Archive for gershwin

Gilbert and Sullivan

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music with tags , , , , on July 9, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


I should declare my own stance on this. I like Gilbert and Sullivan opera. I could go further, calling it a missing link in theatrical history that everyone knows about but no one will properly acknowledge, and rambling on like that for hours … but I won’t.

I get the impression that many in the arts were exposed to the operas at school and have retained the idea that it’s basically opera for kids. I also get the impression that it’s associated with things like the British Empire and jingoism (falsely of course), also the conservative middle class, and has lost out that way.

We are about ten times more likely to hear a Cole Porter song on BBC Radio 3 than a song by Gilbert and Sullivan, or indeed any music by Sullivan. Decide amongst yourselves whether that’s good or bad.

I think that over the years, the Savoy Operas they have introduced a huge number of people to “operatic” (i.e. properly sung, as opposed to amplified) musical theatre and provide a great introduction to opera, especially for the young. My principal operatic taste nowadays is Janáček, but I still listen to G&S pretty frequently.

There is an inexplicable degree of snobbery over G&S that does not seem to exist over Cole Porter or Gershwin’s musicals. I have never understood this, as Porter particularly was clearly heavily influenced as a lyricist by W.S. Gilbert. Sullivan’s music is frequently underrated by those who do not know it. It would be a foolish soprano indeed who thought she could sing The hours creep on apace (“H.M.S. Pinafore”), Poor wand’ring one (“The Pirates of Penzance”) or either of Princess Ida’s arias without any rehearsal. One should also remember just how revolutionary W.S. Gilbert was in his deployment and use of the chorus, who frequently drive the plot (as in “Iolanthe”), rather than just stand around decoratively in a crowd scene.

As to accusations of imperialism, I would refer any such accusers to “Utopia Limited”, which is a biting satire on those who would impose British manners and mores on the Empire.

My own bugbear is those people who complain of the misogyny in “Princess Ida” (for my money, the finest score Sullivan wrote for Gilbert). Yes, at the end of the opera, the princess abandons her women-only university to marry the prince, but she does so in a far more advantageous position than if she had done so without a struggle. Indeed, she is even given a get out clause whereby she can return to the university if marriage does not suit her.

I’d appreciate a repeat of the epic cycle of all thirteen operas broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1989. For many of us, these were truly definitive recordings, particularly of “Princess Ida”, “Utopia Limited” and “The Grand Duke”.


Audience Development

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


I belong to an amateur symphony orchestra. Just as full professional orchestras need financing, we obviously depend on good audiences to pay the expenses incurred in putting on a concert. Recently a debate took place at our AGM and some members and officials asserted that programme choice had little to do with audience size in their experience. I reminded them of a popular concert we gave in 2008 where West Side Story (Bernstein) and An American in Paris (Gershwin) were played as well as Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. This was a sell-out, a thing that has not happened for more than 20 years where we had played more classical works.

When I decide to attend a concert I am attracted first by the repertoire and to a degree by the performer. And of course one can only manage to take in and afford a limited number of performances in a given period.

This week I decided not to go to the Hallé at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, despite Mark Elder conducting and despite the programme including Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5 which I have never heard and would like to discover. The reason being I don’t care for Holst’s The Planets very much and was more attracted by the Michelangelo Quartet on Monday playing Beethoven, Shostakovich and Schumann.

One cannot help noticing though that attendances for series like the Manchester Chamber Music Society, whatever the programme, are much better than for mainstream works by excellent performers which are organised by the Royal Northern College of Music on an ad hoc basis.

A very few composers (Gershwin in particular) will put me off virtually whatever else is on the programme. I did sit through a Gershwin medley once in order to hear Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4, but I think I would rather sit in the bar than listen to any more Gershwin again.

In my experience with local orchestras and choirs, the main factors for building up and retaining an audience are the willingness and energy of players and singers to sell tickets to friends, the literal and metaphorical warmth and comfort of the venue, the welcome from front of house staff and conductor and a programme of music which appeals to your regular audience and which introduces them to something new.

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