Friday, April 28, 2017
Tweet just in from the superorch: Leider kann das heutige Konzert der Blechbläser der Philharmoniker nicht stattfinden, wir bitten um Verständnis. The longform version (in English): ‘Unfortunately, today’s concert of the brass players of the Berlin Philharmonic cannot take place due to several illnesses in the ensemble and must be postponed to a later date.’ The performance was meant to be: BRASS ENSEMBLES OF THE BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER: Sarah Willis Horn Christhard Gössling, Olaf Ott, and Thomas Leyendecker, Jesper Busk Sørensen Trombone Alexander von Puttkamer Tuba Jan Schlichte drums Works by William Byrd, John Dowland, Johann Sebastian Bach, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Malcolm Arnold, Werner Pirchner and Christian Mühlbacher photo: Peter Adamik/Berlin Phil
In a Telegraph article about the 2017 BBC Proms the concert series' director David Pickard raises hopes for an possible important change in direction. Discussing the move away from Proms themed to TV shows, Pickard observes that "what we need to be thinking of is nurturing a long-term audience for classical music". This statement may be blindingly obvious, but it is important for two reasons. First, it is a welcome sign that somebody at the BBC has finally realised what many of us have known for years, that dumbing down classical music does not build a long-term audience. The second reason why his observation is important is because it is a much-needed admission that quality and not quantity of audience is what matters. In the past the spin-masters at the BBC have been eager to point out the numbers of first-time concertgoers at the Proms. For instance the number of 33,000 first-time concertgoers was trumpeted for the 2014 Proms season; but drilling down below that headline figure painted a very different picture. From data in the public domain, we know that the Proms audience expressed as a percentage of venue capacity dropped from 93% in the 2013 season to 88% in 2014. This means that the total attendance fell by 17,000, despite 33,000 Proms neophytes swelling the numbers. So in 2014 the Proms gained 33,000 first time ticket purchasers, but lost 50,000 of its existing audience, resulting in a net loss of 17,000 concertgoers. What matters is the net change in audience size - newcomers less non-returners; because that determines the size of the long-term audience. The figures I have cited show that despite what superficially looks like an impressive number of first-time attendees wooed by events like TV-themed Proms, the total audience size declined. That decline was due to a mix of two factors: one was that many first-time concertgoers attracted by untypical concert fare did not return, the second was the vitally important but ignored point that the loyal core audience is also shrinking. David Pickard has at least realised that the new marginal audience is not coming back. But he and a lot of other people involved in concert planning also need to take on board that the core audience - which includes me - is becoming very reluctant to brave the contemporary concert ambiance; an ambiance that is being created largely by misguided efforts to attract the new marginal audience. In a 2015 piece titled 'What price classical music's new audience?' I reported here how for me a concert in France was marred by audience members eating a picnic, applauding during (not between) Mahler's settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and, of course, using their mobile phones. Elsewhere I lamented how a performance at the Fez Sufi Culture Festival was ruined by the continuous use of camera-phones, and this weekend my wife email from Toronto lamenting how an Indian music recital was marred by a concertgoer texting and checking emails and Facebook. The inflammatory subject of applause between movements makes an interesting case study. We are told that classical music must drop its silly conventions, and we are also told that silence between movements is one of those dispensable silly conventions. There is some historical justification for this argument, as going back many years it was, apparently, customary, for an audience to express its appreciation of particularly meritorious playing at the end of a movement. But in the age of the new marginal audience, applause between movements has in a remarkably short time become another silly convention. It is no longer an expression of praise for artistic excellence, because, dare I say it, many of those applauding between movements do not yet have the experience to recognise artistic excellence. Applause between movements is now something that the audience does, simply because the new silly convention says they should do it. Just one example was the apologetic dribbles of applause - is this where we should applaud? - between the movements of Tasmin Little's performance of Walton's Violin Concerto in Hull on BBC Radio 3 last week. (I emphasise that my criticism is of the applause habit and not Tasmin's artistic excellence!) The silly convention of dribbles of applause between movements started at the Proms but is now a global problem: we were subjected to it during a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto in Rabat, Morocco recently. If David Pickard wants to know why a core audience member like me has only attended one Prom in recent years - Alwyn and RVW in 2014 - and will not be buying any tickets for the 2017 season, I suggest he listens to the archive recording seen in my header graphic, which is a transfer of BBC broadcasts of two concerts. (I will refrain from using the BBC Radio 3 presenter's ghastly terminology of 'live concerts' as I have never yet attended a concert where the musicians on the platform are dead). Brahms' Third Symphony was recorded at a Prom in 1977 and Elgar's First at a 1976 Prom. On the transfers the hall ambiance has been left between the movements. Not only are there no dribbles of inter-movement applause, there is also none of the tubercular between-movement coughing that punctuates today's performances despite greatly improved health standards. Moreover the music itself is heard in rapturous silence, again without the intrusive noises of today's audiences. And if anybody tries to dismiss the background silence in those two concerts as lucky flukes, I refer them to other BBC concert recordings from the past, all of which lack audience participation; for example another Elgar 1, this time Sir John Barbirolli's painfully slow valedictory 1970 performance in the unforgiving acoustic of St Nicholas' Chapel, King's Lynn, and Bruno Maderna's Mahler Nine recorded in the Festival Hall in 1971. It is quality and not size of audience that is important to nurturing a long-term audience for classical music. David Pickard's candid views suggest that there is some light at the end of the dumbed-down corridor. Let's hope that it is not a train full of audience-chasing BBC senior executives coming the other way. No review samples used. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.
According to the planners of the 2017 BBC Proms, it takes five Mahler symphonies to fill the Albert Hall. In a year when there is not the usual excuse for overkill of an anniversary, half the composer's symphonic output is featured in one season, with three of the symphonies played in a five day period. The five symphonies include the First; this has been performed thirteen times at the Proms since the turn of the century, with this year's performance the fourth in four years. That other perennial excuse of planners that a warhorse coupled with a 'difficult' work broadens audience tastes also doesn't apply. Two of the Mahler symphonies have no coupled work, Haydn, Schubert and Dvořák are coupled to the other three, and the only contemporary coupling is a seven minute piece by John Adams. That header graphic is a pencil sketch of Sir Malcolm Arnold by his son. Malcolm Arnold wrote symphonies that surely would appeal to today's Mahler-satiated audiences, but, predictably, none of them are performed at the 2017 Proms. In a 1971 Guardian article Sir Malcolm accused critics of having preconceived and narrow views which forced promoters to programme works by a limited range of composers, and ended by deploying an unfortunate analogy to declare: "Let us say down, down, down with the music critics before they make our music the arid and joyless music of the concentration camp". In a similarly thoughtful but savage attack on fellow harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani in the current Van magazine*, Andreas Staier also directs his ire at critics, saying: "The press is at fault here too. In none of the interviews [with Mahan Esfahani] I cited was a single critical follow-up question asked. And the media has such a short attention span that contradictory and inconsistent statements are ignored even if they occur within just weeks of one other." Andreas Staier is right to criticise, but chooses the wrong target. Music critics now have little influence except as opinion formers on social media, and that is where the problem lies. The Mahler glut and Mhan Esfahani's attention-seeking antics are products of the so-called wisdom of crowds. When that great Proms planner William Glock was asked what he wanted to offer audiences, he replied "What they will like tomorrow". Five Mahler symphonies at the 2017 Proms is yet another illustration of how the wisdom of crowds and social media is a flawed tool for concert planners, because it only tells them what audiences like today. * My thanks go to Andrew Morris' Devil's Trill blog for drawing attention to the Andreas Staier article. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.
Formula saves the BBC Proms 2017! This may be the beginning of the end for Sir Henry Wood's dreams of the Proms as serious music. Fortunately The Formula, perfected by much-maligned Roger Wright, is strong enough to withstand the anti-music agendas of the suits and robots who now run the Proms. Shame on those who rely on formula instead of talent, but in dire straits, autopilot can save things from falling apart. So, sift through the detritus of gimmick and gameshow to find things worth saving (Read here what I wrote about The Formula) Danierl Barenboim is a Proms perennial, for good reason, so we can rely on his two Elgar Proms (16 and 17 July) especially the Sunday one which features a new work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Deep Time, which at 25 minutes should be substantial Pascal Dusapin's Outscape on 19/7, 28 minutes, also substantial Anotherr "regular" Proms opera, Fidelio on 21/7, with a superlative cast headed by Stuart Skelton and Ricarda Merbeth, tho' Juanjo Mena conducts Ilan Volkov conducts Julian Anderson's new Piano Concerto on 26/7 , tho's the rest of the programme, though good isn't neccesarily Volkov's forte On 29/7 Mark Wigglesworth conducts David Sawer's The Greatest Happiness Principle On 31/7, Monteverdi Vespers with French baroque specialists Pygmalion On 1/8, William Christie conducts the OAE in Handel Israel in Egypt and on 2/8, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists do Bach and my beloved Heinrich Schütz. On 8/8 Gardiner returns with Berlioz The Damnation of Faust, with Michael Spyres. First of this year's four Mahlers is Mahler's Tenth (Cooke) with Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Robin Ticciati, back with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on 15/8 with an interesting pairing, Thomas Larcher Nocturne-Insomnia with Schumann Symphony no 2. Throughout this season, there are odd mismatches between repertoire and performers, good conductors doing routine material, less good conductors doing safe and indestructable. Fortunately, baroque and specialist music seem immune. See above ! and also the Prom featuring Lalo, Délibes and Saint-Saëns with François Xavier-Roth and Les Siècles on 16/8 Perhaps these Proms attract audiences who care what they're listening to Schoenberg's Gurrelieder on 19/8 with Simon Rattle, whose recording many years back remains a classic but may not be known to whoever described the piece in the programme "Gurrelieder is Schoenberg’s Tristan and Isolde, an opulent, late-Romantic giant." Possibly the same folk who dreamed up the tag "Reformation Day" like Nigel Faarage's "Independence Day" Nothing in life is that simplistic The music's OK, but notn the marketing. Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC SO in Elgar Symphony no 3 (Anthony Payne) on 22/8 Potentially this will be even bigger than the Barenboim Elgar symphonies, since Oramo is particularly good with this symphony, which may not be as high profile but is certainly highly regarded by those who love Elgar On 26/8, Jakub Hrůša conducts the BBC SO in an extremely well chosen programme of Suk, Smetana, Martinů, Janáček and Dvorák More BBCSO on 31/8 when Semyon Bychkov conducts a Russian programme Marketing guff seems to make a big deal of national stereotypes, which is short sighted These programmes cohere musically, but that's perhaps too much to expect from the new Proms mindset On 1/9, Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Bruckner and Wolfgang Rihm An odd pairing but one which will come off well since these musicians know what they're doing They are back again on 2/9 with Haydn "The Bear" and Mahler Fourth which isn't "sunny" or "song-filled". It's Mahler, not a musical. Gergiev brings the Mariinsky on 3/9 with Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich Symphony no 5. Another huge highlight on 7/9 : The Wiener Philharmoniker, with Daniel Harding in Mahler Symphony no 6 - so powerful that nothing else needs to be added to sugar the pill For me, and for many others, that will be the real :Last Night of the Proms Party time the next day, with Nina Stemme as star guest
The second and third concerts of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic´s subscription series at the Colón coincided in two factors: maestros that had never conducted the Phil and innovative programming. One is old, Finnish, talented and excentric; the other is middle-aged, Italian, very effective and enthusiastic. Leif Segerstam has been here before, Claudio Vandelli made his debut, and both had soloists from the orchestra in premières. Segerstam has changed enormously since his debut here in 1973 conducting Mozart´s "Le Nozze di Figaro". Then he was slim, 32 and almost at the start of his brilliant career; decades passed until he visited us at the helm of the Helsinki Philharmonic some years ago in programmes that stressed Sibelius and one of the conductor´s myriad symphonies. He was transformed into a Nordic overweight patriarch with a huge beard, but his command and musical sensitivity were quite evident. I also had the good luck of appreciating him as a Wagnerian in Vienna (February 2009) with a splendid "Lohengrin". Now in his late seventies, he has serious locomotion trouble and barely manages to climb the two steps to the podium, but his arms respond well and his capacity remains. He started and ended with Sibelius: the iconic "Finlandia" in a rousing performance, and the very welcome second time at the Phil for the Third Symphony, premièred by Pedro Calderón in 1973. Anecdote: at the time the programming was in the joint hands of Calderón (then Principal Conductor) and myself, and curiously he wanted to do Third symphonies and so did I; so he exhumed Mahler´s Third after forty years of its Fitelberg première and I programmed the première of Dvorák´s Third (Smetácek), played complete (not with cuts as happened in Diemecke´s integral of Dvorák symphonies). The Sibelius Third also had a performance (rather good) at the Facultad de Derecho by the Lanús Symphony three years ago and I was there, attracted by the chance to hear it live, for this is a neglected symphony in BA (as is the Sixth) and it doesn´t merit such negligence. Of course the first two are longer and richer but there is much beauty in the Third within its smaller scale. It was finished in 1907 and the composer´s stamp is everywhere, particularly in the attractive melodies of the first movement and the growing tension and density of the final minutes. It had a detailed and impressive reading. The first of two premières was an interesting arrangement by Luciano Berio of Brahms´ Sonata Op.120 Nº1 for clarinet and piano, converting it into a Concerto for clarinet and orchestra. Berio added apposite small introductions to the first and second movements. This is nocturnal, intimate, late Brahms composed in 1894; Berio´s orchestration is at times too loud (the music needs more matte colors, less trumpets) but considering the dearth of clarinet concertos, it is a useful addition to that repertoire. It was premièred in 1986 as a commission of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its first desk Michele Zukovsky. Probably the execution by Mariano Rey, his counterpart at our Phil, was fully as good, for he is a virtuoso of international standing. I had the curious experience of following the music with the original Brahms score, and I found the interpretation (both soloistic and orchestral) cogent with the marked speeds and articulations. As an encore Rey offered an expressive clarinet adaptation of Piazzolla´s slow, melodic "Oblivion". Can you imagine a composer-conductor presenting his Symphony Nº 302? Surely a Guinness record, that´s what Segerstam did in this work dedicated to the Colón and called "A fundamental and universal musical conscience". Carlos Singer says in his programme notes (and I agree): "he created a gigantic meta-universe irresistible and labyrinthic, cosmic and chaotic". He uses what he calls "free pulsation", "leaving rhythmic decisions to the players". He certainly is "nonconformist, excentric and non-repeatable". He didn´t conduct his 24-minute symphony, of very full orchestration; instead, some players got up and led a particular section from time to time; I suppose rehearsals must have been fascinating to watch, and apparently the Phil coped well. I found it intense, dissonant though tonal-based, and strange; I was left imagining the workings of Segerstam´s psyche and comparing it to other excentric and prolific symphonists such as Havergal Brian and Alan Hovhaness, both quite unknown here. It would be intriguing to have a chance to compare them live. Back to relative normalcy in the following concert. The announced conductor was Alexander Vedernikov, but he fell ill and was replaced by Claudio Vandelli. What impressed me was that the programme was unchanged although it was made up of rarely played Russian music and a première. Reading his biography I understood it: he has been invited for the last ten years by the Moscow State Symphony New Russia and is the second conductor of the Russian Youth Symphony, so he is well versed in the Russian repertoire, although he has plenty of activity elsewhere (he has conducted orchestras of great caliber). He started with an umistakeably Tchaikovskian score, the fantasy overture "Hamlet" (one of his three Shakespearian tone poems, for that´s what they are: the others being "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Tempest"). Written when he was occupied by his Fifth Symphony in 1888, all the hallmarks of his style are there in this unfairly ignored creation: the dark, ominous textures; the melodies charged with sorrow; the vigorous climaxes; the sense of drama. I enjoyed Vandelli´s sanguine interpretation, played by a committed Phil. Johann Baptist Vanhal (Bohemian) had a rather long life (1739-1813) and was staggeringly prolific: 73 symphonies, about 30 concertos, around a hundred string quartets, and 95 sacred works. Very popular and well considered in his own time, but quite forgotten as the Nineteenth Century advanced, the vinyl catalogue after WWII and later the CD rush provoked a thirst for the expansion of the repertoire beyond the greatest names, and thus slowly Vanhal was explored at least partially. There are few concerts for the bass, and so the two by Vanhal, purely classicist, began to be played again. The cumbersome instrument is habitually used in orchestras as the basis for rich string textures, but rarely gets solos to play, let alone concertos. So Osvaldo Dragún, first desk of our Phil, welcomed the chance of premièring Vanhal´s Concerto in D major, a pleasant twenty minutes that allowed the player to show the melodic and the virtuosic aspects of the bass. Dragún also played some of Bottesini´s Variations on the Carnival of Venice tune. A good player of charismatic appearance, he got strong applause. And Vandelli accompanied well. Now to another excentric composer: Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). He started as a Late Romantic but gradually he went on to an audacious mystical avantgardism. His three symphonies are steps in that sense, crowned by his two great poems: "of ecstacy" and "of fire" ("Prometheus"). The Second Symphony (1901) was marvelously done here by Svetlanov and the USSR State Symphony, decades ago. In five movements (the first two and the last two joined), the music is exalted, turbulent and ample (48 minutes). Vandelli led with enthusiasm and command, getting a big sound out of an attentive Phil.For Buenos Aires Herald
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives. A single voice in a song symphony created for two voices? Not many artists have the vocal range and heft to sustain 45 minutes at this intensity but Kaufmann achieves a feat that would defy many others. Das Lied von der Erde for one soloist is a remarkable experiment that's probably a one-off, but that alone is reason enough to pay proper attention. The dichotomy between male and female runs like a powerful undercurrent through most of Mahler's work. It's symbolic. The "Ewig-wiebliche", the Eternal feminine, represents abstract concepts like creativity, redemption and transcendance, fundamentals of Mahler's artistic metaphysics. Ignore it at the risk of denaturing Mahler! But there can be other ways of creating duality, not tied to gender. Witness the tenor/baritone versions, contrasting singers of the calibre of Schreier and Fischer-Dieskau. For Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler specified tenor and mezzo, the mezzo supplying richness and depth in contrast to the anguish of the tenor, terrified of impending death. This is significant, since most of Mahler's song cycles and songs for male voices are written for medium to low voices, and favour baritones. Tenors generally get short-changed, so this is an opportunity to hear how tenors can make the most of Mahler. . Kaufmann is a Siegmund, not a Siegfried: his timbre has baritonal colourings not all can quite match. Transposing the mezzo songs causes him no great strain. His Abschied is finely balanced and expressive, good enough to be heard alone, on its own terms. What this single voice Das Lied sacrifices in dynamic contrast, it compensates by presenting Das Lied von der Erde as a seamless internal monologue. Though Mahler uses two voices, the protagonist is an individual undergoing transformation: Mahler himself, or the listener, always learning more, through each symphony. Thus the idea of a single-voice Das Lied is perfectly valid, emotionally more realistic than tenor/baritone. All-male versions work when both singers are very good, but a single-voice version requires exceptional ability. Quite probably, Kaufmann is the only tenor who could carry off a single-voice Das Lied. With his background, Kaufmann knows how to create personality without being theatrical, an important distinction, since Das Lied von der Erde is not opera, with defined "roles", but a more personal expression of the human condition. This Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde is unusually intense, since the person involved emphatically does not want to die. The horns call, the orchestra soars, but Kaufmann's defiance rings with a ferocity most tenors might not dare risk. Wunderlich couldn't test this song to the limits the way Kaufmann does. Schreier, on the other hand, infused it with similar courage, outshining the mezzo and orchestra in his recording with Kurt Sanderling. This heroic, outraged defiance is of the essence, for the protagonist is facing nothing less than annihilation. Twenty years ago, when Kaufmann sang Das Lied with Alice Coote in Edinburgh, I hated the way he did this song, as if it was a drinking song. Now Kaufmann has its true measure, spitting out the words fearlessly, taking risks without compromise. No trace whatsoever of Mario Lanza! This reveals a side of Kaufmann which the marketing men pushing commercial product like the Puccini compilation will not understand, but enhances my respect for Kaufmann's integrity as a true artist. After the outburst of Das Trinklied, Der Einsame im Herbst is reflective, with Kaufmann's characteristic "smoky" timbre evoking a sense of autumnal melancholy. This is usually a mezzo song, so at a few points the highest notes aren't as pure as they might be, though that adds to the sense of vulnerability which makes this song so moving. Von der Jugend is a tenor song, though no surprises there. If Kaufmann's voice isn't as beautiful as it often is, he uses it intelligently. The arch of the bridge mirrored in the water is an image of reversal. Nothing remains as it was. In Von der Schönheit Mahler undercuts the image of maidens with energetic, fast-flowing figures in the orchestra. This song isn't "feminine". The protagonist is no longer one of the young bucks with prancing horses. He has other, more pressing things on his mind. Der Trunkene im Frühling usually marks the exit of the tenor, recapitulating Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde. Though there are tender moments, such as the bird song and its melody, the mood is still not resigned. Kaufmann throws lines forcefully : "Der Lenz ist da!", "Am schrwarzen Firmament!" and, defiant to the end with "Laßt mich betrunken sein!" Jonathan Nott conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker. creating an atmospheric Abschied with muffled tam tam, woodwinds, strings, harps, celeste and mandolin. Excellent playing, as you'd expect from this orchestra. Just as the first five songs form a mini-cycle, the Abschied itself unfolds in several stages, each transition marked by an orchestral interlude. The dichotomy now is not merely between voice types but between voice and orchestra: altogether more abstract and elevated. This final song is the real test of this Das Lied and Kaufmann carries it off very well. Now the tone grows ever firmer and more confident. There are mini-transitions even within single lines of text, such as the beautifully articulated "Er sprach....., seine Stimme war umflort...... Du, mein Freund". At last, resolution is reached. The ending is transcendant, textures sublimated and luminous. The protagonist has reached a new plane of consciousness not of this world. Kaufmann's voice takes on richness and serenity. He breathes into the words "Ewig....ewig" so the sound seems almost to glow. Utterly convincing. This isn't the prettiest Das Lied von der Erde on the market, but it wouldn't be proper Mahler if it were. It is much more important that it is psychologically coherent and musically valid. Too often, interesting performances are dismissed out of hand because they are different, but Kaufmann's Das Lied von der Erde definitely repays thoughtful listening.
Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860 - 18 May 1911) was a late-Romantic Austrian-Bohemian composer and one of the leading conductors of his generation. As a composer, he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. While in his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of relative neglect which included a ban on its performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era. After 1945 the music was discovered and championed by a new generation of listeners; Mahler then became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers. After graduating from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878, Malherhe held a succession of conducting posts of rising importance in the opera houses of Europe, culminating in his appointment in 1897 as director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper). During his ten years in Vienna, Mahler experienced regular opposition and hostility from the anti-Semitic press. Late in his life he was briefly director of New York's Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Mahler's uvre is relatively small and is confined to the genres of symphony and song, except for one piano quartet. Most of his ten symphonies are very large-scale works. These works were often controversial when first performed. Mahler's immediate musical successors were the composers Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten are among later 20th-century composers who admired and were influenced by Mahler. The International Gustav Mahler Institute was established in 1955, to honour the composer's life and work.
Great composers of classical music