“Mahler would never have stood for it!”

This is one of the Great Sayings of Michael Rose. He says it as we emerge from the opera house, or after reading a review of a particularly weird or apparently ill-judged operatic production.

He has said it in London (ENO Midsummer Marriage, many years ago, and ROH, Birtwistle’s Orpheus).

He has said it in Budapest (Hungarian State Opera, Elektra – set in a spa hotel, half the cast naked and flicking each other with wet towels, the other half dressed as Mafiosi. In the foreground – an empty swimming pool, with a tree planted in a heap of compost bags).

He has said it in Vienna (Vienna State Opera, Queen of Spades, with the Countess’s party turned into a live sex show complete with gimp masks and whips).

He has no doubt said it elsewhere, many times, but I have lost track.

What he means, of course, is that when Mahler was Intendant of the Vienna Opera, he would never have allowed directors to overwhelm an operatic work with an insufficiently meaningful and often downright deleterious overlay of directorial ideas.

We’re not averse to the weird and wonderful – the ROH Midsummer Marriage, for example, was fabulous, and a half-naked Don Juan with out-of-tune piano accompaniment, cross-dressed casting and a giant lobster at the Edinburgh Fringe many years ago was just a scream. However, we do have to wonder how the ENO in particular has managed to get itself completely trashed twice in a fortnight for its two recent productions of Fidelio and Die Fledermaus. Perhaps they’re trying to be like the Bayreuth Festival, whose Ring cycle this year was blasted by critics across the world.

So often, when you read an opera crit these days, it ends with the words ‘…the production was redeemed by great singing and wonderful playing from the orchestra, expertly led by A Baton’. I’ve heard that even negative reviews can have a positive impact on the audience, but I’m not convinced that’s any sort of comfort.

I’m not calling for the entire operatic world to knuckle down to perfect period costumes and shiny breastplates – that would be too dull – just to stop the blasted gimmicks. It can work – Martinu’s Julieta at ENO, with an Act 2 set in the shape of a giant accordion, was brilliant. But it can also be an utter disaster, with an over-conceptualised and madly unsuitable ‘vision’ obscuring the work of art it is meant to illuminate.

Michael thinks that it’s down to the musical directors – he thinks the rot started with Bernard Haitinck being too nice at the ROH back in the 80s. If it was Mahler, he reasons, he wouldn’t stand for it – he would put his baton down and say, “this production is rank bollocks and I’m not conducting it until you do something about it!”. I’m not holding my breath.

Published in: on October 3, 2013 at 19:53  Comments (4)  

Blindingham Hall is now open to the public

I hope all readers of Lady Effingham’s blog will be interested to visit Blindingham Hall (www.blindinghamhall.wordpress.com), newly opened to the public.

Co-curated by Chris Brannick and Catherine Rose, Blindingham Hall charts the epistolary friendship of Rogers the Third Under-gardener with his aristocratic yet strangely accommodating employer Lady Effingham of Blindingham, as she nurtures his newly awakened love of classical music. Fellow custodian Chris Brannick and I have been working for some time to bring you this enlightening source. To read the correspondence from the beginning (i.e., the oldest post first), go to the Letters page and scroll to the end.

As Chris Brannick has commented: “The burgeoning urges of Rogers can only be satisfied by her Ladyship’s extraordinary experience and her insatiable desire to share all that she has…”

Please do visit and sample the delights of an epistolary friendship across the class divide.

Published in: on September 25, 2013 at 14:25  Leave a Comment  

How to apologise (and why…)

I expect quite a few of my arts management colleagues will have had the same two emails recently from an organisation called TicketSource, which promises to sell tickets online through a free online box office. It held up the Cardiff School of Music as a case study, and says that all kinds of organisations can use its services to increase their ticket sales and make it easier for people to buy tickets.

Oho, I thought, sounds like a good idea.

Then I clicked on the ‘download pictures’ icon. Big mistake. Here is what I saw:

Gothic cellist

Isn’t she lovely? And obviously so talented. She wasn’t the only one either – there was an improbable saxophonist in unfeasibly high heels as well. I recoiled, of course – and closed the email, feeling that despite my initial favourable impression, I couldn’t have anything to do with an organisation that deployed images of this kind. I nearly hit the blog to complain about it at the time, but work was pressing and I didn’t get round to it.

However, a couple of weeks later, I received the following email, with the subject heading ‘TicketSource Apology’:

“We recently circulated a promotional email including a case study featuring Cardiff University School of Music.   The images included in the email were intended to illustrate the wide variety of musical performers who use our services.  They were not intended to represent Cardiff University School of Music itself and neither of the individuals portrayed have any connection with Cardiff University School of Music.  We acknowledge that the image of the female cellist featured in the email was inappropriate and a distasteful depiction of female musicians.  We would like to fully retract that message and wholeheartedly apologise to Cardiff University School of Music, its students, staff and alumni, for any embarrassment and inconvenience we may have caused them by dispatching the email without their prior approval.”

I tried to write back to them to say how grateful I was to them for this graceful and magnanimous message, but sadly it was a ‘no-reply’ email address. Instead, I’m sharing this with you all to see what you think.

My own thought was that they should have added something a little more specific in the way of: “In future we will make sure our picture editor does a little more research before using crappy photos created by people who know nothing about music.” That would have been good.

Pip pip!

Published in: on September 9, 2013 at 11:30  Comments (1)  
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Definitions, anyone?

This is Lady Effingham’s rant from the Classics from Scratch episode broadcast yesterday (5th September 2013).

What IS classical music, exactly?

How do you define classical music? I suppose we could all say we know it when we hear it, or do we? It’s an amazingly broad category and it encompasses a huge range of types, styles and purposes. Lots of classical musicians don’t like the label ‘classical’ at all – and lots of them play other kinds of music as well.

Music that we classify as ‘classical’ dates from the medieval period right through to this week, and now includes lots of music which, if it were written today, might be re-classified as pop songs, dance tunes, jazz numbers, background music or musical theatre. So what is it that makes us call it ‘classical’?

Is it the instruments that play it? Well, there’s a massive range from the ancient krummhorns and dulcimers to the much newer electronic instruments such as the theremin and the synthesizer. Also, the actual sophistication of instruments ranges from an enormous concert organ with hundreds of stops and thousands of pipes, to a pair of wooden sticks – the claves – struck together. The orchestra itself can vary from about 15 players at its smallest to around 150 for some of the largest works ever written.

Is it the type of voice? Well, there might be something there. Certainly the operatic voice, and the cathedral choir or a cappella vocal styles are different from pop, jazz or musicals. There’s a lot less use of amplification – though it’s sometimes used as an effect or to enable the voice to be treated and changed during a live performance. The music of Stockhausen is one place where you can hear this. Also some modern operas use a very light amplification style to enable voices to be heard over a very loud orchestra.

Is it that it is music with a serious intent? Well, possibly – a lot of classical music is very serious and intellectually challenging, but a lot of it is just great fun – some of Haydn’s symphonies, lots of comic opera, lots of jolly pieces intended just to amuse or entertain. And some of the works that ARE written to entertain – such as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf – are really quite serious underneath.

Is it that it’s harder to play or sing? Well, again, not really – though it may be possible to say that the most difficult classical pieces – such as Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos or a big orchestral work by Messiaen – are harder than anything else. But plenty of classical music is not hard to play or sing – think of the Ode to Joy theme from Beethoven’s Ninth. I would think it’s probably easier to play Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ on the piano than it is to get your mitts round Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. Musicians employed in the pop industry include some really great virtuosos – you only have to listen to one of Leonard Cohen’s later albums to find that out.

So – there’s no definition that works as far as I can see. I think it’s much better to think of music as a whole, and pick the bits that mean something to you. Always keep exploring, and always remember to go back to your old favourites.

To hear Series 2, Episode 6 of Classics from Scratch, click here.

To visit Secklow Sounds, click here.

Published in: on September 6, 2013 at 10:50  Leave a Comment  

Classical applause

So – when should you clap?

This is a very tricky subject and I have to be careful what I say. Every musical genre has its traditions when it comes to applause – for instance, I understand that when listening to jazz, one is supposed to applaud every solo, right in the middle of the music. That would be very unusual in the average classical concert – though it happened just recently during Nigel Kennedy’s new version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the Proms.

So do you simply wait until the players stop and put their instruments down? Well, up to a point, but it’s not as simple as that. If the piece is all in one movement – like Ravel’s Bolero, say – then it’s obvious where it starts and finishes and where to applaud. But other pieces have more than one bit, or movement, so it starts, then stops, then starts again. Symphonies or concertos might have one, two three, four, five or even more movements. Should you clap at the end of each one, or wait till the end?

Well, it’s not going to help you to discover that even classical music nerds have different opinions on this. Up until about the end of the nineteenth century, it was usual to clap every movement as it finished – and even to ask for it to be played a second time, straight away, before the next movement was heard. It wasn’t always the case though – think of the great Mendelssohn Violin Concerto – it has three movements but they are all joined together with little linking passages of music, so you can’t applaud until the end.

Gradually it became more and more the thing to keep silent in between movements (except for shuffling about a bit and having a quick cough). Mahler even put an instruction in his second symphony that there should be a five-minute silence between the first and second movements. Five minutes! That really is an awfully long time – long enough to boil an egg so that the white is firm and the yolk is still runny! Of course, hardly anybody ever does it. The pause I mean. Obviously, people boil eggs all the time.

Anyway, back to applause – the latest trend is for people to start applauding whenever they particularly like a movement, so you might get a wild burst of clapping after the first movement, a little gentle patter of emotion after the slow movement, and wild cheers and a standing ovation at the end of the last movement. The thing is that the only time that you can be absolutely sure that everyone will be applauding is right at the end. And even then, there might be a few people who thought it was rubbish.

So, what to do? As with picking mushrooms in the wild, my advice would be to take someone with you who knows more than you do, but that’s not always possible. If you go with the flow of your own feelings, you might find you’re the only one clapping in an otherwise deadly silence. Everybody will turn round and look at you – but if you’re fine with that, go ahead! The thing is, the more you go to concerts, the more you will get used to it. Before you know it, you will be the one who is launching into a fusillade of applause and shouting ‘Bravo!’

Click here to hear Classics from Scratch Series 2 Episode 5 on Spreaker.

Published in: on August 30, 2013 at 10:14  Leave a Comment  

How old do you have to be to like classical music?

Well of course, this is in many ways a completely bizarre question, rather like ‘how old do you have to be to like ice-cream?’ However, the general opinion is often that you either have to be very, very young (preferably still in the womb) or very, very old.

It has become fashionable to play music – especially Mozart, I understand – to babies in the womb, since it is believed that it confers some sort of intellectual benefit on the developing foetus. However, I also understand that the benefits have never been proved. Besides, Mozart is worth rather more to humankind than treating as some sort of antiseptic cream against stupidity. (more…)

Published in: on August 24, 2013 at 10:19  Leave a Comment  

The E-word

Right – time to have a serious talk about the E-word – elitism.

I’ve already talked about how you don’t have to be posh or rich to enjoy classical music – and you all know that my title is – ahem – assumed. But there’s another word that often comes up – that classical music is elitist.

What’s my response? I would say, well it is, and it isn’t – in exactly the same way that sport is and isn’t elitist. It depends what you mean by ‘elitist’. (more…)

Published in: on August 15, 2013 at 15:50  Comments (4)  

Who is our John Amis now?

I was very much saddened to hear of the death of the music critic, writer and broadcaster John Amis. Here are some obituaries in the Guardian and the Independent. He was a genial presence on telly in my youth, always bursting into song on the TV quiz ‘My Music’ and popping up as a commentator and programme-maker. I once sold him a programme when I was ushering at a Docklands Sinfonietta concert in the 1990s, and I still kick myself for failing to offer an appreciative comment or any thanks for his work. Too late now.

Back then, in the 70s and 80s, there was a lot of talk about classical music woven into broadcasting in a way that doesn’t happen now – or perhaps I should say hasn’t happened for a long time. As well as John Amis, there was Anthony Hopkins (no, not that one)  with his introductions to music on Radio 4. It’s very difficult to find anything about classical music on radio 4 now – it all seems to be ghettoised. (more…)

Published in: on August 5, 2013 at 14:18  Comments (3)  

Why does classical music have to last so long?

This is Lady Effingham’s rant from Classics from Scratch, series 2 episode 1 on Secklow Sounds.  It was broadcast live on Thursday 1st August and will be repeated on Sunday 4th August. It is also available to listen again on the Secklow Sounds site and on Catherine Rose’s page on Spreaker.

A lot of people say they can’t be bothered to sit through classical music because it goes on for too long. Well, Classics from Scratch is of course living proof that it’s possible to find lots of lovely short pieces of classical music. Also there are hundreds of compilation albums of short pieces which are exactly like the old three-minute pop-song or five-minute dance number formats. But it’s about form as much as anything – composers like to give themselves space to explore.

After all, pop music isn’t always short. For those of you who are old enough to remember the Eighties, the mega-edit of the Donna Summer classic ‘I Feel Love’ lasts nearly nine minutes – that’s two minutes longer than the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (more…)

Published in: on August 2, 2013 at 10:33  Comments (3)  

Hard talk-back

Read this brilliant letter to the BBC by one Alexander Robinson, whose content, style and sentiments I deeply admire. He castigates the BBC for its poor attitude to and coverage of opera and other art-forms.

Click here to go to his blog.

Published in: on August 2, 2013 at 09:30  Comments (6)  
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