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?