For your listening pleasure…

Another recording added to the Jukebox section of the blog, this time choral. The chamber choir in which I have sung for a decade or more, Sine Nomine Singers, gave their first performance under their new Music Director Jonny Davies on 10th December 2011 at St.George’s, Bickley, including music by Stanford, Parry, Naylor, Bairstow, Elgar, Purcell, Tallis, Peter Philips and John Sheppard, plus contemporary composers David Bednall and Edmund Joliffe. There was also instrumental music: French music for flute by Ibert and Fauré played by Kieran Hughes with Peter Davies at the piano.

To access the recording, select ‘Sine Nomine Singers Concert December 2011’ from the Jukebox menu, or click here.

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Posted by on 19 December 2011 in Music, Recording


Seasonal Fun

If you’d like to while away half an hour, I’ve uploaded my latest Music Society Christmas Quiz to the Puzzles section. Just click on ‘Puzzles and Quizzes’ near the top-right corner of this page, and select ‘ORMS Christmas Quiz 2011’ from the drop-down. Alternatively, click here. Enjoy!

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Posted by on 13 December 2011 in Uncategorized



Predicting the future…?

Writing this comment gives me very little satisfaction, but in view of the news that circulated today concerning the possible closure of Yorkshire Libraries Music and Drama Service (details here), I refer you to my previous blog entry on 26th May entitled ‘The Barbarians are at the Gates’, and in particular to the penultimate paragraph, with the unavoidable cliché ‘I told you so’. Let’s hope that Making Music’s campaign against the closure is successful – if you belong to an amateur music or theatre group and borrow performing material from the library, join the campaign now.

But what if the closure goes ahead? And what if it’s the first of many? Is there any alternative scenario? A brief discussion on Facebook with some friends made me think that what we need is an artistic equivalent of the National Trust – a charitable organisation that takes on the responsibility of looking after our cultural heritage when the state – or private concerns – back away.

The National Trust takes on the care of buildings and land on behalf of the nation when the original owners, or the state, cannot afford to do so. Our new organisation would take on the cultural services being abandoned and run them for the benefit of us all. Like the National Trust, it would raise money through membership, general fundraising, and the charges levied to non-members for the use of its services. To take the example of Wakefield Music Library, it would take over the running of the service, pay the staff, and pay any rent necessary for the buildings it occupies. It would require the authorities that own the stock of music and books to either sign over the stock to the new charity, or just offer it as a perpetual loan.

Would such an idea have legs? Your thoughts would be very welcome here – post your comments below!

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Posted by on 28 October 2011 in Music


Of Orchestras and Ostriches

I am not an overtly political sort of chap. However, I am minded to comment by a couple of tweets picked up with the #bbcproms hashtag during the last couple of days, suggesting that the Prom on Thursday given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra should be boycotted. Given that the concert appears to be sold out, this seems a little like the proverbially belated request to make secure the equine sleeping quarters, but nevertheless I am disturbed by the mindset I perceive here.

I do not propose to bore any reader with historical details of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, nor to advance any opinion or judgement on the rights and wrongs. What I do want to do is explain why such a boycott is at best misguided and at worst dangerous. If you wish to broaden the argument to cover the whole issue of boycotting Israeli cultural and academic activity, feel free.

There is a well-known quotation by Winston Churchill, ‘to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’, with which I expect most sensible people would agree. Although I am no historian, I would guess that throughout its existence, the human race has only ever succeeded in bringing conflict to an end in two ways: where one side has annihilated the other, or by some form of negotiated ceasefire or surrender. Surely better the latter than the former.

When a group of people propose a boycott of something, they are really suggesting that the time for negotiation is at an end – after all, you can’t talk to the other side if you’re boycotting them. And if you eschew contact with your opponents, does that not imply that the only way you can win the argument is to obliterate them?

For many years, the British government and the IRA dismissed any idea of negotiating an end to the Irish Troubles, and the violence continued as a result. Somehow, there was a change of position on both sides, and although there are still a small number who want to perpetuate the conflict, today we have a negotiated settlement that has made Northern Ireland a much safer place to live. On the other hand, in Sri Lanka there have been allegations of mass murder of Tamil civilians during the final phase of their civil war; if this is true, it shows what can happen when a dispute is allowed to run to a military conclusion without a negotiated surrender.

Of course, the Israeli Government and the Palestinians have had long periods during which any diplomatic contact was refused. Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas, and Hamas do not accept Israel’s right to exist. In effect, they are boycotting one another. What might be the end result of this? Perhaps Israel will bomb Gaza out of existence. Perhaps the Palestinians will succeed in ‘pushing Israel into the sea’. Would either of these scenarios be remotely acceptable to any intelligent person? I hope not!

So if you cannot contemplate such a one-sided conclusion to the conflict, you surely have only one other option: negotiation. You have to have dialogue between the sides. And you cannot have dialogue at the same time as a boycott. Better to try to understand your opponents than to ignore them. Better to listen to a fine orchestra than to bury your heads in the sand.

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Posted by on 31 August 2011 in Uncategorized


To while away the time…

I’ve posted a cryptic crossword in the ‘Puzzles and Quizzes’ section, for anyone who likes that sort of thing. Point at the link top-right and pick the crossword from the drop-down menu.

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Posted by on 12 August 2011 in Uncategorized


The Pointless Pursuit of Perfection

More Mahler at the Proms last night (and shown on TV this evening) – Gustavo Dudamel conducting the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Miah Persson (Soprano) and Anna Larsson (Mezzo) in the Resurrection Symphony. Anyone following the #bbcproms hashtag on Twitter will be aware of the general reaction to the concert: “Best concert I’ve ever been to” (@MahlerMad); “Mindboggling performance” (@steef1910); “The performance is still with me, my breath remains stolen” (@flergh) and so on.

For many, that might have been the first performance of the work they had ever heard: if you were in that category, I envy you! For others, another rendition of a favourite piece to compare with those that went before. The (almost) unanimous reaction tells us that this remarkable group of people, all under 30 years old (actually, Dudamel is 30-and-a-few-months, and for the sake of chivalry, let’s make the soloists honorary 20-somethings) communicated something special to the audience, something which virtually obliterated all dissent.

Yet with the benefit of repeated hearing, one can find many things to criticise in the performance, though not, perhaps, in the choral contribution, which I thought exemplary. There were the usual handful of fluffs in the brass sections, and if one were hyper-critical, the final chords of the first two movements weren’t quite together, but these are the sort of things one learns to expect in live performance, and are barely worthy of mention.

Mostly, one’s words of caution concern the interpretation. Dudamel chose predominantly slow tempi throughout, causing the music sometimes to lose continuity. There are good reasons for choosing a measured approach to the music – perhaps you have less-able musicians, and want to help them get it right (certainly not the situation here), or maybe the acoustic of the venue demands it, lest the detail is swallowed up (possibly so in the Royal Albert Hall, though I feel one should trust the old barn a bit more to do its magic). In this case, I think Dudamel chose his tempi simply because he wanted to wallow in the beauty of it all – and it was beautiful – in other words, he was being indulgent.

He also coaxed the players into the extremes of dynamics, beyond what is sensible. For example, in the second movement, there was a section of pizzicato strings that was so soft it was barely audible from where I was sitting. The microphones, of course, picked it all up on the radio and on television, but the ensuing woodwind solo had to be louder, because it just isn’t possible to be that quiet on an oboe!

Worst of all were the sudden gear changes in tempo. Yes, Mahler does notate such things with great detail and frequency, but Dudamel sometimes lurches alarmingly from one speed to another – as @aaron_cassidy said on Twitter “Hey Gustavo – ‘Etwas’ doesn’t mean ‘Twice as'”. There were also sudden pauses here and there, which I think are misreadings of the score. For example, at two and four bars after figure 18 in the first movement, many but not all of the instruments have commas in their parts at the end of the bar. Dudamel took these as breaks in the music – mini pauses – but I think this is wrong. If Mahler had meant pauses, he would have written them (there are plenty elsewhere in the canon). I think the commas simply mean that in those parts, the players should shorten their last note to ensure that it does not carry over the bar line: thus there is a break in sound, but not in tempo.

Now, having got all that off my chest, I have to come to the nub of the matter – this performance was bloody brilliant. Despite every criticism I’ve made above, it was the most spine-tingling, life-affirming performance I’ve ever been to. It never flagged emotionally, as emotion is like an echo that can bridge the silence. OK, I have to admit that listening to the Abbado recording in total darkness has sometimes turned me into a blubbering wreck, but my natural reluctance to over-emote in a public place prevented any such embarrassment in the Royal Albert Hall.

All of which poses the question: if there was so much wrong, why was it so damned good? The answer is simple, if you think for a moment: if perfection were a necessary element of satisfaction, we would never be satisfied by anything. There is no such thing as a perfect musical performance; every time we attend a concert, we are simply hoping that tonight we might get just slightly closer to the ideal than we ever have before. Just imagine what would happen if we did experience a faultless performance? Why would we ever want to attend another concert ever again? What would there be left to strive for?

So I take my hat off to Gustavo Dudamel, because he, and his wonderful orchestra, realise that it is more important to strive to communicate than to strive for the ideal. They know that it is better to live for the moment than to worry about eternity. They understand that it is preferable to satisfy the emotional needs of the audience than to indulge in the pointless pursuit of perfection.


Posted by on 7 August 2011 in Music


Thoroughly Modern Mahler

Sir Roger Norrington does nothing by halves; his performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony given on 25th July at the BBC Proms with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra has generated wildly divergent opinions. I am ashamed to say that I resisted the temptation to attend the concert in person, as I feared his well-publicised views on performance style would most likely result in disappointment at best, disgust at worst. However, given that the off switch was but a finger’s length away, I decided to risk the broadcast on BBC4 on the following Thursday. I wouldn’t say the performance was revelatory, but it was thought-provoking… almost as thought-provoking as some of the reactions in the press and social media.

I don’t feel sufficiently knowledgeable about early-20th-century performance practice to either support or attack Sir Roger’s attitude to vibrato: I expect it will be easy enough to find others prepared to do that. What I am prompted to write about is the reaction of the listening public, and in particular those who found the concert unacceptable.

In many cases, people were comparing what they heard with famous performances of the past: Haitink, Bernstein and so on. Our generation is of course incredibly lucky to be able to draw on such a rich legacy of recorded music – something those in Mahler’s own time could not have conceived – but it is very important for us to use that legacy wisely. Each recording is but a snapshot in time, and none should ever be taken as the ideal which all subsequent performances should try to emulate. They may give us an example of performance practice at a particular moment (and that may be historically valuable), but they do not lay down rules for the style of any subsequent performance.

We have a century of interpretations of Mahler’s music to draw on, and until recently the style of those interpretations has been broadly similar. If we look at earlier musical periods, we see that performance methods do change, sometimes hugely, over time. The ‘historically-informed’ school, for example, has virtually eliminated, over the past 40 years or so, the 19th/early 20th century style of performing baroque music: that style, in turn, derived from moves back in the late 18th century towards larger-scale renditions – the famous 1784 Messiah at Westminster Abbey involved over 500 performers.

Thus the style pendulum swings to and fro, and who is to say that it won’t do the same for Mahler over the coming century? The difference for us is that we can actually hear the performances of yesteryear: those of the pre-recording era could not. Hence their preferred performance style was entirely based on their own contemporary taste, and could only evolve linearly from the immediate past. We, however, are at risk of allowing the evolution of our contemporary taste to be stifled by historical influences.

Music is not unique amongst creative arts in suffering thus, but it is the most profoundly affected by the fact that its traditional method of transmission – the notation used to pass the composition down to subsequent generations of performers – cannot precisely describe the way a piece will sound. And since it is the audible experience, not the way it looks on the page, that is its living essence, that means there is no definitive way to prescribe the exact nature of its existence. In one respect, a composer does have a way of controlling interpretation: the use of a metronome mark to determine tempo. However, many composers (including Mahler in the Ninth Symphony) choose not to specify a metronome speed, which leaves matters in the hands of the performers. There were those who felt that Norrington’s tempi were too fast in this performance: I would just say that in the absence of direction to the contrary, the choice is up to him.

I am not in any way denigrating the work of the great Mahlerian conductors and orchestras of recent times – after all, my love of Mahler stems from listening to them – but I just want to ask some of Norrington’s critics to consider this: however moving, profound or magnificent your favourite performances are, you cannot with any honesty say that those interpretations must be the model on which those of the future should be based. By all means express your opinion that Bernstein or Haitink’s version is superior, but please don’t criticise Norrington just because he’s different. Every generation of music lovers has the right to determine its own style of performance.


Posted by on 29 July 2011 in Music