Friday, 29 July 2011

Tobacco Advertising and Classical Music

I'm always surprised when I find a full page advertisement for a tobacco company in a programme for a classical concert. It's just not the sort of thing that you find in popular culture any more. Legal restrictions these days mean that tobacco companies are denied visibility in most public forums. Plenty of people still smoke though, so presumably the companies have significant advertising budgets, which gets funnelled into the few remaining media outlets left open to them.
It should be said the sponsorship of classical music tends to be in promotion of the corporate identity of the tobacco company rather than its products. Also, there is only one tobacco company, to my knowledge at least, who sponsor classical music in the UK – British American Tobacco. They always take out a full page in the Glyndebourne programme though, and I'd imagine that doesn’t come cheap.
So what are we to make of this state of affairs? Should audiences protest on the grounds that these companies are evil? To be honest, I'd be more inclined to protest on those grounds against the Daily Mail ad that also makes an annual appearance in the Glyndebourne programme. And it could be worse, the Australian Chamber Orchestra accepts sponsorship from the BNP, although on closer investigation this turns out to be the name of an Australian investment bank, with no obvious connections to the British far right.
It seems churlish to deny classical music organisations this presumably lucrative funding source on admittedly tenuous ethical grounds. That's especially true of Glyndebourne, whose continued ability to balance the books in the absence of state subsidy is a minor miracle. What concerns me more is the fact that classical audiences are considered mature enough not to need Government protection from the evils of tobacco advertising. The implication is that there isn't a single person in the audience under the age of 16, or whatever the legal age for buying tobacco is these days. No doubt the BAT money is welcome in an orchestra's finance section, but it must feel like an admission of failure in the education department.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Alina Ibragimova, Quay Brothers, Wilton's Music Hall, 26 July 2011

Berio: Sequenza VIII
Bach: Ciaccona from Partita No.2
Bartok: Sonata for Solo Violin

There aren't many venues like Wilton's Music Hall. It claims to be the oldest music hall in the world, and it is certainly showing its age. The place has been under slow, slow renovation for decades, but has managed to make a virtue out of its continuing dilapidated state. Fashionably deteriorated Victoriana is big in some East End circles, so it is unsurprising that it has a cult following. You don't see many classical concerts on the events listings though, and there are a couple of good reasons for that. The acoustic itself isn't bad. It is a small auditorium, too small to make most chamber music commercially viable. The high barrelled ceiling gives a warm but clean resonance. The biggest problem with the venue though is the Docklands Light Railway, which passes just a few meters from the hall, making the place rumble every few minutes as a train goes past.
But the moment Alina Ibragimova began playing all these concerns melted away. She really is an astonishing player. If you have heard any of her recordings, you won't need to take my word for that. She doesn't have a particularly round or powerful tone, but that's not what her playing is all about. Instead, she plays every phrase with immediacy and direct expression. She achieves an intimacy with the audience, as much in the loud passages as in the quiet ones, and as much in the Bartok and Berio as in the Bach. In this sense, the ambience of Wilton's is ideal for her art, and the chance to hear her playing from up close was very welcome indeed.
In his day, Berio was known as the friendly face of the avant garde. His music made no aesthetic compromises, yet somehow he always managed to get the audience on his side. That is a quality that he and Ibragimova share, and this rendition of Sequenza VIII was about the most welcoming and audience friendly of any Berio performance I've heard. It is clearly difficult music, and much of it rattles past at a terrifyingly fast pace. But Ibragimova was unfazed by its many technical demands, presenting the music in her trademark focussed tone, and with genuine feeling in every phrase.
The pivotal work in the programme was the Ciaccona from Bach's 2nd Partita. In fact, given the influence of this one movement on almost every solo violin work that was to follow it, you could argue that any solo violin recital revolves around the Ciaccona, whether it is on the programme or not. Its influence on Berio's work was clear, and Ibragimova played the two in a very similar spirit. The way she can evenly grade long crescendos, and then maintain the intensity of the climax, really sets her apart. It also means that she can easily structure the emotion and intensity of these long movements without losing any of her concentration on the details.
The collaboration with the Quay Brothers was restricted to the Bartok Sonata in the second half. Their film is relatively abstract, but revolves around the events of the Sonata's composition. Bartok, in exile in America and slowly dying of leukaemia, struggles to concentrate on the composition, while memories from his earlier life come flooding back. It is actually quite a modest offering, and the brothers are careful not to upstage the soloist. In truth, they couldn't upstage her if they tried. The video they produce is serviceable, but as in the first half it was the violin playing that really made this multimedia performance excel. Again, Ibragimova was able to find the humanity in the score, and to communicate directly through every phrase. The film worked on similar lines, although was perhaps a little less direct, providing visual support from a small pallete of ideas to complement the more varied and more complex musical offering.
The synchronisation of music and film was very impressive, and try as I might, I couldn't work out how they did it. Each of the four movements had an associated film, which began and ended at exactly the same time, and which often cut between shots in synch with the phrases. Ibragimova watched the screen throughout (she only needed the dots for the Berio), so presumably she played an active role in the synchronisation.
A quirky gig in a quirky venue then, but one that worked mainly because of the traditional musical virtues of the performer. Wilton's got a helping hand from its big brother up the road, the Barbican, in terms of organising and publicising this event. It is on for three consecutive nights, and it looks like it will get a full house each time. If you are reading this on Wednesday 27th, you've still got a chance to catch the last night this evening. If not, don't worry – Ibragimova is a regular guest at the Wigmore, and she sounds just as good without the gimmicks.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Chaushian and Sudbin: Wigmore Hall 21-7-2011

Borodin: Sonata for cello and piano in B minor
Prokofiev: Cello Sonata in C Op.119
Schnittke: Cello Sonata No.1
Rachmaninov: Vocalise
Alexander Chaushian - cello
Evgeny Sudbin - piano
Alexander Chaushian and Evgeny Sudbin work well together on the recital stage, but it is difficult to work out exactly why. There is often a tension between them that suggests two soloists trying to hog the limelight. But there are certain musical qualities they share. A focus on melody and line links there styles, and they are both able to maximise the expressive potential of the music while always keeping a close eye on the detail of the music.
An all Russian programme would seem to be ideal for them, but strangely, neither performer puts in a particularly Russian performance. Sudbin in particular moves beyond the stereotypes of Russian pianism by going easy on the keys and performing with a light cantabile legato whenever the music permits. Even so, he spends more time in front of orchestras than he does accompanying string soloists, and there were many occasions when he threatened to overpower the cello just through the sheer volume of his accompaniment. His thick legato is part of the problem; it means that the piano is always sounding, a continuous bed of harmony that the cello must overcome simply to be heard at all. Lifting the lid of the piano to its highest position did help matters either.
Nor indeed did Chaushian's narrow, introverted sound. He actually has a very appealing tone, and if it wasn't for the volume of his companion, he would have no trouble filling the generous acoustic of the Wigmore Hall. He can do the weighty, round sounds when he needs to, especially on the lower strings, but in general he prefers a more modest and more nasal tone. That constricted timbre makes his playing all the more melodic, focussing attention on the individual notes of the solo line.
Borodin's Cello Sonata is an early work, written when the composer was in his 20s. It is distinctively Borodin though, and wholly undeserving of its neglect. There are passages and phrases throughout the work that you'll recognise from his mature compositions. For example, many phrases build up to a climax, then ebb back with long descending sequences. And there is a theme in the first movement that sounds almost exactly like the second subject of his Second Symphony's first movement. Borodin never completed the sonata, and the third movement was left as sketches, which were pulled together into a performing version by musicologist Michel Goldstein in 1982. He did a good job, and the finale in is the most tightly structured movement of the work. The performance was about the best of the recital too. It was focussed and precise but elegant and characterful. If it wasn't for the work's obscurity it would be a great way to conclude the concert.
I've never quite understood the attraction of the Prokofiev Op.119 Cello Sonata. It is a long and rambling piece, and even the young Borodin could write a cello sonata with more formal logic. Many performers, I suspect, go out of there way to paper over the cracks. But not Chaushian and Sudbin, their approach is to present the work warts and all. perhaps devotees will thank them for it, but for me they ended up confirming my dim view of the piece.
I didn't think much of the Schnittke either. Now this is a piece that I am fond of, but I've heard far better performances than this one. Again, Chaushian and Sudbin went for a precise and controlled approach, with far more attention on the detail than the architecture. Chaushian didn't take up the composer's offer of liberation in the senza tempo sections at the beginning, playing everything to a precise beat. The second movement had more gymnastics, but didn't build up as it should. True enough, the movement looks episodic on paper, with the piano and cello alternating phrases. But it is a cumulative process, with each phrase building on the last, right up to the devastating climax, which this evening passed almost without notice.
The last movement was better. Here the composer writes a long post-climactic epilogue, which fits well with the precise and occasionally melancholic approach of these performers. The last page was a mess though. Like the climax to the second movement, this is one of the many passages in Schnittke's work were he relies on the sheer theatricality of the performers. If you just play the notes, as they did this evening, the ending just sounds arbitrary.
Fortunately then, the recital concluded with Rachmaninov's Vocalise, a work that really does play to the strengths of these performers. By avoiding the excesses of rubato (not to mention vibrato) that many players and singers indulge themselves, they bring out the inner beauty of this simple melody. And Rachmaninov's knows what he is doing with his piano accompaniment, giving Sudbin plenty of notes, but voicing the chords in such a way that there is no chance of him overpowering.
The Rachmaninov was almost like an encore, but it was followed by an actual encore, another short but melodically elegant work. The audience left debating about what it might have been. Something from the late 19th century probably, and probably from Russia too. My money is on Rimsky-Korsakov. Any advances?

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Proms and their Discontents

The 2011 Proms got off to a typically noisy start at the weekend, with both the Glagolitic Mass and the Gothic Symphony making appearances over the course of the first few days. Opinions, from critics and web-savvy punters alike, have been copious, and discussion of the various merits of these performances and works, especially the Brian, have been dominating the classical music corners of the social media.
To my mind, that is just as it should be. The relationship between the BBC and the Proms has pluses and minuses for the festival, but the one thing that the Corporation is really good at is publicity. Staging large and rare works is part of this of course, it means there is something substantial, unusual, and hopefully worthwhile to tweet and facebook about. But what sort of responses should the Beeb be eliciting? Bob Shingleton makes an interesting point on his blog today, that twitter responses to live performances are always broadly positive and usually quite facile. Or, in his own words: "as Tweets Law states, if you give one hundred chimpanzees instruments, put them on a concert platform and broadcast the result, 95% of Twitter users will give the performance a rave review. Which means classical music must beware of programming for the Twitter audience."
Of course, the programming we are talking about, and the online responses to it, are only those of the opening weekend. There can be little doubt that the best point in a festival to put on the attention-grabbing concerts is at the beginning. If the result is that a large army of tweeps continues its commentary to cover the less sensationalist programmes further down the line, that can only be a good thing.
Another discontented voice heralding the start of the Proms-bashing season is that of Damien Thompson in the Telegraph. He has been charged by the paper to put across their traditional anti-Beeb and anti-subsidy views in the form of an article questioning the amount of licence fee money that goes into the festival. The views expressed are not new, and in the face of the extravagance of the Proms' opening weekend, it is likely that Thompson's article is going to find some sympathy, at least with Telegraph readers.
Just one last discontent to mention, Jessica Duchen, who writes on her blog today about the tendency for the Proms to programme "white elephants", as is amply demonstrated by the choice of the Gothic Symphony. Her point, and it is a fair one, is that the Proms has a tradition of unearthing neglected large-scale works, which tend to have the effect of demonstrating exactly why nobody else had been performing them in the first place. It's good the Proms can take these risks, she concludes, but "You need to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince."
My own biggest gripe with the Proms is the fact that they take place in the acoustical catastrophe that is the Albert Hall. Last year, there were a number of calls in the weeks leading up to the start of the Proms for the BBC to consider moving the event to a hall were the audience can actually hear what is going on. The Festival Hall seems to be the main contender here, although that acoustic isn't ideal either. There have been no such calls this year, which is a shame, because something needs to be done, and fast.
On the other hand, the Proms has a distinctive identity because of a range of factors, which on their own would each seem to hinder rather than help the festival. The BBC will never move the Proms to the RFH, because the Albert Hall has a capacity for immense audiences, and part of the justification for spending so much on, say, the Gothic Symphony, or appearances by the world's greatest orchestras towards the end of the season, is the sheer number of people who can experience these events live. (I say "experience" rather than "hear" – there is no point in pretending that an audience member in the gods of the Albert Hall is going to hear the Vienna Phil, for example, in the same way as they would at the Musikverein.)
Putting on works like the Gothic Symphony, Mahler 8, the Glagolitic Mass etc. has to be a central plank of the Proms offering, because large-scale choral performances is the one thing that the Albert Hall is good for. These are works that you are definitely going to hear from the back of the hall, the tuttis anyway. Bob Shingleton is right that there is a risk of appealing to the lowest critical denominator by appealing to the twitter response. But large-scale works, performed in huge halls to huge audiences is all about collective appreciation. Even when programming a work as obscure as the Gothic Symphony, the goal is mass appeal. And even if, as Jessica Duchen notes, the result is a series of white elephants, even the discussion and responses that these performances elicit justifies them to some extent.
Which is where the BBC and their deep pockets come into the equation. Clearly, you can't put on a performance of anything on this kind of scale without significant subsidy. The two obvious alternatives are to only perform small-scale works or to scrap the whole thing. Given what the Albert Hall acoustic does to chamber ensembles, I'd be inclined to the latter option. That in itself doesn't justify the BBC's profligacy, nor provide a meaningful defence against Damian Thompson's criticisms. However, the abysmal acoustic of the Albert Hall may offer one good reason why the BBC is the ideal organiser for an event like the Proms. The Corporation's sound engineers do wonders to make the broadcast sound from the Proms sound good. I understand that digital reverb is used, and under the circumstances that seems a sensible option. In previous years, I have on many occasions been to the Proms, sat at the back and heard nothing, then gone home to listen to the broadcast on Radio 3 to find out what I missed.
For all the pomp and circumstance of the Proms as live events, they only really do the performers and the music justice when heard at home. From that point of view, those in the hall are basically a studio audience. They are missing out on the full musical experience, but they are giving each of the events the atmosphere it needs with their famous enthusiasm. But the biggest winners, from a musical point of view, are the radio listeners and TV viewers. So why shouldn't they contribute to the costs via the licence fee?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

See a concert or hear a concert?

A few months ago, I read an interesting piece by the trombone scholar Trevor Herbert about the influence of recordings on an audience's experience of live music. Looking back, he pinpoints a date, sometime in the mid-1980s I think, when his students stopped talking about "Going to hear a concert" and started referring instead to "Going to see a concert". Herbert infers from this change that his students are taking less in, musically speaking, from the live event, and that the ubiquity of recorded sound had had the effect of diminishing the live experience.
I'll happily confess to using the construction "Going to see a concert", but reading Professor Herbert's views, I'm starting to wonder exactly what I mean by it. Certainly, I avoid saying that I am going to "hear" a concert simply because it sounds pedantic. And perhaps I'm making a subconscious distinction between the event, the performers and the works. I wouldn't say that I am going to see a symphony, nor would I say that I'm going to hear an opera, although in the case of Wagner that could well describe the experience I often have in mind.
Of course the technology has changed since the 1980s, and if anything, the influence of recorded sound on the experience of live music has become even more profound and complex. I think that Herbert's students had some justification in saying that they saw a concert, because the visual dimension was the main thing that recorded sound did not reproduce. And seeing a concert does not imply you are listening less intently. On the contrary, the relationship between the visual and aural dimensions of a live performance are closely linked and mutually beneficial.
This is exactly where the technology is catching up fastest. Today, you can "see" a concert on DVD, in a cinema, even presented in 3D. If you go to a cinema for a presentation of a concert, what verb describes your reception of it? The notion of "seeing" in this context seems so predominant because of the novelty. If and when cinema streaming of concerts becomes a norm of concert life, will the grammar revert? I doubt it.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

London Sinfonietta: Woolrich, Feshareki, Davies, Ades, Messiaen. Kings Place 1.7.11

John Woolrich: The Night will not draw on
Shiva Feshareki: departing in peace, arriving with love world premiere
Tansy Davies: Tymbal Organ world premiere
John Woolrich :A Presence of Departed Acts
Thomas Adès: Court Studies from The Tempest
Olivier Messiaen: Quartor pour la fin du temps 

Most new music concerts seem obsessed with ideas of beginnings and of new directions. How refreshing, then, to meet a programme dedicated to the exact opposite, to ideas of departure and conclusion. And despite the Quartet for the End of Time dominating the evening, the whole programme was impressively balanced and coherent.
The evening was curated by John Woolrich, and the concert opened with his The Night will not draw on. This piano trio is filled with everything that is best about Woolrich's music. The ideas are strong and clearly presented, force is used, but never for its own sake, and the form is direct but never to the point of pedantry. The work was commissioned to commemorate the bicentenary of Haydn's death, but beyond the instrumentation it is difficult to think of any connections with Haydn's work. But no matter, it is a fine piece in its own right, and an impressive example of how a traditional instrumental grouping can be reinvigorated without worrying unduly about the weight of history behind it.
arriving in peace, departing in love was a late addition to the programme from Shiva Feshareki, a young composer who has been participating on a London Sinfonietta education programme. On the evidence of this short but accomplished work for solo clarinet, no further education is necessary. Her knowledge of the clarinet is impressive in itself, and while none of the extended techniques are new, the way that they are integrated into the substance of the music is impressive. So for example, she will include Gershwin-esque glissandos, but then she will write whole phrases with the player sliding around the individual registers. Growls from the throat play a big part in the music, and again, the way that they seem so integrated into the ideas really focusses the work. The form is either obscure or non-existent, but that hardly matters when the relationships between the various timbres can hold the work together.
The other première in the programme was Tymbal Organ by Tansy Davies. I was less impressed with this one, although it essentially did the same things as Feshareki's work. Davies writes for violin and cello, and there are some interesting effects in there, like a cello glissando involving all four fingers on the same string to create microtonal shifts as the fingers go up and down within the broader context of the glissando. Considering how difficult it is to describe this effect, I dread to think how it is notated. There is a lot of tapping on the body of the instruments, which becomes interesting when it happens in rhythmic unison with bowed notes on the other. In general, the textures are heterophonic, occasionally based on fragile unisons, but more often with one player leading the other through the sequences of notes and textures.
Thomas Ades really showed his compatriots how it is done with his Court Studies for 'The Tempest'. These short vignettes, conveniently scored for the same ensemble as the Messiaen, are apparently freely adapted from the opera, and they certainly feel like they have been drawn from a broader soundscape. Like Messiaen, Ades is able to not only transcend, but completely ignore the apparent restrictions of musical scope imposed by the use of just four instruments. There are shades of Britten here, more in the mood than in the actual rhythmic of harmonic language. Or perhaps Britten is simply invoked by the sheer mastery of instrumentation and colour that Ades, despite his youth, is able to draw on.
Quartet for the End of Time is one of the few 'Modern' works to be regularly performed by core-repertoire ensembles. With that in mind, it was very interesting to hear it played by new music specialists. These players know their Andriessen and they know Gorecki, so they know how to turn things up to 11. The dogged intensity that persists through many of the movements was impressively conveyed, and it really filled the resonant space of the Kings Place hall. There was emotion here too, but not a hint of sentimentality. It was a crisp and precise performance, but never cold or calculated. In fact, the whole concert was impressively played. Only four players where involved, and virtuoso feats were expected of all at one point or another. But nothing fazed them, and we were treated to an evening of close to ideal performances.