Sunday, 26 April 2015

Saffron Hall: A Musical Miracle in North Essex

It has taken me a year and a half to make a visit the new concert hall in Saffron Walden, but now I wish I’d gone sooner. What a venue! Saffron Hall’s story is well-known: It is in the grounds of a state school and was funded through a single contribution of £10m, from an anonymous donor though a local charity, The Yellow Car Charitable Trust. 

The Saffron Hall Trust had the good sense or fortune to hire Angela Dixon, then Head of Music at the Barbican, to run the venue. She has put together a truly staggering programme of events, every concert by a performer or ensemble of international standing. Last night it was the Czech Philharmonic with Jiří Bělohlávek and Chloë Hanslip, and what a spectacular show it was.

The hall was full to capacity, though that is more the rule than the exception. When Nicola Benedetti recently performed here, she ended up repeating the concert the following night, filling the 750-seat venue on both occasions. The venue’s publicity stresses “in the community” both as its location and its ethos. In fact, Saffron Walden is only eight miles from Cambridge, one of several English cities (you can guess what I’m building up to here) in desperate need of a good concert hall. Until that happens, Saffron Hall looks likely to become its de facto venue. Already, the supposedly Cambridge-based Britten Sinfonia has put down roots here. And why not? It is a fabulous venue. Cambridge’s loss is Saffron’s gain.

The big news is the acoustic. The Czech Philharmonic is always going to sound good, but the orchestra’s sound was just spectacular here. The warm, rich string tone was projected with clarity and intimacy. The woodwind soloists, too, had all the required detail, the brass their requisite power. And all this heard from the cheapest seats at the very back of the hall (very reasonable ticket pricing incidentally, yet another virtue of the Trust’s miraculous financial model). The Hall is wood-lined, and although nominally rectangular, it’s not a shoebox. It is more square than the longer hall designs that are more common for new halls, and many of the sides and corners – around the back of the stage and the back of the auditorium, are offset to give a more rounded feel. The acoustic gives the orchestral sound just the right amount of space, a resonance with an enriching but never distracting warmth. The primary virtue is how natural the hall allows the orchestra to sound. It isn’t one of those venues that draws attention to itself with a signature sound, the performers always come first.

Could it be better? Well, I could imagine a little more immediacy for the woodwind solos; they are always crystal clear but you are aware of the distance (at least to the cheap seats). A little more bass projection would be nice too, and I wonder if Bělohlávek positioned the double basses along the back of the stage to counter this. And just while I’m grumbling, the foyer space is a bit crammed, and there is a surprising lack of toilets – even the gents were queuing in the interval. 

But the hall itself is a spectacular success, and an unexpected treat for anybody who ventures this way. It also puts an interesting perspective on London and its current plight. It is notable that the Czech Philharmonic missed London out of their six-city UK tour. And while it is unlikely that acoustics played a big part in that decision, Saffron Hall certainly did them more favours than Cadogan, their usual London bolthole (ironic, given that Cadogan has probably the best acoustic of any London orchestral venue).

Realistically, though, this hall would not be suitable for London. It only has 750 seats, so it is hard to see how that would be viable. In fact, its size is one of its assets, acoustically speaking – most of the great orchestral venues of the world are on this sort of scale – the real challenge for acousticians is to retain that intimacy and clarity but triple the size.

The management won’t thank me for this, but perhaps the answer is for London to appropriate this venue in the same way that Cambridge has. After all we call nearby Stansted Airport “London Stansted” and find a way of getting there when we need a cheap flight. I understand that a free bus service was laid on last night to the nearest station, so measures are in place. If nothing else, those who are arguing against a new concert hall for London should come and hear the results in Saffron Walden. This is what we are missing out on. This is how an orchestra should sound.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Music is Power

Stand up for something and you’ll get smeared - that seems to be a given in British classical music journalism these days. Musicians are more susceptible to political smears than most artists it seems: the motivations and supposed deficiencies of their work are always open to divisive interpretations that the music itself cannot contest. This morning we heard from Damian Thompson about “Classical music's greatest political butt-kissers”. Gergiev, Pollini, Dudamel and the entire El Sistema are the predictable targets, but Rattle gets a poke too; apparently he’s New Labour.

Thompson has his axes to grind of course, but he undermines every argument he makes by equating the politics he dislikes with poor musicianship. The famously communist Pollini, we are told, “these days plays the piano with all the dexterity of Les Dawson”. Rattle has “been a disappointment” in Berlin, and when the Philharmonic replace him with the nationalist Christian Thielemann, they’ll get the discipline that Rattle is too liberal to impose.

None of which is true. Pollini is in his 70s, but he is as fine a pianist as ever, just listen to the last volume in his recently completed Beethoven sonata cycle. Rattle’s time in Berlin has been a success by almost every available measure – whatever complaints the players may have had didn’t stop them voting him into office in the first place and then voting to renew his contract. And Thielemann gets disciplined performances because of the time and care he puts into preparation and rehearsal, not because he’s a Nazi.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, and recent examples from across the political spectrum are numerous. Just look at Gergiev’s recent fall from grace in the UK. When it was fashionable to boycott his concerts (and I suggested doing so for a time), many who should have known better appended their comments about his politics with views on his artistry – as if that were at all relevant. And now Gergiev can do no right. I haven’t noticed any significant deterioration in his work in recently, but it’s not often you’ll read a positive review, in English anyway.

So, it’s back to the old debate about music and politics. But don’t worry, there’s no need to open up that can of worms again, as the issues here are quite contained. Namely: When a musician is of high standing, they have a power that can be harnessed for political ends, and not always their own. The debate about the Israel Philharmonic at the Proms a few years ago only mattered because the IPO is an excellent orchestra. That is why is has the power to promote the State of Israel, and even by extension its government’s policies. Similarly with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, and it seems hypocritical not to treat visits from both orchestras in a similar light.

These and other musicians face two lines of attack. The first is to suggest they are naïve pawns in political games beyond their knowledge or control. Thompson indulges that one, quoting an unnamed but ‘renowned’ conductor as saying of the Simón Bolívar musicians “Politics isn’t something they’ve thought deeply about. They just slip into the soft-left consensus”. I can’t speak for them, but I can for many listeners, and when Thompson says “El Sistema exported pro-Chavez propaganda as well as Mahler symphonies to gullible global audiences” he is taking his argument too far. Audiences are well aware of the political context in which classical performances take place. If not, then why has Gergiev become such a toxic brand that the World Orchestra for Peace can now barely half fill the Albert Hall, a venue that until recently they always filled to capacity.

The other line of attack is easier but more insidious: to claim that the musicians you disagree with are no good. In theory it is an effective policy: If Maurizio Pollini does indeed sound like Les Dawson then his political views must also be junk, right? And if nobody in Berlin likes Simon Rattle, he must be wrong about everything. But it doesn’t work like that. Great musicians have political and social power simply by virtue of their being great musicians. Saying it ain’t so doesn’t change anything.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Alfred Schnittke at 80

Today would have been Alfred Schnittke’s 80th birthday. He didn’t live to see it of course; he died in 1998 following a decade of desperately poor health. But he’s still with us in spirit. His music has gone up and down in popularity since his death, but it has never disappeared. In fact, a handful of his works, covering a variety of genres, have achieved central positions in the repertoire. His historical status is secure.

Schnittke has always been a controversial figure. In the years since his death, the new music world has increasingly polarised into conservative and progressive tendencies. Composers of tonal neo-Romantic music have been embraced by the establishment (at least in the English-speaking world) and no longer feel the need to make excuses or highbrow theoretical justifications for what they do. Schnittke is not among that company, but for many of his critics, the concept of polystylism is just such a justification, an intellectual disguise for reactionary tendencies.

He really belongs with the Modernists. But today’s advocates of Frankfurt School progressive values are increasingly besieged and isolated, and have little time for a composer who was very consciously at the edge of that world. In fact, Schnittke actively sought to destabilise the progressive paradigm, to challenge its insularity and claims to superiority. So perhaps it is of little surprise that he has ended up largely excluded from what remains of it.

Schnittke came to global attention in the mid-1980s. He was the right man at the right time for the classical music world. Just as organisations – orchestras and record labels in particular – began to acknowledge the cultural stagnation they were causing through the continual recycling of an Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, Schnittke provided a revealing, and damning, self-image through which to play out that Angst. The whole phenomenon was a process, a fast one at that, and transience was inevitable. Another problem was the marketing line that presented Schnittke as the heir to Shostakovich, a valid comparison in some ways, but one with little relevance past the fall of the Soviet Union.

The fact that Schnittke lived and worked through the Soviet times has added an extra dimension to the debates about progression and reaction, populism and artistic worth. The American scholar Peter J. Schmelz argues that Schnittke’s advocates push his dissidence too far, and that his use of tonal idioms aligns Schnittke’s music with state cultural policy. Put crudely, polystylism is Socialist Realism.

It is a provocative polemic that contains a good deal of unhelpful exaggeration itself. Listening to Russian academics railing against this view brings back unwelcome memories of the Shostakovich Testimony debate, though it is unlikely to come to that. But Schmelz’s argument demonstrates how difficult it is to untangle the cultural politics of music written in Soviet times. Schnittke’s own political views were conservative, though he would probably use the term “traditional” himself, but his artistic outlook was not. He was much like Stravinsky, determined to retain and promote established cultural values, but in radical ways.

Perhaps that is why Schnittke’s reputation is so complex today, and so different in different parts of the world. In Russia, he is still a central figure in new music, but different generations approach his music with different agendas. However indifferent he himself felt about the political struggles of the 1980s, his music became a symbol of resistance, and many in Russia still hear it in those terms. That has caused a generation divide, with many younger musicians treating Schnittke as music of the Soviet past, with little relevance to the new Russia. On the other hand, the explicitly religious music he was writing (often covertly) from the 1970s parallels the resurgence of the Orthodox Church, creating a continuity into modern times.

In the West, Schnittke remains closely connected with the Russian diaspora. His global reputation was established by leading Soviet musicians touring his music in the 1980s, particularly Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet and Mark Lubotsky. Another important name here is Mstislav Rostropovich, already living in the West, but as keen as any of his colleagues in Russia to promote Schnittke’s work.

Many performers of Schnittke’s generation continue to champion his music. Their recorded legacy is also formidable. Almost all of Schnittke’s major works have extensive discographies, and in many cases the benchmark recording is the first, with the dedicatees providing versions that have yet to be surpassed.

Younger performers needn’t lose heart though. Schnittke’s music demands interpretation, it needs performers who can give individuality and emotion (another factor that puts it at the peripheries of Modernism). There are many significant textual issues with Schnittke’s scores, because whenever a performer suggested a change in rehearsal, he invariably said yes. He wasn’t interested in performers simply giving a presentation of the notes on the page, he expected them to live the music and to reimagine it in every performance. As a result, the recorded legacy of the music’s first performers is not definitive, whatever its quality. Performers continue to be drawn to Schnittke’s music for just this reason, and every new performance and recording has something different to say about it.

Some lament the passing of Schnittke’s period of extreme popularity, and it is a great shame that his orchestral music is not played more. But, from the sheer number and quality of recent recordings, it is clear that his solo, chamber and choral music is as popular as ever. Schnittke’s legacy remains complex, with scholars and commentators likely to debate its significance and value for years to come, but the music itself lives on because it continues to inspire and engage musicians from one generation to the next.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Scottish Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra

Yesterday, Norman Lebrecht published a blog post entitled: Scotland will lose an orchestra ‘the morning after independence.’ The text that follows doesn’t mention a source for this, suggesting he is quoting himself. Instead it gives a précis of an argument, first raised in January by critic Ken Walton, that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra would disband in the event of a yes vote in the independence referendum. Lebrecht tells us “The BBCSSO is funded from London...” as if to imply it is funded by London, and then goes on to speculate about how the, as yet unnamed, new Controller of Radio 3 might make economies to their budget. He concludes with a reference to “a journalistic view from Scotland,” which, he says, “does not markedly differ.”

Well actually it does. It differs quite a lot. The link is to an article by Kate Molleson published in the Guardian on Saturday, an excellent survey of the issues raised for classical music in Scotland by the referendum, and far more balanced and informative than either Lebrecht’s polemic or this one. Molleson cites the SNP’s white paper on the foundation of a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation, which would “initially be founded on the staff and assets of BBC Scotland”. The implication is that this would include the BBC’s Scottish musicians. That’s not explicitly stated, but nor is it denied.

Molleson spoke to Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs. Hyslop points out that “only two-thirds of the revenue from Scottish license fees is currently spent on BBC Scotland”, and that therefore “the future SBS could be more lucrative, and more culturally ambitious, than the present BBC Scotland.” Exciting talk, especially coming from a cabinet minister (imagine hearing such statements in Westminster).

Clearly, there is some uncertainty here, but all the indications are that a fledging SBC would have both the resources and the motivation to maintain the BBC SSO as a flagship ensemble for the new corporation. The political climate in Scotland, as demonstrated by Hyslop herself, is far friendlier to the arts than in Westminster. And the orchestra itself is in a perfect position to represent the increasingly dominant nationalist sentiment and pride. It is, as Molleson notes, one of the finest orchestras in Europe, and it is currently led by Donald Runnicles, perhaps the best, certainly the best-regarded, Scottish conductor since Alexander Gibson.

A letter from the Scottish composer Bill Sweeney appeared in the Herald on Monday making some very sensible points on this issue. The biggest threat to the BBC SSO, he says, is the BBC itself, and that “Previous axe-swings have rid [the corporation] of the BBC Big Band, Scottish Radio, Northern Dance, Midland Light, Northern Ireland and Training Orchestras without much concern for UK-national or regional sensibilities.” The letter is followed  - same link – by one from veteran broadcaster John Purser, who recounts depressing details of the BBC’s last try at disbanding the BBC SSO, in 1987. Scare stories about the end of public broadcasting north of the border are, says Sweeney “based on the idea that Scots do not have enough appetite for culture or enough smeddum to preserve and develop the rich and multifarious artistic landscape that is so evident around us.” He goes on “I suspect - and hope - that we will see a more positive interpretation of our cultural prospects expressed this Thursday.”

Right. Not that you’ll ever read views like these expressed in the (British) national press, which, presumably to further its own ends, has been deliberately underestimating the Scots’ smeddum throughout the debate. But the arts are not under threat, and the BBC SSO is in an excellent position to thrive in an independent Scotland. As with so many other aspects of the referendum, the London-based media insists on presenting as a crisis what can, and should, be seen as an opportunity.

Friday, 12 September 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Proms

What a great Proms season! A packed two months of music making, the quality almost continuously high, and a good number of real standout performances. Of the concerts I attended, almost all were excellent: Iván Fischer’s Brahms, Runnicles’ Salome, the Seoul Philharmonic. The CBeebies Prom got a middling writeup from me, but my then three-year-old daughter loved it, and has talked about little else since. Gergiev’s Mahler was the only dud I got to, and Rattle’s Matthew Passion was the only one I heard on the radio and was glad to have missed.
But all up, the Proms team has done us proud, and done far more than just keep London’s musical life ticking over while its resident orchestras are away on their summer tours. How lucky we are to have this festival, unparalleled in both scale and quality.
I’ve complained about many aspects of the Proms before, and all those issues remain. First there’s the Albert Hall (in case the image above is misleading – I’m not suggesting we drop it on Russia). The acoustic is a much-discussed and divisive issue. All I’ll add is this: Don’t sit in the circle whatever you do; you’re better off at home listening on the radio. Then there is farcical charade of only publishing the programme ten weeks before the season begins. There’s the bizarre territorial politics of the Arena. And don’t get me started on the Last Night.
None of this is going to change anytime soon, so let’s accept the Proms for what it is and just enjoy it. The flipside to the acoustic issue at the Albert Hall is the atmosphere that the venue is able to generate, and that’s a precious thing. A highly anticipated concert here attracts a buzzing audience, and the enthusiasm of Prommers is regularly cited by performers as a reason why the event is so special to them. And every concert is a real event – just look at the social media coverage.
This year’s season marks the end of Roger Wright’s tenure, and he leaves the festival as strong and vibrant as ever. Not so with Radio 3 sadly, but it’s difficult to tell how many of the station’s recent woes are down to him. Wright will be succeeded by separate controllers of the Proms and Radio 3, and the former job certainly looks the more attractive. Hopefully, the new director of the Proms can find similarly effective ways to gently reinvent the traditions, and possibly even deal with some of the bigger problems too.
In the mean time, I’m off to my last Prom of the year; a star orchestra (the Gewandhaus) doing the Beethoven Nine. That’s one of the few persistent Proms traditions I’m not going to complain about. Saturday’s flag-waiving aside, this looks set to be a fitting conclusion to a great season.