of fresh or really vital music.”

Another problem which Elgar faced and which may well have prevented him from completing what more than one commentator has described as “An English Ring”, was the lack of musically intelligent English singers.  As he wrote in a letter shortly before the first performance of The Apostles, “Oh these singers – where are their brains?”  He described English voices as “too white”, and hankered after some of the darker voices of Dutch and German singers he had heard on his European travels.  Given the fact that the first performance of The Apostles in Birmingham in 1903 was met with muted response caused, in the words of the critic Arthur Johnstone, because it is “austere and difficult to understand”, one is led to the conclusion that neither English musicians nor English audiences were intellectually, spiritually or musically ready for such a work.  And if the English could not perform it or appreciate it, what value was there in Elgar ever completing it?

15 July 2014

A Grumpy Auld Composer

A few months ago, Gramophone magazine asked me to prepare a profile of the Scottish composer James MacMillan, who celebrates his 55th birthday this year.  Knowing his output from my work reviewing church and choral music, I thoroughly enjoyed delving deeper into this highly imaginative and accessible voice, so reprint my article here, not quite as it appeared in Gramophone.  Since then, however, I have been seeking out MacMillan's music and have taken a great liking to everything I have heard.  Might I recommend readers of this to head towards this disc when it appears later this month?  I've reviewed it for  September's Gramophone, so my lips are sealed; let's just say, I loved it!

This is going to be Scotland’s Year in the limelight.  September sees the historic referendum to determine whether or not, 700 years after the Battle of Bannockburn effectively consolidated Scottish Independence, and after 307 years of union, Scotland breaks away from the United Kingdom to become a fully independent state.  Meanwhile, the eyes of the sporting world will focus on Glasgow in July when the city hosts the 20th Commonwealth Games. Receiving rather less coverage in the global media, but nonetheless significant in its own small way, October will see the launch of a brand new Scottish music festival, the Cumnock Tryst, which will welcome some significant artists to the country attracted not so much by the architectural gems or gentle climate of this small Ayrshire town, as by the festival’s Artistic Director, James MacMillan, the doyen of the current breed of Scottish composers, for whom 2014 is also something of a landmark; he turns 55 this year.

James MacMillan
Having past the half-century mark, MacMillan can be excused his periodic splenetic outbursts as he fends off what he sees as attacks on his native land, his profound Roman Catholic faith and, of course, music, in his Daily Telegraph blog (one outburst against the perceived anti-Englishness of the Scottish National Party prompting a reader to describe MacMillan as “the self righteous, self appointed spokesman for extreme Catholicism in Scotland”).  But if he looks to be moving into the ranks of Grumpy Old Men, as a composer MacMillan’s utter conviction in his firmly-held beliefs only serves to ignite a creative spark which blazes today with as much energy and self-confidence as it did back in 1990 when he first established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the British music scene with the première of The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie at that year’s Proms. 

MacMillan’s own commentary on The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie reveals his abiding interest in the church’s often stormy progress through Scottish history, as well as his desire to tell epic tales through music (it is also evidence of his long-held hatred of both social injustice and religious bigotry); “Between 1560 and 1707 as many as 4,500 Scots perished because their contemporaries thought they were witches. The persecution of witches was a phenomenon known to Catholic and Protestant Europe at this time but the Reformation in Scotland gave an impetus to the attack on ‘witches’ which became a popular and powerful crusade”.  Musically, this dark episode in Scotland’s religious past has inspired something both extraordinarily vivid and deeply moving, which clearly resonated with a non-Scottish audience in 1990 and continues to do so to this day; as the critic for the Daily Telegraph put it, “MacMillan brilliantly demonstrated in Isobel Gowdie that accessibility need not necessarily involve compromise... all its various musical elements - be they Scottish folk tune, Gregorian chant or pure MacMillan - are by no means merely illustrative but emanate from a powerful, all-embracing and unifying emotional impulse”. 

Those “various musical elements” are certainly diverse, and reveal MacMillan to be a true catholic in the full sense of the word - as meaning inclusive and all-embracing.  So confident is he in his own stylistic voice, that while elements which would seem violently contradictory rub up against each other with almost disarming directness, his music comes across not just as coherent, but immediately accessible.   That stylistic self-confidence has not come with age, but was there from the very start .  The Scotsman, reviewing the première this January of Symphonic Study, a work written back in 1981 but which (in his own words) the composer “kind of forgot about”, suggested the young Macmillan had borrowed “mercilessly from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring”.  (The review added, however, that the work also revealed “the mystical harmonic shrouds that, even today, weave a spectral miasma around MacMillan’s centrally binding melodic threads”.)  MacMillan himself acknowledges influences in his music from a great many 20th century composers, singling out those who “have been shaped by religious quests in our time - Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Harvey, Tavener, Pärt, Górecki”.  But he also recognises influences from much further back; “From antiquity I have been taught much by the great contrapuntalists from Palestrina and Victoria to Bach. They inspire modern composers on the need to explore complexity in whatever music is being created”.

Clearly, a deep-seated Catholic faith is at the very core of MacMillan’s writing; his sacred music includes a congregational setting of the Mass (Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman) composed in 2010 for the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain – although MacMillan has since declared that “I have decided to stop writing congregational music for the Catholic Church... there is too much music being created, at the same time as the vast repository of tradition is ignored and willfully forgotten”.  It remains to be seen how true he will be to his word, but he admits that his secular music “can on many occasions be inspired by some reflection on theology or another aspect of religion. This is inevitable, I suppose, for a believer and a Catholic. For example I have now composed two Passion settings; a St John and a St Luke. There are also many purely instrumental works which hover around similar territory - my piano trio Fourteen Little Pictures (based on the Stations of the Cross) and the triptych of orchestral works Triduum (based on the three days before the Resurrection)”. 

However, the most constant musical influence in his writing is drawn from his Scottish heritage; “Along with a number of Scottish composers like Judith Weir, Edward McGuire and others I developed a keen interest in Scottish traditional music. Some of us have absorbed this experience into our own music in different ways. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes sub-conscious. With me, I think it is there in a certain modality that appears from time to time, and a degree of ornamentation that can be traced back to bagpipe music like pibrochd, and other sources. All this has been drawn in to a wider mix, so it is not always immediately observed in all my pieces, but it is certainly there as a subliminal ingredient. It has cropped up a lot in my most recent choral music.” 

Beyond choral music, MacMillan’s latest works give a vivid demonstration of the extraordinary range of this amazingly versatile composer.  January saw the première (in London) of the Viola Concerto, the latest in a series of concertos conceived along traditional lines which so far have included works for piano, violin and oboe.  Last November an organ piece, St Andrews Suite composed for the 600th celebrations of the founding of the University of St Andrews, was premièred by Thomas Wilkinson in the University’s ancient St Salvator’s Chapel, scene of some of Scotland’s more extreme religious conflicts.  July saw the première in Stuttgart of an orchestral poem, The Death of Oscar, inspired by a monumental Scottish sculpture by Alexander Stoddardt, while in February 2013 his sixth opera, Clemency, based on the Old Testament tale of Abraham and Sarah, was staged in the US after its successful première at the Royal Opera House. And earlier this year MacMillan personally promoted musical Scotland abroad when he directed the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on tour in India.  

When the referendum votes have been counted and the sporting medals all been given out, James MacMillan seems set to keep at least one aspect of Scottish life at the forefront of international consciousness.

Global Orchestras

The Proms starts on Friday and one of the themes running through this season is World Orchestras.  A few years ago such an idea would have been inconceivable.  Back then the Proms was an essentially British music festival showcasing British orchestras and musicians.  If foreign orchestras were invited – and it is only 50 years since the first non-British orchestra appeared at the Proms - it was because they offered something very special; that they were world-renowned, iconic and, above all artistically excellent.  Even then, they often got a hard time.  I recall the Leningrad Phil getting a frosty reaction when they delivered Rachmaninov 2 with the cuts that André Previn and the LSO had so pointedly reinstated on the iconic LP which effectively brought the work to the attention of the Great British Public.  And I remember the message being sent around the prommers before the entry of The New York Phil (or was it The Cleveland?) to call out “What’s an orchestra like you doing in a place like this?” once they had made their entrance.  (You could, of course, take that message either way, but those around me certainly felt that it was a criticism of the orchestra rather than of the Royal Albert Hall.)

This year, the organisers have looked around the world and picked a handful of western-style symphony orchestras to join in the fun.  We have the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (playing Holst, Respighi, Balakirev, Handel and Mozart on 29th July), the China Philharmonic (playing Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Mussorgsky on 19th July), the Iceland Symphony (playing Schumann and Beethoven on 22nd August) , the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (playing Strauss, Elgar and Berlioz on 19th August), the Qatar Philharmonic (playing Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky on 7th September) , the Seoul Philharmonic (playing Debussy and Tchaikovsky on 27th August) and the Singapore Symphony (playing Glinka and Rachmaninov on 2nd September).  It’s all part of a drive to make the Proms more “global”.

Up to now such orchestras would never have, in their wildest dreams, imagined being invited to perform at the Proms, but over the last few years there has been a shift away from musical excellence and a move towards “inclusivity”.  Aware of the Proms’ image as one of the UK’s iconic events, organizers have sought to draw in an audience which is no longer solely focused on Classical music.  Capitalising on its BBC connections, it has begun to incorporate other BBC franchises which have a global footprint.  Thus we have CBBCs [children’s] Proms, Dr Who Proms, Gardening Proms and a Sports Proms, can a Top Gear Prom, a Masterchef Prom or a Strictly Come Dancing Prom be far off?  And it doesn’t seem entirely inconceivable that a “Britain’s Got Talent” Prom might be added to the mix one day, provided the BBC manage to grab the franchise from the Commercial broadcasters.  Musical connections have become ever more obscure, and in some quarters the classical music element is almost wholly overlooked.  I notice an Asian publicity drive by one UK tourist agency which highlights not the Proms, but the Proms in the Park, as an event not to be missed, promoting it as a kind of soft-core Glastonbury without the tents or the astronomical admission fees.

And with the dilution of the Classical Music element has come the dilution of the Excellence tag; which is not to say that these foreign orchestras are not very good indeed, just that they are not the world beaters in musical excellent which hard-core prommers once took as the standard.  The modern Proms audience has a very different profile from what it once was, and those enjoying the Corporate Hospitality, block-booked tourist agency or competition-won seats will have a wonderful time hearing great music played very well.  Those prommers with a less snooty attitude to what the Proms is all about will also enjoy these orchestras (I can speak at first-hand for five of them) and the music they perform. 

However, there is a question which nags at my mind, happy as I am to see the net widen and the Proms open its doors to orchestras from, shall we say, the second division globally.  And that is, is there anything really, truly, “Global” about these orchestras?  True, most of them will include one work which comes (very loosely, in the case of the Singapore Symphony) from their neck of the woods, but listen to their music-making; would you really be able to guess the nationality of the orchestra they represent?  Once upon a time you could tell a Russian horn player from an American one by the sound they produced, but no longer.  The spread of teachers and players to all corners of the world has effectively neutralised the sound of orchestras, and even where, as in the case of the China Philharmonic, the vast majority of players on stage look Chinese, they certainly do not sound it.  With many of the players in these orchestras having themselves moved across continents (fans of the old Malaysian Philharmonic might like to count the number of their former colleagues they espy amongst the ranks of the Qataris) the days of an orchestra having a distinct national sound are long gone.

On top of that, Classical music is very much a global thing, and one of its defining characteristics is the ability for it to be disseminated with equal validity across continents and cultural boundaries.  With that in mind, is there any artistic or musical value in bringing all these orchestras into London from around the world? 

22 June 2014

Traditional Touches

Think of Scotland and many things spring to mind.  For the Japanese and Americans, it seems, whisky and golf are the pre-eminent Scottish symbols.  Those with a love for the outdoors will see accessible mountain ranges and surprisingly well-developed ski resorts, while those whose interests are of a more sedentary nature might look to haggis, deep-fried Mars Bars, cans of Irn-Bru or the ubiquitous, grease-filled Scots Pie, as the ultimate symbols of Scottish cuisine.  Fashionistas see Tartan as Scotland's gift to their world, while those of a literary bent might associate the country with gritty and raw detective novels set in Glasgow or gentler ones set in Botswana.  Those in the financial world see it as a land of thrift and careful husbandry of resources; unless, that is, they are derived from the North Sea where, for those whose real interest lies in accumulating money at whatever cost, the oil industry is seen as the true purpose of Scotland (my nephew comes up with the lovely term "Rig-Pigs" for the innumerable loud-mouthed men who flock to the east coast to work in the oil and gas industry).  Art snobs believe Edinburgh tops Europe for its art galleries and festival, and Trendy Young Things think a Fringe has nothing to do with hair but lots to do with opportunities to amuse in Scotland. And those who feel the true soul of a nation lies in its folk art and music, see Scotland as the land of the Ceilidh, the Bagpipe and the Traditional Fiddle.

Attending a gathering devoted to Traditional Scottish Fiddling (of the musical kind, I hasten to add) I was handed a guide book to let me know what made a good Traditional Scottish Fiddler.  Apparently "In the past the fiddle was held not under the chin but under the shoulder.  But modern fiddlers have higher artistic and musical ideals, and have adopted a more violinistic approach".  Which begs the question, what is Traditional Scottish Fiddling and what is Proper Violin Playing of Traditional Scottish Fiddle Music?

I feel our man on the left is holding it too far below
the shoulder even for an arch-traditionalist!

Of course, the word Traditional means different things to different people.  In the case of Scots fiddlers, most of the music they play goes back no further than the Victorian age (and very little of it is that old) and even "traditional" airs seem largely to have been composed by Robbie Burns (1759-1796).  Nevertheless, there is a fine tradition of fiddle playing which you can still encounter in remoter areas, untainted by "higher artistic and musical ideals", and away from the interfering eyes of "experts on traditional music", you might still see a fiddler talking, looking around or even, on one memorable occasion, smoking a cigarette (the ban on the traditional Scottish past time of smoking in pubs has had unforeseen repercussions far beyond the prevention of lung cancer and heart disease) while playing, his fiddle grasped in a claw-like left hand which never changes position, rarely indulges in vibrato but seems to have an unerring instinct for intonation, ornamentation and controlled portamento (not, I hasten to add, words which any self-respecting Traditional Fiddler should understand).

No good for Beethoven - ideal for Robbie Burns
It worries me that the "artificiation" (there's a word the Americans haven't thought of yet) of traditional music is actually killing it.  If you need a classically-honed technique to be a good Traditional Fiddler, you are no longer a Traditional Fiddler.  It's an issue which affects so much in the world of ethnomusicology where there is a tendency to elevate a traditional amateur pastime into a formalised artistic endeavour.  Competitions and intellectual discussion on traditional art inevitably lead to the creations of a set of criteria which, by their very nature, go completely against the purpose and origins of traditional music.  Traditional music is, more-or-less by definition, part of an oral tradition.  Formalise it by devising rules and it can no longer be called properly Traditional.

From Afghanistan to Syria with Bach

Long haul flights - and I feel I undertake more than my fair share of these - provide the ideal opportunity to catch up on some serious listening.  On-board entertainment has changed beyond all imagination in the years I've been flying intercontinentally, and with well over 100 movies shown on demand in wide-screen monitors with outstanding sound heard through top-rate headphones, not to mention vast numbers of on-demand audio recordings, I should not need to provide my own in-flight entertainment.  How easy it is to escape the tedium of a flight and allow the plane's entertainment system to while away the hours filling one's brain with images and sounds. But I cannot fly without being glued to the live on-screen map showing the flight's progress, which rules movies out for me (I hate leaving the map even for the short walk to the nearest washroom), and for all the choice, the on-board music is pretty predictable fare.  So when I get on board, I settle down,  switch on the map, take a glass of something fizzy and wait for the seat-belt lights to go out.  Then it's out with the portable CD player, the noise-cancelling headphones and the latest crop of as-yet-unheard CDs.  I reckon the average flight between Singapore and the UK requires six CDs (allowing time for sleep, meals and walkabouts), and it is my ambition to get through them all on a single flight.

My last long-distance flight was actually a 3 CD-er; I was taking the flight from Delhi to Istanbul.  As we levelled out over Pakistan, I fetched down my three CDS which, taken from a backlog built up over the past few weeks, all featured the music of Bach.  As we crossed over Afghanistan and headed towards Kabul, on went the latest installment of the Bach cantata series on BIS with Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan.  I have derived much delight from this series, and was eagerly looking forward to hearing the second of the volumes devoted to secular cantatas, but it proved to be a disappointment (BIS-SACD-1971).  I found the sound rather lifeless, the performances clean rather than committed - typified by a surprisingly pedestrian opening Sinfonia (taken from one of the Brandenburg Concerti) in which the valveless horns were even more than usually rough - and impressive as the international line-up of soloists was, they proved to be too different in their approach to gel convincingly as a group.  It all sounded a little - dare I say it? - routine.  There were, of course, high points.  There's a lovely "Sheep May Safely Graze", with a pure-toned Sophie Junker accompanied by two endearing recorders.  We so often hear this delightful aria out of context, that to experience it in its true setting is always a joy.  There is also a wonderfully buoyant closing chorale to Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre Macht which I enjoyed so much I immediately repeated the track.

We were still over Afghanistan when I moved on to my next choice, a new release on the Brilliant Classics label with the somewhat unenticing title of "A German Soul" (94717).  I had been sent this as a gift and was not expecting very much from it; I somehow have unaccountably low expectations from any Spanish ensemble (how ridiculously prejudicial can you get?).  But immediately it was obvious that Ensemble Meridien is a group who not only love making music, but have that rare ability to communicate their enjoyment through the somewhat impersonal medium of a digital recording.  Everything was a joy, but it was their take on one of Bach's organ Trio Sonatas (the D minor BWV527) which really bowled me over.  My personal measure of success in a  CD is how often I repeat tracks during a single sitting.  I don't think I've ever gone over five back-to-back repetitions;  the only time I hit that number was with my first taste of Piazzolla on an Australian Eloquence recording featuring the New World Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas.  I stuck it into the car CD player on the journey from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast and then sat overlooking a spectacular beach, continually pressing the repeat button until a grain of sand got into the player and scratched the disc into unplayability.  But this wonderful Bach got four. I know how much fun there is to be had from playing this music on the organ (although generally it's more fun to play than to hear), but I wish all organists could listen to this version for chamber ensemble just to learn how much more there is to this music than the physical demands of playing three independent lines.  Even the continuo organist is having huge fun (at 00:42 in the 3rd movement).  A wonderful and life-affirming performance which contrasted oddly with the tarnished Iraqi soil over which we were flying, the members of ISIS apparently progressing over it on foot as quickly as we were by air.

I know that it is a function of news to report the unusual and the exceptional, but we are so overwhelmed by the news of atrocities and terrors in Iraq, that it is difficult to perceive that anyone on the ground beneath our plane was able to live in peace or tranquility, let alone get themselves into the mood to savour the sheer joy of these performances from this outstanding Spanish ensemble. 

 Crossing into Syria, I felt the incongruity of joyous music and pained existence on the ground a little too keenly and, reluctantly I put Ensemble Meridien aside for a programme of assorted Bach organ pieces in orchestral transcriptions (Naxos 8.572741).  Oozing pathos and revelling in self-indulgent emotional excess, the first track was Respighi's transformation of the chorale prelude on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland into a pained outpouring of grief from the lower strings.  Aided and abetted by Gerard Schwarz's unrestrained expressive nuances, this proved to be too much to bear and seemed to encapsulate the loss of hope for peace in the area.  But just as I thought I might have to abandon musical pleasure for the sunnier delights of the latest Hollywood guns and bombs blockbuster, Respighi turned his hand to two other preludes, Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn and Wachet auf, and while no self-respecting organist would dream of lavishing such over-the-top romanticism on these pieces (not least Respighi's addition of fistfuls of orchestral stops as the latter reached the kind of vast climax I had never spotted in the organ original), the sheer nonsense of it all brought a smile back to my face. 

Unable to take much more of these grotesque parodies of wonderful music, I switched off and turned to the glorious and vivid sound I carry with me everywhere; my musical memories.  And I replayed these chorale preludes in my head, in versions which combined Marie-Claire Alain's ingenious use of registration with Ton Koopman's sprightliness and Simon Preston's boyish buoyancy.  Re-living the glories of Bach reminded me that while the Muslims on the ground were, if the news reports were to be believed, celebrating their religion with violence, hatred, bloodshed and inconceivable atrocities, at least in some areas, Christianity still celebrates the joy and beauty of life.  Bach's Lutheran faith as portrayed by his organ choral preludes underlines more vividly than anything the huge chasm which has grown up between these two monotheistic religions.  True, Christianity has its problems and its fundamentally misguided leaders and adherents (I never go into a church these days simply because I feel so alienated by the widespread belief that, since Christ died in his mid-30s, there is no place in Christianity for anyone over the age of 40), but the prominence afforded to the ignorant, the violent and the intolerant in Islam, points to something having gone even more fundamentally wrong with that religion.  A documentary I caught on television in India about how the more violent and aggressive inmates in prisons were being converted to Islam only reinforced that view.  How convenient to be able to transfer responsibility for violent and inhuman actions to a long-dead prophet rather than accept responsibility for ones actions oneself.  (True, the Catholics have their Confession which allows them to do whatever wrongs they like and then have the slate cleared, as it were.)

Long-haul flights might inure one to the horrors of life on the ground 30,000 feet below, but spending the time listening passively to great art opens up channels of thought and contemplation which are denied those who, quite understandably, indulge in the escapism of on-board movies.