Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire
― Gustav Mahler

A sense of reverence seems to pervade every corner of Classical Music. The artform is presented as the very pinnacle of man’s artistic, intellectual and spiritual achievement, rather than one art amongst many, and certain composers, works and artists enjoy such an elevated position that mere mortals often fear to approach or reproach them.

Such an attitude can alienate potential concert goers, who fear that they may not “know enough” or are not sufficiently “educated”, to appreciate or enjoy classical music. At concerts, I regularly meet people, clearly intelligent and culturally aware, who enthuse about the music they have just heard and then apologise for “not really knowing enough about it” (the fact that these people can explain the things they liked about the music – details of melody and structure, its emotional impact and the way it transported them to another place – demonstrate to me that they fully appreciate the art form!). And at least those people actually went to the concert; sadly, many are too intimidated by the reverence surrounding classical music to even step inside a concert hall for fear of doing something wrong or appearing ignorant.

After a concert, I want to grab people by the lapels and tell them how lucky we are as a species that, out of all the hundreds of billions of us who ever lived, one of us managed to come up with the Goldberg Variations. But I don’t, because that’s not the done thing. So instead I mention that the café downstairs does some fabulous chocolate éclairs.

Armando Iannucci:Classical music, the love of my life

In concerts, reverence can limit programming: with a preponderance towards the “great works”, lesser-known composers and music, young composers or new music may be overlooked or excluded, thus denying audiences the opportunity to experience the wilder shores of the repertoire.

Classical music has a gatekeeping problem, and much of that can be traced through the word “great.”…..if the major selling point of classical music is how objectively Great it is or how Great the composers are, Greatness becomes insidious: effectively meaningless, but unchangeable, almost impossible to fight. Being sold Greatness is now what audiences expect. 

– Zoë Madonna, NPR

The ingrained rituals of the classical concert, which are themselves an aspect of reverence and are used by some to maintain the aura of specialness, exclusivity and gravitas, often preclude people from sampling classical music because they are nervous about how to behave, what to wear, and when to applaud. I remember once attending a Catholic wedding and it was so far removed from the Anglican ceremony that I spent most of the proceedings wondering what on earth was going on, while others around me seemed totally at home with it all: I imagine newcomers to classical music often feel like this (in fact I know they do because I shared a box with some classical music ingenues at the Proms in 2015 and they expressed all the anxieties noted above).

Reverence also breeds prejudice, almost as pervasive and polarised as the general problem in society today: mention Wagner, and you are adored by one group; mention Schoenberg, and you’re disdained by another; mention minimalism, and another group rolls their eyes. Certain composers are untouchable, beyond criticism, fetishized even – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler being examples which immediately spring to my mind. With such firmly-held beliefs about the greatness of certain composers, it becomes impossible to have reasoned conversations with other music-lovers. A friend of mine (also a pianist) really doesn’t like the music of Bach, nor Mozart. Mention this in one of the online piano forums to which we both belong, and he is greeted with shouts of horror and even abuse, suggesting that there is something “wrong” with him. It seems that one is just not permitted to dislike certain composers. Of these, Bach in particular enjoys especial veneration: cycles of Bach’s works are not “performances”, they are “journeys”, “voyages” or “pilgrimages”, suggesting that hearing and playing his music is a quasi-religious experience.

The elevation of certain performers to almost God-like status is another aspect reverence. I’ve felt it at concerts by Barenboim and Schiff, the veneration often created not by the performers (who strike me as fairly modest men) but by the audience and the pre-concert hype. Sadly, the idolised, almost cultish admiration of certain conductors, in particular, can lead to inappropriate behaviour and dangerous abuses of power, such as were revealed in the closing months of 2017.

***

The classical musician’s training is largely still about preserving tradition and the reverential “canonization” of repertoire: we’re taught from a young age that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Mahler…. are the “great” composers. Revering the music in this way can create problems when learning and playing it: for pianists, as for other musicians, certain works – the Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s last piano sonatas, Chopin’s Etudes, the great piano concertos, for example – have an elevated status on a par with the works of Aristotle, Shakespeare or Dickens. We hold the music in such awe, carrying with us the weight of its history, its heritage, the long line of great musicians who have played it, and feel such a tremendous responsibility to these “great works” that our creativity, artistry and personal interpretation may be stifled. The music is imbued with notions of ‘greatness’ even though the player might not actually be feeling it intuitively nor actually believe in it.

This also encourages in some musicians an obsessive attitude to the music which leads them to sacrifice normal life in order to practice for eight or ten hours a day. Such behaviour is mentally and physically unhealthy, causing anxiety and tension, and, as a result, is often counter-productive.

I’ve experienced it myself, with works by Beethoven and Chopin, and I’ve observed people on piano courses whose reverence towards the music gets in the way of their enjoyment of it.

Respect the music, for sure, but don’t revere it: that prevents us from getting right to the heart of the music and experiencing – and, importantly, enjoying it – in all its myriad variety.

The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music. They should be taught to love it instead”

 – Stravinsky 

 

Guest post by Adrian Ainsworth

We’re coming up to the first anniversary of a slightly unusual and unexpected musical event – or to be more accurate, ‘music business event’. On 17 November 2017, the record label ECM made virtually all of its catalogue available on streaming services for the first time.

For anyone unfamiliar, ECM is a Munich record label, founded almost 50 years ago – and still run – by producer extraordinaire Manfred Eicher. Initially the focus was on modern jazz music, but in the mid-eighties Eicher established the parallel ‘ECM New Series’ imprint to cover classical music.

It may be because the boss is a producer that ECM Is famed for exceptional recording quality and detail. It’s tempting to think that the New Series seemed at once boldly contemporary (featuring composers linked to minimalism, like Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich) and wilfully archaeological (the exquisite early choral recordings of Trio Mediaeval or the Hilliard Ensemble), because these ‘extremes’ of classical music particularly benefited from such finely-wrought clarity.

This wide variety means that while there isn’t an ‘ECM sound’ as such, there’s definitely an ECM aesthetic. As well as making the records sound gorgeous, the label’s sleeve design – even into the CD era – has a largely abstract austerity that totally fits its musical output: enigmatic yet welcoming, arty, classy, attractive, open to wide interpretation.

This strong identity is arguably what kept ECM away from streaming platforms for as long as possible: the physical object, played on the best equipment you can muster, is part of their ideal. However, the fact that Eicher and co have now given in means you can at least explore a remarkable range of beautifully documented music at great leisure (and little or no cost) – hopefully on a ‘try before you buy’ basis, as a shelfful or so of ECM releases is a truly joyful sight.

Perhaps treating all of its artists with the same sonic respect, whatever the genre, is the engine behind another distinctive feature of ECM’s output: inspired collaborations. Eicher seems to delight in bringing musicians on the label from both jazz and classical camps together, resulting in highly rewarding joint releases, without compromising the spirit of their individual recordings.

This is a key theme in my very personal ECM playlist. There’s a run of three tracks where Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek first plays with a group of Pakistani musicians, followed by a selection from his celebrated partnership with the Hilliard Ensemble – then we hear the Hilliards on their own performing a striking contemporary piece in contrast to their original ‘early music’ idiom.

Latterly, the Trio Mediaeval have recorded an album with trumpeter Arve Henriksen – a record that, while very different, seems to rejoice in a similar spirit, and a choice from this starts the whole playlist off. Bringing proceedings to a close is John Surman – another versatile saxophonist who can career from furious hard bop to drones/electronica and all points in between. However, his two albums with a string quartet are real jewels in ECM’s crown, as I hope ‘At Dusk’ proves.

Along the way, I’ve tried to bring in some of ECM’s most arresting characters. There’s Stephan Micus, who seems to learn and compose on a different array of instruments from all over the globe on each release, yet here foregrounds his own voice. Or Nik Bartsch, a Swiss pianist who describes his work as ‘ritual groove music’ (about four minutes into the playlist track, you’ll hear why). He records mainly with two bands, Ronin – who feature here – and Mobile, depending on the configuration of musicians the material needs. The distinctive, unhurried and wonderfully delicate piano of Marilyn Crispell, followed by the atmospheric vocalising from Susanne Abbuehl.

And much more… I could have carried on and on but thought I had better stop at 20 tracks (and 2 hours)! As you will find if you explore ECM further for yourself, I could have gone off at so many tangents: used Ralph Towner as a springboard to fellow guitarists John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny or Terje Ryphal; or followed Alexei Lubimov into the label’s roster of esteemed classical pianists (including Sir Andras Schiff). Keith Jarrett’s recordings alone must provide more than 100 hours of listening (some 90 recordings, including a few multi-disc sets).

I hope you enjoy this rather focused selection, then, and feel inspired to find ‘your ECM’ among the label’s near-limitless riches.

Adrian’s ECM playlist

 


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

Twitter: @adrian_specs

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?

Music was a very gradual and natural progression for me. As a child I began to play more and more music until I was eventually spending every spare minute at school rushing off to a practice room, to a rehearsal, to a music tech studio, to a lesson, to a chamber group. I was filling my holidays and weekends with orchestra courses, jazz rehearsals in London, and on and on and on. Finally it dawned on me that music was clearly the focus in my life, and it would be a rather natural next step to try to make a living out of it.

Likewise the conducting was a transition. There came a point in my early twenties when I realised that I’d caught the conducting bug. I was playing in orchestras of such varying standards, from the flimsiest of amateur setups to the highest professional level, that I was constantly watching the whole spectrum of conductors in front of me. The lesser mortals gave me the confidence that I could do better than them, but more importantly the better conductors inspired me hugely, fascinated me, and got me hooked on the idea that a conducting profession could be a compelling journey.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

In my earlier days the strongest influences were my teachers – and I was certainly lucky to have superb teachers, more than I can mention. I owe a lot to Neil Thomson, who first set me off on a path towards understanding the process of conducting, and understanding how to learn. From that point I had so many different conducting influences. Two names that stand out are Sir Mark Elder and Claudio Abbado. Mark gave me two years of astonishing support, guidance and inspiration whilst I was his assistant at the Hallé orchestra; Claudio gave me his mindblowingly high-class conducting to feed off whilst I was playing in the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester.

Nowadays my primary influences are the scores in front of me, but my instincts are surely still heavily influenced by all the people who led me where I am today.

What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?

Perhaps the greatest challenge is wrestling with the question of what a composer intended at a certain point in a score when his or her vision is absolutely unclear on the page. If it’s a work that’s close to your heart, this struggle is intense and consuming, but always interesting. On a more mundane note, there is a huge organisational and logistical focus to my work as a conductor that wasn’t present when I was a player. This is especially true in my role as a Music Director. Fortunately I’m rather neurotic in terms of organisation, so I get by.

Putting aside all the challenges, though, at the very heart is the fact that I feel totally at home on a podium in front of an orchestra. I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than the concert experience of performing music that you have rehearsed intensely and spent months preparing for. When things are going well, it’s the most satisfying possible way to conclude a project.

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

Any player will tell you that the holy grail is for conductors to communicate everything in gestures. That’s certainly the dream. Of course it’s not possible 100% of the time. Some things need to be said, but perhaps the secret is knowing when to stop… Players don’t need to know all your ideas. There’s often a great deal of extra contingency preparation or historical context that doesn’t need to be shared. In the case of, say, Also Sprach Zarathustra, there’s even a gigantic layer of philosophy. The players don’t need to know everything you’re thinking, but having all these extra layers as a base can add so much to the conviction with which you’re conducting.

How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

Absolutely the latter. Surely that has to be the primary role of a conductor, to take on full responsibility to enable the audience to experience what the composer intended. If you happen to inspire the musicians along the way, that’s a bonus – an orchestra is more likely to play well and work hard if they’re inspired.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

Although I’m lucky to be able to programme and perform orchestral music of my choosing a lot of the time, there are a few sacred cows… The piece that most comes to mind is Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande. I have unusually powerful memories of rehearsing and performing it under Claudio Abbado, so the music means a lot to me and I feel as though I know it inside out. But I’m wary of experiencing it from the podium, in case those memories are affected.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

There are so many tremendous buildings devoted to classical music! I’m so fortunate to be Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León – we both rehearse and perform in the spectacular concert hall of the Auditorio Miguel Delibes. It’s hard to beat the Royal Albert Hall – what a space – plus I used to walk past it every day so it feels like coming home. As a player I adored the glamour of the Musikverein, and was totally blown away by the concert hall in São Paolo with its mix of wood§ and stone. I’m particularly fond of Snape Maltings – apart from the beautiful concert hall there’s that wonderful view across the marshes. And now I’m in danger of opening up the entire genre of concert halls with views-to-die-for from the conductor’s dressing room….. Gran Canaria with its sweeping view of the beach, Granada looking out over the Sierra Nevada from its hilltop position next to the Alhambra… Perhaps there’s a coffee table book in this.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

In general terms, my favourite musicians are those who respect the music on the page and the intentions of the composer. Obviously it helps if they can transmit it to the audience with jaw-dropping skill and style… but I’m never a fan of style over substance.

As for composers, in order to connect with me they need to have something to say in their music, rather than just searching for the next note for composing’s sake. This probably isn’t tangible and might translate into different things depending on the era in which the composer was writing, but there’s always a depth supporting it, which keeps me interested when looking deeper and deeper into a score. You might have guessed I’m trying to remain generic instead of naming names(!)

It’s worth adding, though, that I listen to very little classical music for pleasure. I feel the need to escape it to make sure that it stays fresh. Many of my favourite musicians are in other genres; pop (in every sense), jazz, and so on.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To earn the respect of both musicians and non-musicians over the longterm course of a career.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

If only I had something of value to offer! It’s tricky to pin these things down when you’re continuously searching for the answers yourself. I’ll try to suggest a few…

Garner and absorb as many influences as possible. Otherwise you’ll never acquire the broad view with which to find out if you’ve been heading down the wrong track.



It’s important to have occasional bouts of fanaticism and all-consuming obsession in your music- making. It can take you to the next level.

Those in music who achieve the most are, more often than not, those who put in the most work. Yes there are exceptions, but you’re taking a gamble if you test the norm.

Remember there’s more to life than your chosen profession. Despite all the hard work, keep it in context and maintain a balance in your life – you’ll be a healthier person.

There will be ups and downs. Enjoy the ride.


Andrew Gourlay is Music Director of the The Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León, which has just announced the launch of its own record label. The first recording will be released on 9 January 2019, and feature Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony.

Watch the album trailer:

Born in Jamaica, with Russian ancestry, Andrew Gourlay grew up in the Bahamas, Philippines, Japan and England. A trombonist and pianist by training, he studied conducting at the Royal College of Music, where he prepared Bruckner symphonies for Bernard Haitink and Mozart symphonies for Sir Roger Norrington. He was selected by Gramophone magazine as their ‘One to Watch’, and by BBC Music Magazine as their ‘Rising Star: great artists of tomorrow’.

Andrew Gourlay won First Prize at the 2010 Cadaques International Conducting Competition, securing concerts with 29 orchestras around the world. For the next two years he was Assistant Conductor to Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra. In January 2016 Gourlay took up the position of Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León (OSCYL), having been their Principal Guest Conductor since the 2014/15 season, and celebrated the orchestra’s 25th anniversary in 2016/17.

Read more

 

This is the second set of wireless bluetooth earbuds I’ve been asked to review in as many months. With manufacturers keen to offer consumers a stylish, effective and user-friendly alternative to Apple’s AirPod earbuds (which are not the most attractive, it must be said), wireless earbuds are now as ubiquitous as old-fashioned wired headphones.

Wireless headphones have in fact existed for some time now, but with somewhat dubious sound quality due to their inability to transmit high resolution audio. The latest bluetooth technology ensures a better and faster connection, a broader signal range and stable connectivity. This “true wireless” allows users a full range of movement, making these earbuds ideal for sport such as running or cycling or gym workouts.

c3bae29597c3a6.png

The Surge Mini earbuds are designed to fit snugly in the ear and come in a neat case which acts as a charger (a feature common to most wireless earbuds now). The magnetic design secures the earbuds in the case to ensure they charge properly and don’t fall out when you open the case. The earbuds connect almost instantly to your device and once paired they will connect automatically straight out of the case. The left and right earbuds connect separately, and in fact I had trouble connecting the devices and it took several attempts to hook up to my iPhone.

Once in the ear, the earbuds are a comfortable fit without any need for further adjustment. The earbuds have tiny touch controls allowing the user to pause play or mute during a call, and are Siri/Google compatible.

And so to the most important consideration, quality of sound. The majority of my listening is confined to classical music, specifically piano music, but for the purposes of this review I listened to various genres of music. In each case, I enjoyed the warm, direct, translucent sound offerered by the Surge Mini earbuds. Noise cancellation is excellent too, and with a good balance between treble, bass and the mid-range, you really feel enveloped in music.

Other features

  • Latest Bluetooth 5.0 technology provides 2.5 x faster connection
  • 3 hours play time from one charge
  • 73 hours battery life
  • Case also acts as a phone charger via a USB port
  • Charging case can be fully charged in 45 minutes
  • Available in black or white

 

Further information

sk98hy2k3jqtaloryzgo

This playlist contains a selection of recordings from up-and-coming colleagues of mine, really well known artists in the Classical world as well as some original compositions by some of the artists.  This playlist includes Fabiana and Paula Chavez, the Piano duo twin sisters from Argentina (currently studying at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire in London), who have overcome a major physical disability of blindness to record their album and I feature a couple of tracks from that. One of the highlights is British pianist Stephen Hough’s ‘Broken Branches’ Piano Sonata: I attended the world premiere performance of this work in 2011 at London’s Wigmore Hall.  Hope you enjoy it!


Daniel Roberts is a graduate of Leeds College of Music, where he studied with Helen Reid and Natalia Strelchenko. A former student of the later Peter Feuchtwanger, Daniel has performed around the UK, Europe, South America, and USA. He lives in Brazil.

danielrobertsmusic.com

Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

The latest brilliant release from cellist-composer Jo Quail is an album that speaks of mirrors, doubles and opposites. Always an artist that convinces equally whether one views her music as avant-garde classical or underground electronica, ‘Exsolve’ is Jo’s most perfect expression yet of how to create pieces that somehow inhabit, yet defy genre at the same time.

I’m sure this is also what makes her music such a pleasure to write about – as I have done frequently, including CD liner notes. Jo builds her compositions around electric cello, fed into a loop station that she simultaneously operates like a second instrument – allowing her to play almost all her material live, solo, standing (her feet dancing across the pedals as she creates layer upon layer of rhythm and melody).

But from first note to last, ‘Exsolve’ thrives on creative tension, looking inward and examining head-on this marriage of ancient/acoustic and modern/electronic. As instrumentals so often do, Jo’s music always becomes ‘visual’ for me, provoking images, memories even, in my mind. Water is a recurring motif in earlier JQ track titles, and here I inescapably thought of Turner’s ship caught in the Snow Storm. Throughout, it felt like something was breaking through, a kind of sonic or atmospheric disruption – depending on your personal tastes, this could be as menacing as Cthulhu or as exhilarating as a cloudburst.

New tunings and new sounds help to make this a classic ‘headphones’ record, as Jo explores distortion and percussive techniques to conjure a military drum tattoo or a doom-laden bass riff from her cello. When listening, you really are surrounded: the music closes in, each of the three lengthy tracks building not necessarily in volume, but in presence, intensity (‘Exsolve’ was produced by Chris Fielding and mastered by James Griffith: plaudits to them for the album’s fearsome clarity).

Another creative pair of ‘opposites’ the album reflects is the personal with the collaborative. For such a self-sufficient performer, Jo has always featured guests on her albums and sought to programme live events with full bands or classical performers. ‘Exsolve’ welcomes three visitors, who play a crucial role on one piece each. Dan Capp and Nik Sampson both contribute heroically exciting guitar parts, while Lucie Dehli adds her supernaturally fluid vocalese in an unforgettable cameo. But while these guest appearances gesture towards extreme metal and even jazz, they blend perfectly into the array of unearthly sounds already coming from the cello.

Classical and metal really are ‘twinned’ here, in a way quite distinct from, say, hard rock bands using orchestras or string sections for added bombast (not that there’s a problem with that!). Album by album, Jo has been assembling tracks more like parts of suites or sequences, and ‘Exsolve’ – with its three ‘movements’ that are both coherent stand-alone pieces, but which all contribute and develop towards a key central idea – can almost feel like a concerto for cello and studio. In this respect, it’s a genuinely avant-garde classical achievement. Yet, at the same time, it reaches a powerful heaviness borne of thunderous riffs and insistent hooks. In other words, it rocks.

If ‘Exsolve’ tells me a story, it’s of these two genres almost struggling for supremacy within Jo’s music. The balance shifts this way and that. The insistent, cyclic guitar that takes control of ‘Forge’ gives way to the acoustic ‘Of Two Forms’ section. The dancing pizzicato of ‘Mandrel Cantus’ breaks into atonal soloing, distorted cello riffs and a final guitar explosion – but then its steady comedown progression dissolves into the chiming, Pärt-like coda. Finally, however, ‘Causleen’s Wheel’ brings matters to a head, its keening melody and agitated reel leading to a seismic shift and temporary sonic limbo, before the finale crashes through. No guitars this time: the cello supplies the heaviness, the electricity, and ultimately the full force of the wordless vocal is unleashed, resolving the conflict and bringing equilibrium with a triumphant, euphoric female battle cry.

A fascinating and beautiful listen, as always. And especially here, addictive, cathartic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZHZl2ARMfI

(Video edit of ‘Mandrel Cantus’, filmed by Simon Kallas and Michael Fletcher.)

Jo releases her music independently, so you can buy physical and/or digital versions of ‘Exsolve’ – along with all her earlier work – directly from Bandcamp. Dive in here. [link: https://joquail.bandcamp.com/]