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Dmitri Shostakovich

Friday, July 21, 2017

Classical iconoclast

June 26

Alan Gilbert NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester - the real potential

Classical iconoclast New horizons for Alan Gilbert, new Chief Conductor  of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester.  This isn't an ordinary move in the game of Conductor Chess by any means.  It's a Bishop's Move, which could change the whole board. The new Elbphilharmonie and the support network behind it has the potential to change the whole game.  Read my piece Elbphilharmonie - Game Changer HERE.  Gilbert hasn't flip-flopped by any means - he's landed on his feet up and running with one of the most exciting developments in the whole industry. Although Hamburg is Germany's second-largest city, and wealthy, the heart of German orchestral life centres on the Big Three - Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden, cities whose cultural pedigree reflects centuries of top-level patronage. The NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester was founded in 1945, from the ruins of war, in which much of Hamburg was destroyed. It was a radio orchestra, no small thing  since German broadcasting itself has a grand tradition. With the new Elbphilharmonie building it now has one of the finest homes of any orchestra in the world, backed up by a package of other services. Even the backstage facilities are so good that other orchestras want to come visit, which also ups the game. The population of Germany is close to 82 million, and the population of Europe as a whole 743 million. Hamburg is smaller than New York,  but it's strategically placed.  If the Elbphilharmonie develops into a cultural hotspot, the orchestra is in a good position.  Gilbert's in a win-win situation. With the new building, new frontiers. While the orchestra isn't in the league of the Big Three, or centres of exceptional excellence like Lucerne,  Hamburg could provide something unique. The gala Opening Concert honoured Johannes Brahms, native son, and  composers with North German connections, of whom there are quite a few, many of them modern.  Gilbert's interests thus dovetail neatly with European taste.  Lyons, for example, where his career took off, and where I first heard him, is progressive.  One of the high-profile international broadcasts from the Elbphilharmonie featured  Shostakovich and K A Hartmann, a Bavarian yes, but one of the most important composers of the 20th century (Please read my piece here). Germany is in a unique position in that it's culturally very diverse and vibrant, and open-minded.  That concert featured the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, not nearly as conservative as one might assume, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, a Hartmann maven and one of the more interesting conductors on the circuit.  With all respect to Gilbert, he's not in Metzmacher's class, but he is audience friendly and can reach those who speak no language other than English. When Gilbert unexpectedly announced he wouldn't renew his contract with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, there was much speculation, since he's a NY homeboy with family connections who might, in theory, have toed whatever line was needed.  No speculation from me. But read this well-informed piece from Michael Cooper  : Alan Gilbert wanted to save the New York Philharmonic : What happened ?   All too often, commentary goes along the lines of "I like/don't like" as opposed to analysis and a basic understanding of business logistics.  Recordings are just artefacts, they aren't what happens in the real world of performance, and these days, the recording industry doesn't have a stranglehold on what reaches the market.   Parochialism isn't where it's at. We need to remember that music is a living force, that never stops changing. It doesn't exist in hermetically sealed limbo. A conductor does a lot more than conduct: he's a conduit for ideas and reflection, primarily musical, of course, but ideas that impact on human experience.   Claudio Abbado, whose birthday is today, was a communicator of genius.  Very few even come close to Abbado in terms of insight and empathy.  But Gilbert is a pretty good thinker.  Some months back, he was being interviewed by NDR Kultur (not the orchestra, but they would have heard it).  They threw a tricky question : what did he think of Donald Trump ? Being diplomatic, Gilbert hesitated, choosing each word as carefully as possible.  "I think it's a time in which art and beauty have more importance and relevance than ever,. I hope it's not too much to say that at the heart of what we do as musicians is the search for truth. These days there seems to be a full scale assault on the principles of The Age of Enlightenment. As musiciqns, we need to assert ourselves powerfully to show that there is still beauty and there is truth in the world. I've been working with musicians, colleagues and friends to use what we do, to use the platform we occupy to make this world a better place. The thing about music is that it is an international language, and it can speak to people from all different cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds. .... I hope that what we can offer to the world is a message of inclusion and shared humanity" (Full clip here).   "Inclusion and shared humanity." Dangerous words, these days!  But not at all untypical of the way Gilbert's been thinking for ages, in terms of orchestras and their place in society.  Below, another, longer clip, in which Gilbert talks about the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester and himself (they go back together a long time).  It's upbeat, as it should be. Who knows what lies ahead ? But Gilbert and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester together could be a force for good. Please also read my many pieces on arts policy, and on the new Concert Hall for London.  

Norman Lebrecht - Slipped disc

July 7

Is there a jinx on second cello concertos?

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week: The second concerto for cello by Dmitri Shostakovich is the least ingratiating of the six he wrote, two for each major instrument. Opening with a gloomy, growling monologue, the solo part is matched in misery by the orchestra. The concerto was written in 1966 and first performed by Mstislav Rostropovich at a Moscow concert to mark the composer’s 60th birthday. Knowing that public pessimism was an offence in the Soviet Union, Shostakovich held nothing back…. And then there’s Martinu’s second concerto. Read on here. And here.

Norman Lebrecht - Slipped disc

June 4

What went right at the Queen Elisabeth cello competition?

There was very little international coverage, the website was the worst of any major competition and the results were published in the dead of night. Yet, despite losing several crowd-pleasers at the semi-final stage, there seems to be a feeling that the Brussels competition did most things right. Here’s an assessment from one of the TV commentators, the cellist David Cohen, exclusive to Slipped Disc. An insider’s testimony into the first Queen Elisabeth Cello Competition by David Cohen Yesterday I was in Belgium, my native country, and I was so happy to be making the TV commentaries for Musique 3 during the first ever Queen Elisabeth Cello competition held in Bruxelles’s beautiful Palais des Beaux Arts. Let me start by sharing with you how proud I feel of my country for having finally agreed, after decades of pleading from leading cello teachers in Belgium and around the world, to finally add the cello as a category to the Queen Elisabeth International Competition. Why was it not possible sooner? The competition’s most influential director, Le Comte De Launoy, felt it was his duty to respect her Majesty’s wishes of the categories she had specifically instructed to be used. They also happened to be her favourite instruments: violin, voice, piano and composition… not the cello. But since the passing of this great and benevolent music lover, the competition was able, after the collapse of the last Rostropovich cello competition in Paris, to take a chance and add the cello as another category to the competition. As a child, I so often dreamed that this pinnacle of music competitions would finally open its doors to my instrument… The cello has always been important in the Belgian music making. The influential school of Belgian cello playing (Servais, the Paganini of cellists) is well documented. Yesterday was the finale of this well organised competition. Like a well oiled engine, after weeks of early rounds, the tradition of seven days of seclusion, including all technical devices, was imposed, allowing the 12 finalists to learn the compulsory piece specially composed by Toshio Hosokawa. They were shown the score seven days prior to the final round in the confines of the Chapelle Reine Elizabeth, a private music institution just outside of Brussels. I awoke yesterday to find my social media busy with posts, comments, tweets and likes about the different candidates who had already performed and were awaiting the prize announcements this evening. It was a real frenzy out there with a big buzz; the candidate with rings and long hair who dropped his bow (no thanks to the conductor for kicking it! accidents do happen to everyone), the candidate who broke her strings, the candidate whose late parents pleaded with his teacher to look after him (both teacher and student ended up present at the final… the former was playing, and the latter commentating for the RTBF). There was some controversy with regard to the poor variety of concertos being performed for the finale. There were 6 Shostakovich concertos, 4 Dvorak concertos and 2 Schumann concerto. Also disappointing was the lack of Belgian competitors, with countless articles in the newspapers about their absence. Although Shostakovich’s first concerto has more of a “Wow!” factor (especially the ending), I wished someone would have taken the risk of doing the Barber, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, or even the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante. These last few days and weeks reminded me of my time as a competition junkie and how juggling studying, performing concerts and hopping from one competition to another ruled my life as a young musician. As Bartok famously once said, “Competitions are for horses”. In a horse race, there is a definitive winner. It is impossible to be so black and white in music. In tennis as we all know, there are clear points to be gained, but in a music competition, we try to quantify something which is in it’s very essence, unquantifiable. Each competitor receives points from each jury member, and in the Queen Elisabeth (to keep bias at bay), apparently the highest and lowest scores are thrown out for each competitor. What we then see is an illustrious line-up of averages. But the question is; how does one judge these young musicians, especially when the likeliness of these jury members to ever actually sit in the audience of one of these young musicians future performances is quite slim? I say it’s the public that matters, and that is why I was always more interested in winning the Public’s prize in an international competition. This, because these were the people to whom I was and would be ultimately playing for, and knowing the Belgian audience as well as I do, they are the ones that really matter. Having listened to some of the semi finals, I was saddened, but not surprised, that many incredible young musicians were taken out in order to place in the finals some admittedly very fine instrumentalists, but some of whom arguably had less musical individuality. Time will tell us which one of these magnificent and so deserving young cellists will make it long term on the international scene or if they will face the fate of so many before them. For my part, I wish them the absolute best this musical life has to offer. It is impossible to tell which one of these competitors will go where, do what, and who will fulfil a boxed up star-studded future we have in mind for them. Often times, it is the ones who seemingly do not succeed early, who are the ones that actually push through in the end. Other times, it is very close to what the jury decided. And other times still, it is exactly the upside-down version of the prizes awarded. The reality is that there is no ranking. As wise and illustrious as this jury was, no one has a crystal ball. Competitions are a means to an end, rather than a goal to be conquered. They should be used to gain priceless experience, push ones self through massive pressures, present ones self on an international platform which would be hard to come by through other means and ultimately, to find ones true voice through it all. Each competitor, to whom I had the pleasure of listening, had something special, truly unique and I sincerely wish them the very best for their futures, which will all no doubt be rich, varied and a completely personal journey, of which the Queen Elisabeth Competition has been a multi faceted and illustrious stepping stone.

Norman Lebrecht - Slipped disc

May 25

Maxim Vengerov: Here’s what happened when I played in the dark

The violinist continues our discussion on gadgets in the concert hall. Allow me to thank three people who brought this important matter to discussion: my colleague violinist Yevgeny Chepovetsky, wonderful pianist Christian Zacharias and Mr. Norman Lebrecht whose brainchild, Slipped Disc, has become the ‘meeting place’ for the classical music community. The subject I am about to tackle deserves much attention, but I will try to be short. As an optimist and as one who believes that for every problem there is a solution, I had recently performed a daring experiment, playing a recital in the fully packed, newly refurbished concert hall of the Israel Philharmonic in Tel Aviv. Doesn’t sound too adventurous, does it? Except that for two hours, my pianist and I shared our music with an audience of over 2000 people who sat in the darkness. (There were only twelve small electronic candle lights, a tiny spotlight for my pianist to read music, and the emergency lights we were obliged to keep.) Yes, my decision was to go to the absolute extreme — to free music of any distractions — so She, carried by the magnificent acoustics of the Philharmonic hall to the very last rows of the balcony, could penetrate and reflect the hearts and minds of my audience through their enhanced auditory senses. That was the concept of this experiment — to keep music pure, undiluted by the visuals, and make Her the sole focus for the listeners. The repertoire choice was quite unusual, as well. In the first half of the programme, I performed the Second Partita by Bach for Violin Solo, followed by the famous Franck Sonata. After a short intermission, we repeated exactly the same programme. [A brief explanation as to why I had chosen the Franck sonata: When famous Belgian violinist Eugene Isaye (to whom Franck dedicated this sonata) premiered this piece, the electricity went out during the first movement. Isaye and his pianist decided to carry on with the performance, playing by heart in total darkness. “Magic…” “Hypnotic…” — critics and listeners described the performance. I think there’s a good reason why some artists, including Svyatoslav Richter, preferred to play concerts with very little or no lights at all.] Back to my own experiment– after approximately 15 minutes of “adaptation” – the noise of coughing, sneezing, and moving in their seats — the “dust settled,” and people became absorbed in the music. There was nothing to distract them from the main reason why they were there that evening. Interesting observation: The audience’s level of concentration was higher during the second half of the programme. Why? Perhaps the material now seemed more familiar. More engaging. For me personally, it was the greatest experience of my life! Judging from the recording that was made from the concert, there appears to be two different artists playing before and after the intermission. I can tell you with confidence that ‘an artist’ playing Bach’s Partita and Franck’s Sonata during that particular second part of the recital is The Artist I have always strived to be. Never before had I felt that level of concentration. As though taken to a different world, where infinity was compressed into a single moment of beauty, I became a listener – like everyone else in the concert hall – rather than a performer. My only worry was: “What if I am the only one here who is having an awesome experience? What if my audience feels nothing other than confusion about being in a dark concert hall?” Afterwards, the audience members’ responses relieved me of my worry. They were diverse. Some told me that the atmosphere of the concert was electrifying; others found the experience soothing and meditative. There were a few listeners who admitted that during the recital their minds were wandering through ups and downs, making them uncomfortable, even desperate, exposing deep-seated feelings of remorse that resulted in tears. But the majority saw the concert as “a therapeutical, hypnotic experience” that allowed them to get in touch with their souls.” They thanked me and asked me to repeat the same “concert in the dark” again. That was the ultimate goal of my experiment — to show that the concert should not be about artists, not even about Music! Music is a conduit that channels and reflects the human range of emotions, tuning, balancing, and healing our souls. Over the last century, the scientists have conducted numerous researches into ‘music therapy,’ trying to determine how music can influence our physical and mental being. Unfortunately, none of them have been conclusive and consistent, and just a few have been implemented. After staging my own experiment, I can state with assurance that the appropriate selection of music played at the right venue with the fitting atmosphere, can create an enormous impact on the listeners. That is why we should advocate and promote the awareness of the importance of Music, whether it is classical, ethnic, or popular Music. For as long as Music carries a pure message and charges its audience with positive energy, we musicians will fulfill the purpose of concertgoers and may foresee the revival of the recording industry. Otherwise, we will soon become homeless musicians — “beggars” who are trying to sell something we believe in, while losing our believers. Then there are our concerns about the YouTube’s music video clutter, Facebook glasses’ augmented reality, the brain chips turning us into potential super humans, and the terrible habit of multitasking during concerts. These worries become irrelevant for the reasons I will detail below. I feel there is a need to distinguish between a classical music concert, a crossover show, and a recital that is aimed at nurturing peoples’ souls. Unfortunately, today everything seems to be mixed together. Let’s take YouTube, for example. Music, without being classified, can be found through the search system. In fact, we can find just about anything, under the condition, of course, that we know what we are looking for. The future of music lies in the hands of the younger generations that know how to search the Internet, but often know little about what they are trying to find. As a result, the abundance of the information at their fingertips often becomes misleading. A young person, seeking to hear and to learn about a Beethoven Symphony, for instance, ends up watching the footage that had received the highest number of clicks. Yes, that’s the indication of the quality today — the number of views and tweets, and interminable forums that give equal space to anyone who wishes to express his or her opinion — often, anonymously. Do not get me wrong, open discussions are vital, but they must be open. We should know the identities, as well as the levels of expertise, of those whose musical judgments serve as guidance for the young and inexperienced music lovers. There is another problem. Almost all music on the Internet has been uploaded in a compressed file format, turning great performances into good ones. Why shouldn’t YouTube have created a special niche for classical musicians so they could upload their recordings in top sound quality rather than in compressed versions and classify them similar to the way music stores had done it in the past? Then the audience could differentiate between a great sound quality product (which costs, by the way, a few hundred thousand dollars to produce in a professional recording studio) and a good one (accessible easily and free of charge on the Internet). Again, the Internet is a terrific tool to work with, but it can also be aggressive in dominating our lives, feeding our weaknesses, promoting the values that are vastly different from our own. The choice is ours. But we should never underestimate the importance of a high-end quality studio recording. This is the most ideal sound presentation that a musician can deliver — technically and emotionally, while maintaining the aura of a live performance. This level of sound recording can rarely be achieved during a concert (we all know that the audience is never silent). Yes, there are technologies that can erase any noise, but along with muting the noise we also “wash away” some of the precious overtones that the recorded music allows us to hear up close. A studio recording preserves a more detailed, more intense performance, as the microphones are less forgiving than a human ear. I was ten years old when I did my first studio recording with the Russian Melodia label. And since then, I use a recording studio in order to push myself to the absolute limits and get the best musical result. Through that experience, when I come on stage, I try to bring the same level of perfection and musical density during a live performance. I must admit that listening to a studio recording is more challenging than watching a concert. The audial experience requires a higher level of concentration and patience that the visual. But we must learn to listen to music with our ears and not with our eyes. I remember listening (with my eyes closed) to some of my early video recordings and not being very pleased with them. Then I watched (and listened to) the same videos, and, surprisingly, felt more forgiving. There is only one conclusion here. The next time we go to a concert hall to hear music, we should simply close our eyes to enhance the auditory experience. After all, that’s what music is about, isn’t it? As Dmitri Shostakovich said: “There is music that deserves undivided attention.” Yes, I think if people go to a concert they should benefit from it with maximum effect. For example, we wouldn’t be multitasking while receiving a massage, would we? Probably not. Instead, we would try to relax and enjoy the experience, concentrating on our body and mind. Why not to do the same during those two precious hours of a classical music concert? To withdraw from our daily routine and worries, to reflect on our inner being, to connect with the forces of the universe that make us human. As we all know, anything in life can take us a step forward while threatening to destroy us. But, as Nietzsche said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The media, the Internet, the latest gadgets… Will these modern vehicles of the technological evolution destroy us while taking us to the next level of civilization? As I declared in the beginning, I am an optimist. And I am a huge believer in Music’s untapped potential. She will forever provide us with that sacred place where we can be in harmony with ourselves and with the universe. All we need to do is allow Music into our hearts. And She will reward us generously. Yours Maxim Vengerov

Dmitri Shostakovich
(1906 – 1975)

Dmitri Shostakovich (25 September 1906 - 9 August 1975) was a Soviet Russian composer and one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. Shostakovich achieved fame in the Soviet Union under the patronage of Leon Trotsky's chief of staff, but later had a complex and difficult relationship with the Stalinist bureaucracy. In 1936, the government, most probably under orders from Stalin, harshly criticized his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, causing him to withdraw the Fourth Symphony during its rehearsal stages. Shostakovich's music was officially denounced twice, in 1936 and 1948, and was periodically banned. After a period influenced by Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky, Shostakovich developed a hybrid style, as exemplified by Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934). This single work juxtaposed a wide variety of trends, including the neo-classical style (showing the influence of Stravinsky) and post-Romanticism (after Gustav Mahler). Shostakovich's orchestral works include 15 symphonies and six concerti. His symphonic work is typically complex and requires large scale orchestras. Music for chamber ensembles includes 15 string quartets, a piano quintet, two pieces for a string octet, and two piano trios. For the piano he composed two solo sonatas, an early set of preludes, and a later set of 24 preludes and fugues. Other works include two operas, and a substantial quantity of film music.

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