Saturday, December 16, 2017

"Will you play this with me when I'm 100?"

Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No.2, 'The Age of Anxiety', isn't so much a symphony as a piano concerto-stroke-tone-poem. Based on WH Auden's poem of the same title, exploring the overnight musings of a group of strangers in a New York bar, it includes a set of vivid variations, a jazzy movement 'The Masque' in which piano and percussion interact with intricate bedazzlement and a final, glorious sunrise in which you can almost see the dawn light glinting off the Empire State Building.

The real puzzle is why this piece is done so infrequently. Glad to say that that is changing tonight, as Krystian Zimerman and Sir Simon Rattle present it in an all-Bernstein concert with the LSO, alongside Wonderful Town.

In case you missed my interview with Zimerman in the December edition of BBC Music Magazine, here's a taster of what he said about this piece and why he's playing it.

....Touring the Brahms Second Concerto [with Leonard Bernstein], Zimerman recalls: “We were having lunch one day and he asked me about his own music. When I told him I had played his Symphony No.2, he was amazed and said, ‘How come I didn’t know?’. I said, ‘You never asked!’” 
 Naturally, numerous performances followed: “Each time was completely different. That was a special feature of his music making: he was always totally honest, so the smallest thing that changed his emotional construction immediately found its way into his interpretations. So there was not really a Bernstein interpretation – it was done ad hoc in the performance, to the extent that it was impossible to rehearse! He could make dramatic changes on stage. That’s something I have never experienced with any other conductor, this degree of courage and daring.” Scary, perhaps? Zimerman smiles: “Maximum adrenaline!”
 Returning to the symphony this year fulfills a promise he made to Bernstein: “He asked me: ‘Will you play this piece with me when I’m 100?’. And that’s why I’m playing it now, because I realised two years ago that he’d be 100. It’s a great piece. It’s so much fun. And it’s so much like him, with all the freshness and flexibility and craziness of his character.”

Last time Zimerman played this piece in London, with Bernstein himself, it was 1986 (see video above). But now an Age of Anxiety is upon us in earnest - whether it's 52, 2017, or anything else of the totally unreasonable and largely unhinged world of today. I'd love to see what Auden and Bernstein would make of things today. 

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Seven music books for Christmas 2017

Some personal recommendations for literaromusical gifts this Christmas - though please note, this is a personal selection so there may be quite a few others that I've missed. Listed here in no particular order. Enjoy.

by Simon Callow
William Collins
What made Wagner into Wagner? What drove him? Who was he, really, and what fuelled that gigantic ego - without which, let's face it, he wouldn't have been able to write such humongously ambitious music-dramas? Simon Callow, who wrote and performed a one-man Wagner show in the composer's bicentenary year of 2013, here dives into the agonies and the ecstasies of what it must have been like to be the great man. Putting aside the title's side-swipe at Leni Riefensthal and the 1936 Olympics, the book is a suitably lavish read, stuffed full of fabulous wordy, over-the-top descriptions, which you have to just sit back and enjoy.

by John Suchet
Elliot & Thompson
And the other great opera composer is here too. Hot on the heels of his volumes on Mozart, Beethoven and Johann Strauss, Suchet turns his attention to the life and prickly personality of Giuseppe Verdi, aka The Bear of Busseto. The dramas onstage are so intense that we sometimes forget that for their creator there was plenty off-stage as well, some of it desperately tragic (he lost his young wife and two children in the space of two years) - and that despite the status he achieved as national hero, Verdi tended to cover his own tracks and keep himself to himself. Suchet brings this elusive, deeply private individual to life - as much as anybody has ever been able to.

by Clemency Burton Hill
Headline Home
Presenter and broadcaster Clemency Burton Hill is one of our finest and most eloquent advocates for classical music in the wider world, and the fast-rising popularity of this book is testimony to her communicative gifts. The personal tragedies that spurred her into writing it have played a part, but so has the simple and excellent concept: one piece of music to listen to for every day of the year. And it's not all basic, obvious repertoire, either - there's plenty to discover, a good representation of composers who are women, a thousand-year timespan and friendly but never patronising contextualisation. Applause aplenty.

by Stuart Isacoff
Bantam Books Inc
A book about Van Cliburn? Wait a few decades and along come two almost at once. Isacoff's detailed and beautifully written volume arrived this year hot on the heels of Nigel Cliff's very readable but more journalistic Moscow Nights, which came out in autumn 2016. Isacoff traces the forces that shaped - and later destroyed - the great American pianist, symbol of the Cold War as he triumphed at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, with their facets political, musical and personal: the KGB, the smothering mothering (he speculates as to whether Rildia Bee Cliburn was not just "the wind that filled his sails" but also "the albatross that sank him"), and the consuming force of musical genius itself.

by Christina Scharff
Routledge Research in Gender and Society
A thorough, elegant, academic exploration of what it's like to work in the classical music field today, looking at the effects of turning an art into a business or indeed, a saleable commodity, the persistence of racial and gender inequalities and the nature of entrepreneurship in the profession. This needed writing, to put it mildly, and it needs reading, absorbing and acting-upon, too. But I have to recommend it as an e-book because the hardback is, sorry to say, priced at £105, which is perhaps a little optimistic.

by Eric Wen
Dover Books
Schenkerian analysis fans, this is for you. Schenker sceptics, this is for you too. If you'll permit me a quick rant, Schenkerian analysis is being much maligned by a generation put off by the idea that he's old-fashioned, that he deals with dead white tonal composers (like, er, Mozart and Beethoven) and by, frankly, appalling teaching that distorts what he's all about. But two people have convinced me that Schenker is fascinating and fertile ground through which to discover the inner workings of the greatest music. One is Murray Perahia. The other is the author of this book, Eric Wen, who is currently a professor at the Juilliard School in New York. While others might leave you lost in the forest, he steers the safari truck through examples from Schubert, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Bach, Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven with a sort of virtuoso clarity and an infectious, unquenchable enthusiasm. (I use some principles of Schenker in my occasional creative writing workshops - it works rather well for books too.)

by Thomas Voigt
An essential stocking-filler for the Kaufmaniac in your life, now available in English translation for the first time. Authorised biography, yes, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. 

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The original breakup album - by Schumann

Schumann Street: love, loss, recovery
Photo: Spitalfields Music

If you're heading east in London this weekend, don't miss a whole streetful of Schumann and Schumann-derived songs. Spitalfields Music's Festival, which is on now, spans everything from glorious Monteverdi through to the present day, with Anna Thorvaldsdottir as featured composer. But it has an unusual feature based on our Robert's best-loved song-cycle, Dichterliebe.

You know those street parties where you go from house to house and have a different course of a meal at each one? This is the Lieder equivalent and more - with numerous surprise flavours. Bengali folk, rap, jazz and soul all feature in reinterpretations of Schumann and Heine's journey through love, loss and recovery, situated in the Huguenot houses of the Spitalfields district: as the festival puts it, "16 songs, 16 rooms, 1000 journeys".

The festival's artistic director, the conductor André de Ridder, told me all about it the other day. He credits the Icelandic artist and performer, Ragner Kjartansson, with inspiring the idea: "At a festival at the old GDR Funkhaus in Berlin that was underwritten by some famous indie and rock figures, and Ragner performed a song from Dichterliebe on loop for four hours. I know he’s also done the whole cycle in his inimitable way. He was playing 'Ich grolle nicht' to a huge audience that had never heard it before and was more used to a pop festival - a setting that my group, Stargaze, and people like Bryce Dessner are trying to use, because people lap it up. And I was reminded how beautiful, essential and to the point Dichterliebe is.

André de Ridder
"Some songs are only 15 seconds, with very poignant words: a few turns of phrase can capture the really beautiful essence of an emotion. I don’t want to equarte that style with pop asongs, but the best pop songs today capture the essence of an emotion or vibe in very little time or with just a phrase. It made me think this cycle can be presented in that kind of context.

"When I combined that with these houses that are at our disposal in Spitalfields then the idea of House Music started playing on my mind. I decided we could put each of 16 songs into a different house and let the audience make their own way through the sound. You also make it a hybrid withan immersive sound installation, done live with humans rather than speakers. Another layer is immersive theatre pieces, like those pioneered by Punchdrunk. All these ideas came together and landed well on this idea.

"There are about five classical singers out of 16, and a couple will do the songs in the normal style; one will accompany himself, another will do the songs with other instruments. Then there are artists completely new to the composer and the music. They went through the cycle and found the songs that really spoke to them. In most cases we were able to give them the songs that spoke to them most and  they’d translate the accompaniments into their own musical language. 

"In the case of the German rappers, they created their own lyrics inspired by the original Heine. I also said to other people, especially with the songs that are very short, they might extend them with their own stanzas, continuing the text and bringing it into teir world. I really tried to give liberty to each performer to be inspired and develop it with their own practice. I don’t know yet what they’re all coming up with! I’ve only heard about two demos out of 16. So I’m very excited to see what happens.

"The whole theme of Dichterliebe is not unlike artists from our time who, when they made an album, took on another personality - like David Bowie who’d be Ziggy Stardust. They become another person and then in an album express their journey, eg through a breakup. The so-called 'breakup album' has become ubiquitous in our time and in a way that’s almost what Schumann is doing here! There is something about tracing the steps of a poet’s love, overcoming the loss of it and the hope of it and coming to terms with it that’s expressed. Maybe that is the first quintessential, universal breakup album!"

You can find more details and a complete list of performers and where to find them here.

One thing I haven't told you - at least, I don't think I have - is that references to Dichterliebe are implanted all the way through Ghost Variations. For the person who writes to me having found the full list of them, I have a small prize to award: a lovely recording of the Schumann Violin Concerto by my old friend Philippe Graffin. 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Belatedly, Marnie at ENO

Sasha Cooke as Marnie
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith/ENO

I finally got to see Marnie, Nico Muhly's latest opera, at ENO. Here's my review, for the Critics' Circle website - a second opinion for them, but it seems that I and the other critic were among the few who liked it. But...what's not to like? My quibbles are explained in the review, and are not limited to "Liebfraumilch and soda", but for the most part it was jolly good, for a number of important reasons...

Read the whole thing here.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Power cut

Grim reports emanate from the US about an alleged incident involving of one of its leading conductors - James Levine, no less. This is under investigation and in the meantime people must stick to the facts. But here the ISM has released statistics suggesting that 70 per cent - SEVENTY per cent - of self-employed people working in the classical music industry have experienced sexual harassment. This indicates not just a few salacious whispers; it suggests an entrenched, industry-wide problem.

Come hither...
Of course this is far from unique to classical music. I've encountered colleagues in the fields of law, universities, publishing, pretty much everywhere, in which sexual harassment has been a blight on lives and careers for as long as anyone can remember. But there are particular issues in our little corner that make music a particular hot-house.

As far as I can tell, these sexual abuse scandals aren't chiefly about sex. They're about power. They're about those with power over others enjoying wielding that power, and the fact that there's very little to stop them. Where power is an issue, you have to look at who has that power, and what structures, or lack of, are providing it.

Most of the music industry is self-employed. Very few practical musicians in the UK have an actual, salaried, regular-income, full-time job - a few orchestras out of London, but that's about it. Many orchestras, while a primary commitment for their members, are set up so that their members are technically self-employed, which can be artistically a good thing since they can't be ordered not to play in chamber ensembles, not to teach and not to pop off and do a concerto from time to time. But they don't have any employment rights. Get into any form of trouble and employment lawyers will swoop, offering help, but then take one look at your terms and conditions, or lack of, and say: "Oh." Wholly freelance musicians have perhaps an even more difficult situation, though there's more freedom to turn elsewhere if one situation goes pear-shaped.

This doesn't only apply to musicians, of course, and sometimes things are worse when you are employed, because you can't escape as easily. I've been technically freelance since 1993: after working for various magazine companies, each of which treated its staff worse than the last, I decided it was better not to be dependent on one bunch of jerks for an income, but at least spread the load, keep options open and stay at a safe distance. (To say nothing of working from home and avoiding the hellish Open-Plan Office; the latter must surely play some role in the UK's appalling productivity record.) Nearly a quarter-century later I still burn with fury about how certain institutions and individuals behaved, and there are plenty who have it worse than I did.

Why do people behave this way? Why why why? Because they have problems of their own. Because they want to feel powerful. Because they do have a tiny amount of power, and it's the only way they can feel themselves [sorry] experiencing that power. Still, sometimes the psychology behind the larger structures at play can be jolly interesting.

An orchestra, for example, is set up like a classroom. You sit at "desks" in pairs - just like school (or school in the 1970s-80s, at least). You have set, 20-minute breaks after Double Mahler or whatever. There's a Big Person up in front of you, giving the lesson, and you have to be quiet and concentrate on what he/she is telling you to do, and do it, or else your parents will get a Letter (OK, not quite, but you see my point). If the result is an infantilised mentality, it's possibly that pushing the psychological buttons of school makes people regress to the age of 13.

The thing is, those people are adults and should be responsible human beings. But the set-up is not designed for responsible human beings. It's designed - like so much in society - to keep people 'in their place'. At root, it's the same mentality that makes musicians use the trademen's entrance, entrenched across centuries. And so if there are 'personnel problems', it can be difficult to solve them. Few orchestras employ a trained, responsible, personnel manager (or "Human Resources", that hideous '80s term devised to transform people into commodities). The closest thing, usually, is the fixer, but his/her job is more about making sure there are enough violins present to make the requisite sound, rather than stopping them from tearing each others' eyes out. A section leader might be expected to "line-manage" his or her section, but just find me anyone who's OK with that and knows how. They're trained to play music, not to make other people behave themselves. Higher up the tree, individuals who are good at programming seasons or booking fine soloists aren't necessarily comfortable - despite splendid salaries - with facing, investigating and cautioning/firing someone. This seems to be a fundamental weakness in the system.

Other elements in the atmosphere facilitate nefarious goings-on, too. When some managers, record companies, journalists and more focus on how young women look, rather than primarily on how they play, a fervid, charged, sickening atmosphere is encouraged. Basically, this industry can look like it's a pimp to its young women. Why? Sales. Money. And sometimes the women want careers, so they put up with it, and in some cases are even accused of encouraging it themselves. But social media threads (especially "below the line" comments) occasionally turn into something resembling a verbal gang-rape.

This is not just nauseating; it facilitates the normalisation of sexual harassment. It stops those in the industry taking the matter seriously. In a law firm, a harassment situation would be investigated and those responsible held to account. It would be taken seriously, extremely seriously. But in the classical music world, from what friends and contacts have told me, raise the problem and you'd probably get back a snort of derision, advice to watch your own back or a declaration resembling "she were askin' for it, weren't she..."

And so if those who wield the power are people who enjoy misbehaving, it's unlikely that anyone would stop them. There aren't defences. The union's power appears quite limited. In the main, you have to fight back for yourself. But the self-employed person, as we've noted, has no employment rights. When your income can vanish in the twink of an eye, no wonder most people don't dare to speak up.

We need better, stronger structures for musicians. We need stronger unionisation - which means more people joining the union and making it work. We need more solidarity among those in the profession, rather than the every-person-for-themselves mentality that prevails when life is insecure, the field is ferociously competitive and there's an imbalance of supply and demand. We need well formulated, sensible, thorough, up to date codes of personal conduct (pun unintended) in institutions that can hold everyone to account, top dogs included. And we need, urgently, to put an end to the salacious objectification of women musicians and of gay male musicians too.

There will almost certainly be more accusations against more powerful men. As innumerable threads have noted since last night, people in the music industry have been hearing "rumours" about Levine for years. That doesn't make any of it true; rumours are just rumours and you can't go around accusing people on the basis of hearsay. But I can think of several conductors who could be next, people about whom other people have attempted to warn one another for decades. I'd hazard a guess that there'll be more women speaking out, and men too.

As I write, my cats are having a tiff in my doorway. Ricki is bigger than Cosi. He bullies her. He's the bigger animal, so he seems to think he's entitled to unseat her from the best perches, the comfiest cushions, the warmest snooze spots. We try to intervene, but it's difficult to explain to a cat that this is wrong, because they are animals, however cute, and they don't understand. But we are people. We have sophisticated language, philosophy, civilisation, art, comprehension. We have the inherent capacity to rise above base instinct and become fine, enlightened individuals and build fine, enlightened societies. We should be able to do better than animals. Instead, we're doing much, much worse.

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