Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Thinking about Daniel Barenboim’s recent assault on elevator music and the way in which major classical works are demeaned by their association with commercial products set me wondering why the great masterworks should appeal to the brand-mongers in the first place.

Perhaps we should be pleased that there are elements of these old-fashioned idioms that still have some appeal. Were I an incurable optimist, I might subscribe to the tiresome and ubiquitous view that such uses serve to popularise the genre. But having watched Nigel Kennedy traipse through the 80’s laden with the responsibility of bringing cultural discernment to the masses, which even then, was even less likely than Henman winning Wimbledon - I have no such illusions. [Kennedy now seems to be consigned to perpetual limbo, in which he is doomed to perform the 4 Seasons for the rest of eternity with a Polish Chamber Orchestra]. However, if as I suppose, it’s the characteristic sound and dynamism of orchestral music that appeals, more than the power of the musical composition itself, we can’t expect even this fascination to last much longer: sampling and recording technologies are idealising and stylising the sound of classical music so rapidly that for the great majority of people, the real acoustic experience of an orchestra within a concert hall will soon become an utterly alien and overly demanding experience.

So why, on the one hand, is classical music facing the claim that it needs to become more popular and less elitist, while on the other, marketing companies hi-jack it with the express intention of exploiting its appeal to the widest possible public. Is it just an overt attempt to inveigle middle class snobs into the dilettantism of associating their classy purchase with an overtly elitist art form - or is the 'sound of classical' now more appealing than the music?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Look Back in Anger

There’s a lot of talk about what ought to be done or what needs to be done to remedy the many and varied ills that thwart the progress and inhibit the evolution of classical music. The predominant view though, is that we’ve done OK thus far: if only we could maintain the status quo, and perhaps find a way of imbuing the art form with a tad more popularity. Few critics, practitioners, commentators, industry insiders or outsiders have the courage or conviction to declare that the musical world has gone horribly wrong – and not only slightly and recently - but profoundly, if not irrevocably.

John Boyden has no such inhibitions. As the founder of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra he’s clearly a man with a mission – to rescue the symphony orchestra from the grip of stylised mediocrity. A maverick he may be, but he’s not alone: he has the support of the entire New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, although its website, and the Edwardian floral design of its new CD give little indication of the revolutionary spirit contained within.

From the outset Boyden entreated the orchestra to take risks and to break the conventional boundaries:
“I don’t care if you don’t play together and I don’t mind if you are out of tune, but I care like hell if you don’t phrase. Every phrase must grow or die. We want none of the static quality that is now so widespread.”

But it’s not only the orchestra’s philosophy that sets it apart; its entire make up harks back to another era. The strings play on gut strings, the flutes are wooden, the 19th and early 20th century French oboes, clarinets and bassoons generally produce a much lighter more astringent texture than their lush modern counterparts. The natural horns, like the narrow bore brass, have a brighter tone than modern instruments that pierces the orchestral texture without overwhelming or submerging it.

It perhaps seems rather strange that performance practices, so fundamental to exponents of baroque music, have until now been largely ignored insofar as they concern the performance of 19th and 20th century repertoire. Boyden’s suggestion that the answer for this lies between the two evils [my adjective, not his] of Americanisation and the introduction of phonographic recording may be a sweeping generalisation but it does at least serve to introduce his other bête noire: classical music recording practices.

"Rather like cosmetic surgery, digital editing is most attractive to people desperate to appear in the best possible light. Once hooked on the idea that removing wrinkles leaves nothing behind but perfection, visits to the surgeon’s knife become routine. Yet, with each nip and tuck the humanity of the person is compromised. Control-freak record producers and their nervous artists are similarly drugged and will spend days and weeks nipping and tucking away at their recordings in an effort to present the smoothest possible surface to the world. No doubt, at one time such lack of incident was attractive to the critics, just as factory-engineered artifacts once seemed preferable over the handmade. Perhaps their hope is for a result so lacking in ‘flaws’ that critics are denied a chance to gain enough of a foothold to find specific fault. After all, the majority of fancy post-production work sets out to impress the critics with the infallibility of the team engaged in the recording rather than enhance the music being performed."

The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra’s recording, recorded live in Fairfield Halls Croydon, testifies to Boyden’s claim that unlike other so called live recordings, it really is the real unadulterated truth. The concept behind this enhanced CD [that also includes a veritable manifesto of ideas] aligns it more closely with the homespun records now so favoured by the pop music world than with the manicured consumer product wherein lies its heritage. The important difference being that these are not untrained amateurs striving to find a voice, but some of the industry’s consummate professionals railing at the status quo. The NQHO

“attracts many of London 's finest orchestral musicians, keen to enjoy the freedom denied them elsewhere.”

That the musicians of the NQHO have had the courage to release a warts-and-all performance is greatly to their credit: that they have dared to do so in our sterilised age of uniformity should earn them our thanks, praise and encouragement.