It was being whispered last week at the first of the two Berlin Philharmonic appearances at the Proms that attendance across the board this year has been 94%. If this is true, and is maintained to the end, it is a staggering achievement. Every year for the last fifteen or so, the press office at the BBC has put out ever-increasing claims about the number of people who have bought tickets, in such a way that I never quite believed them. The increase year on year was somehow too reliable. But this would trump them all by far.
Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category
What with all the talk of cuts, and the Proms being a show case for the BBC house ensembles, I imagine this year’s season might be a time for each to put their best foot forward. I imagine, in fact, that there must be some talk in rooms that used to be smoke-filled of scrapping one or two of them. In total they are: the BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the BBC Philharmonic, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Between them these groups will appear in 37 concerts, which is almost exactly half the total of 76, not counting the Proms Saturday Matinees (add 5) or the Proms Chamber Music Series (add 8).
The following appeared as the lead article in the Arts section of the Spectator, dated 30th January:
The year 1810 may seem a little late to look for the beginning of the Romantic movement in music, but with the births of Chopin, Schumann and S.S.Wesley one could make a case. Think of the difference in the life-styles of these composers, especially Chopin’s, when compared with those of their immediate predecessors. Where Mozart was tied to a court and lived more or less the life of a servant, these three travelled as they liked, the original freelancing musicians. Where Haydn was emotionally tied to the church (and physically to a court), only Wesley relied on the church for employment, and was famously outspoken about the low standards he found there, making himself thoroughly unpopular. Where Beethoven and Schubert travelled little and chose solitary lives struggling to make ends meet – forever composing by candle-light in garrets if the illustrators are to be believed – our anniversarians had more modern relationships, with well documented passions and stormy scenes (though not a lot of children). When one adds Mendelssohn into the equation, born the previous year, the whole aspect of classical composition and its practitioners does seem to have undergone a fundamental change about that time.
This article appeared in the Spectator dated November 14th
Stravinsky once said that music was powerless to express anything at all. Leaving aside the niceties of whether a rising scale can at least represent something hopeful or aspiring, his music, like so much music, does nonetheless have the capacity to express the spirit of an age. Since this is a much vaguer procedure than trying to depict a concrete verbal image in sound – like bird song, or a drunken man, or climbing a ladder – it is surprising how successful composers have been at it. Unwittingly successful, I guess, since how would you deliberately set about writing a piece to capture 2009?
This article will appear in the Spectator magazine dated October 17th
Someone somewhere recently asked me in a public forum whether I would prefer to be a singer, the conductor or a member of the audience at the concerts we give. He himself was of the opinion that he would rather be a singer, saying that the music we do is so complicated that only someone on the inside of it can appreciate exactly what the composer has achieved. If he’s right, the audience don’t stand a chance.
I rushed to my own defence, saying that the guy out front has the best of all worlds, as one would expect if he is to control the performance. He is receiving the sound without distortion, so placed that the voices will come to him equally strongly. With this immediacy he can draw out and shape the phrases, which is both a privilege and a pleasure with music of such quality. In fact I have always opted to stand as close to the singers as possible, believing that only when I can virtually touch them will I have real control over the ensemble. When there is some impediment to this – a microphone or some steps or a piece of furniture in a church – and I am obliged to stand back, I never feel so confident about the end result. (more…)
The following book review will appear in the autumn issue of the Musical Times.
Cardus – Celebrant of Beauty A Memoir by Robin Daniels
The Elusive Mr Cardus Letters and Other writings edited by Bob Hilton
Neville Cardus has been a hero for many people for a long time now. From his deprived upbringing in the back streets of Manchester (his aunt was a prostitute); to his way with words which, Palestrina-like, seemed to be in an idiom perfectly formed from birth; to his two intriguingly contrasted yet somehow mutually supporting areas of expertise, he fascinated his contemporaries and continues to dazzle the likes of me, who once, in the pages of the Spectator in 1989, tried to write both the music and cricket columns in conscious emulation. There never was a shortage of people to pay him homage, and here, in Robin Daniels’ memoir, must be the last word in this hero worship. One can only hope so.
What was it about Neville which was so impressive? Whatever it was seemed to work for him from an early age since the Manchester Guardian, under the editorship of C.P.Scott (the All-Father as Cardus later called him), most uncharacteristically took a punt on someone who was just 28 and almost completely untried. I suspect it was a combination of the most intense underlying seriousness of purpose, a ready wit, and no obvious interest in wordly possessions. He disarmed people from the first meeting, and backed up the good impression with prose which in itself could seduce. Michael Kennedy put it best: ‘He had a flair for the telling phrase which caught the fleeting moment and gave it permanence’. And the fact that he could do this in the world of classical music and opera – a world every educated person aspired to – as well as with a mere sport – as his musical friends would put it – meant that he had an appeal across two borders. It was typical of his adroitness that in his hands they could seem linked, each giving perspective to the other. It also meant he could be photographed with desirable international stars like Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, as well as with national icons like Jack Hobbs. It was a unique double-act. (more…)
This weekend I shall be conducting the winning entries in a new composition competition, to be broadcast at a future date on BBC Radio Three’s Early Music Show, from York Minster. Why it is thought appropriate to air the works of a 16- and 23-year-old on this particular show beats me, except that they will be sung by the Tallis Scholars and are written for unaccompanied voices. Still, whatever the forum, I am glad the competition is receiving this kind of exposure since the original entries, from all over the country, were of an encouragingly high quality. Who would have guessed that there were so many promising composers hidden away in the much-derided music departments of our schools? Nor were they all from private schools. (more…)
In the current anniversary-fest the musical world has awarded itself there is an omission which dwarfs the lot of them. This is the invention of what many people still call ‘modern music’. For it was in 1909 that Schoenberg wrote his Five Orchestral Pieces and the monodrama Erwartung. These were early atonal works which used such a fantastic variety of harmony, rhythm, and colour, and took place at such an intense emotional level, that they first justified the use of the term ‘expressionist’. Roger Fry had just coined this term, also in 1909, in order to establish a contrast with the passivity of Impressionism. (more…)
The current exhibition at the Tate Modern (‘Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism’, until 17 May) is rich in cultural reference, apart from any reference to music. Here we have Popova collaborating with theatrical producers and designers, Rodchenko working alongside film-makers and poets (especially Mayakovsky), and everyone in a headlong dash away from easel work towards sculpture, and even architecture. It was a time of quite glorious redefinition of life and culture, taking in anything and everthing. Why is music kept apart?
It wasn’t that the musicians themselves were silent. The new Soviet authorities had a liking for opera, hoping that such an obvious art-form would appeal to the masses. Well-known operas were ridiculously recast with new libretti. Tosca, for example, with the action shifted to Paris in 1871, became The Battle for the Commune; Les Huguenots became The Decembrists (after the early 19th-century revolutionary movement); and Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar was reworked as Hammer and Sickle. At the same time composers were encouraged to explore modes of expression compatible with the prevailing revolutionary mood. Thus the new generation of Russian composers – amongst them Kabalevsky, Shaporin, Shebalin, Myaskovsky and Shostakovich – found themselves composing ‘Hymns to Lenin’ and programmatic symphonies on the problems of the steel industry. (more…)
Someone needs to write a history of vibrato. Clearly this should be Roger Norrington: to judge from his words on Radio Three recently he has given the topic much thought and come up with some historically-based conclusions. I suspect he isn’t going to do it though because, like me, he is too busy chiselling out a new -ism on the back of his research, by which he hopes to effect yet another revolution in performance practice.
But the bare bones of the story are straightforward enough. Vibrato, both in orchestral playing and in singing, became acceptable in classical music-making no earlier than 1920. It had existed before this in more vulgar circumstances, but was resisted at the most serious level as being a cheap trick. Part of the written history I am proposing would examine just how something that was once derided could so rapidly became all the rage. There must be many modern parallels here: in styles of clothing, in habits of speech, in modes of eating. One year no-one would be seen dead wearing those clothes or speaking like that or resorting to fast food; the next year it is not only acceptable but perfectly normal, yet another aspect of contemporary living. So it seems to have been with vibrato. One year the music-hall; the next year (or so) the symphony hall and the opera house.