Tuesday, 17 February 2009

orchestral evolution

It used to be a safe bet. Good grades at the conservatory, a brush up of orchestral scores, an audition without too many nerves, and bingo, set for life, a job in the chairs of one of the world’s major orchestras. Tenure tracked it was, and playing chamber music or teaching at a nearby conservatory made for a sweet and safe financial foundation, a security for classical musicians as yet unknown.

Are those days gone for good?

As more and more orchestras find themselves knee deep in poverty due to subsidy cut backs (at least in Europe), rising union demands (certainly in the states), dwindling ticket sales (everywhere) and expectancies of sponsor dips as Wall Street banks go into meltdown, the security of an orchestral gig is fading away. Two evolutionary reactions are possible here: gloom and doom, or a rethink. For that first, there are examples galore; for the second, a few role models.

A rethink of the financial organization of an orchestra was made very early on by the London Symphony Orchestra in particular, and the English in general. Unlike Stateside or on the continent, LSO has been a cooperative throughout its 103 year history. No play means no pay, but if you do play, and help program or teach or get involved in a creative community arts plan, the pay is the highest in the UK capital, and the audience is actually growing!

As is the conducting talent the LSO attracts and the press it generates. Many an eyebrow was raised as they made considerable money with their film and pop music gigs, yet they unselfconsciously boast a ’global audience of millions’ via blockbuster movies like The Queen, Star Wars or the Harry Potter series. ‘LSO Live is the best-selling orchestral owned label in the world’. These musicians are not even above making and selling ringtones!

Last century, the ‘authentics’ and the ‘contemporaries’ also established cooperatives, foundations to accommodate their living apart together relationships: individual instrumentalists who gathered a few times a season to rehearse intensely and then take a particular program on the road, afterwards going their separate ways into other employment . Frans Bruggen’s Orchestra of the 18th Century, or the ASKO-Schöenberg Ensemble still work in this way. On occasion certainly subsidized, as is the LSO, but art funding never covers their production costs, and there is certainly nothing left over for investments like those considerable efforts LSO makes for future talent and public at their inspiring St. Luke’s.

Nowadays, perhaps the best example of orchestral evolution is not so much a cooperative, as a near dictatorial and dedicated ensemble of instrumentalists: the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Maestro Ivan Fisher’s hand -picked and trained group has taken the world by storm with its enticing programs and inspired recordings. ‘The whole philosophy is different from any orchestra I know’, states Fisher in a recent interview in the Guardian: ‘There is no job security, no union, and no limits to how much we can rehearse and work.’ Founded in 1983, ‘it’s an orchestra for artists who relish very intensive rehearsal work’.

Ah, so they don’t drop their violins the minute the clock strikes the hour? How refreshing. You would think that musicians take their work differently than, say , postal workers, or civil servants…Fisher’s club is evidence that some of them indeed do. Maestro insists on section rehearsals to know a piece backwards before full orchestral rehearsals even commence. Fisher refers to it all as ‘doing the laundry’, ‘nobody has the arrogance to say it’s a bad idea. We have this joke that we start to work on a level where some orchestras end up.’

LSO Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev has made a career out of challenging the whole tradition of orchestral rehearsal , showing up too late at union dictated schedules, and exasperatingly pleading for more time and flexibility when he- inevitably- then runs out of time. He once claimed that the ideal situation would be for his musicians to have a house next to the concert hall, and wait there for all rehearsals to convene as he saw fit; actually this is more or less the situation and working conditions he has created for himself back home at the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg.

But at the LSO, where musicians will certainly not sit waiting for his arrival, Gergiev has found an ensemble willing to go the extra unscheduled mile, real ‘soldiers for music’ he proudly insists, who are willing to follow him, for example, through the complete Prokofiev symphonies in just three intensive days.
Great role models these in days of orchestral evolution, as different personally as chalk and cheese: the one with a genius for the spontaneous, and the other, Fisher of course, a perfectionist. Now, the survival of the fittest for this 18th century ensemble type will prove what works best in the long run.

Listen to the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Channel Classics, a company, albeit small, who, like Fisher, does not take imperfection for an answer:
And LSO recordings can be found via their own website.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Passion for a Passion, II, the sequel

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Number two on society’s must be there list, it is astounding that year after year a long and complex work by Johann Sebastian Bach should immediately succeed the first catch of North Sea herring in importance in the Dutch collective conscious. Performances are sold out years in advance, you basically have to inherit tickets to get in, or alternatively, have been recently named to a cabinet post: the Passion in the Great Church of Naarden is where politics and society meet in multicultural and religiously tolerant (more or less), modern Holland...

This I blogged just a year ago, when Easter fell a whole month later and seasonal buds were inspiring, certainly as alternative to this year’s snow flakes-! Like clock work, we were in church yet again yesterday for this year’s performance of Bach’s Matthew Passion by the Netherlands Bach Society.

It is a bit of a circus of course, this passion for the Passion. On Good Friday and Easter Saturday, there is an intermission lengthy enough so that lunch can be served: comfortable and yet absurd of course, parallel to the intermission’s culinary delights at England’s Glyndebourne Festival.

This year the passion made front page headlines in reference to another performance taking place across the Atlantic:

Haitink finally conducts the Matthaüs

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s former Chief Conductor Bernard Haitink’s very first Matthew Passion was certainly front page newsworthy. Ironically, this iconic Dutch maestro, performed it very far from home, in one of his musically adopted cities, this time the venerable Boston. Here the Passion has also been a tradition, since 1871 to be exact, originally initiated by the Handel and Haydn Society of that very fair Euro-city, a stage where soprano Elly Ameling first brought a touch of the Dutch: her American nickname was instanteously angel. Haitink isn’t therefore the first export product in this oddly non-nationalist phenomenon from Holland, it was clearly very logical to contract Haitink in Boston however, where he is as beloved as the tradition itself. He casted the Passion well, even luxuriously. A veteran musical actor like Ian Bostridge was complimented by a new Dutch angel, Christiane Stotijn. Boston budgets are bulging these days, in painful contrast to many American orchestra’s, so Haitink could even live out his ambitions to cast the smaller, in his view ‘crucial’ roles, with top singers.

Haitink, on his maiden voyage with the Passion at a youthful 79, gave, according to those present, a marvellous performance, dramatic and deep. Yet the accompanying interview read, sadly perhaps, deeply frustrated. He cites never having been afforded the opportunity to perform the Passion at home in Holland, despite the tradition, or perhaps, actually due to it. ‘I never ask, I must be asked…’*.
Haitink heard his predecessor in Amsterdam Willem Mengelberg perform the Passion early, in 1939: Mengelberg was himself responsible for a sizeable chunk of the Dutch tradition. But by the time Haitink had morphed into a major maestro, the authentic performance practice was not only the avant garde of the 20th century in specialist circles, but had wormed its way into the conservative bulwarks of symphony orchestra’s.

The Dutchman Gustav Leonhardt and the Austrian Nicholas Harnoncourt produced the complete sacred cantates of JS Bach from their authentic point of view: thisproved to be an international bombshell of a success when it appeared between 1971 and 1990. The Concertgebouw Orchestra, in hindsight obviously not supported by its chief conductor, was visionary enough to contact Harnoncourt to conduct the Mathew Passion as early as 1978 to both critical and public enthusiasm. Harnoncourt has been returning to the orchestra to mutual satisfaction ever since. Haitink was alienated from a composer he clearly loved, Bach; Mozart would soon follow suit. His frustration, ‘an allergy’* at the ‘it has to be so, it cannot be otherwise’* authentic movement of the early, extremist years, placed Haitink in a no-win position, food for frustration.

In these schismatic years, when the music world once again investigated Bach (1685-1750) with utmost urgency, another conductor came to the fore, forced a less visible schism of his own, reinventing another Dutch tradition in the process: Jos van Veldhoven. Far less internationally famous than his colleagues Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, and certainly not in the same maestro stratosphere as Bernard Haitink, van Veldhoven has serenely and dedicatedly worked to take the authentic performance practice a few decided steps further, with Bach’s Mathew Passion has his major building block. As Artistic Director of the Netherlands Bach Society, van Veldhoven made a grand early decision to let others conduct the Passion every other year: rumor has it that he even contacted Bernard Haitink (maybe he never really ‘asked’) It was Van Veldhoven’s turn yet again yesterday; he led a performance which was special in many ways.

The Bach Society ensemble is always young, the instrumentalists and soloists are necessarily affordable (or decidedly dedicated); budgets here are a far cry from those known in Bostonian symphonic circles. The boys choir was a mere 6 in Naarden, the full choir (van Veldhoven refers to them as ‘ripenisten’ as opposed to the soloists) a mere 16. All were truly international: Holland still retains its Mecca status for students and young talent for renaissance and baroque music. Van Veldhoven has a talent for discovering tomorrow’s angels, and none was less angelic than the Swedish soprano Maria Keohane. Tenor Charles Daniels, a Bach Society veteran was never more dramatic than yesterday: heart wrenching. Two beautiful male altos were discoveries from England: Matthew White and William Towers. We were happily reunited with Gerd Turk as Evangelist and amazed for the first time at the power of Andrew Foster Williams as Christ.

The straight jacket of authenticity, which certainly served a purpose, putting this momentous repertoire back on both the performance and musicological agenda, has now clearly been put into perspective, giving way to urtext interpretations that go far deeper than merely the responsibly printed page. Amazing were van Veldhoven’s ritenuti at the ends of chorales and aria accompaniments for example, something that was a major no-no in the authenticity Bible not so long ago.

The Bach tradition has gone from fleshy, fat choirs and instrumental ensembles in the very early years, to immaciated, nearly anorexic thinness in the early, strictly authentic years ( a natural response perhaps). Now we can enjoy a voluptuousness recently still forbidden, a fineness of form, intelligent, warm and dramatic, elegant even. van Veldhoven was creative and convincing in his 2008 performance.

Holland has as yet been unsuccessful in adopting Johann Sebastian Bach despite its enviable number of appropriate organs and idem historic churches. It does claim a special relationship to this momentus work. Its rightful parents, the Germans, are certainly catching on, in fifth gear to convince and attract ever since Leipzig, true birth place of this Matthew Passion, became accessible after the fall of the Berlin wall. The Passion for this passion will surely continue in years to come. Perhaps as proof of its genius, performances are headline news, reassuring in these times when great classics are of marginal impact.

See for further information: www.bachvereniging.nl or www.bso.org
Or catch them of course, how fashionable, on YouTube. Better yet, get into a church, or second best, a concert hall, this time next year when the Passion week comes around: experience first hand what our passion is all about.

*As taken from an interview conducted by NRC Handelsblad music editor Kasper Jansen (March 22, 2008); the translation into English is my own.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Beaux Arts Goodbye

cyntillating sounds opus twelve

Menahem Pressler has been walking out into the spotlight of the world’s concert stages with an eagerness parallel to Hannibal’s on the far side of the Alps for over 65 years now. The eagerness is undiminished, his gait, as energetic as ever. We are the melancholy souls tonight, witnessing the near end of an unprecedented career as Pressler’s Beaux Arts Trio starts out on its farewell tour of Europe before a final goodbye concert in Tanglewood in August, 2008.

Most of Pressler’s appearances have indeed been accompanied by his dedicated and loving trio colleagues, none more loving than cellist Antonio Meneses and violinist Daniel Hope are this evening in Amsterdam. A sold out house, one particularly fond of the Beaux Arts Trio, is expectant, charged.

But tonight’s performance is even more than the die hard fans have come to expect in the trio’s 50 odd years of tours. Dvorak’s Dumky trio is more human, more earthy, Schubert’s ethereal masterpiece in B flat (D898) more deep and spiritual than ever before. Much credit is due to Hope in both pieces: his relaxed, folkey interpretation of the Dumky makes the incredible beauty of his tone in the Schubert all the more impressive by comparison. What a master of colour. The grand gestures in both pieces arise from Antonio Meneses’s massive warmth and lyricism. His cello sings, kletzmer style in the Dvorak, hymn-like in the Schubert.

And then there’s Pressler. He will go down in history as the softest pianist ever, an ambition and reputation he has bemusedly referred to in interviews. But the pianissimo’s that only he can realize are just one aspect of a touch and tone that is so telling, so inherently musical. And his trills: pure pearls.

Have I forgotten a superlative here? Good, because I still need them for the two spectacular encores: Shostakovich’s spitting Scherzo (second movement, opus 67) and Beethoven’s elegant yet melancholy Adagio (opus 11). And yes, this elegant Amsterdam crowd was certainly melancholy as this marvellous concert came to an end.

It will be near impossible to say goodbye to this beloved ensemble when they return for their final Concertgebouw concert November 21. Sold out already, we can only hope that someone will have the insight to record what undoubtedly will be an important piece of performance history. And we can only hope that Menahem Pressler, a man who does not know the meaning of a day off, vacations, sabbatical or retirement, will return here to play forever.

Thursday, 6 September 2007


cyntillating sounds opus eleven

On the occasion of his death, the world mourns, remembers, and most especially, tears into tenor Luciano Pavarotti. I am immediately reminded of Jackie Kennedy’s sentiments on the occasion of her husband’s assassination: her fear of how historians and journalists would start to size him up even in the early days of extreme mourning. And so with Pavarotti, the huge tenor with the massive international following. Detrimental comparisons to Domingo and Carreras, chuckles at his physical and vocal demise: how completely expected and how completely ill-timed and inappropriate.
Unused corporate tickets for the Metropolitan Opera productions got tacked to the bulletin board of the music department, Marshall Field House, at Sarah Lawrence College. As an undergraduate I kept constant tabs on that bulletin board. Decked out in theatre costumes and rhinestones, the subway regularly took those of us who paid attention downtown to sit in truly first class seats in the days when the Met audience inevitably showed up in black tie attire. The ushers would spot us a mile away and you could see it in their eyes that these college kids were suspect for sure.
Pavarotti was mesmerizing back then; every first note sung came with a warm recognition: there it is again, that sound. We weren’t there for anything else except that sound, compelling, unique. The rest of ‘his’ productions immediately faded away, we were no longer aware of any sets, staging, acting, world class soprano’s or choirs, just him.
In 2005 he flew the world on a farewell tour. I was one of the few who were thrilled that he would perform in Rotterdam, and even with the first class Philharmonic Orchestra I was then working for. Pavarotti: that sound was coming to town! Of course the entire circus came with him: press, his make up artists, his little scooter to get him around, the flashy fans, all of it. The Rotterdam Philharmonic had the thankless task of instrumental backing to the phenomenon that sold seven thousand tickets.
It was a long and complex day. Keeping everyone happy in this woolly production was no easy task. You never knew he would actually sing until he actually sang in his later years, and the tension was palpable all round. A huge curtain hid his entrance from the hall. All of a sudden there he was, seated, made up, with the famous scarf and accompanied by a truly marvellous soprano whose name most would not recall the next morning.
It took quite some time: warming up, nonsense repertoire, orchestral fillers. But all of a sudden, there it was. My husband and I instinctively sought each other’s eyes: we both wiped away just a few but completely unexpected tears. It was back, if only in a flash, but we had both heard it, for sure. There is was, after all those years and all the circus, the pop stars and the football extravaganzas.
Pavarotti, that sound.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Tanglewood Two/Too

cyntillating sounds opus ten

When the weather is sunny and the repertoire is Bach, Tanglewood exhurts its irresistible charm and we return within a week's time to a favoured landscape. But for this visit, we do it right, shunning real seats for a concert-from-the-lawn experience.

The scene in the parking lot hours before show time is unique. Most visitors are elderly this evening, Bach's B Minor Mass is considered heavy going by Americans. They may be elderly but they are certainly routined in Tanglewood traditions: the gas guzzling 4 wheel drives pull up close, and out come the lawn chairs, the wine bottles, the pasta salads and good French bread (Tanglewood attracts a good number of French Canadians). Those arriving early just fold out their chairs right smack in front of the ticket gate, pour a glass, perhaps read a book (we saw St. Augustine's Confessions lying on a nearby chair) and wait at least an hour to stake their claim to a good spot on the lawn.

We share our picnic table with strangers, united in a love of Bach.
He: ' is it a singalong tonight?'; she: ' I hope not!' .
Volunteers pass out not only programmes but brochures on this season's Dutch theme, a celebration of Holland's musical best and brightest. Like this evening, Jos van Veldhoven and his Netherlands Bach Society, on a return visit after their recent, exceptionally succesful tour to the States in April.

The performance is in the elegant Ozawa Recital Hall which looses it's back wall just prior to performances, to allow a view from the lawn on a par with the main shed where the symphonic concerts take place. But this visitor's dream is, of course, an instrumentalist's nightmare, and the harpsichordist and string players arrive early to tune, tune and yet tune again.

Van Veldhoven leads a magnificent performance, one very much in tune, using a parred down choir of a mere ten voices - often beefed up by the five soloists -, which never sounds skinny or disappointing. The Bach is rich, inventive and inspired, even from our seats half way up the long lawn. Again, the sound system is excellent, 'pimped up' via speakers barely visible in the trees: we have a front row seat feeling, with the added spectacle of the stars and a three quarter moon above us. Breathtaking.

At the end, a class of students leaves in a famous American yellow school bus, younger children are carried home in their sleeping bags, we pack up our empty bottles and books and fold away our lawn chairs after a very special evening of excellent performance in a perfect place.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007


cyntillating sounds opus nine

The road to take from Boston to their symphony's summer home in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains is the Massachusetts Turnpike, beautiful but habitually clogged with trailers, campers, and most certainly, classical music lovers. We prefer the long and winding Route 20 West, a scenic thread through picturesque colonial towns with unexpected names like Dalton, Chester, even Peru.

The Tanglewood music festival has attracted thousands of visitors every summer since its first season in 1937, and that is literally thousands, 300 thousand in 2006. An average symphonic concert is attended by 15 thousand, 5 of which are lucky to have a roof over their heads, the others taking their chances with New England weather. But when that is glorious, as it often is in the summer, the heavens add their own sparkle to performances; Tanglewood's lawns are halfway up the Berkshires, far from annoying city lights, dark, dsitinguished, with breathtaking views.

This past weekend, the BSO had an all Beethoven programme scheduled featuring a stunning series of soloists which included the Beaux Arts Trio and soprano Christine Brewer. On Saturday afternoon, this working man's Glyndebourne is already packed, the lawns are dressed out early for pre-concert extended picnics: candles, flowers, wine galore and masses of finger food. We saw a baby no older than a month, and many easily in their nineties. All camped out for a concert they could not hope to see, but could certainly hear through a marvelous sound system that can deck even the farthest corners of the lawns.

Here Bostonians meet New Yorkers as Tanglewood is strategically centered in between these two major cultural centers. The festival itself has attracted other arts institutions over the years, most famously Jacob's Pillow, the dance phenomenon, making the Berkshire mountains the thinking American's camp site par none.

Tonight we happen to have real seats; elderly volunteers assist us in finding them with grace. The symphony orchestra looks like it has huge numbers of new players; considering the performance in hindsight, we can only conclude that these are all remplacants, filling in for vacationing soloists. The Beethoven heard was certainly not up to BSO standard with its messy woodwinds and slouchy strings. Hans Graf was a pleasure to watch, but even simple down beats were never together, let stand powerfully so as Beethoven rightfully deserves.

After a terribly disappointing Leonore Ouverture, things took a marvelous turn for the better: out marched the venerable Beaux Arts Trio with its nestor pianist Menahem Pressler looking as eager as ever. Cellist's Antonio Meneses first phrase immediately set the stage for a gutsy, powerful and elegant performance of Beethoven's unwieldly Triple Concerto. The musicians were obviously having a grand time performing one of their standards to the huge crowd who had welcomed their mere appearance with bravo saldos. And Pressler, the pianist with the pearly touch, perfectly rounded out violinist's Daniel Hope's bravura and Meneses' stunning sound. Grand festival fun.

The second half began with a truly marvelous Ah! Perfido, Beethoven's dramatic concert aria performed to perfection by Christine Brewer. Simply gorgeous, and enough of a thrill to carry us through the uninspired second symphony that followed. Amazing programming actually, following up a triple concerto with yet another major soloist. But then again, the Boston Symphony has the cash to back it up: Tanglewood alone brings in over 50 million dollars a season to this well-endowed and well-run American arts institution, and we, on this New England summer evening, star-studded on both the stage and in the heavens, were determined to return soon.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Real Estate

cyntillating sounds opus eight:
In reaction to a call for comments by the American Symphony Orchestra League Congress now taking place in Nashville, Tennessee.

Let’s put it all into perspective, please. In 18, yes EIGHTEEN, 88 (1888), the Boston Pops was founded to “attract a broader public with lighter musical fare”. Now that we are down the line a bit, say a mere 120 years, we are still searching for a broader public for classical music, but we are now, unfortunately, in fifth gear, ergo, panic mode.

Thank you, American Symphony Orchestra League Congress and Arts Journal, for this public conversation on Engaging Arts. As an American born arts manager working here in Europe, it is a refreshing way to discuss our common lot simultaneously in differing time zones.

Before leaving home this morning, in the erudite company of a chaired professor in musicology no less, one willing and even dedicated to accompanying eighty 11-12 year olds to a rehearsal for a classical concert, I printed out the first 86 pages of this now international discussion for good reading material in a commuter train full of kids (some of them with decidedly Euro-American DNA): The Netherlands Philharmonic was rehearsing for next Sunday’s concert, a bel canto extravaganza with diva Edita Gruberova, the grand finale in The Concertgebouw of this year’s 60th anniversary Holland Festival.

I look forward to reading the book that has initiated this discussion, surely. I anticipate the discussion as it unfolds this coming evening (afternoon for you in Nashville). I feel, however, that I must react to the blog as it has unfolded ‘til now.

We ‘here’ (and I assure you, the grass is always greener), as opposed to you ‘there’, complain to the government regularly that arts subsidies are not now quite sufficient to engage those ideal, broad publics (young, old, black, yellow, white and of course, red and purple and not speaking our specific language) as specified in our ‘targets’ for continued financial support. You ‘there’, as opposed to we ‘here’, complain that those said ideal publics are just not interested anymore (but whose fault is that, certainly not the true artist’s ). Ergo, despite the significant salt water pond between, classical music is complaining on both sides of the Atlantic about a decrease in interest. So we oldies webblog together to explore ways in Engaging Art.
I welcome the discussion, certainly, and yet, after reading 20% of the 86 pages produced up ‘til this moment (European time), I have yet to read the words I am yearning for:


‘Choices are overwhelming’ writes Douglas McLennan. Absolutely spot on.
But what if we cannot choose?

‘I insist on peak experiences’, he continues.
For sure, but maybe some kids have never, ever, had one.

‘technology rules’: certainly,
so why isn’t everyone interested in absolutely everything as absolutely everything is so easily accessible?

‘fan cultures’ are now supreme:
right again, but Lang Lang has a smaller following than Justin Timberlake…if only the difference was in perspective.

Ok, I admit, I finally did see the word I was breathlessly awaiting:


“When did education get separated from core programming?” queries Alan Brown.

Answer: never did, never will.

Some things worth learning need to be learned first to be appreciated.

A few pages later, Ed Cambron asks: ‘How do we deal with choice?’

I would prefer he asks: how do we deal with those unable to choose?
Answer: we educate them and in doing so, give them a choice.

Mr. Cambron goes on to suggest that an orchestra’s repeating a programme parallel to opera house schedules would work wonders. I precociously suggest, only if programmed parallel to a series of romantic sit-coms (would the world have fallen for Friends in just one season-?).
I would love to agree with Mr. Cambron, but reserve the right to hordes of tickets to those repeat performances for those yet to reach puberty and musically ‘challenged’ as it were. I gladly bequeath the same education on the school children of today that I was fortunate to have: one Grandmother enamoured of Richard Wagner, the other of Tony Bennett and a Mother who got to sing under Stravinsky and was in love with Nadia Boulanger. All of them made sure I attended the Boston Symphony Orchestra as often as possible, lovingly so, also making sure I watched ‘Uncle’ Lenny Bernstein on TV as well as the Ed Sullivan Show (where Tony B would perform from time to time).

Why? Because good music enriches you, it enlightens you, it can be thrilling. So irregardless of subsidies and patrons and ticket sales and careers, great music we cannot live without. And if we, the over forty crowd, are able to appreciate it, are able to choose it, it is because we have been exposed to it before we reached puberty, that decisive time in which we reject things in order to define ourselves in positive impulses.

In real estate, there are three keys to success: Location, Location and Location.

For engagement in the arts, there are but three keys to success:

Education, Education, Education.

see further

Friday, 8 June 2007


cyntillating sounds opus seven

Tenors have always had an air of royalty about them: Count Caruso, Earl Domingo, and of course Pavarotti, Prince of Padua. Just yesterday we had a taste of an heir apparent to this European lineage, a very short one yet enough to know that he will certainly one day soon ascend to the throne.
Once a year since 1940, the Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation honours citizens who give real and renewed meaning to the term noblesse oblige, those who support, preserve, and proliferate the importance of culture and environmental awareness in the Netherlands and their allied brothers in the Dutch West Indies, with n’er a thought to personal benefit or glory. The ceremony is unique, bringing as it often does high art, low culture and “greenies” together in Queen Beatrix’s palace, she having taken over her father’s work with vigour and enthusiasm since his death in 2004. The three winners this year were a translator, a preservationist, and a colourful opera fanatic who supports young talent when not selling his wares in Amsterdam’s open air market.
Enter our new royalty, Dovlet Nurgeldiev, a mere 29 yet already a tenor of warmth, amazing strength and stage presence. There he stood, jet black hair, full proud lips, olive skin, dashing in a black suit complete with grosgrain ribbon tie a la Caruso. Gorgeous even before the first note (don’t let his website fool you, he has since happily dumped the little beard). Dovlet is a natural born tenor who in both presence and sound easily filled the unflattering palatial acoustic with grace and magnificence. Never overdoing anything he has a mature taste at an early age.
And Dovlet comes complete with a romantic personal story which with glances and whispers made the rounds during the cocktail reception following the ceremonies. Born in Turkmenistan (and yes, admittedly I used Google Earth to find it), seems he “fled” his native country on a bicycle. Sure recipe to steal a Dutchman’s heart.
It was quaint of course to get a ballroom full of polls, vips and culture bobos actively participating in a stirring rendition of Libiamo ne’lieti calici from La Traviata, but this pearl of a prince deserves a permanent place on the world’s opera stages. Hope he claims his kingdom soon.
see http://www.cultuurfonds.nl/

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

El Sistema

cyntillating sounds opus six

Venezuela is in the political dog house at the moment. President Chávez is just too friendly with Castro, too money mad with oil, and just too cheeky for the western world. He needs a more liberal strategy and certainly a better spin doctor.

The best advertisement for Venezuela recently is not political but musical: Gustavo Dudamel, a 26 year old conducting phenomenon already becoming a household word around the classical music globe. Behind the talent, good looks, well run career and unbridled youthful enthusiasm for the greatest symphonies ever written, Dudamel has a special personal story. He is a product of ‘el sistema’; the name sounds horrific and conjures up some smelly left overs from bad regimes, both left and right, sore spots from man’s violent history.

But ‘el sistema’ is a miracle of an idea: partner kids with no future and very great music, take a long, deep breath, dare to hold on and wait, spend some money on it and you get the likes of Gustavo Dudamel, selling giga number of records, getting the best conducting jobs now on offer and being a perfect role model to the young for interesting them in classical music in far more liberal countries than Venezuela, both rich and poor.

Thirty years ago, an economist, José Antonio Abreu, had the visionary idea of confronting kids from bad neighbourhoods with instruments of good music. He gave them those instruments, organized lessons and orchestras and el sistema was off and running. As quoted by Shirley Apthorp, one young clarinettist with an extensive police record was amazed when he was not only handed a clarinet but told it was his, saying “it felt better in my hands than a gun”. Dudamel was another such young kid with a dubious origin who has turned his musical upbringing into a formidable career in the blink of an eye.

One can only speculate with mouth watering pleasure what a guy like Gustavo can do for classical music in a place like L.A. where he has recently been appointed as Music Director of the Philharmonic. So close to bad neighbourhoods needing an uplife, so close to Hollywood, new media moguls, and with those looks, that talent and that musical given.
And it is surely within the realm of reason that he can turn around the aging public that attends the subscription concerts of the LA Phil, a group one former administrator described as ‘the Rotary club for the over eighty’.

Sports have their heroes at regular intervals. Classical music has its own, of course. But since the death of Leonard Bernstein, American classical music has not since had this kind of charisma on its shores. Being himself a product of a political system in which arts education is a high priority, let us hope that some of that oddly rooted wisdom can rub off on American educational arts projects and media decision makers: let’s get Gustavo Dudamel into our schools and tv sets as soon and as often as possible in the coming years!

Monday, 9 April 2007

Passion for the Passion

cyntillating sounds opus five

So Mummy, ‘how’s your backside?’. It’s my daughter calling, asking after Easter plans, knowing that, like clock work, the day before is spent in church listening to the St. Matthew Passion on extremely hard wooden benches: a perfect ambiance but less than ideal comfort. What Handel’s Messiah is for Anglo-Saxons, Bach’s Matthew Passion is for a great deal of Germans, and for every single Dutchman. Two rich traditions: the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Netherlands Bach Society in Naarden, have instilled in the Dutch a true passion for this particular passion. Number two on society’s 'must be there' list, it is astounding that year after year a long and complex work by Johann Sebastian Bach immediately succeeds the first catch of North Sea herring in importance in the collective national conscious. Performances are sold out years in advance, you basically have to inherit tickets to get in, or alternatively, have been recently named to a cabinet post; the Passion in the Great Church of Naarden on Good Friday is where politics and society meet in multicultural and religiously tolerant (albeit more or less), modern Holland.
Founded in 1921 and having survived a crisis of interpretation and organisation in the mid-eighties, the Netherlands Bach Society made an extremely smart and sensitive move by then hiring an as yet little known young conductor Jos van Veldhoven to breathe new life into their passion tradition. Van Veldhoven, an amicable and extremely effective communicator, in turn intelligently installed a system in which he only conducts every other year, biannually turning over the high point of his own season to guest conductors, even giving them musical carte blanche. Not only does one have to be there in these ‘guest’ years to know what musicological, interpretative or practical turn the performance will take, van Veldhoven himself has caused the occasional stir or two when he conducts, as he did most recently in 2006 when his modestly sized choir was yet again slashed back in volume. The result: a completely new sound coming from a minimal group of vocalists as well as the next round of musical controversy and attention.

Brit Richard Egarr was invited to conduct this year and, as expected, creatively stirred things up yet again. World renowned for his brilliant keyboard improvisations, and in general as being a musician with a naughty twinkle in his eye, Egarr performed the early version of the Passion which dates from 1727 (as opposed to the 1736 version most used). This self proclaimed ‘anti-control freak’ seeks to avoid routine like the plague: fresh notes as ingredients to a fresh approach; he is therefore, a perfect match for the NBV. On the one hand this meant missing out on some beloved passion elements like the boys choir in the chorales, and even the last beloved chorale of the first half. The melancholic sighs in the violin solo of Erbarme dich were lost too, a shadow of them only vaguely to be heard towards the end of the aria, a fashionable decoration that Bach clearly added only later. But there were moving surprises to be enjoyed as well: the replacement chorale at the end of the first half was in itself lovely, and the lute accompaniment to the aria Komm, süßes Kreuz (as opposed to the viola da gamba regularly used) compelled the baritone soloist to a soft and touchingly intimate interpretation.
The Netherlands Bach Society has a long tradition of scouting and engaging young talent, a musical must due to budgetary restraints. Great names like Andreas Scholl and Johannette Zomer once started their international Bach careers here in Naarden. This year’s most promising talent was tenor Andrew Tortoise, a pleasing and strong voice and one clearly supported by a dramatic and well developed musicality.

It is a bit of a circus, this passion for the Passion. On Good Friday and Easter Saturday there is an intermission lengthy enough so that lunch can be served: comfortable and yet absurd of course, parallel to the intermission’s culinary delights at England’s Glyndebourne Festival. And that is where Egarr will surprisingly next take his Matthew Passion. He will stage one on that revered operatic stage, in itself newsworthy, but this in the summer: Good Lord! A definite 'not done' for the Dutch.

Catch them if you can when The Netherlands Bach Society tours the US briefly at the end of this month with Bach’s B Minor Mass,
or when they return to Tanglewood with the same this coming July. Van Veldhoven will then himself conduct this inspired ensemble for whom routine is a very, very bad word and ever-renewed inspiration, a modus.
See for further information: http://www.bachvereniging.nl/ or http://www.bso.org/

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

What’s for dinner this season?

cyntillating sounds opus four

It’s April, and symphony orchestras all over the world publish their menus for their subscription series coming season.

So what’s cooking?

To start with, here, just around the corner, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has a wonderful menu for 07-08. There is lots of Olivier Messiaen planned, symphonic of course (Les offrandes oubliées, L’Ascension, Turangalîla) but also, in happy collaboration with the orchestra’s home The Concertgebouw, chamber music, all to celebrate the composer’s birth year of 1908. This also allows a taste of the Concertgebouw’s graceful organ from time to time. The RCO’s ‘great maestros’ programming (isn’t that one and the same thing, great and maestro?) even features little knives and forks next to certain dates, so there the menu is not only the likes of Kurt Masur, Bernard Haitink, Daniele Gatti and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but real food as well. André Previn will be conducting his ex-wife Anne-Sophie Mutter in Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, so cutlery might fly during those concerts. Chief Conductor Maris Jansons is served up in all the series as he feasts on not only Messiaen but also Kancheli, Bartók, Beethoven, R. Strauss and Mahler to name but a few. Jansons’ menu in Munich where he is also Chief of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is a bit more meat and potatoes, but who wouldn’t mind conducting Beethoven’s Ninth for the Pope in Rome? And Von Karajan, who also ‘turns 100’ in 2008 is reason for Jansons’ performance of Brahm’s Deutsches Requiem.

Despite important billing as conductor emeritus in Amsterdam, Riccardo Chailly, now Chef in Leipzig, has not been asked back for dinner, but will himself be cooking up a storm with his new German orchestra: starting with an appetising Mendelssohn festival in September, the Gewandhaus programming has a bit too much measuring cup type recipes in the rest of its season for my taste: concerts for the 50th anniversary of the death of Sibelius, the 100 year anniversary of Grieg’s passing, and even the 125th anniversary of Wagner’s trip to the other side. Not a very creative numbers game. But Chailly has his own Pope, at least in a performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Three Screaming Popes’, and it’s not Leipzig if there isn’t a good deal of Bach. Gewandhaus should be lauded for inviting American conductor John Mauceri – he is great and not enough on European soil – if only to conduct film music which is only one of many meals he serves up extremely well.

The wait is on for other European gourmet delights as, even though they have done the shopping and sent out the press releases, the details are still unknown in Paris and London.
Birmingham, Berlin and Budapest will quickly follow suit; finishing up will be the Vienna Philharmonic, appropriately so being the chocolate dessert capital of the world.

More mouth watering morsels to follow soon…

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Nationality ~ Musicality

cyntillating sounds opus three

There is a heated debate raging here in the Netherlands at the moment on the subject of passports. Usually you only need one in life to travel from a to b, but in this ever shrinking and mobile world, many people nowadays have two. For some, an opportunity, for others, a problem. A Dutch daily yesterday advertised for persons under the age of 5 months, looking for those babies who (already) have two passports…, for a photo shoot! The discussion is clearly digressing from the politically suspect to the completely ridiculous. Nationality as considered equivalent with loyalty: how can a subject of the King of Morocco, for example in these Islamic-sensitive times, be completely loyal to the secular Dutch monarchy and its government? It all gets even more sticky when considering the fact that the wife of the local Crown Prince has got a second passport. Born in Argentina, that country, like Morocco, never ‘let their people go’, at least not on paper.
And as this debate comes to a full emotional boil, a petite yet charming event took place on Saturday in the central city of Utrecht: the semi-annual gathering of the ‘Friends of Dutch Music’. In contrast to those painters with Dutch passports, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, de Kooning (bet he had two!), etc., Dutch composer’s are not really all that well known around the world. And some of those better known were indeed born outside of Holland; they therefore get subsequently dumped as ‘not really Dutch to begin with’. Should we be so strict with American citizenship in terms of music, the USA wouldn’t get to keep anyone of significance, except perhaps those with names beginning with Arrow, Feather or Eagle.
Actually, there are a number of famed Dutch composers. Jacob van Eyck, for example, who died exactly 350 years ago, is one of these, our local ‘blind Lemon Jackson’ as it were; Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck is another, and closer to this era, Louis Andriessen. The most famed, by far, even for those over 18, is. of course, DJ Tiësto (remember the Olympic Games in Athens?).
And so the Dutch friends gathered to honour and enjoy their own. The proceedings got a creative kick off when a virtuoso recorder player, Saskia Coolen, performed together with the virtuoso and guru carilloneur of the Utrecht Cathedral, Arie Abbenes, her instrument of a foot’s length teaming up with his bell tower 112 yards high (highest church steeple in the Netherlands). She could certainly hear him, even without looking up: seems he could hear her via her mobile phone.
Camerata Trajectina, an ensemble which has been performing old music in the Netherlands since the avant garde movement of that repertoire in the 1970’s, continued the concerts with good ensemble work and well pronounced Dutch teksts (and that is not easy). There was a lecture by Van Eyck expert Dr. Thiemo Wind. A huge, young talent, pianist Ralph van Raat, wound up the proceedings by performing works by contemporary Dutch composers all of whom had, in one way or another, been inspired by the bell towers so prevalent in their country.
Dutch music certainly has good and true friends. Rightly so. It is excellent in the fields of old music and contemporary, even avant garde repertoire. But should we even be labelling it as such these days? Have all the relevant passports been checked out, are there any doubles out there? Such a tiny country has always been in a constant and often strained relationship with its enormous neighbors. As many regret the lack of a Dutch history of music as constant and renowned as its history of painting, those Friends that gathered Saturday were still convinced that, as the souvenir t-shirt explains: it ain’t much if it ain’t Dutch.

Want to read more?:
Dutch Culture in a European Perspective, Douwe Fokkema and Frans Grijzenhout, editors
Contemporary Music in the Low Countries, Emile Wennekes and Mark Delaere
The Essential Guide to Dutch Music: 100 Composers and their works, Jolande van der Klis, editor

For those in the neighbourhood this coming July, the Berkshire Music Festival will be featuring Dutch music and artists at Tanglewood:
See further http://www.bso.org/
http://www.donemus.nl/ where you can even order the cd: Who’s Afraid of Dutch Music without even showing your passport

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Storm warning: gail force music

cyntillating sounds opus two

We had hail, strong winds and even snow today, the 18th of March; the winter we’ve missed this year seems to be catching up with us in the end. Dutch winds can be extraordinary: an exceedingly flat country next to the wild and stormy North Sea, we have had our share of broken glass due to hail stones ‘the size of golf balls’. No wonder really that the landscape here is dotted with huge modern wind mills, the high tech version of the age old icon, a natural source of energy in these harried days of inconvenient truths. Wind energy, wind power, together they are a musical play on words, in the Dutch language that is, one that has recently inspired a theatre production.

Stand up comedians are a relatively new thing here in the Netherlands, but they are booming business. Stand up trumpet players are far more exotic. André Heuvelman is such a colourful bird. The solo trumpeter of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, a member of the distinguished and creative Netherlands Blazers Ensemble (English translation is just NBE) and a conservatory favourite for the next generation, Heuvelman develops his talents, unbridled energy and creativity in a Foundation he has (aptly?) named extase (ecstasy -no, not the pills).

So the stand up trumpet arrives, message in his heart, technique in the back of his sedan, for an evening’s entertainment, una voce. Having worked together with the famed film director Cherry Duyns, Heuvelman has built an hour long routine that mixes music, emotion and movie magic. It releases classical repertoire from its present day straight jacket by placing it in a new context, the story of a little boy whose inner strength, whose answer to the fickle finger of fate, is playing the trumpet.

Ask any radio host, musicians are not good interview subjects. They do not speak well, communicating best via their instruments. When using words, they are usually at a loss for them. Heuvelman is exceptional in this way, certainly in the context of his country and heritage, one in which self exploration is nearly always equated with self absorption; the Dutch saying is difficult to translate but it boils down to: be normal, that’s crazy enough in itself…

But here is a musician whose facial expressions are endless, whose face is elastic, who dares to share a vulnerability that all artists know well but few musicians dare to face, in any case those classically schooled and orchestrally employed. Windkracht is an effective monologue of an hour or so which tells Heuvelman’s personal and musical story, laying bare his fears, triumphs, ideals and idols, one in which a trumpeter dares to sing in counter tenor falsetto, dares to improvise with a double bass blues riff (on film) and one in which he submits himself to the erotic movements of a tango dancer who circles and re-circles him in tight black clothes and provocative red heels.

Granted, some elements of the show are not completely successful in this work-in-progress (which took place in our living room, without lighting, audience at a nose’s length): reading from prose is, for example, harder than it looks. But the musical mix of Schubert, Monteverdi, de Falla, Booker Little and Goebaidulina, augmented with Heuvelman’s own jazz improvisation, is tender, sweet and extremely moving. It’s about him, it’s about his body, his life, his music. As opposed to the restrictive etiquette of classical music stages, Windkracht is refreshing, touching and special.

See also www.wind-kracht.nl

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Message in a Bottle: Sting In Amsterdam's Concertgebouw

cyntillating sounds opus one

One of the world’s most beautiful people announced a concert in the world’s busiest hall: the press jumped on it as did the fans. Sting’s Amsterdam Concertgebouw concert was sold out in less than an hour, normal procedure for a stadium pop fest, rather unusual for the dignified classical temple. Pretending to again be 18, I too got up early that one morning in December and started emailing until I successfully laid my hands on four tickets. The sale indeed began exactly on the prescribed hour.
What to expect from the combination of John Dowland – who faithfully served Queen Elizabeth I – as sung by Sting- famed subject of Queen Elizabeth II? I must admit, being on the jury for the Edisons classical awards I had already received the CD and wasn’t all that impressed with this ‘musical soundtrack’ as Sting himself calls his discovery of the lute ‘singer songwriter’ from ye olde England. The tracks are caring in their way, but oddly enough, very chilly. And when good music gets a cold interpretation, all technical shortcomings are plainly front and centre stage. So listening to the CD, I often sat criticizing notes of out tune, strange dynamics, an unexpected lack of diction, and so onward raves the classical reviewer.
But placing the project in such a context is of course, ridiculous. More interesting questions are: would Sting fans become instant classical music lovers, can Sting reverse the aging classical audiences and bring in the youth, could his fame do something significant for Dowland, make him a media hype like Shaffer’s Amadeus did for Mozart?
A huge banner with his photograph graced the Concertgebouw’s famous front face with what every artist dreams of: the black and white diagonal sold out. The hustle and bustle on the street surrounding the hall was conform any production there; attractive, hip people, in a good mix of generations, lots of black clothes and no ostentatious furs, a true Amsterdam public. When music is amplified, terribly ugly red curtains mar the Concertgebouw’s beautiful stage, out of necessity; its acoustics first need to be dampened before they can be artificially controlled. That was actually the biggest question before the concert started: would this work for the ears at all - lutes and a single voice - through microphones in this fair sized hall? And that is the first problem actually, as lute player Edin Karamazov bites into Bach’s famous Toccata and his notes come to us from the string of speakers on the side of the stage. But we forgot that problem as Karamazov clearly had bitten of more than he could chew in the Bach, had a black out and basically faked his way through the tough bits.
Then he came out and all was instantly forgiven. The first few Dowlands were tentative, very reminiscent of the CD, but Sting’s presence and natural musicality quickly kicked in and took over. Half way through he started to even impress with his diction, rhetoric, fondness and understanding for the medium he was performing in. Lutenist Karamazov was at times a very good accompanist, but at times also very busy with tremolos which were supposed to enhance his virtuosity. Humbug. A small choir accompanied too, Stile Antico, young, sweet and not very exciting save the two marvellous bass voices Oliver Hunt and James Arthur. A hoard of photographers swarmed the aisle and were very annoying with their constant paparazzi clicking noise. Karamazov sensibly sent them away.
Must admit though, that the concert really took off as the encores began. Without an intermission, short song followed short song and declamation from Dowland’s letters for more than an hour. And all of a sudden it was over; Sting stood up and quickly (yet elegantly) left the stage.
The best was yet to come. Not only did the fans get their Message in a Bottle (hampered here by silly lute chords instead of the very powerful open bass of the original), but alternating Sting hits with Dowland makes real sense. The singer songwriter of yore meets one of today, and the universality of it is heart warming. A touch of Robert Johnson, the blues singer not the Dowland contemporary, a cheeky joke on Sting’s part, was delicious. Favourite for me was Fields of Gold whose melody, harmony and text are closest to the classical idiom: it was worth the wait.
I don’t expect to play the CD often here at home, but should gorgeous Sting again come to town for what he does best – live performance – I’ll certainly set my alarm clock to get my hands on some tickets.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Where we are....

We're in beautiful Elburg in the Netherlands. This is the Elburg Lighthouse in the city center.

Maps Long Before Google Maps

Elburg in 1867. Electric light has been put in since then!

Welcome to the First Post

Hello, and welcome to the first entry in WW Classics' blog. We're busy building a new concept in concert experiences - put "live" back in the classical music experience. Watch this space.