A press release from Riga informs me that the national symphony orchestra has a new chief conductor, Karel Mark Chichon, who is apparently British.

The statement neglects for some reason to mention that he is also the husband of the country’s leading international opera singer, Elina Garanca, who will no doubt wish to spend more of her time in the bracing Baltic winter season.

I had not heard of Mr Chichon before, though his c.v. lists dates with important orchestras. Perhaps they, or I, were out of town.

Also in the mailbox comes a new symphony by the Latvian composer, Edgars Kariks, another blank in my musical knowledge. According to his biography, Mr Kariks grew up in New Guinea and played flute in Australian orchestras before returning to his parents’ homeland, where he teaches at the university and contemplates Daoist philosophy.

Downloads of his symphonies are available here. I’ll get round to listening some time. 

My friend Paul Myers, formerly chief producer at CBS and Decca, has shared with me (and let me share with you) his reminiscence of how the diminutive and retiring Alicia de Larrocha shot to an unlikely American fame.
Step back into the 1960s, when America could be lit up overnight by a classical talent, and pin back your eyelids for Paul’s first-hand account (I wish he’d told me this for my book on the record industry). Here goes:
Dear Norman,
I was very pleased to read your piece about Alicia.  It might amuse you to learn that I was partly responsible for her American ‘re-discovery’ in the 1960’s. 
I was working for Columbia Records, and found myself both head of Epic Classics and its marketing director.  This was no great achievement.  I was producer of George Szell, who wouldn’t talk to John McClure (the Director of Masterworks), and nobody in Epic, which was run as a separate company within Columbia, was interested in classical music.
Epic had two contract artists: Szell/Cleveland (signed to Epic so that he didn’t clash with Bruno Walter on Columbia), and the Juilliard Quartet (to avoid a clash with the Budapest). I added a few more artists – Judith Raskin and the harpsichordist Igor Kipnis – and the rest of my releases were made up of imports from Europe: a contract with Supraphon for Czech artists, with Harmonia Mundi for Jean-Pierre Rampal and finally, with Hispavox for Alicia de
Larrocha, whom I had admired from about the same time as you.
The reason for the long preamble is that I had befriended a man working for a PR agency (not his own) called Herbert Breslin.  He and I used to exchange records by (our own) ‘discoveries’.  He sent me Janet Baker’s first recording, and I sent him the first of Alicia’s Epic recordings.  He was thrilled by her playing, and wanted to know more about her. I remember suggesting that he should persuade Ron Wilford [of CAMI] to get her some bookings, but that he could be her personal representative in the US.
That’s what happened.  Ron placed her with Chicago under Martinon. She also played New York with an all-Spanish recital on the same night that Gilels played an all-Beethoven recital at Carnegie Hall – and still got a full house.  In those days, I had a weekly radio program on WQXR.  I also took her on a tour of the local stations – WBAI, WNCN, WRVR, WQXR – translating their questions into French (I didn’t speak Spanish) and translating her replies back to English.  Nearly all the interviewers asked the same: “Why haven’t you been here for twelve years?” and got the same reply: “Because nobody asked me!”
Anyway, Alicia became a very big hit.  Herbert Breslin represented her (she was his first) and, soon after, Pavarotti came along, he opened his agency and became the monster PR man (in his autobiography, he referred to ‘some guy’ at Columbia who introduced him to Alicia.)
Anyway, the rest is history.  I recorded Alicia’s Iberia Suite with her for Decca and, over the years, saw her regularly at Santander. She was a great artist, and might never have been ‘rediscovered’ if an ambitious young producer at Epic had not been trying to promote some imported records!
Maybe. I think she was so good that she would have been rediscovered anyway.  I’m just glad I helped.

Long before I listened to records for a living, I remember coming out of a store with an album I had chosen purely for the sum of its parts.

Unlike any compilation known to buffs, it combined a harpsichord concerto by Bach with a keyboard work of Haydn’s and a Mozart piano concerto, the 12th in A major, K414. I am not sure if it has ever been reissued on CD.

The conductor was David Zinman, the orchestra the London Sinfonietta and the soloist – who clearly dictated the quirky, uncommercial choice – the Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, who has just died at the age of 86.

What burst off the project was the creative intelligence behind it and, the moment I heard the tender yet steely touch of its soloist, I was converted for life into a de Larrocha fan. She was quite unlike any other pianist, with a tone all her own and a taste that had to be taken on its own terms. Unmatchable in Granados, Albeniz and Turina, she brought a lilt of light and heat to non-Iberian music – Chopin, Schumann and Mozart, most of all.  

She was treated with great reverence at Decca and left a discrete and indelible legacy on that label until it was corporatised in 1990. Herbert Breslin, her US manager, once said: There are two kinds of repertory Alicia plays … Things she plays extremely well, and things she plays better than anyone else.’ I would not dispute a word of that assessment.

Allan Kozinn captures her well in a New York Times obit.

Who says Cremona always sounds best? A blind testing by Matthew Trusler, the Paris-based British violinist who once went searching with me on a BBC quest for the ideal fiddle, yielded some remarkable results.

Playing behind a curtain for a jury of musicians and 180 members of a forestry conference, Matt did his riffs on a 1711 Stradivarius and on four new instruments by the Swiss maker, Michael Rhonheimer, two of them treated with an organic fungus and two au naturel.

In all tests and different repertoire, a nine-month old fungal fiddle came out tops for warmth and clarity. The Strad came second.

A forest-steeped Rhonheimer costs $25,000. A Strad can expect to fetch 1,000 times as much. Go figure. The story’s here.

And check out Matt’s new recording of the Korngold concerto.

Twelve hours after the curtain fell on Le Grand Macabre at English National Opera last Thursday, there were three reviews online – from Richard Morrison of The Times, George Hall in The Stage and myself in this space.

Later in the day, we were joined on Google News by Andrew Clements in the Guardian, Edward Seckerson in the Independent and Barry Millington in the London Evening Standard, the last of whom was in print but not searchably online. 

On Saturday morning, 30 hours after curtain, reviews appeared in three papers – but not in the Daily Telegraph or the Financial Times, both of which chose to ignore one of the signal events of the new arts season. On Sunday, there were enthusiastic reviews in two out of four papers, nothing in the Sunday Times or (apparently) the Telegraph.

What we are witnessing is not so much a variance of arts priorities between newspapers as an all-round confusion of purpose about the role of reviews in a changing print/online universe. Every serious newspaper retains dedicated artform critics, yet none seems to know what to do with them – whether to lead the online debate or to carry on printing first reports of a performance days – or up to two weeks, in the Sunday Times – after the event.

In the instant information age, the arts review has fallen off the pace of progress. It now hangs by a thread in an endangered industry, awaiting a reconfigured strategy. 


(see also In a critical condition, 1 to 5)

The composer György Ligeti once said that every note he ever wrote reflected his formative experiences as a teenaged slave labourer under the Hungarian Fracists and German Nazis in 1943-45.

Never was this truer than in his only opera Le Grand Macabre, a farce about the imminent destruction of a city, which somehow fails to happen. In the finale, survivors looks around and wonder what they are doing on stage when so many others are gone. Put yourself in the broken shoes of a liberated prisoner in April or May 1945, and the outrageously absurd opera makes sudden, shocking sense.

Staged for the opening of English National Opera’s season at London’s Coliseum, Le Grand Macabre was first performed in Stockholm in 1978, the Swedish text of a Belgian libretto (by Michel de Gelderode) giving it added dimensions of the surreal. Ligeti revised it in 1996, designating English as the preferred language, perhaps because one can be ruder in English than in any tongue except his native Hungarian.

Some of the rudeness is downright silly. The secret police is known as the Gepopo, a play on the Nazis’ Gestapo and on the German baby word for ‘bottom’. At other moments, the supposed obscenity of simulated copulation and sado-masochism are made to seem ridiculous beside the smug haplessness of governments in the face of deepening crisis.

Le Grand Macabre can be viewed as a simultaneous image of two decades, the 1970s when the opera was written and the coming 2010s when we shall suffer the after-shocks of financial collapse. In 1970s terms, there is an awful lot of make love, not war along with hints of Barry McGuire’s ‘ah you don’t believe/ we’re on the eve/of destruction.’ Apocalypse always seemed to be just around the corner.

As a present-day metaphor, the preposterous Prince Go-Go (beautifully sung by countertenor Andrew Watts) could be George Bush, Gordon Brown or Vladimir Putin, pursuing trivial personal agendas while markets melted and millions of lives were wasted. Le Grand Macabre is a satire on the futility of political power.

Beneath both timelines runs the liberation instant of 1945, when there was no turning forward or back for young men like Ligeti, who came to see the world in a curved mirror of absurdity. I may be oversensitive to that moment, which is the hinge of my novel, The Game of Opposites, but having known Ligeti quite well I am beginning to see the opera more as a parable on modern history than as an exercise in post-modern nihilism.

The staging by the Catalan collective La Fura dels Baus is visually unforgettable, a giant fibreglass centrepiece of a naked plump woman, turned every which way around and inside out as the opera ups the ante in defying conventions of the genre. At the very least, the show is an advanced lesson in anatomy.

The music is intermittently arresting – a sumptuous Pain Aria during an act of sexual humiliation and frequent orchestral references to Berg’s operas, Wozzeck and Lulu. Some of the best music echoes the score that Stanley Kubrick stole from Ligeti for his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Baldur Brönniman conducts with discreet efficiency and Susanna Andersson was a stunning chief of po-po-police.

But the production, which is shared with Brussels, Barcelona and Rome, belongs less to the world of opera than to performance art and stand-up, slapstick comedy. Those sections of the audience that appreciated the show were mostly under-35s of the internet era who do not recognise barriers between art forms. That is where ENO is pitching its future, and the strategy is beginning to pay off both in artistic stimulus and at box-office. The Edwardian pillars of London’s Coliseum have become home to the unpredictable and the young music director, Ed Gardner, is taking every worthwhile risk in the catalogue.

Last weekend in Bonn, I heard an a capella group, the Atrium Ensemble, perform the Abbey Road album as if it were a formal Lieder cycle like An die ferne Geliebte, by the town’s best-known native son.

While the arrangements were too homogenous – a creative dissonance or few might have made the time pass faster – the serial concept has kept my mind occupied ever since, both about the Beatles’ working method and about musical globalisation.

As I report on Bloomberg today, the German experience of the 1970s was very different from America (Watergate, gas crisis), Britain (industrial warfare) or Spain (post-Franco awakening). Yet all three societies, and many more, were affected by Beatles afterwaves, not only in their music – much of it counter-responsive – but in more pervasive forms of Zeitgeist. The love you take/is equal to the love you make was, I seem to recall, embedded in the ethos of the era.

Which brings me back to compositional method on the final Beatles album. Consulting the world’s greatest Beatles’ authority (name and serial number withheld), I was informed that the question of joined-up writing was a matter of dispute between producer George Martin, backed by McCartney, who urged the group to think in larger forms, and Lennon on the other side who believed that the song was the thing.

The schism was one of several attitudinal differences that caused the Beatles to split. The way you listen to Abbey Road (or Rubber Soul, for that matter) dictates whose side you are on in the great break-up. Playing the Beatles as Beethoven was by no means illogical. It is exactly what half of them would have wanted.

Or not? 

The BBC Proms have ended with another set of record attendances, five percent up overall and 87 percent averages at the Royal Albert Hall, night after night over eight weeks.

More encouraging still, 37,000 attenders were first-timers and there was a sharp rise in the number of under-16s in the hall. Several of the new-music nights were sell-outs

Following on good returns from Salzburg and Glyndebourne, the classical audience appears to be holding steady and even increasing during the recession – at least in those festivals where innovation weights just as heavily as tradition.

The full BBC press release follows:



Press information: 11 September 2009


Strong figures for 2009 BBC Proms with record attendances among new and young audiences


  • 5% increase in overall attendances for largest ever Proms season
  • 87% average attendance for Royal Albert Hall concerts
  • 11% increase in number of people buying tickets for the first time
  • 32% increase in numbers of under-16s attending

As the 115th season of BBC Proms 2009 comes to its spectacular conclusion on Saturday 12 September, with more people than ever around the world expected to join in the festivities, Roger Wright announced that audiences in 2009 are in line with last year’s record-breaking season, with particular success in reaching new and young audiences.


Roger Wright, Director of BBC Proms, says:

The 2009 BBC Proms has seen two months of outstanding and inspiring music-making, featuring leading musicians and orchestras from the UK and abroad. The BBC’s commitment to the Proms remains vital and it is heartening to see again the strong appreciation of Proms audiences, not least in their curiosity for new and unfamiliar music. We are delighted that in offering excellence, a value-for-money experience and a broad programme, we are succeeding in reaching new and young audiences.”


With 12 extra Cadogan Hall concerts in 2009, the audience grew overall by 5% with 297,500 tickets sold*. Average attendance for the 76 Royal Albert Hall concerts was 87%, on a par with recent years.


Through the BBC’s commitment to the Proms, the festival continues to offer value-for-money ticket prices, broad programming, creative use of interactive technology, an extensive learning programme, and a rich contextual offering of daily pre-concert and participatory events,  all of which help to enrich the core audience’s experience and reach new and young attenders. 37,000 people bought tickets for the first time, an 11% increase on 2008. Nearly 5,000 people under the age of 16 took advantage of the half-price seats for every concert (excluding the Last Night), a 32% increase on 2008.


80,000 people are expected to attend BBC Proms in the Park events around the UK in London, County Down, Glasgow, Swansea and Salford, featuring artists including Barry Manilow, Katherine Jenkins, Chris de Burgh, Swansea Bach Choir, Nicola Benedetti and the BBC orchestras. These events are broadcast live on BBC Radio 2, BBC Ulster, BBC Scotland, BBC Wales and BBC Manchester respectively.


BBC Proms on BBC television this season have reached more than twelve million viewers to date (excluding the Last Night of the Proms and time-shifted viewing via the BBC iPlayer), and countless millions more around the world are expected to enjoy the Last Night on every continent of the world via cinema screens, television and radio.


In 2009, the BBC Proms staged more events than ever with 100 concerts, including 76 in the Royal Albert Hall, 19 chamber music concerts at Cadogan Hall, and five BBC Proms in the Park events around the country on the Last Night. This was 12 more concerts than in 2008. There were a further 70 Proms Plus events – talks, workshops, films, free performances and activities – offering extra context and insight to audiences on every one of the 58 days of the season.


The BBC Proms remains committed to new music with 12 BBC commissions in 2009 and a further 15 world, UK or London premieres. There was also a significant body of music by important voices of the 20th and 21st centuries, including such composers as Lutoslawski, Zimmermann, Ligeti, Xenakis and Takemitsu.


Along with many of the UK‘s leading orchestras and a glittering array of ensembles – from Amsterdam to Zurich (taking in Budapest, Dresden, Leipzig, Lyons and Vienna along the way) – many of the world’s most celebrated artists performed. These ranged from pianists Lang Lang and Martha Argerich to soprano Dawn Upshaw, violinists Joshua Bell and Gidon Kremer to cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as well as such conductors as Riccardo Chailly, William Christie, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Valery Gergiev, Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons, Zubin Mehta and Sir Charles Mackerras, to name but a few.


Among the highlights in 2009 were big weekends celebrating tenth anniversaries of BBC Radio 3’s New Generations Artists scheme and Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The celebration of MGM film musicals inspired much acclaim from audiences and critics alike and a Late Night Proms concert with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was perhaps the most talked-about concert of the season.



* all concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and Cadogan Hall, not including free events and BBC Proms in the Park


There was mild bemusement among hard-core concertgoers and after-show drinkers at the end of the Vienna Philharmonic performance of Haydn’s 98th symphony and Schubert’s Great C major under the late-replacement baton of Franz Welser-Möst.

Nothing to do with the playing, which was glorious and impeccable in every respect bar one slightly sour movement fadeout in the Schubert. Nothing to do either with the conductor’s interpretation, which was uncluttered, organic and irresistibly energising.

So what was missing? An encore, for starters. Every travelling orchestra carries a quiver of crowd-pleasers and this one, despite prolonged applause, refused to deliver.

Some listeners mentioned a lack of ‘greatness’ in the performance. That’s exactly what I found most refreshing. Any third-rate conductor can posture the big occasion at the Royal Albert Hall, underlining every fat tune and swaggering through the tempo switches in Haydn and Schubert to make them seem magniloquent and meaningful.

Welser-Möst resisted the temptation to over-adorn. This was not so much a big performance as a collegial conversation over a hotel breakfast table, at which conductor and musicians were speaking the language of Haydn and Schubert as mother’s tongue, able to leave lines hanging in the air, unresolved, for later contemplation.

It was, for me, a memorable performance and one that augurs well for the future dialogue between this conductor and the orchestra when he takes over next year as chief at the Vienna State Opera.

Welser-Möst, who broke his vacation to save the gig when the venerable Nikolaus Harnoncourt called in sick, has not forgotten his rocky beginnings as 20-something music director of the London Philharmonic. Nor has the press in this town, which is forever urging him to prove a point and erase his early embarrassments. It takes moral courage to resist such challenges and do as he did at the Proms – to dare to perform the great classics as an everyday conversation, without pomp or posturing. Just as the masters intended.

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s centenarian Mum, enjoys mother-of-the-nation status in Australia, or at least in the environs of her stately home near Melbourne. Early this year, she co-endowed the city with the southern hemisphere’s first purpose-built chamber music hall, an acoustic marvel in a burgeoning arts quarter that briefly threatened to challenge Sydney’s role as continental capital of culture. I saw the hall as it neared completion and reported with some enthusiasm on its prospects.

What I contained at the time were my concerns about medium-term plans, once the opening budgets had been blown and the centre bedded in to the serious business of building a solid audience for chamber music around a nucleus of local performers. It was never going to be easy, and sure enough, the whole caboodle had just fizzled out.

Last month, the Dame Elisabeth Hall sacked its excellent artistic administrator David Barmby after revealing half-year losses of A$1.5 million. A decision was taken by the board to operate the facility in future as a hall-for-hire, forsaking the original artistic aims and reconstituting it as a garage, where any junk can be stored and staged.

The unimposing chief executive, Jacques de Vos Malan, explained that he was acting on the advice of independent assessors. Any person of conscience in that position would have resigned on the spot, seeing that his job description had been reduced to booking clerk. Further personnel changes are expected soon.

The best hope for the Dame Elisabeth Hall, say Melbourne’s arts leaders, is that it will be merged into the city’s Arts Centre, which is to be run by the returning Wales Centre chief, Judith Isherwood. Ms Isherwood has experience of far larger unplanned deficits – a £13.5 million red hole in her first three years – that ought to bring a dash of perspective to the petty-cash crisis. The Melbourne Arts Centre has much in common with Isherwood’s Cardiff venture. It fills up on ice-dance shows and hoary musicals (booking now in Cardiff: Les Miz and High School Musical 2).

So there goes Australia’s gentle dream of a dedicated recital and chamber music venue, named after its most gracious citizen. I wonder how long it will take for Dame Elisabeth, a genuine arts lover, to remove her name from the door, or how long it will be before another donor can be persuaded that it is not altogether impossible to raise the tone down under.  


The discussion of whether one religion is respected more than another in Daniel Barenboim’s Diwan orchestra is degenerating into a tedious slew of smug atheism. Why bother about religion at all, some respondents seem to feel, if God is dead and everyone knows it?

OK, let’s get this straight. The issue is not whether it is good or bad to be religious in the 21st century. I have a view on the matter, but it’s a private one between me and my conscience. The question here is whether the practice of Islam is treated more kindly in the Barenboim orchestra than the practice of Judaism. If it is – and there is some evidence to suggest that it is – then the orchestra needs to re-examine its attitudes towards the faith dimension of the Middle East conflict.

I get very irritated when anyone, believer or denier, claims ownership of an absolute truth and manitains that all right-minded people think the same. That is a totalitarian atittude and it is all too much in evidence in the Church of Dawkins. My guess is that this synthetic, pseudo-scientific cult will be undone like all others. In the meantime, I shall try for the sake of my good mood to avoid people who peddle spritiual certainties. 

Most musical responses, public and private, to my discussion of religious anomalies in Daniel Barenboim’s Diwan orchestra have taken a markedly hostile tone.

Several professional musicians argued that religious faith should have nothing to do with the process of making music. ‘A majority of Israeli musicians just like most of their international colleagues have no time for religion,’ is how one London violinist put it to me in an email. He, and others, go on to assert that ‘the world would be a better place without religion.’

He is entitled to that view, and can claim support from the spirit of the times whether in science or the arts. It is cool to be an atheist in the 21st century. In recent Lebrecht Interviews with Jonathan Miller and Stephen Hough, it was the God-denying director who was more certain in his convictions than the God-seeking pianist. 

Whatever one’s personal beliefs, however, all musicians ought to be aware that without religion there would be no music for them to play. It was the church that laid the foundations for symphonic music and a search for God that led most of the great composers to write as they did. Beethoven may have been anti-authority and Verdi anti-clerical, but with the lone exception of Richard Wagner it is hard to find a major composer before the 1918 who actively denied the existence of God and was not driven to compose by a religious impulse.

It is, of course, possible to separate between a composer’s intentions and the interpretation of music, but to assert that religion is irrelevant or detrimental to the art exposes what the mid-20th century psychologist Leon Festinger called ‘cognitive dissonance’ and Freud referred to much earlier as Das Unheimlich – the uncanny.

Both mean the same thing: a discomfort felt by someone grappling with two contradictory ideas. The therapeutic ‘solution’ is either to find a balance between the ideas or to rationalise one of them out of the picture. That seems to be what post-religious musicians are doing in relation to the faith basis of their art. It is not a viable intellectual position.

As far as the East-West Diwan orchestra is concerned, the cognitive dissonance is the inbuilt imbalance between a multiculturalist respect for Islam and a liberal contempt for those who observe the religious heritages of Judaism and Christianity. Fiona Maddocks argued justly that this inequality needs to be addressed. I would add that a resolution of the dissonance is essential if the Diwan is ever to have more than a decorative, symbolic and largely sentimental role in the search for a Middle East peace.