At ten o’clock this morning (Friday, Jan 29) at the Royal Festival Hall, Daniel Barenboim began his attempt to rekindle the Beethoven intensity of his London piano cycle of 2008.
Over the next four nights he will perform the five Beethoven piano concertos in conjunction with the orchestral works of Arnold Schoenberg. Tickets for two of the concerts sold out within minutes. Some 900 Londoners bought the cycle outright and demand for the whole has been so heavy that the hall opened its general rehearsal to the public this morning and will screen a live relay – free to all comers – in the ballroom downstairs.
If you are anywhere near the South Bank, get down there for as many as possible and certainly for the last on Tuesday when Barenboim will play the third Beethoven piano concerto, give an illustrated talk on the intractable Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra and then give a full performance of the Variations. The aim is maximum public engagement and if the atmosphere is anything like it was two years ago, these concerts should be unmissable.
The rehearsal was little more than a touching up of tricky turns in Schoenberg’s 1905 Pelleas und Melisande, a D-minor suite that shares much of its tonal language with the preceding Verklärte Nacht. This is not Arnie at his most challenging and the Staatskapelle played as if it were late Brahms.
The orchestra of the Berlin State Opera is an exceptionally fine band without as much brand recognition as you might expect from having Barenboim as conductor for life. I have heard them before, in Vienna and Berlin, and noted that the players do not project their individuality as powerfully as the all-stars of the Berlin Philharmonic, or as empathetically as the London Symphony Orchestra. There is something stubbornly low-key about them.
Perhaps it has to do with the players being state Beamter – civil servants with a safe pension. Although this was a public rehearsal, several players dressed as if they were out gardening – one violinist in a loud, checked shirt, another in short sleeves, a harpist in an orange sweatshirt with a red jumper thrown over the back of her chair. Attentively as they played, the attitude was all wrong. With a chance to command a world stage, the orchestra turned out so casually as to suggest lack of ambition. Perhaps they were mis-advised.
A trivial detail? I don’t think so. These signs register a statement of intent. Smart declares aspiration. Shlokhy says, who gives? Barenboim should bring his tailor to the next rehearsal. It would be a shame if the excellence he has achieved were not to be given the best frame.
BBC Radio 3 will relay all of the Beethoven-Schoenberg concerts over the next week or so. Already at the opening rehearsal there was a sense of something numinous in the making.
The imbroglio – wonderful word, reminiscent of Dutch masters and Borgia Popes – let me start that sentence again.
The imbroglio that has been festering around Melbourne’s Recital Centre inestimably beautiful recital centre has finally been tackled by its political overlords.The chief executive, Jacques de Vos Malan, has departed only three months into his second contract and a sage pair of hands, Joe Carponi, has been hauled out of retirement to deal with the financial deficit.
Malan’s contract was renewed, I was told, because the politicians did not want to admit to a terrible mistake. The Centre had been losing money and Malan’s solution was to turn it from a well-planned concert environment into an open-for-hire garage.
I reported the troubles here and the Age has taken up the story (see here), reflecting a growing public concern. The Arts Minister Lynne Kosky resigned last week and the chairman Jim Cousins will step down in March. A clean sweep is on the cards.
The only 21st century chamber music hall in the southern hemisphere, Melbourne has been, until now, an opportunity missed. The board promises an ‘international search’ for a new chief executive. I hope they search harder than the Sydney Opera, which barely made an international phone call last time it sought a boss. I have three top candidates Melbourne ought to be considering if they want the centre to succeed.
Meantime, the right move has been made. There is a chance of light and beauty to shine beneath the antipodean sun. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, who endowed the hall, should be satisfied with the outcome.
What people can and cannot do during a concert came up this morning on the BBC’s Today programme, according to a respondent to my previous posting:
A similar theme was taken up by (Vladimir) Jurowski on this morning’s “Today” programme on R4. Audiences at the OAE’s(Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) Roundhouse gigs should be allowed to drink beer and eat crisps, apparently.
I’m all for a relaxation, but crisps? Honestly… Still, I would rather depend on the decency of my neighbour not to rustle & crunch than be told hat to do by an officious theatre or concert hall, I agree. Mind, they could just be clever and not sell crisps at the bar.
One of the best comments was from one of the two players interviewed, who commented (I paraphrase loosely) that audience members should be able to do what they like – once they are there, it’s the performer’s responsibility to make the performance so engaging, so musically thrilling, that the audience are compelled to listen.
The real difficulty, I guess, is getting bums on seats on the first place; once we can get them in the concert hall, it’s the artists job to make them want to come back again. Sadly I’ve seen all too-many concerts where the players frankly can’t be bothered. That’s not going to encourage repeat visits.
Myself, I’m less pessimistic. True, every time I see the NY Philharmonic and some of the stuffier German orchestras, my heart sinks back into my boots at the display of antediluvian attitudes. But players in many other orchestras are changing their tune in terms of how they relate to an audience. The tone of the London Symphony Orchestra’s blog is just one of these new forms of engagement. I find them greatly encouraging. And you?
Richard Morrison, the Times music critic, had an eye-popping experience in New York. At a Philharmonic concert, he relates in BBC Music magazine, ‘audience members were allowed – nay, encouraged – to “live blog” or “live tweet” comments to each other, or their “followers” in the world outside, during the performances.’
Indeed they were, and we have read much about it elsewhere. What struck me here, though, was Morrison’s use of verbs and inverted commas to signify his distance – nay, disdain – from the ghastly modern practices he encountered. The idea that tweeting could be allowed, let alone encouraged in the sacred space of a concert hall is intolerable to a traditional listener.
His horror was aptly conveyed by a headline – Should an audience be allowed to tweet and blog during a concert? – that says all you need to know about the persistence of patrician, nay authoritarian, attitudes in 21st century classical music.
Most concert halls, the moment you enter, do not let you forget who’s boss. Go here, do that, switch off, please don’t, be considerate. You may cough between movements and discreetly fart, but do not applaud until signalled to do so and above all do not signify your response on an electronic device until you have departed the premises, preferably until you have read the authoritative review next morning in a respectable newspaper and have been told what you are supposed to think.
Small wonder that the coming generation refuses to accept classical music as part of its cultural spectrum. This is an art form that must urgently change its language, its top-down mode of address, if it is to have any kind of audience in the future.
LATE EXTRA: Perhaps concert halls need to consider separate seating for electronics users. If, like me, you might resent being distracted by someone tweeting in a concert, you should be able to book a n on-tweet seat, just as you can book a non-smoking floor in most hotels
I was sitting in an Indian restaurant the other evening managing a family birthday when an ooze of canned botulism smacked my eardrums and I summoned a waiter for edification. What I heard was not to be dignified with the noun ‘sound’. It was a conflation of Beatles songs and one or two Abbas played on a synthesiser that seemed to have been set on penny-whistle mode.
‘What the-?’ I demanded.
‘It’s the rabbis,’ said the waiter, by way of apology.
‘How the-?’ I exploded.
‘When they gave us a kosher licence, they forbade us to play Indian music because it might have women singing,’ he explained. ‘They said we could only play the discs they permitted. I’m so sorry, we can’t change it.’
Now I’ve been in the writing game long enough to know never to get into a fight with men in black coats, but this is the first time they have strayed onto my musical patch and I am – you may take this literally as you like – damned if I’m going to let organised religion take over the function of music production and criticism.
What’s more, if the best the rabbis can do as DJs is stamp their seals on pre-masticated Beatles, I will definitely book my afterlife in the nether regions. Heavens above! You mean to tell me Paradise is going to be some kind of Sartrean Huis Clos where I am confined for all eternity with musical nullity? Get me outa there.
I was on the verge of sending the nice young waiter a little light Webern for the amusement of his rabbinic supervisors when one of our birthday party pointed me to a link that suggests the kosher blight is spreading. According to failedmessiah.com, a Charedi insider website, rabbis in Jerusalem have been issuing edicts as to what is permissible in music, and what not.
In future, apparently, instrumentation will need to be ‘respectful’ of the words, percussion should be used sparingly, the saxophone is ‘indecent’ and any ‘misbalance (sic) between rhythm and melody creates negative feelings’. You can tell these guys have been through a crash course in Schenkerian analysis.
The new rules apply, for the moment, only to producers who need a rabbinic seal on releases of Jewish music, but it won’t be long before we’ll all be checking our record collections to see if they are kosher enough to keep in the house. Rhapsody in Blue? Indecent. Mendelssohn violin concerto? Blatant apostasy. Mahler 9? Disrespectful. Frank Sinatra? Neil Sedaka? Stephen Sondheim – downright negative, at the very least.
Go on – you try. Be holier than I. Ban some music. Let’s keep our records kosher.
The most pleasing aspect of Vilde Frang on first sight is her resistance to typecasting. On the eve of an international record launch, with hedge funds rising and falling on her success or failure, the Norwegian violinist has held out against makeover pressure.
She appears with rare wholesomeness in harvest-ready wheaten hair that falls below her shoulders and an unshadowed hint of plumpness in her cheeks. Before she plays a note, we know there is nothing affected about this artist.
Upstairs at London’s Foyles bookshop, for a browser audience unprepared for rigour at the end of a winter’s working day, she delivers Bartók’s sonata for solo violin with prodigious intensity, missing some of its world-weary humour but compensating with a brisk empathy for its rural song fragments. Written for Yehudi Menuhin by the cancer-stricken composer in American exile, the sonata is tough on fingers and intellect, half an hour long. The attention was unbroken by a single cough.
In a classical recital hall, Frang would have been applauded for courage and accomplishment, and punctuated by tubercular outbursts between movements. In a bookstore, she achieved communication with people unprepared for what she played.
These are promising signs for a young woman of 23, at the start of her career. Comparisons and antecedents can be eliminated. Although mentored by Anne-Sophie Mutter from the age of 10 with financial support and the loan of a French instrument, Frang has nothing like the Mercedes-smooth sound of her patron, nor does she present herself for any kind of catwalk. She looks more like a folk singer than a classical star, and that’s no bad thing.
What we see is what we hear – an organic artist, unmoulded by the music industry, ready to go wherever her gift may lead, and lacking in all pretension. Her debut recording of Prokofiev and Sibelius violin concertos is out this month.
Over the last eight months, while finishing a book and doing as little journalism as I liked, I took a long, cool overview of the media and made some changes in my life.
One of them was to think niche. After 15 years of writing a weekly column and 30 of being tied to mass-market newspapers, I felt an urge to speak directly to an expert readership.
Writing for newspapers is great fun and I don’t intend to give up, but there is a sacrifice involved every time you put a piece into a paper that is read on commuter trains. Many of the specifics get lost.
Any name that is not a household one has to be explained at sentence length. Every technicality requires a paragraph – and in that paragraph you need to grip the reader’s eye with extraneous generalities. Compromise comes with the job.
What I wanted was to engage more closely with people who knew what I was on about and needed to know more. So when an opportunity arose to write for folk who come with strings attached – players, teachers, students and dealers in violins, violas, cellos and the lower growlers on double-bass – it chimed perfectly with one of my personal urges.
From March, I shall be opening a conversation with readers of The Strad, a 120-year-old monthly whose 55,000 readers know exactly what they want from a professional journal. More than other music magazines, which cater to people with a general liking for sounds, The Strad is about life on the fiddle – hardcore information for a hard-headed profession. In a parlous economy, players are all too often that last to know what’s really going on.
Contrary to common practice, I shall withhold my column from the internet. This is a closed conversation. The only way you can enter is by buying a physical copy of the Strad or, better still, taking out a subscription.
Where the conversation opens out is on the magazine’s website, http://www.thestrad.com, presently being upgraded. I’m looking forward to getting low down and dirty on the fingerboard. All too often people who write about music gets distanced from the source. One of my plans for the coming year is to reach back into roots, and reconnect.
Starting Mahler year tomorrow on BBC Radio 3, I am giving a short talk, Why Mahler?, which is also the title of my forthcoming book, and the working title of a documentary I am making.
More on Why Mahler in the coming weeks.
Jackie Wullschlager, Chagall’s recent biographer, reviewing the newly discovered crucifixixon image in the Financial Times, suggests that it has obliged her to rethink the artists’s Jewish engagement, as well as the role of Jewish art in the 21st century.
Here’s a pull-out quote:
His work, and indeed this show, raises the whole vexed question of whether there is such a thing as Jewish art, and in turn whether a Jewish Museum of Art has a role in a multicultural society.
And here’s the whole, penetrative piece:
One eye is shut in the agonies of approaching death. The other follows you around the room where Marc Chagall’s lost crucifixion has been exposed to public gaze.
In the last of ten attempts to depict the German persecution of Jews as a contemporary act of God-killing, Chagall in 1945 sketched a naked Christ-figure in a Jewish prayer-shawl and phylacteries, tormented on a cross by a creature with a Nazi armband, half-man, half-beast.
The sketch was found in a Paris auction catalogue by my friend David Glasser and bought for a paltry sum for the Ben Uri London Museum of Jewish Art. The discovery was reported last weekend in the New York Times and the work goes on display from today at the Osborne Samuel gallery in London’s West End in a limited showing of the Ben Uri’s extensive and largely unseen masterpieces by Jewish artists who lived in Britain.
The subject and date of the work endow it with a poignancy beyond words. The Christ figure has feminine hips, avoiding the sexual definition of so many crucifixion scenes to suggest the universality of a genocide that overrode compassions of gender. This Christ could be any Jew – man, woman or child – Chagall seems to be saying.
The martyr is surrounded by village scenes familiar from his Vitebsk period. But instead of fiddlers on the roof and cows that fly over the moon, the artist turns every sketch to horrors of hanging, inflagration, expulsion and death. It is a relentless lament for the world he left behind, a world that existed no more.
The eye of the martyr follows you around the room, challenging you at risk of your own humanity to turn your back on the calamity, forcing you to remember and engage. It is not by any means a finished work, nor possibly one of his greatest, but it registers ineluctably on first sight as one of his least forgettable. The exhibition runs to the end of the month.
More on the Ben Uri website: www.benuri.org.uk
For the first four sections of Javier Perianes’s recital at the Wigmore Hall this morning, I was not sure if it was his fingers that needed warming or my ears. Probably a bit of both.
The Spanish pianist opened with a sonata by Manuel Blasco de Nebra (1750-1784), whose works he is presently recording for Harmonia Mundi. It was pretty enough baroque stuff from a period I don’t much care for and nothing he did to it suggested any hint of genius in creation or, for that matter, in execution.
The first two of Schubert’s D899 impromptus were equally unremarkable, perfectly rendered but more plangent than lyrical. The G-flat major sonata was where things got interesting and the A-flat major compelling.
In the third sonata by Frederic Chopin, Perianes was plainly in his element, dismissing the score’s obvious difficulties with something like scorn and barely bothering to bend his erect back. Perianes is, on this showing, an artist of prodigious technique and strong character, though one who has yet to define a repertoire that wholly suits him.
He has a peculiar mannerism of leaping off the piano stool and rushing off stage before the last note has faded. He did it at the end of the Chopin, and twice more after his encores.
The hall was packed at 11.30 on a Sunday morning and the lobby chatter afterwards, over free sherry and coffee, was appreciative. A thousand people had found a haven in piano music while, two minutes’ walk away, Oxford Street was heaving with sales crowds.
All my adult life, I have chosen to live within walking distance of the Wigmore Hall and seldom have I regretted a visit. Tonight, the Auryn Quartet launch a complete Beethoven cycle. My ears are warmed up; I shall go back soon. Here’s where.
I have listened to no music for the past two weeks.
Not live, not canned, not even knowingly on radio – apart from one moment of weakness when I dipped into the Youtube vaults for a dose of Barbara to start the New Year.
For two whole weeks I have rested my ears and this morning, in a few minutes’ time, I am going to wander down to the Wigmore Hall to hear an unknown (to me) Spanish pianist who comes hotly recommended by friends in Madrid.
Excited? I couldn’t be more on edge if Horowitz’s resurrection had been announced on Second Life and I was getting front seats with Michelle Obama at Carnegie Hall.
Javier Peranes will be playing works by Blasco de Nebra (new to me), Schubert and Chopin. If he’s pacing the backstage at this moment feeling tense, nervous, exhilarated, well that’s just about how I feel after a fortnight of self-imposed deprivation. I need music and I need it now.
I gotta go. If it’s any good, I’ll tell you later.