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Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards 2012

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2012 by Robin Gosnall

Presented in association with BBC Radio 3, this year’s RPS Music Awards shortlists, for outstanding achievement in 2011, are drawn from across the UK and feature several major international names.

John Gilhooly, Chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society, commented:

“The RPS Music Awards allow the classical music world to tell everyone about what we do best. And there is much to celebrate, both in terms of talent and innovation from UK based organisations and artists, and from the international stars who continue to enrich our cultural life so greatly. In the current climate, when the role of culture is being questioned in the face of very real practical considerations, it’s all the more important that we don’t take our rich musical life for granted, but shout loudly about our achievements in the concert hall, and as you will see from these shortlists, well beyond.”

Winners will be announced at the RPS Music Awards ceremony at the Dorchester Hotel on Tuesday 8 May. A special dedicated RPS Music Awards programme will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 13 May, 2 pm.

Who’s on the shortlist?

Claudio Abbado is nominated for the RPS Music Award for Conductor for his revelatory performances of Bruckner with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, alongside two conductors who have made significant contributions to two BBC orchestras: Gianandrea Noseda for his final season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and Donald Runnicles, for far reaching, adventurous programmes as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and at the BBC Proms and the Aldeburgh Festival.

Two pianists contend for the prestigious RPS Music Award for Instrumentalist: Late-night Liszt at the BBC Proms with Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin and Maurizio Pollini’s five-concert Royal Festival Hall piano recital series encompassing Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, Boulez, Schumann, Liszt and Stockhausen. German violinist Christian Tetzlaff completes the instrumentalist shortlist, for outstanding 2011 performances with the CBSO, London Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestras.

There’s a distinguished list of contenders for the award for Large-Scale Composition, with Harrison Birtwistle, Graham Fitkin, Jonathan Harvey and previous RPS chamber-scale composition award winner Rebecca Saunders in contention for the prestigious award. The stylistically varied Chamber-Scale Composition award shortlist features Thomas Adès, Sally Beamish, Martin Butler and Gary Carpenter.

1912 No. 1: Oskar Kokoschka writes to Alma Mahler

Posted in 1912, Culture with tags , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2012 by Robin Gosnall

In 1912, the artist Kokoschka embarked on a passionate three-year affair with Alma Mahler, widow of composer Gustav Mahler, and wrote her many letters. The recipient asked for her own letters back and destroyed them; we now see this tragic love affair only through the eyes of the disappointed artist who must have expected and demanded more than she was able to give.

Here’s how it started:

Vienna, 15.iv.1912

My dear friend,

Please believe this resolution, as I believed you.

I know I am lost if I continue in my present unclear way of life, I know it is the way to lose my gifts, which I ought to direct towards a goal outside myself, the goal sacred to you and to me.

If you can respect me, and are willing to be as pure as you were yesterday, when I recognized you as higher and better than all other women, who only made a savage of me, then make a real sacrifice for my sake and become my wife, in secret, for so long as I am poor. When I no longer have to conceal myself, I shall thank you for being my consolation. You shall keep your joyousness and purity for me as a source of strength, so that I do not fall into the savagery that threatens me. You shall preserve me until I can be the man who raises you up instead of dragging you down. Since yesterday, when you asked me to be that man, I have believed in you as I have never believed in anyone except myself.

If you will be the woman who gives me strength, and will thus help me out of my spiritual confusion, the beauty we honour, which is beyond our understanding, will bless us both with happiness. Write and tell me that I may come to you, and I will take it for your consent.

I remain in reverence, yours,

Oskar Kokoschka

Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

The composer’s friend and biographer Anton Schindler affirms that the idea of a heroic symphony came to Beethoven as early as 1798, and there is ample evidence that when he wrote it Beethoven had Napoleon Bonaparte in mind.

There is also the statement of Ferdinand Ries, one of Beethoven’s favourite pupils and another biographer, that the original title page bore the name of Bonaparte at its head and that when Beethoven heard that his hero had proclaimed himself Emperor he exploded with rage, saying “So he too is nothing but an ordinary man. Now he will trample on the rights of mankind and indulge only his own ambitions; from now on he will make himself superior to all others and a tyrant”.

Bonaparte’s name was violently erased form the score (see picture), and on his death 17 years later, Beethoven commented that he had already written a funeral ode, referring to the second movement of the symphony.

Percy Grainger: the ninth best composer ever

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

(Alfred Hickling, Guardian, 10 November 2011)

Fifty years after his death, it is hard to conceive how great a celebrity the Australian composer, pianist and folk-song collector once was. Widely acclaimed as one of the most gifted concert pianists of his generation, he earned the equivalent of £60,000 per week, befriended Grieg, Gershwin and Duke Ellington and got married on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl before an audience of 20,000. Yet Grainger, born in Melbourne in 1882, never quite lost the taint of an outsider – a loose cannon whose personal eccentricities threatened to overshadow his achievement.

Grainger was, by any standard, unaccountably odd. He favoured garish, towelling outfits of his own design, was known to mount concert platforms at a running leap, and pushed his favourite piano stool round in a wheelbarrow. In 1945 he devised his own composer-rating system and ranked himself ninth, below Delius but above Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

Practically all of Grainger’s compositions are miniatures, between two and eight minutes in length, and often feature unconventional forces such as harmoniums, banjos, theremins and ukuleles. His disdain for classical form extended to a rejection of Italianate terms for tempo and dynamic markings – Grainger’s scores indicate “louden” rather than “crescendo”, or instruct the player to interpret a passage “with pioneering keeping on-ness”. His rejection of the symphony, sonata and concerto was deliberate, but contributed to the impression that he was merely a dilettante or a purveyor of light music.

Grainger was the first to use a phonograph to record folk songs, and held untutored musicians in high esteem. “These folk-singers were the kings and queens of song!” he declared. “No concert singer I ever heard, dull dogs that they are, approached these rural warblers in variety of tone quality, range of dynamics, rhythmic resourcefulness and individuality of style.” In 1912, he travelled to the Pacific islands to notate native songs whose random combination of musical elements anticipated John Cage’s experiments in “chance music” by some 40 years.

Though his music is rarely solemn, there is a darker side to Grainger’s personality that is difficult to ignore. His views on the superiority of blue-eyed Nordic races are not easy to accept, and he made little secret of a violently aberrant sexuality: in the 1930s, he endowed a museum in his birthplace of Melbourne, and entrusted it with a large collection of whips, pornography and blood-stained shirts: “Music is the art of agony,” he noted. “It derives, after all, from screaming.”

Grainger established the museum – which is still in operation – as part of his lifelong aim to become recognised as Australia’s first significant composer, though he left the continent as a teenager and spent the majority of his life in London and the small town of White Plains outside New York. He died of cancer in 1961, convinced his efforts had been in vain: “All my compositional life I have been a leader without followers … Where musical progress and compositional experiment are discussed, my name is never mentioned. Can a more complete aesthetic failure be imagined?”

Opera North’s Queen of Spades

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on October 20, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Neil Bartlett’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s great opera of gambling, of secrets, of love and death opens at Opera North today. Bartlett – making his operatic debut – picks his key moments from the production:

Tchaikovsky’s score for The Queen of Spades is an extraordinary thing. At once expansive, excessive and opulent, it’s also strangely interior; the real action of the opera takes place largely inside one man’s head. As heroes go, no-one is more solitary, more at odds with his world, than Herman. At key moments in the show, I’ve chosen to sweep all the glamour of the 19th century setting aside and present him with brutal simplicity.

The second act of the show opens with a grand masked ball – a scene that could easily drown the music in frocks and glitter. The task here was to connect the disconcerting theatricality of the masquerade with the deeper themes of obsession and fatality that run through the music.

A chorus is much more than just a group of people – they’re a team who can act as one, amplifying an emotion or gesture on stage to a scale that a solitary performer can never dream of achieving. Put the simplest action – knocking back a drink, in this case – in time with music as theatrical as Tchaikovsky’s – then amplified by the number of people you’ve got in the chorus, and the gesture can acquire an extraordinary kick. The simplest tricks are the best.

Lord Berners (1883-1950): Come on Algernon

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, also known as Gerald Tyrwhitt, was a British composer of classical music, novelist, painter and aesthete. He is usually referred to as Lord Berners.

His father, a naval officer, was rarely home. He was raised by a grandmother who was extremely religious and self-righteous, and a mother who had little intellect and many prejudices. His mother ignored his musical interests and instead focused on developing his masculinity, a trait Berners found to be inherently unnatural.

The eccentricities Berners displayed started early in life. Once, upon hearing that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing him into water, the young Gerald promptly decided that by throwing his mother’s dog out the window, he could teach it to fly. The dog was unharmed, though the act earned Berners a beating.

After devising several inappropriate booby traps, Berners was sent off to a boarding school in Cheam at the age of nine. It was here that he would first explore his homosexuality; for a short time, he was romantically involved with an older student. The relationship was abruptly ended after Berners accidentally vomited on the other boy.

After he left prep school, Gerald continued his education at Eton College. Later, in his autobiographies, Berners would reflect on his experiences at Eton, claiming that he had learned nothing while there, and that the school was more concerned with shaping the young men’s characters than supplying them with an education.

As well as being a talented musician, Berners was a skilled artist and writer. He appears in many books and biographies of the period, notably portrayed as Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. He was a friend of the Mitford family and close to Diana Guinness.

Berners was notorious for his eccentricity, dyeing pigeons at his house in Faringdon in vibrant colours and at one point having a giraffe as a pet and tea companion. His Rolls-Royce contained a small clavichord keyboard which could be stored beneath the front seat. At his house he had a 100-foot viewing tower constructed, a notice at the entrance reading: “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”.

He was also subject throughout his life to periods of depression. These became more pronounced when Berners, who had lived in Rome from 1939 to 1945, found himself somewhat out of favour after his return to England.

He died in 1950 at Faringdon House, bequeathing his estate to his companion Robert (‘Mad Boy’) Heber Percy, who lived at Faringdon until his own death in 1987.

His epitaph on his gravestone reads:

“Here lies Lord Berners
One of life’s learners
Thanks be to the Lord
He never was bored”.

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Posted in Blog Stats, Culture, Food, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

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