Wednesday, 21 September 2011

LPO, Jurowski, RFH 21 September 2011

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: A Night on the Bare Mountain (vers. orig.)
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: In the village (Quasi fantasia) orch. Zimmermann
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: On the southern shore of the Crimea orch. Zimmermann
Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Stille und Umkehr (sketches for orchestra)
Alexander Raskatov: A white night's dream (Homage to Mussorgsky) for orchestra (World premiere)
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: Songs and dances of death orch. Raskatov (UK premiere)

A cloud hangs over the London Philharmonic as they open their winter season. On 30 August, four players from the orchestra signed a letter to The Independent calling for a boycott of a Prom by the Israel Philharmonic, citing Israel’s use of the ensemble as a propaganda tool to divert attention from human rights abuses. Each indicated after their name that they were members of the LPO. That was enough to get them suspended for nine months. The orchestra's argument, a tenuous one to say the least, was that they had implied that their views were the views of the orchestra, simply by stating that they played for it. A nine month suspension is an unprecedented sanction in modern British orchestral history, and an over-reaction by any reasonable standards.
Protests against the LPO's decision have since erupted all over the classical music community and beyond. The management's reaction to the protests, sadly, has been silence. Many, myself included, had hoped that the start of the winter season would be a chance for the management to draw a line under the issue. Had they made an announcement today that they were going to reinstate the players with immediate effect, and with a full apology, then the season of concerts that they are about to embark on would not have been affected. Instead they have chosen to do nothing and to offer no further explanations beyond Tim Walker's (Chief Exec of the LPO) infamous and now much derided statement that 'music and politics don't mix'. In fact, given that the organisation is now widely seen as opposed to freedom of expression as a result of the affair, it is ironic that their only public action in the past week has been to close down the LPO facebook page, where a vigorous debate had been taking place about the suspensions. The policy appears to be to ignore the whole business and hope it goes away. It's not going to – both the Times and the Guardian recently ran articles supporting the musicians, and the public anger at the orchestra's intransigent position is growing by the day.
I wonder what the players think of the affair? In theory, they own the orchestra, and the managers run it on their behalf. So (in theory) the suspensions could only have happened with their consent, and they have the power to reverse the decision. They've all been told not to talk to the press, so the intricacies of this remain speculation. What I can say is that there wasn't a smile from anybody on the stage this evening. In fact this was the most miserable looking orchestra I have ever seen in my life. It wasn't the cheeriest of programmes of course, but even so.
And I wonder what Alexander Raskatov, this evening’s featured composer, makes of the management's stance. Given their obvious contempt for freedom of expression, it was disingenuous of the orchestra to include these lines about him in the programme: "Born and trained in Moscow during the years when the state was anxious to keep its composers in a straitjacket of orthodoxy, Raskatov has fully exploited the freedom that came with the fall of the USSR." That's the kind of dark irony you need to be Russian to fully appreciate. No statements as yet from him though about the situation, nor from Jurowski, another Russian who spent just about enough time in the Soviet Union to appreciate the value of freedom of speech.
The sheer normality of this evening's concert was its most galling feature. But then normal for the LPO is most other orchestra's idea of a step into the unknown. A concert dedicated to the morbid side of Mussorgsky's personality, while it seems to have chimed with the musicians' mood, is a very strange way to open a concert season.
The first work, A Night on Bare Mountain, was presented in its original version. It is good to hear that once in a while, but again, as the first work in a concert season? The logic, I think, is that it better prepares Raskatov's new work in the second half. Raskatov has clearly learnt much from Mussorgsky, and one common trait (or is it a bad habit) is their shared disinterest in logical structure. In a sense, Jurowski seemed to be justifying Raskatov's formal indulgences by demonstrating that Mussorgsky had done it before.
The rest of the programme was made up of a Zimmerman work and a Zimmerman Mussorgsky orchestration, followed by a Raskatov work and a Raskatov Mussorgsky orchestration. Zimmerman too seemed like canon-fodder, providing us with some conservative Mussorgsky orchestrations and a modest composition (not his best) in order to show off how much better Raskatov is at both these activities.
Anybody who heard Raskatov's opera "A Dog's Heart" at ENO last year will be wondering which direction his reputation in the UK will take. The opera was interesting, but the music was completely upstaged by the puppetry and theatrical design. The work presented tonight "A White Night's Dream" shares many of the virtues and many of the faults of the opera. Raskatov shows himself to be a master of orchestration in both. He also has a fabulously fluid sense of pace, one minute giving us long, flowing phrases, the next stopping everything short with a percussion crash every few seconds. The main problem with Raskatov's music, at least on the basis of these two works, is the suspicion that it lacks any substance, that it is all just sound effects. "A White Night's Dream" allayed those concerns a little, but it is clearly of apiece with the opera.
You couldn't mistake Raskatov's orchestration of "The Songs and Dances of Death" for Shostakovich's if you tried. Shostakovich, to my knowledge, doesn't use a drum kit, or electric guitars, or a gong suspended in a bucket of water...Some of these effects get in the way, but on the whole Raskatov makes reserved use of his huge orchestra. Baritone Sergei Leiferkus intones the songs in a way that only a Russian could. His lower register is fabulous, although his upper register and some of his quieter passages lack tonal control. And while Raskatov usually holds back for him, there are a good few places where the sheer quantity of the orchestration defeats him.
There have been many calls over the past week to boycott LPO events, and the calls are likely to increase over the coming days. For myself, I decided a better move this evening was to come to the concert and then make my views on the players' suspensions known in this review.
Was the concert itself worth scabbing for? Only just.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

In Defence of the LPO Four

 The visit by the Israel Philharmonic to the Proms has raised passions, and sadly not just through the emotional power of their performance. The event itself was disrupted by protesters (were they the same protesters as at the Wigmore for the Jerusalem Quartet? Could a blacklist keep them out?) but was also preceded by a letter to The Independent newspaper calling for the cancellation of the concert as a form of "Cultural Boycott". Now four members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who were signatories to the letter, have been suspended from duties for nine months as a direct result.
Once again the world of classical music comes up against the political repercussions of its activities. As ever, those in charge appear to be in complete denial about the fact that what they do has any political dimension at all. Roger Wright, director of the Proms, refused to cancel the event on the grounds that the invitation was "purely musical", while Timothy Walker, chief executive of the LPO, concluded his statement on the suspensions by saying "music and politics do not mix".
The tragedy is that the actions of both men are defensible, but a meaningful defence would involve the acknowledgement that there is a political dimension to their activities. Nobody denies that when the West East Divan Orchestra comes to the Proms, or even the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, a strong and well-received political statement is being made.
But to get to the specifics of this case, the call for a boycott of the Israel Philharmonic is part of a wider Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Considering the anti-Zionist feeling in many parts of the world, the aims of this project seem dangerously vague. When specific arguments are expressed, they tend to concentrate on the links between cultural institutions and the Israeli military, and those links tend to be either tenuous or subtly concealed, depending on your point of view. Otherwise, the whole campaign seems aimed at the destruction of Israel. One undoubted political connotation to a tour by a national orchestra is that it supports that nation's right to existence and international recognition. And only Israel's most implacable enemies are going to complain about that.
Even so, the call for a boycott is well within the bounds of acceptable political debate in this country, so the fact that it has supporters in the classical music community should not come as too much of a shock. The LPO's complaint is that the four players, cellist Sue Sutherley and violinists Tom Eisner, Nancy Elan and Sarah Streatfeild, each stated their membership of the orchestra next to their signature on the letter. This, it was felt, gave the impression that their views were those of the orchestra. It is fair to say that the orchestra does have a case here, but not a watertight one. It is a commonly accepted convention that when a signatory to a published letter states an affiliation, they are speaking for their institution. But it is by no means universally held to be the case, and I suspect that legal responsibilities of libel would not transfer to the institution in question if that were the problem.
The issue of broader representation goes both ways. The implicit suggestion by the four players that they represent the views of their orchestra is no stronger than the implication by the BBC that they endorse Israel's policies through the invitation to the Proms of the country’s leading orchestra. The efforts by the LPO management to distance themselves from the views of these players has clearly been an over-reaction. They are obviously trying to appease somebody. It would be indiscreet to speculate as to who and why.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

John Cage Night QEH 13 September 2011

Radio Music for Eight Performers
Child of a Tree for solo percussion
Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Fontana Mix
String Quartet in Four Parts
Music for Eight 0'00"
(Photo: Rex Rystedt)
Six months in a Buddhist monastery is the kind of preparation you really need for an all-Cage concert. You must move beyond your desires, the desire for order, for structure, for logic...As you listen, the music infuses these Zen values in your mind, but if you've just come from work it really is in at the deep end.
That's where 4'33" comes in. It is a much-abused work, and I can't say I was looking forward to experiencing it again, that protracted, embarrassed silence were everybody tries to act grown up and not laugh. But this performance wasn't like that at all. The audience, who filled the QEH to capacity (how did Southbank Centre manage that?) were obviously in exactly the right mood for a John Cage experience. The piano version was performed, by Philip Thomas, who articulated the movement divisions but didn't go as far as to close the lid at the start of each. Instead he held his hands to the keyboard and concentrated intensely on them for the duration of each movement. It was the ideal start to the show, and the buzz in the audience afterwards was electric.
John Cage would probably hate me for writing this, but his music can be divided into two broad groups. There are the conceptual works, where some new idea really makes the piece stand out. And then there are those pieces, which are usually written for an indeterminate but large number of performers, and go on for about 20 minutes. You know from the start that there is going to be no development or progression here, and that the way it starts is pretty much the way it is going to continue until it stops. Cage wrote a lot of these, so it is fair that they make regular appearances in all-Cage programmes. This evening we got two, Concert for Piano and Orchestra (over the Fontana Mix) in the first half, and Music for Eight in the second. Perhaps I just wasn't in the zone, but neither did anything much for me.
But the rest of the programme made up for it. Radio Music for Eight Performers is a classic music theatre/happening conception. The performers each have a radio, which they move around through various MW frequencies, determined of course by the I Ching. The concrete structure of the QEH meant that they didn't actually find many stations, despite our being in the centre of London, but the interaction of interference noises made for excellent 'sound music'. A group of visual artists were invited to perform the work, and the fact that few of them seemed comfortable performing on the stage or taking applause added a valuable layer of surrealism to the proceedings.
Child of a Tree involves a table covered in plants, some living, some dead, and a percussionist charged with making sounds from them. I'd heard it before, played by Richard Benjafield, who did his best to create a musical performance, moving swiftly from one plant to the next and linking together, at least with his body language, each of the activities. This evening's performance, by Simon Limbrick was much more laid back and, it seemed to me, more in keeping with the exploratory nature of the piece. Each sound was heard in isolation, inviting the audience to savour it without worrying too much about the context or relevance.
String Quartet in Four Parts is a wonderful work. It is written in the kind of non-repetitive minimalism that would later find its fullest expression in the music of Morton Feldman. And as in Feldman, everything here is quiet, the notes are often presented in isolation, and everything has a sense of being very, very important. The performance had plenty of atmosphere, but there were problems with the details. This was the only work of the evening where synchronisation mattered, and it wasn't always quite right. Also, the restricted number of pitches means that intonation must be absolutely spot on, and when it's not it really stands out. In fairness, the problems were minimal, but obvious nonetheless.
In all though, the concert was a success, and the huge audience were certainly stimulated by the various musical and philosophical ideas they were presented. The event was the first in Southbank Centre's International Chamber Music Season 11/12, and if nothing else that demonstrates an admirable open-mindedness about what constitutes chamber music. It also ties in with an exhibition of Cage's paintings at the Hayward Gallery. That finishes at the end of the week (18th), so do go and see it if you get the 'chance'.