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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.

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Merry Christmas, Happy New Year

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I’m returning in 2012 with more idle thoughts about culture, food, and music … until then enjoy this cool performance of my favourite song composed by Jerome Kern … please note the Maltese falcon on the piano … cognac … cigarettes … way too cool …

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?”

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”.

BBC Proms 2011: Highlights

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Pianist Lang Lang, described by BBC Proms director Roger Wright as “arguably the best known classical artist in the world”, will become the first artist ever to perform at both the Proms in the Park and the Royal Albert Hall on the same night.

Classical music meets comedy at the Proms for the first time. Tim Minchin, the Australian performer, presents an evening of music and laughs with Sue Perkins, cabaret duo Kit and The Widow, pianist Danny Driver, soprano Susan Bullock and the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra will take requests from the crowd in a highly unusual late night Prom. The audience will choose from a list of up to 300 pieces, none of which the orchestra has rehearsed.

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra will use rubber gloves and coat hangers to perform extracts from Sergio Leone film soundtracks. Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3 and the director of the Proms, called them “five cracking musicians”.

Havergal Brian’s vast Gothic Symphony which has been rarely performed since it was composed in the 1920s will be played on 17 July when the 1,000 musicians required – including two orchestras and 10 choirs – are marshalled. Wright said: “Once we have fitted in the performers there will be hardly any room for the audience.”

Rossini’s William Tell is another work hardly ever performed. The opera lasts nearly five hours. Audiences will have a rare chance to hear this gripping story of Swiss nationalism conducted by the Royal Opera House music director, Antonio Pappano.

I can’t go on …

Music: Melting Architecture?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I’ve noticed more than once that some people perceive two distinct kinds of music, which one might call “emotional” and “intellectual”. For instance, they might say that Fauré’s Requiem and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 are “emotional” and Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge are “intellectual”. They might use different words but they still see two mutually exclusive camps.

I think this is not a valid distinction. All too often it tends to be “nice music I like” that’s in the former category and “shit music I don’t like” in the second. Some people are even disappointed to find that music has structure; they want it to be a profuse stream of unpremeditated melody. They’d be surprised, if not unwilling, to learn that Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata and Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 have roughly the same proportion and density of melody and structure in them.

The idea that anyone would be disappointed to find that music has structure seems very stange to me, when those same people would presumably be less disappointed in the knowlege and acceptance that a painting, novel, building, play, sculpture, etc., has it – but there are all kinds of structures at play in a work of music anyway – harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, timbral – OK, some works are more overtly and consciously structured in one or more ways than others are, but that’s really rather beside the point.

When I compose the basic ideas just come straight into my head and for me it’s a highly emotional process, but at the same time you have to know how to put a piece together so, yes, the rational brain has to come into it otherwise what you write wouldn’t go anywhere and more likely than not would not make a satisfactory experience for the listener. The great composers have that special and rare ability to control and utilise both the emotional and rational and that is why their music is so satisfying and why it lasts.

I don’t accept that the composed and the constructed are somehow opposed categories. Unless one still buys into the ludicrous 19th century mythology of the composer waiting for some mystical inspiration, then simply committing this to paper – I doubt whether that could be said of almost any composer of note.

Both advocates and detractors of new music can frequently fall into the trap of judging new music in terms of how it was put together rather than what results.

Russians

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

Think of the Askenazys, Mravinskys, Petrenkos, Kondrashins, Luganskys, Gergievs of this world.

Do you think they find a hidden voice in Russian classical music that no other musician can hear?

Many experts would dismiss any suggestion that nationality has any relevance whatever when it comes to performing music but then you think of all those Russian musicians and orchestras and you have to think again. There is no question in my view that the Russians seem to have a direct line to the composer’s soul (especially apparent in Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich) that no other nationality seems to possess.

At the same time, I also wonder if the St Petersburg band and other Russian outfits get fed up with playing their compatriots’ music when on tour. Wouldn’t they like to let rip with a little Mahler, or Strauss, or Elgar, occasionally?

If you talk to Russian musicians there is a real sense of respect when they tell you that “I studied with X who was the favourite student of Oistrakh” and this kind of thing. One often gets the impression of how seriously they regarded the handing down of the flame in terms of teaching – obviously with a strong emphasis on Russian music – and this did impart a tradition in performing their native composers.

Alhough in earlier times, the results of this lineage could be surprising. From the early professionalisation of music-making with the founding of the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, and that in Moscow three years later, Russian instrumental pedagogy was for several decades heavily staffed by foreigners (especially in St Petersburg, somewhat less so in Moscow). One of these was the Jewish-Hungarian, Leopold Auer, himself a student of Joseph Joachim. Now Auer, whilst heavily influenced by Joachim’s teaching, modified the so-called “Joachim grip”, with the arm very close to the body, somewhat locked in (which was taught quite extensively in the Berlin Musikhochschule, which Joachim founded). Both Auer and Joachim inveighed vociferously against the use of continuous vibrato. Yet three of Auer’s most important students – Mischa Elman, Efram Zimbalist and Jascha Heifetz – played a very significant role in establishing this practice towards its becoming the norm in the 1920s and 1930s. Within two generations of teachers we have gone from Joachim to Heifetz – a pretty major transformation in my opinion. Auer has been characterised as the most important teacher of the violin in Russia prior to the Soviet era (I know more about Russian pedagogy between 1862 and 1917 than afterwards, but certainly various people have suggested there was a very significant shift after the later date with the new types of politicisation of musical life), yet his own style of playing and teaching seems very far from those that developed at a later date.

Similarly the Polish Theodor Leschetizky, a student of Czerny and a teacher at St Petersburg from the very opening of the Conservatory (then later in Vienna), could teach Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Mark Hambourg, Ignacy Paderewski and Artur Schnabel – all extremely different players.

Now I do believe one can talk of schools of playing, especially centered around particular teaching institutions (certain ways of playing have been predominantly taught in London, Paris, Vienna, St Petersburg, Moscow, New York, etc.) and also the aesthetic norms and demands of various localised musical scenes (certain types of player or styles of playing tend to be favoured depending upon who is awarding prizes, running concert series, radio stations, etc.). And the same for composition. But I’m not so convinced about how much the lineage counts with the best players, many of whom often move in a quite different direction to their teachers.

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