Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a truly sensational Prom 55 at the Royal Albert Hall, an occasion which those of us lucky enough to have been there will not forget. The CBSO is unique. Its members have an uncanny knack for picking relatively unknown conductors and growing with them. They picked Simon Rattle as Music Director when he was 25, Sakari Oramo at 31, Andris Nelsons at age 30, and now Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, also 30. This symbiotic relationship between orchestra and conductors makes the CBSO what it is: a very different dynamic from the usual way orchestras are run. In each case the orchestra shaped the conductor as much as the conductor shaped the orchestra. This close relationship - like family, some say - is fundamental to understanding the orchestra and, indeed, its conductors, who carry the CBSO imprint with them just as much as the orchestra developed duringn their stewardship. The CBSO is easily one of the Big Five in British music, and absolutely world class. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has a lot to live up to, but from this Prom, it's clear that she has what it takes. Just as Rattle, Oramo and Nelsons are utterly individual and distinctive, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is very much her own person. She's so petite that the official BBC photographer had a hard time getting her in the frame, dwarfed as she was by all around her. But, as so often, looks mislead. Gražinytė-Tyla is an unusually athletic conductor, her face as animated as her body, yet every movement she makes is purposeful. Her tiny hands flutter but communicate with such authority that the whole orchestra seems transfixed. Excellence at the level the CBSO has reached doesn't come about by accident. Good music deserves nothing less. The Overture to Mozart's The Magic Flute sparkled: clean, shining brass, vivacious winds, strings whizzing along with manic brio. So expressive that the spirit of the opera - and its composer - seemed to materialize. Magical, yes, but also with diabolic fervour. In the opera, Tamino is tested. Sarastro is no cuddly father figure. Thus the discipline in the CBSO's playing underlined the moral resolve that lies at the heart of the Singspiele, which is by no means a pretty bit of fluff. Being a Freemason in Mozart's time was secretive and rather sinister. Gražinytė-Tyla's background lies in vocal music. Like Nelsons, she could achieve great things if she did opera. To my delight, she announced plans on the radio rebroadcast for a concert performance of Mozart Idomeneo in a future CBSO season. Hans Abrahamsen's Let Me Tell You was commissioned for Barbara Hannigan, who has performed the piece many times since its 2013 premiere with Andris Nelsons and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It's had so much exposure that it's become a celebrity star turn, which distracts from its considerable musical qualities. Abrahamsen's greatest popular hit is ironically, a bit of an anomaly. At roughly 35 minutes, it's longer than all the vocal music put together that Abrahamsen has written in his long and productive career. The words are those of Shakespeare's Ophelia, who was torn between her love for Hamlet and her grief at the death of her father. As she sings, she falls into a brook and drowns. Thus the long, limpid lines that suggest flowing liquids, circular figures that suggest the vortex that will drag Ophelia to the depths The ethereal qualities of Hannigan's voice give her singing an unworldly strangeness that is at once crystal clear and elusively opaque. The voice is disembodied, like the wind and brass instruments that form the core oif the piece. If Hannigan were an instrument she'd do circular breathing. Sudden flights upward and turns of pitch. Syllables fragment and reform, like droplets of water reflected in light - wonderfully delicate textures created by harp, celeste, and percussion with tubular bells and tiny wooden objects scraped and beaten, making sounds like grasses blowing in the wind. Sounds of nature, too subtle and too elusive to identify. Let Me Tell You is in many ways not a song sequence at all but another of Abrahamsen's intensely detailed soundscapes like Wald and Schnee. "Music is pictures of music", Abrahamsen once said. "That is a strong underlying element in my world of ideas when I compose - as is the fictional aspect that one moves around in an imaginary space of music. What one hears is pictures - basically, music is already there." In Let Me Tell You, Abrahamsen collaborated with Paul Griffiths, the author and music historian, whose books on modern music are still, after 30 years, still the best informed. In comparison, The Rest is Noise is Reader's Digest. For me, Abrahamsen's music is magical and full of wonder. The CBSO has a thing for Abrahamsen, too. Earlier this year, Ilan Volkov conducted Abrahamsen's Left, alone. (read more here) Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO concluded with Tchaikovsky Symphony No 4 in F minor. Everyone knows that, or thinks they do, which is why it's important to always keep listening. The mark of a good conductor is whether he or she cares enough about the music to find something special about it. Routine performances can be the death of art. Tchaikovsky's Fourth is a highly dramatic work, almost schizoid in its juxtaposition of sweet lyricism and heartbreaking crescendi. This was an exciting performance, but exciting because it blazed with the excitement that comes from excellence. I used to hang out with theoretical physicists who could wax ecstatic about elegant theorems. There are many different ways of feeling emotion. I was thrilled by this performance, bursting as it was with vivacious joy and energy, all the more exciting because it was executed with such natural poise. Bottom photo: Roger Thomas
From the classical archive, 13 February 1976: Christopher Ford meets a young conductor on a fast-track to successYou have to talk to Simon Rattle for quite a time to be confident that his apparent modesty and self-denigration is completely genuine. Modesty, somehow, is the last quality one looks for in a young man who carries the high approval, and the still higher hopes, of a growing number of discriminating musicians, and who on Sunday – less than a month after his twenty-first birthday – conducts his first Festival Hall concert with a major London orchestra, taking the New Philharmonia through a programme of Berlioz, Mozart, and Shostakovich.If success hasn’t spoiled Rattle, it has surprised and slightly bewildered him; half of him remains the boisterous student while the other half has had to age fast and painfully. At one point he refers to “my friends at school, in the real world.” He admits that the hardest thing has been the changeover from being a student to being a professional: “ It’s the loneliness. . . one’s a nomad.” When we meet he is lumbered with about three armfuls of scores which he’s wondering how to get back to the flat in Ealing where he has borrowed a temporary bed. Continue reading...
Questioning 'fairly standard practices' is now well established in classical music, with the most recent example being Stephen Hough's questioning of concert duration and formal dress. But like many things in classical music, selectivity is the name of the game when it comes to asking questions. There is an open season on standard practices such as formal dress, the abolition of which results in nothing more than a cosmetic change. Questioning more sacred practices such as unamplified sound - as Jonathan Harvey did in an interview with me - offends the music thought police and, as a result, provokes little constructive debate. But there are some standard practices that you must never question if you want to continue working in classical music, and these are the practices hidden from view in the music supply chain. In a friendly Facebook discussion about the last minute appearance of cellist Alexey Stadler at last week's BBC Prom, Richard Bratby, whose knowledge and views I respect, pointed out quite correctly that the replacement of an indisposed musician by another from the same management agency is "fairly standard practice". HarrisonParrott getting first dibs at providing a replacement for Truls Mørk at the Proms is just one very minor example of the standard practices that may be mutually convenient but should not escape scrutiny. We are told repeatedly that classical music needs bigger audiences. But that is only a partial truth. Because classical music only needs a bigger audience if it is to continue to pay for its current inflated supply chain costs. There is an alternative, which is to stop chasing bigger audiences and instead take cost out of an overly complex supply chain. (The same logic applies to the appeals for more funding - cut supply chain costs and the same funding goes further). Demands for shorter concerts and informal dress spin well, but making the music supply chain shorter and more cost efficient does not. The supply chain is the convoluted path along which music travels from musician to audience; via studios, mastering/editing facilities, record companies, concert promoters, management agents, embedded journalists, PR consultants, distribution platforms, concert venues, etc etc. Every link adds cost, and music distribution chains are getting longer, more complex and therefore more costly, and those costs can only be covered by bigger audiences. Supply chain cost inflation comes in many forms, and one of these is intermediation. Intermediation happens when middle-feeders are interposed between supplier (musician) and consumer (audience) in the supply chain. One example in classical music is the numerous consultants who are paid handsomely to undertake enigmatic tasks such as 'building social equity of classical musicians through the fusion of traditional and new media'. Consultants are just one manifestation of intermediation, another is management agents. As can be seen above, Stephen Hough is managed by none other than HarrisonParrott, a very professional agency but also one of the toughest negotiators in the business. It represents many of the biggest names and the header graphic shows just a small sample of the 181 leading musicians signed to it. The other most powerful management agencies have artist rosters of around the same size, so some rough and ready maths are revealing. This year there are 75 BBC Proms each needing a conductor and soloists; so let's say there is a requirement for around 200 star musicians. To meet that requirement the four leading management agents have more than 600 star musicians signed to them. Which means the probability of a musicians getting a gig at the Proms or any other major venue is significantly reduced if they are not signed to one of the big agencies. There is a clear 'us' and 'them' divide. For instance as seen below, the 2016 BBC Young Musician winner cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has already joined Jaap van Zweden, Alan Gilbert and Antonio Pappano at IMG Artists and, doubtless, in time will join them on the concert platform. Agents also represent orchestras. For instance HarrisonParrott's rival Askonas Holt represents no less than 38 orchestras. (See footer graphic for just some of these orchestras.) Among them is the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra when it tours. Askonas Holt also manages Simon Rattle, and Rattle and the BPO appear together at the BBC Proms on Sept. 2nd & 3rd as an Askonas Holt tour package - see below. And it is not irrelevant that Askonas Holt also represents Rattle's post-Berlin orchestra, the London Symphony. (Refreshingly, the new music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who gave an acclaimed Prom last week, is not managed by one of the 800-pound gorilla agencies.) Intermediation is further extending its tentacles, with the major management agencies offering consulatancy services. For instance HarrisonParrott provides consultancy services to the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in the form of "ongoing consultancy including the development of statement projects, strengthening GSO's international touring, and leveraging its international brand through marketing, PR, recordings and digital initiatives". And management agencies have started record labels as joint ventures, albeit with limited success. Of course we need agents, because they perform the essential task of bringing musicians and audiences together. But that does not absolve them from close scrutiny. Like new technologies, all intermediation should be assumed guilty until proven otherwise, and not vice versa. The commission earned by top management agencies is a well-kept secret despite often being paid by public funding, but probably adds around 15% to the already large fees paid to celebrity musicians. And those large fees need more audience bums on seats to pay for them. Agents have considerable control over both the financial and artistic agendas, and their practices are largely hidden from public view. That control can be abused and has been abused. In 1955 following an FBI investigation, the United States Department of Justice charged Columbia Concerts Corporation (the forerunner of Columbia Artists Management) with restraint of interstate trade and commerce in the booking of artists, and also with monopolizing organized audience associations. The agency and three other defendants pleaded no contest and were forced to release their monopoly position. In the past there has also been clear evidence of institutionalised racism in the industry's then most powerful agency. Classical music is overflowing with experts. But they preach nothing other than spending more to attract bigger audiences, which invariably adds cost without growing the audience. As an example, informed estimates put the cost of Universal Classic's failed Sinfini Music website at several million pounds. The value of the UK recorded classical music market is approximately £20 million and let's assume that Sinfini cost around £1 million a year to run. Which means that monument to the folly of intermediation flushed 5% of the total value of the UK recorded classical music market down the toilet in a year. Classical music is about nothing more than supplying music from performer to audience with minimal intervention en route. The most efficient ideal supply chains are lean and mean with minimal intermediation, as supermarkets have proved. In contrast the classical music supply chain suffers from excessive levels of intermediation and is riddled with self-interest and hidden costs. The experts are quite right when they say classical music must change. But it is the music supply chain that must change, not the duration of concerts. All graphics are based on material on the public pages of management agency websites. 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.
Peter Brem has retired from the first violins at 65 and written a book about the maestros he worked with – Karajan, Abbado, Rattle. Brem was an influential figure in the orchestra, chair of its media group from 1992 and the force behind its record deal with the rock group Scorpions, a project widely condemned by traditionalists but apparently a two-million-selling hit. The book is out now: Peter Brem. Ein Leben lang erste Geige. Rowohlt, 16.99 Euros
In his latest work, Incantesimi, Julian Anderson draws on Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and writes with the Berlin Phil players in mind. Ahead of its UK premiere, he explains how his vision came to life“What inspired you to write this piece?” It is the question most creative people dread. If you’re composing music, you must somehow be in a trance, in some sort of mystical, transported condition suspending all rational thought processes. It comes as a severe jolt to many that creative activity is generally done like any other job, with hard work, craft, intelligence and a dose of cunning.In my experience, a composer most often gets creative energy from working with performers. That gives you the buzz to write music, especially for performers you know. You imagine them playing every phrase, characterising it, pulling the music about, making it their own. It spurs you on. When the performers are Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, the temptation is to just go berserk – like stout Cortez upon a peak in Darien. But there were challenges ahead: I’d not worked with Rattle nor the orchestra before, and I’d never been inside the Berlin Philharmonie concert hall where they were to give the premiere. There were a lot of unknowns. Continue reading...
The outgoing Berlin Philharmonic conductor has been sharing some of his German experiences with journalists of the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin (not online). Sir Simon says he quickly got to like the Chancellor, who loves coming to concerts. But he was even more impressed by her husband, Professor Joachim Sauer, who can speak with authority on serialism and modern music and was clearly th one who bought tickets to the more adventurous concerts. The Chancellor came to dinner at his place in Berlin. The conductor cooked lamb with aubergine. Wonder what’s on his menu for Theresa May.