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Category archive: Classical music

Monday December 15 2014

This morning I had reason to be in the vicinity of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, at about 10 a.m.  Later you will learn why, but in the meantime, just to say that this uncharacteristically early-in-the-day expedition enabled me to reacquaint myself with an old friend, in the form of the delightful footbridge that allows the ballerinas of the Royal Ballet School to make their way to the Royal Opera House, without having to risk being damaged by traffic or by the public:

image

The ROH is on the right there.  I like how the squares in the bridge echo the strong right angles of the building and its roof details.

I also like the blue sky.  But, you think that’s a blue sky?  That’s not a blue sky. 

This is a blue sky.

Friday December 05 2014

When I got to that ASI Christmas Party the other night, I was already in a grumpy mood, on account of not being allowed to bring three Opera Babes to the party.  That’s right.  The Adam Smith Institute didn’t have room for three glamorous young women, two of them at the Royal College of Music (Goddaughter 2 and her friend) and one of them (another friend of Goddaughter 2) who was auditioning for the Royal College of Music (having already been accepted last year by the Guildhall).  I had already arranged to bring Goddaughter 2, but the ASI having spurned her two glamorous Opera Babe friends, GD2 not unreasonably preferred to be with them.  I don’t mean that the ASI said: Opera Babes? - No thanks.  I mean that they didn’t even allow me to say that they were Opera Babes, so oversubscribed were they.  Or so she said.  The ASI lady put their names on the subs bench list in case of cancellations, but your guests only get on the pitch if the ASI tells you so beforehand, and I heard nothing.

So instead I went to the ASI Christmas Party with Goddaughter 2’s glamorous elder sister.  When I got there, it was clear that although there were many persons present, there was most definitely room for three more Opera Babes.  But, two many mostly very non-operatic males of the species had already signed up to be there, and they needed room to stand around in all-male groups and shout their opinions at each other.

So there I was at the ASI Christmas Party feeling grumpy, looking around the room and recognising hardly anyone, and feeling bad about having dragged GD2’s sister to this ghastly do and being so grumpy about it, and for about the first half hour of being there, I continued to be grumpy.  Three things, however, cheered me up.

First, I bumped into someone I did know, Anton Howes.  And it turns out that he has a new blog.  How very last decade, I said, but really, I was truly delighted to hear this, and started to feel that the evening was not going to be a total write-off after all.  I had actually learned something of genuine use and interest to me.  Cheer-me-up Thing Number One.

Cheer-me-up Thing Number Two, I got my camera out.  I think I saw some other person taking photos and I thought: time for me to do some soul stealing.  Was this uncouth?  Probably.  Would I look like an old prick?  Presumably.  But I was feeling like an uncouth old prick anyway, so out came the camera anyway.  And immediately I cheered up.  Suddenly, people cheered up when I approached them, and ceased from only talking about what they were talking about and instead started presenting themselves to my camera in a way that would make them look approximately as good as they were capable of looking.  And, if they ignored me, well, that’s fine, because when people ignore you and just carry on enjoying themselves, that, if you are a photographer rather than a human being, is good.

Cheer-me-up Thing Number Three: Eamonn Butler saw me taking photos, and approached.  Oh dear.  “Brian, could you please stop being such an uncouth old prick?  And if you do insist on photoing, could you please make a point of not photoing him, or him, or her.” Paranoid rubbish like that flashed up in my brain in between Eamonn being clearly about to say something and Eamonn actually starting to say it.  And what did he say?  He said: “Could you please send us a few of your best photos?” or words to that effect.  Hah!  I was now an officially designated photographer.  I was someone.  Instead of me fretting about not knowing anyone (and about not being allowed to be The Bloke Who Brought The Opera Babes), everyone else had to feel bad that they didn’t know me.  Hurrah!

And actually, when I bustled my way through the throng some more, snap snap snapping, it turned out that actually I did know quite a few of those present.

Here we have, I think, another impact of digital photography.  Digital photography cheers up people like me when we go to parties.  But, shame I couldn’t photo the Opera Babes.

All of which began life as a mere intro to me showing you lots of the photos I actually took at this do.  But, people who might google their way to - or maybe even be steered with a link towards - such photos won’t be wanting a long ramble attached to them about how I felt before and during the taking of them.  So, I’ll stick them up in a separate posting.  This I promise.

Friday November 21 2014

Being the Godfather of Goddaughter 2, who has just started out as a student at the Royal College of Music, is a bit costly, but it most definitely also has its privileges.  Yesterday I was kindly allowed to sit in on one of GD2’s one-on-one lessons, and today I got to see (at no further cost) the first dress rehearsal for the College’s production of The Magic Flute.  GD2 was not performing in The Magic Flute.  She merely arranged for me and various others of her acquaintance to be there, and she watched it along with us.  As did many other RCM students by the look and sound of things.  GD2’s singing lesson was most encouraging, and the Magic Flute was terrific, truly terrific, reflecting huge credit on all the professionals named at the other end of the above link, who between them set the tone of it. 

Michael Rosewell conducted stirringly, emphasising the menace as well as the grandeur and beauty of the music.  Jean-Claude Auvray directed wonderfully, with lots of pertinent comic business.  Ruari Murchison’s set was dominated by a big, black, modernistic wooden box, with big sliding hinged doors at the front, with little doors in them, and with more doors at the sides and the back.  This moved the action along with minimal fuss.  They could shut the big doors at the front and do a scene in front of them, while inside the closed box other cast members could then set up the next scene.  Since so many of the scenes in this opera are contrivances by some of the characters within the drama, them opening the doors to reveal the next scene made perfect sense.  The production reminded me, in its clarity and austerity, of the best sort of Shakespeare productions that I have seen.

The costumes were modern, in a way that illuminated the characters and the various stages their lives were going through, rather than in a way that stuffed Mozart’s story into a specifically different era and made an anachronistic nonsense of it.  Mark Doubleday’s lighting emphasised the brightness and lightness of the final scenes, but in the meantime it emphasised what a dark and morally ambiguous story this is, ending up as it does with the hero and heroine joining a religious cult.  Tamino and Pamina started out in jeans, then found themselves clad in pantomime hero and heroine costumes, and they ended up power-dressed, City-of-London Moonie/Mormon style, in matching grey suits with, in Pamina’s case, shoulder pads.

Mozart loved being a Freemason, but a modern audience can’t be so unreservedly happy about this particular happy ending.  In many ways, this is a story about the triumph of religious fundamentalism over the forces of modernity and of female emancipation.  There are numerous references to how women must subordinate themselves to men, with the only Queen involved being the Queen of the Night, the leader of the eventually defeated forces of modernity, individuality, and darkness.  These anti-modern references became particularly chilling when spelt out in plain English, in the illuminated surtitles at the top of the stage.

The Three Ladies were dressed to kill at a Premier or a Charity Fundraiser, but not in uniforms, rather as three individuals.  The Three Boys, on the opposite side of the conflict from the Three Ladies, were all dressed identically, like Mrs Krankie, being also ladies underneath their boy costumes.  All six acted and sang splendidly, individually and as teams.

As for the singing generally, only Sarastro, the leader of the ultimately triumphant cult, needed to be granted a little slack.  It was absolutely not his fault that although most of his singing was fine, his voice lacked that final ounce of basso profundity required for those fearsome low notes.  This was the one time when you wanted to be hearing one of the half dozen, or however many it is, aging-giant Sarastro super-specialists who roam the earth, bestowing their show-stealing low notes upon rich opera audiences everywhere.  But this Sarastro acted very convincingly, especially given that he had less help from his grey suit of a costume than I presume most other Sarastros tend to get, and not much help either from his relatively short stature.  Being the one black man on view, on the other hand, meant that he was instantly recognisable.  (I want to hear this guy singing other things.) As for everyone else, terrific.  This was the first time I have actually seen The Magic Flute on a stage, and I can’t imagine a better introduction.  GD2’s mother, who has seen other non-student productions, reckoned this one to be the best.  Yes, really.

The biggest round of applause came at the end for the entire cast, and quite right too.  But the Queen of the Night got the second biggest ovation for her famously spectacular and difficult aria, and thoroughly earned it.  Sensational.  Watch out for her.  Papagena also stole every scene she was in, although I didn’t get her name.  (Maybe I can later add a link for her too.) Papageno handled his various musical instruments with particular aplomb.

But better than any individual excellence on show was the general air of sincerity, enthusiasm and esprit de corps.  As the lady teacher said at the end of GD2’s lesson yesterday, opera has changed from the days when all you had to do was stand there and sing.  You have to be able to sing and act, and often to sing in very demanding circumstances.  You may have to “sing with your legs in the air” was how GD2’s teacher put it yesterday.  There was nothing like that on the stage today, but the director did demand lots of acting of a less undignified sort, and got it in abundance.  The show came alive from the first minute, and stayed alive throughout.  These young singers are being very well prepared for the sort of careers that most of them will surely have.

I’m looking forward to more RCM dress rehearsals, and hope one day soon to be seeing GD2 in one of them.  I am reluctant to enthuse too much about her prospects.  Just to say that her voice sounds like a pretty fine one to me, that her teachers and fellow students seem to agree about that, and that she seems to be working hard at learning how to make the best use of it.  But, as yesterday’s teacher said, there are a lot of circumstances - some of which you can surely imagine and many of which you can hardly begin to imagine unless you also know one of these singers yourself - that can derail a classical singing career.  So, fingers crossed.

Saturday November 01 2014

During a discussion on Radio 3’s Music Matters at lunchtime today, about whether knowledge of classical music is necessary for the enjoyment of classical music, noted baritone singer Sir Thomas Allen mentioned that Luciano Pavarotti could not read music.  During recordings, said Allen, someone used to stand behind Pavarotti and quietly hum his notes for him, to make sure he got them right.

However, when Pavarotti himself was challenged about this, he denied it:

In an interview in 2005 with Jeremy Paxman on the BBC, Pavarotti rejected the allegation that he could not read music, although acknowledging he sometimes had difficulty following orchestral parts.

I’m guessing that what is at stake here is the difference between being able to read music after a fashion, and being able to read it fluently and with utter confidence that one is getting it absolutely right every time.  Sort of like the difference between having to spell out lots of the rather harder words, and just reading.

When I played the flute at school (until I gave it up and just became a classical fan) I had, by the sound of it, even greater difficulty reading music than Pavarotti did.  But even so, this makes me feel much better.

Allen also said that Mirella Freni (a soprano about as noted as Allen himself) was the same.

Saturday October 04 2014

Yes, there I was, relaxing in one of the big old armchairs that Mr Gramex reckons have made him so much money over the years, and this guy shows up at the door wanting to photo the CDs.

Mr Gramex has no objection, so, he does.  And I photo him.  This is what this looked like:

image image image

I thought I was the only one who did things like photo CDs in CD shops.  Why was he doing this?  He was evasive.  My guess is some kind of project photoing lots of different stuff in lots of different London shops.  Or, maybe wherever he goes, in life, he photos stuff in shops, the way I photo photographers.  He said he was from Turkey.

Mr Gramex was very keen that Mr Turkey should also go outside and photo the window display, which he did.  Even if he actually cared nothing for this window display the marginal cost of digital photography is zero and if that was how to keep in with Mr Gramex, fine, he’d do it.  Which is when I took the photo on the right.  Click on that photo, and, in the event that you care at all, you can see me photoing, reflected in the shop window, bottom right.

The bike in the middle picture belongs to Mr Gramex.  As you can see from the reviews here, Gramex does not suit everyone.  But it suits the people it suits very well.

Tuesday September 09 2014

New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross writes about how he still loves his classical CDs.  Partly, he admits, it’s nostalgia.  CDs were such a huge leap forward when they first arrived that that moment of pure joy is very hard to turn your back on.  I can still remember what my first CDs were: Nielsen 3, Brahms Sextets, Barenboim complete Beethoven piano sonatas, Strauss Alpine Symphony … Then there was the realisation that classical CDs would just get cheaper and cheaper and abundanter and abundanter, and then very soon the reality of that happy circumstance.  Gramex Boss Hewland prices his stuff with more than half an eye to what Amazon charges, and it remains worthwhile to visit Gramex from time to time, even as all the other central London second hand CD emporia have faded away.  He piles them high and sells them cheap.

Yes, the physical space occupied by CDs is a problem.  Those piles can get very high.  (Visit my home to see that problem on an enormous scale.) But, for me, the internet remains an unenticing place to purchase and play classical music.  I have accumulated some virtual titles, as a result of buying them new on Amazon and having an additional “cloud” version of the same thing piped into my computer.  But I wouldn’t want to be without the CDs whose purchase provoked this additional twenty first century response.

I wrote recently about the value of keeping things separate, in my case my big home computer and my music making equipment.  Even as my big home computer continues not to materialise, I still have music as good as ever, with no messing with some new kind of system to make it work.

But the central problem with classical music on the internet is that it remains, I believe, a mess.  Pop music having overwhelmed classical music economically during the last hundred years or so, pop music is the big driver of internet music, and internet music is entirely organised for the benefit of pop fans, and their discreet tracks.  We classicists are liable, as Alex Ross explains, to get lumbered with such things as John Eliot Gardiner’s Beethoven Nine labelled as being the work of Lyuba Organosova, merely because she tops of the list of soloists for the final movement.  The labelling of classical tracks on Amazon, where they offer you little snippets to listen to, is routinely done by naming the pieces with such things as their tempo or loudness markings, while neglecting to tell you what the piece is or what number movement it is.  They just can’t be bothered to get it right.  Fair enough.  I understand why they can’t be bothered.  We classicists aren’t worth bothering with.  Buy the CD or don’t and consider yourself lucky, is the message.  Until someone really big and well organised does bother about it, classical music on the internet will remain an off-putting afterthought, piggybacking systems devised for something else, rather than an enticing attraction.

When things get reissued, the labelling is liable to go completely to buggery.  I, for instance, have that Barenboim set of Beethoven sonatas on EMI from way back, long before the internet, when it first came out as a set of CDs.  Since then it has been reissued.  So, when the internet tries to assist me in cataloguing recordings I myself have made of it onto my hard disc, it gets it all wrong.  Useless.

Classical music on the internet will eventually get sorted out.  And when it does, I will, if not dead, presumably hear about it from my classical music mags.  A consensus will be announced, saying things like “Classical CDs really are pointless nowadays”, and when you read such articles, it will, after about a decade of premature enthusiasm of the geek-bollocks sort ("all you have to do is blah blah dance on the head of twenty seven pins blah blah blah turn seventy three cartwheels blah blah blah what could be easier? … yes it might all crash but to solve that blah blah blah ..."), eventually become true.  A actual, real world majority of Classical freaks will be using this single, best arrangement, and it will work, all the time, like email.  Or not.

Even when such a new classical dispensation does emerge, I will probably not bother to switch.  It’s not just sunk costs; it will also be declining costs.  As internet classical music becomes ever more appealing, so the price of mere CDs will sink and sink, until all of them can be purchased by me from Amazon, for £0.01 plus postage.

Meanwhile, I like that my CD filing system (aka my CD collection) is always accurate.  When I dig up a CD that says it is so-and-so’s recording of Brahms 4, it is, and then when I play it, it will be played in the right order.  Notes will be to hand to read about this recording if I want to, conveniently stored right next to the CD.

I do have lots of virtual music, as an addendum to my CDs, like those files that Amazon spontaneously volunteers, and like stuff I have recorded from the radio.  But the latter starts out being called something like DAB002, and I have never sorted out how to file it conveniently, or even to edit it into individual performances.  Life is too short to be bothering.  Why edit, when CDs are already edited.  Virtual music is strictly an afterthought for me.  Plastic music remains the thing itself, for me.  And (see above) I don’t believe I’m just being sentimental, even if I am somewhat.

Friday September 05 2014

You wait years for a classical music posting at BrianMicklethwaitDotCom, and then two come along in three days.  The day before yesterday there was one such.  Now there is this one.

Goddaughter 2, who is an aspiring classical singer, told me something this evening that many people in the world have long known but which I did not know, until now.  Or maybe I sort of knew it, but was glad to have my knowledge firmed up into real knowledge.  What GD2 said was: that the process of having a child, if you are a lady singer, can radically alter or even ruin your voice.  Something to do with hormones and muscles, and such things.  A friend of hers, who was a mezzo soprano, had a child, and became a soprano.  I.e. in plainer English, her voice went up higher.  Another singer, hired to sing at a noted provincial opera house in France because she was known already to have been very good in the part, had a child between being hired and the performances, and she had to be sacked because she went from excellent at singing to no good at all.

What a cruel world.

Wednesday September 03 2014

That posting I did the other day about how a really fast computer perfectly fills in for the imperfections of my own deteriorating mental processes may not have impressed anyone else, but it impressed me.  And now I am listening to Beethoven symphonies on my CD player, and I am thinking that something similar may happen between a really good symphony orchestra and a conductor.

“Great conductors” are famous for carrying on into their dotage.  Lots of people have written and talked about this.  The Great Conductor’s grasp of everyday life and its processes collapses, yet the great man’s ability to go on conducting seems mysteriously unimpaired.  Why?

This only applies to “great conductors”.  Merely good conductors have to jack it in.  Again, why?  Why this difference?  Why do only the Great Conductors often keep going so long?

The usual answers to questions about why this happens tend to focus on the mental processes of the Great Man himself, and upon the magical power of music to improve the brain, or in this case prevent its collapse.  But how about considering also the musicians whom they conduct, and the general situation that conductors in generally tend to find themselves in as they get old, and how about also the essence of what a conductor does and does not do, when he is conducting.

A merely good conductor doesn’t get to conduct a Great Orchestra, and accordingly, his job is to make merely good orchestras, or even not that good orchestras play better.  Lots of instructions and arguments are involved.  You’re doing this, you ought to be doing it like this, and so on.  So our merely good conductor finds himself in circumstances where his declining mental abilities are often cruelly exposed.  He forgets what he said to the first oboist ten seconds ago, and so so.  And, being merely good, and there being plenty of other merely good conductors available, our merely good conductor in due course gets a free transfer into conducting retirement.

But now consider the Great Conductor.  He is conducting a Great Orchestra.  Because he can.  Two circumstances now prevail which are absent when a merely good conductor conducts a merely good orchestra.  First, the concert is a sell-out, every time.  The CDs continue to sell, no matter how much bodging and stitching and patching up the engineers have to do afterwords.  (All sorts of rumours circulate in classical music about this kind of thing.) But second, crucially, the Great Conductor is not called upon to do anything except conduct the Great Orchestra that he is still able to be put at the front of.

I surmise that if you are conducting a Great Orchestra, the effect is rather similar to the effect I described of me sitting at the keyboard of a super-fast state-of-the-art computer (such as I am still being deprived of as I type this).  I type and the computer reacts immediately.  I switch from one thing to another, and the computer follows me, instantaneously.  Well, does not rather the same thing apply when a Great Conductor conducts a Great Orchestra?  I suspect it does.

What goes ragged and unreliable when you get old is memory, short-term being especially embarrassing, but basically all varieties of it.  But what remains, typically, is your senses, your grasp of right now.  And conducting is all about being, as modern parlance has it, “in the moment”, “in the now”.  What matters is what you are telling the orchestra to do, right now, and they do it, right now, in the same moment.  This, we oldies can still be a part of.  What we can’t do is always remember precisely how things went ten seconds ago, or yesterday, or a week ago.  But guess what, when you are conducing, you don’t need to think about that!  In fact, it may even be an advantage if you make a habit of not thinking about that.  Insofar as you do need to be reminded of where you’ve got to, the orchestra does this, by playing what must now be played.

What I am surmising is: it’s not that the Great Conductors are “kept young” by the process of conducting an orchestra and by the gloriousness of the music itself.  What is happening here is that as a Great Conductor gets old, at much the same rate and in much the same way that the rest of us do, he finds himself in a situation where the kinds of deteriorations that happen to us all do not matter.  The show is able to go on for about another decade or more beyond when you would think it should have ground to an embarrassing halt.  His wife has to butter his toast and remind him which symphony he is about to conduct and tell him which city they are in.  But once the playing begins, all is well.  Any conducting mistakes, and the orchestra irons them out, which may even keep them more alert and awake.

For yes, being conducted by a really old Great Conductor may even work better than usual.  A sixty year old Great Conductor may have all kinds of tyrannical and complicated ideas about how to interpret the music which he may insist on talking about at insulting length during rehearsals.  He may want to rearrange the orchestra’s membership.  He may be a bully and a tyrant.  And he may still be quite good at all this, as in: able to make life hell for the orchestra.  But all that one of these ninety five year old Great Conductors is able to do is wave a stick in front of the orchestra on the night.  The occasional unclear wobble of that stick is not a problem.  A great orchestra just takes its cue from its leader and its various section leaders.  They know how to play well, no matter what idiocy is going on on the podium, especially if they have played the piece lots of times before with the Great Conductor.

The key variable may simply be: do they like the Great Conductor, or do they not?  Perhaps fifteen years ago he was a sadistic bastard, in which case as soon as he starts forgetting people’s names or forgetting what he was trying to say a moment ago in rehearsal, then he is gently but firmly told to stop.  But, if they like the old geezer, then all he has to do is stand in front of them on the night, and they are easily able to turn his increasingly vague wavings into a performance of genuine substance and distinction.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Great Conductor is still truly great.  He is still contributing that certain special something that even the greatest orchestras – perhaps especially the greatest orchestras – do truly need.  But that’s now all that the Great Conductor is contributing.  And that, if you think about it, could be just about the perfect arrangement for all concerned.

Scrub all of the above if the conductor goes deaf, as Beethoven did quite early in his life.  He had to give up performing altogether, and concentrate entirely on composing.  Poor old Beethoven.  Lucky old us.

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