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The first woman to conduct the last night of the BBC Proms.

Robert Craft, in my opinion not a particularly reliable chronicler, describes the death of Stravinsky on 6 April 1971:

The intern stethoscopes the chest, says he hears nothing, removes the intravenous tube (with all the feeling of a filling-station attendant removing a hose from an automobile tank), and remarks “Gee, he went just like that.”

While he leaves the room to certify the time of death as five-twenty, I wake V., but cannot directly tell her the truth. “He is very bad … dying … I think … no … he is dead.”

Then I go back to I.S. and hold his still-warm hands and kiss his still-feverish cheeks and forehead, during which I am certain that life is in his eyes for an instant and in that instant he knows me. V. comes, kisses him, and leaves the room crying.

(Robert Craft, Stravinsky: The Chronicle of a Friendship)

A stale and slow-moving mind is of no use in a first-class orchestra, and an unfit body cannot cope with the physical strain involved. Those players really worth their salt are frequently expert at other accomplishments.

(Bernard Shore, The Orchestra Speaks)

Every single one of the musicians in any professional orchestra has won an audition over sometimes dozens and dozens of competitors, made it through one or two years of his/her trial period, and is required to play difficult pieces, well, day in and day out. If they can’t play the right notes, they can’t work. If a conductor can’t hear wrong notes, he has no business being a conductor. That is just as much a basic requirement of his job as the musicians being able to play the right notes (at least) on their instruments. There are many, many hollow posers and impostors on the podium. It is much easier to fake being a conductor than being a musician.

I saw Claudio Abbado given a very hard time by the brass players of the London Symphony Orchestra. The off-stage guys went to the pub part way through a rehearsal, there was quite a fuss about that one. Abbado was very angry at how some of the musicians behaved, and he walked off to cool down. The performance however was as exciting and electric as could be imagined. This was the same orchestra that decided to get back at Carreras when he said his fluffs were caused by dropped pencils. Abbado and the singer were then subjected to a barrage of pencil-dropping whenever he opened his mouth. In a way Carreras asked for it, but the players did not have to give it.

What is musically good and bad or emotionally communicative is really a different thing. A technically outstanding conductor who hears everything and knows how to rehearse and direct the orchestra is not a different kind of poser. If he knows his stuff, has good ears, knows the score and has a conception of it that he can bring across in rehearsal, then he is not a poser at all. You or I may not like the interpretation that results from that, but one has to separate that from technical qualities.

But if someone does not have these technical qualities and knowledge, then he also cannot develop a valuable interpretation of a complex orchestral piece and direct 80-100 musicians performing it. Whipping up a little excitement and relying on the orchestra to carry the conductor through the piece so that he looks good is not good conducting – although some good performances sometimes happen despite a bad conductor. But only when the orchestra comes through in spite of him. Which can be really dificult.

Although real messing with the conductor incidents do occur and they make for better stories, that rarely happens in good professional orchestras in the way of “let’s test this guy and give him a hard time”. It does happen sometimes, but not often, I would say. And that’s not even necessary. It is hard to describe, but when a conductor does not know his stuff, it becomes apparent very quickly, and after only a short while longer, it is pretty much clear if he knows what he is doing or not. If yes, it can make a huge difference in the ensemble playing experience. If not, then it can be a very big pain in the arse and immensely frustrating. Musicians most of the time don’t even need to test conductors – it often becomes apparent very quickly if they are any good or not.

One should always try to co-operate with the conductor, but sometimes, it’s just not possible and the problems aren’t a matter of different views about the music or anything like that – that doesn’t really matter anyway, because an important part of the craft of the orchestral musician is to be able to grasp and realize many different concepts, after all, if everybody did what they wanted, there would be no ensemble – it is simply that the man with the stick does not belong in front of an orchestra.

Portsmouth Point by Thomas Rowlandson

Walton certainly was a far better composer than he was a man. His personal behaviour could be quite poisonous, as I understand it, and he was exceedingly jealous of other people’s success.

Although I admire most British composers active throughout the twentieth century I am often disappointed by Walton. Clearly he was a composer of great talent and the list of his compositions whilst in his twenties and thirties contains a number of masterpieces. Belshazzar’s Feast is an exciting and dramatic oratorio, the First Symphony is a work of very considerable power and at times snarling menace. These are certainly personal favourites. After the war however there just seems to have been a long period of much more modest achievement with few works which resonate long in the memory. I try to like the Cello Concerto (1956) and the Second Symphony (1960) but there just seems to be something lacking. Walton’s move to take up residence on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples supposedly added a Mediterranean warmth to his music but to my ears it is more a Mediterranean languor, a sort of sleepy laziness. The enormous promise of the young composer seems to have dissipated. The great works which might have been expected from the older composer just don’t seem to have been written.

I remember as a young man reacting violently against what my friends and I thought was a national obsession with the music of Benjamin Britten and the neglect of composers like Walton. Now however I do have to admit that Britten was a greater composer and a composer of much more depth.

We are standing beside the coffin of a man beloved. For the last time his life, his battles, his sufferings, and his purpose pass before the mind’s eye. And now, at this solemn and deeply stirring moment, when we are released from the paltry distractions of everyday life, our hearts are gripped by a voice of awe-inspiring solemnity, which we seldom or never hear above the deafening traffic of mundane affairs. What next? it says. What is life – and what is death?

Have we any continuing existence?

Is it all an empty dream, or has this life of ours, and our death, a meaning?

If we are to go on living, we must answer this question.

(Gustav Mahler)

Mahler, brought up in the Jewish faith, had recently converted to Roman Catholicism when he wrote this.

Toscanini is excessively short-sighted. To see him peering at a score, held so that it nearly touches his nose, is to begin to understand how his memory holds fast its multitude of details. Evidently to read thus laboriously is in a measure to memorize. It is sometimes painful to see him search for a rehearsal letter in a score or for some other point that has eluded him. He rehearses everything from memory, merely referring to the score for rehearsal numbers or for confirmatoin of a detail, over which he is right 99 times in 100. Occasionally he brings his own orchestral parts – not all very good, and some too bad to be used. None meticulously marked as, for instance, are Mengelberg’s.

(Bernard Shore, The Orchestra Speaks)

An Italian conductor, a Swedish contralto and a Siberian soprano.

Here is Mahler’s programme note for the last movement of his Symphony No. 2, included in Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe by Alma Mahler (trans. Basil Creighton):

We are confronted once more by terrifying questions.

A voice is heard crying aloud:

“The end of all living beings is come – the Last Judgment is at hand and the horror of the days of days has come.”

The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on in endless procession. The great and the little ones of the earth – kings and beggars, righteous and godless – all press on – the cry for mercy and forgiveness strikes fearfully on our ears. The wailing rises higher – our senses desert us, consciouness dies at the approach of the eternal spirit. The Last Trump is heard – the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out; in the eerie silence that follows we can just catch the distant, barely audible song of a nightingale, a last tremulous echo of earthly life! A chorus of saints and heavenly beings softly breaks forth:

“Thou shalt arise, surely thou shalt arise.”

Then appears the glory of God! A wondrous, soft light penetrates us to the heart – all is holy calm!

And behold – it is no judgment – there are no sinners, no just. None is great, none is small. There is no punishment and no reward.

An overwhelming love lightens our being. We know and are.

(Mahler had converted to Catholicism because, as a Jew, he was barred from becoming Music Director of the Vienna Opera.)

Alma Mahler records that Debussy walked out during the second movement of this symphony at its first Paris performance. He said later that it was too much like Schubert.

Fuck Debussy.

Opera Chic (“I’m a young American woman living in Milan, and you’re not. I go to La Scala a lot, and you don’t.”) inspired this post by reminding me that Seiji Ozawa is back following treatment for throat cancer.

Béla Bartók’s music is beautiful. That’s the thing here. Now, I’m not much of a fan of Seiji Ozawa’s recordings. While I find his recordings generally well executed, I also find them, or at least a good portion of them, a bit on the dull side. Against this I needed to balance the fact that I haven’t bought a new version of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra for probably eight months or more. Clearly I was remiss in my duties. Sure, I could have opted for Christoph Eschenbach’s fairly recent recording, but Ozawa’s was available for a silly low price, so it got the nod. And so I undertook to listen to that most satisfying pairing of the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta along with the wartime warhorse played by the still relatively new Saito Kinen Orchestra. In concert, no less.

The disc opens with the M.S.P.C. It’s a bit hard to determine what’s coming in the opening passages of the Andante tranquillo. It opens with hushed pianissimo playing, with nicely delicate string playing. But it seems a little too rounded, a little too warm. As things gradually build up, and then build up some more, things stay on the soft side. Still the tension and volume continue to build noticeably until at 4’16” a big ol’ thwack of the bass drum and full cry of the orchestra announces the arrival of the meaty (or at least meatier) part of the movement.

The orchestra plays extremely well. The only thing that really seems to be missing is bite. Sure, the strings sound nicely dissonant, but surely they should sound more astringent than they do here. Anyway, after the big outburst, Ozawa and company quiet things down again and create a nicely sinister air.

One thing that simply cannot go unnoticed is the amazing sound quality. Detail abounds throughout the orchestra, with the best sounding celesta I recall hearing and a pinpoint xylophone ringing out stage right among the highlights. Yet even with all that glorious detail the recording retains a pleasing warmth. It rather reminds me of Daniel Barenboim’s Mahler 7 recording; that is, it’s essentially a perfect sound.

So, on to the second movement. The sound captures the wonderfully played strings in all their not-too-dissonant glory, and then Ozawa changes the playing style to sound almost jocular. A minor blemish comes with the piano-percussion doubling, which lacks that last degree of snap, though the playing is solid. The Adagio opens tautly and quietly, with that razor-sharp xylophone reappearing, and the strings do their thing. Greater tension is achieved and maintained than earlier on, and the playing is deliciously colourful, and that ravishing celesta comes back to tickle one’s ears.

To close the work, all concerned play with greater tension and energy, yet maintain the glorious, rich, warm sound that has defined the recording up to this point. The strings start to sound just biting enough, and the percussion adds enough zing. What to make of it all? Well, sadly it lacks that certain something, that certain Hungarian-ness that some other notable Bartók conductors bring, and it sounds just a bit too polite at times. But it also sounds amazingly beautiful and lived-in. I’m guessing Ozawa knows and loves the piece, because so much attention has clearly been lavished on it. This will not be to everyone’s taste, but so what?

The mighty Concerto for Orchestra isn’t quite as good, though it ain’t too shabby. To start with, the sound isn’t as good. Oh, sure, it’s very high quality, and it shares the same warm overall sound of the M.S.P.C., but it’s not as detailed and precise, with the orchestra sounding like a giant blob of beautiful sound at times, not that I’m complaining. That quibble aside, there are other quibbles, but they’re mixed in with decidedly un-quibble-inducing playing. The first movement opens with nice and beefy if not super-detailed low string playing and shimmering violins. The overall effect is not exactly dark or eerie or foreboding, but it does possess a hint of theatricality. When the movement transitions to the Allegro vivace section, all the strings swell in a grand manner. Too old-world grand for this piece? Dunno. Don’t care. As for the tasty winds, well, they’re, um, delectable, but they aren’t quite pungent enough. As things progress, the strings take on a nicely sharper sound which builds up to a loud, but not edgy enough fanfare before winding up the first movement strongly.

The second movement finds the paired instruments doing well enough, though I could have done with more ‘cackle’ from the oboes, and the stage right strings really catching one’s attention when the clarinets and then the trumpets play. Some minor imperfections in the playing are so minor as to make the playing seem better. The great Elegia is appropriately sombre in mood and ethereal in sound, with fine, clear winds led by more robust oboe playing. The piccolo playing rises above the din nicely enough, even if some other recordings boast sharper, more articulate playing than here (Ivan Fischer’s, say).

“Bartók is beautiful”. Nowhere is that message more emphatically reinforced than in the interrupted intermezzo. The main theme is played more beautifully than in any other version I can recall, with the strings so sumptuous sounding that one wants the theme repeated before going on. Is it too romanticized? Perhaps. So what? As for the crude interruptions from Shostakovich 7, I must say that I found them a bit too polite. So’s the response. The carnival music afterwards is nicely done and fills the stage, but it’s not quite sharp enough – but, did I mention that the main theme is beautifully played? It is at the end, too. The finale opens with a slightly too slow and thick fanfare, but then it’s off to the races, with the entire band playing extremely well and with plenty of drive. While the sound is not as spectacular as in the opening work, it is here where one really begins to appreciate the wonders of contemporary digital recording: the sound is rich, loud, clear, and massive, without any hint of compression or hardness, at least at the volume at which I listened – just shy of concert level. All told, this is a good version, certainly better than I anticipated, though it’s not one of the greats in my estimation.

Martin Lawrence: “Splendid!”

Here’s a pic from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Blog.

Martin Lawrence was a founder member of the University of York Pork Pie Society and was once described by critic and polymath Victor Lewis-Smith as “the tallest horn player of his generation”.

On a recent visit to York I was literally gutted to discover that Scott’s, purveyors of excellent pork pies, had closed down.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

Arthur O’Shaughnessy (Ode from Music and Moonlight)

In a recent dream I had, my young friend Melissa and I were coming from a live concert, though I don’t know what was on the programme as it unfortunately began with us coming out of the concert hall. I do know the conductor was André Previn, and we were raving about the performance, which is funny because the day before she and I had been discussing a Previn recording that we both wanted to get.

The other concertgoers were streaming out of a gorgeous hall into a stunning cityscape that looked like a futuristic cross between Manchester and Edinburgh. The concert hall was a completely silver version of the Bridgewater Hall (my nearest big hall). We all were walking out towards a big lake discussing the concert, admiring the skyscrapers towering above us and a spectacular view of a bridge that looked like a more elaborate (and silver) version of the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam.

I always have dreams about musical performances. I’ve seen orchestras and pianists at concert halls, churches, warehouses, etc. I’ve also heard music emanating from various sources. Most of the music is so strange that I must call it “dream music”. It has no melody and is rugged and dark. Sometimes I’m scared by the music enough to wake up, so it has a rather tragic feel to it.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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