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What European Identity? Part 2 – Classical Music Edition

European Union Youth Orchestra

How can we possibly continue to enjoy Beethoven or watch touring European orchestras perform in evil, isolationist Brexit Britain?

Today’s Peak Guardian article is an account of an interview recently given by the legendary pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy to the Observer newspaper, in which Ashkenazy urges classical musicians to “keep up British links with Europe in the face of Brexit”.

A distilled summary of the Guardian’s breathless spin: Brexit gravely threatens Britain’s continued participation in the international arts and culture scene, but if enough brave musicians come together in a spirit of cooperation then it may be possible to ride out the gravest threat to Europe since World War 2 and the Cold War.

From the piece:

Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the most revered figures in classical music, has called on musicians to strive to keep up British links with Europe in the face of Brexit. The great Russian conductor and pianist, who made his name as a soloist in the 1960s and 70s, spoke passionately to the Observer about his continued faith in European culture.

“Music will win in the end,” he said, speaking publicly on the subject for the first time. “After all, music is not just an exercise in making sounds. It is a reflection of our joint spiritual endeavours.”

Comparing Britain’s impending split with Europe to other political schisms of the 20th century, such as the rise of fascism and the cold war, Ashkenazy, 79, said he was optimistic that those who love making music together will find a way to keep connections going across the Channel. “I am sorry about it, and I know it will be difficult to get used to a totally different situation, but for musicians many things will remain the same, simply because we will work to find a way to make agreements for the sake of music,” he said.

Many British classical musicians expect Brexit to set up new travel barriers and present fresh difficulties for orchestras receiving EU funding. The potential threat to free travel for working musicians has already prompted the European Union Baroque Orchestra to announce a move to Belgium this summer. It has been based in Oxfordshire since 1985. Meanwhile, the well-regarded European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) is considering a move to the continent after 40 years in Britain.

Of course, this feeds nicely into the Guardian’s (and the entire British metro-Left’s) little conceit that by extricating ourselves from a dysfunctional and failing supranational political union we are also somehow hacking away at the cultural and historical ties which bind us to the continent, and so naturally they seize on the Ashkenazy interview as a perfect example of how enlightened artists can help to save Britain from the brutish and self-destructive decision made by the Evil 52%.

Now, Vladimir Ashkenazy is not particularly to blame for any of this. If you want somebody to play a Rachmaninov prelude in such a dazzling way that it makes your hair stand on end and brings a lump to your throat then Ashkenazy is your very man. If, however, you want somebody to give you a good overview of geopolitics and assess the relative failings and merits of the European Union, then you are probably better off turning to someone else. So the point is not that Ashkenazy is wrong (and even he is generous enough to admit that Brexit is slightly less evil than Soviet communism, which is very kind) – that much is entirely forgivable, given that he is operating far from his natural competencies.

No, the problem is the entirely predictable way that the Guardian picks up this narrative and unquestioningly burnishes and amplifies it without stopping even for a moment to consider the validity of the point being made. Where they could take a step back and actually seek to educate their readers about a whole bunch of issues touching on this story, instead they strut and pose and play to the gallery, feeding them the self-affirming story that they expect rather than the hard dose of reality that they might actually benefit from hearing.

The Guardian could have dwelled for a moment on exactly why cross-border co-operation in classical music is supposedly imperilled by Brexit (giving more concrete examples than the unspoken and unprovable suggestion that Britain would deliberately make it harder for talented musicians to tour or work here). But instead, they uncritically write about how musicians will bravely “find a way to keep connections going across the Channel” without stopping for a moment to consider the fact that British orchestras and ensembles tour numerous non-EU countries in the world without the protective shelter of political union, while many non-European ensembles somehow make it to the BBC Proms and give numerous other performances in Britain despite their musicians lacking EU passports.

But the ulterior motive soon becomes clear when the article bemoans the relocation of the European Union Baroque Orchestra and the European Union Youth Orchestra, two EU propaganda outlets funded by taxpayers to instil in us a sense of European identity which still stubbornly fails to materialise. In London, with so many preeminent ensembles already located here, did we ever really need these two explicitly political additions to our cultural scene? No, of course not – and the Guardian’s duplicitous attempts to upgrade these obscure ensembles to “major orchestra” status is straining the boundary of journalistic integrity. Their sole purpose was to indoctrinate the young and cause us to associate the European Union with benevolent funding of the arts rather than their tawdry, relentless attacks the nation state.

(The EU Baroque Orchestra has a slightly more successful legacy of seeding other baroque ensembles with past alumni, work which can continue in their new Belgian home.)

None of this is to deny the value of youth orchestras – I was a member of one myself for several years, and greatly enjoyed the opportunities for performance and collaboration that it afforded me – but the EU’s propaganda outlets are neither central to the British classical music scene nor an essential bridge to Europe. Take them away and nothing really changes.

Compare the EU’s musical propaganda outlets with a far more worthy exercise in cross-cultural bridge-building, Daniel Barenboim’s West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, and I know which I would rather preserve – the one which seeks to promote peace and cross-cultural understanding in the turbulent Middle East, not the one which uses European taxpayer funds to shore up a creaking, failing 1950s regional super-bloc.

The United States, by contrast, does not need to keep itself together by funnelling federal money into youth orchestras in a desperate attempt to inculcate a sense of American-ness. And while many pertinent criticisms can be made about funding of the arts in America, it must also be acknowledged that many of the finest ensembles and artistic companies in the world – the Metropolitan Opera, the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the New York City Ballet, as well as the feeder schools, companies and institutions which mould the next generation of artists – are based in the United States and do not have to suckle at the teat of taxpayer funding in order to survive.

When government does not try to do everything, private initiative and private philanthropy are often able to step in to do the job far more successfully and lavishly. They need only be given the space to do so – but the EU has no interest in getting out of the way and allowing the arts to flourish on their own, because then the results would not bear the imprimatur of Brussels and thus would have zero propaganda value.

Is the threat posed by Brexit to the European Union Youth Orchestra a good reason to scrap the whole endeavour and remain part of the EU? Of course not.

Has the European Union Youth Orchestra done anything to meaningfully shift the sense of European identity among those who are not directly involved, or the misty-eyed eurocrats who profaned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by co-opting the final movement as their anthem? No.

Does Britain’s departure from an explicitly political union necessarily or inevitably mean that artistic links between the United Kingdom and the continent must be weakened? No – or at least, the Guardian have given us no good cause to believe that there is a danger.

(Incidentally, Vladimir Ashkenazy himself lives in Switzerland, which is also famously not a member of the European Union, and yet seems to be able to maintain a fruitful international career including many concerts and residencies in Britain).

The whole Guardian article hangs together only if one is content to take the most superficial view of Brexit, skating around on the thin ice of metro-left shibboleths about how international cooperation and peace only exist thanks to the benevolent hand of Brussels. To take the threats spun from the Ashkenazy interview seriously, one must actually drink the Remainer Kool-Aid and believe that Brexit means isolationism, and in all its forms – economic, social, cultural. To be that cretinous, one must be an unapologetic bubble dweller, proud and stubborn in one’s ignorance of the opposing side.

But then that’s the Guardian for you: a newspaper tailor-made for poseurs who believe (or at least want to signal to their friends) that they already know and understand the nuances of every issue, and that the One True Way just conveniently happens to lean in the same stridently left-wing, pro-EU direction as their pre-existing beliefs.

Among Guardian journalists and readers alike there is zero intellectual appetite to actually get under the hood of any issue and talk about the meaning of democracy and self-determination, whether state funding or private philanthropy does a better job of funding the arts or any other substantial question that is ripe for debate. They just want to take a glib headline and serve it up as red meat to their metro-left, superficially culturally literate peer group (see last year’s uncritical, months-long homage to the NHS).

And so what could have been a useful jumping-off point for a real discussion about the future of the fine arts, the best way to foster cross-border co-operation and whether existing mechanisms of funding are a) effective, and b) a good use of taxpayer funds instead becomes just another wobbly-lipped ode to the Brave Artists Resisting Evil Brexit.

The only result of this “journalism” is that everyone is left slightly more attached to their pre-existing bias, while the opportunity to enrich the public discourse is squandered in favour of yet more left-wing, pro-EU virtue-signalling and alarmist Brexit catastrophisation.

Mission accomplished once again, Guardian. Great job.

 

Save EUYO - European Union Youth Orchestra - Propaganda

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Music For The Day

The spirit of New York City, in three movements

A complete performance of Concerto in F for piano by George Gershwin, performed here by Marc-André Hamelin with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin.

This is one of those more classical/less jazzy performances of the work, which I actually quite like – I went so far as purchasing the score and trying to get to grips with the piano part back in my Cambridge days, when I had regular access to a Steinway model B and D.

While the Tin Pan Alley heritage of the work is important, one can sometimes make it swing too much, I think, and many modern performances seek to emphasise the jazz aspect over the work’s classical structure and elements. Such performances overlook the fact that Gershwin wrote the concerto in part to burnish his credentials as a “serious” composer rather than a mere songwriter, going so far as to take lessons in orchestration rather than relying on Ferde Grofé to translate from a two-piano version (as he did for Rhapsody in Blue).

As Ileen Zovluck writes in describing the work:

The Concerto in F was a more ambitious project than the Rhapsody and took the composer several months to complete. The work was given a trial performance before its formal premiere in 1925 by Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra at the Aeolian Hall, with Gershwin at the piano. The critic Samuel Chotzinoff wrote “Of all those writing the music of today…he alone actually expressed us.” Like the Rhapsody, the Concerto also uses sharp contrasts but its integration through cyclic form and thematic transformation reflect Gershwin’s study of 19th century techniques. More than the earlier Rhapsody, the Concerto forms a convincing whole, the impact of which derives as much from its entire structure as from its separate parts.

The exposition of the opening Allegro of the F major Concerto is a perfect example of the perception of sonata form. The components of the second lyrical theme recall the 18th century and is made up of a series of of ideas rather than a single theme. Gershwin varies these ideas with great resource and creativity, restating them and extending them into new shapes throughout the duration of the Concerto. These consist of three motifs: a wind and percussion fanfare, a Charleston melody and a dotted arpeggiated figure. These themes are expanded almost immediately, are filled with contrast, and no portion is thematically irrelevant. The development returns to F major and the Charleston motif, which eventually becomes its own subject in a miniature Moderato cantabile. The recapitulation is introduced unambiguously with a reprise of the second theme and closes with a quodlibet that made up the first theme. As in conventional sonata form, the two main themes are now stated in the tonic in a transposition that is formed by adding the subdominant to itself.

The Adagio second movement is a song form set as a rondo in A-B-A-C-A. In the context of faint praise, in the New York Times review of the first performance, Olin Downes managed to cite the refrain theme, “a stopped trumpet playing a ‘blue’ melody against a sensuous harmonic background,” as being “perhaps the best part of the concerto.” The lush melodies of the Adagio, paired with the lilting rhythm of the strings illustrate both similarities to the Rhapsody in Blue, yet still exhibit progressive composition not seen until Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

The connection between the Adagio and the Finale, marked Allegro agitato is very strong. Within this Finale, the composer shows us a rondo form from a more rhythmic point of view. In its form of an almost-classic rondo, the orchestra opens with a furious theme in G minor. Without any indication of modulation, the piano enters on F, initiating the second statement of the rondo refrain, now its home key. Gershwin employs the highly regarded “new” American technique of a dazzling stretto with bursts of technical wizardry before returning to the rondo of the second movement. The Finale reintroduces the initial theme to form its own climax before closing on a brief coda.

My favourite studio recording of this work remains the André Previn / LSO recording featuring then-principal trumpet Howard Snell in the second movement – again, a performance that I would consider more toward the classical end of the spectrum, despite Previn’s proficiency in jazz. The LSO brass were on their usual top form throughout this excellent recording, though some of the percussion is unfortunately drowned out at times.

For a more jazz-leaning performance, the New York Philharmonic’s season-opening concert this year, with Aaron Diehl at the piano and live-streamed on Facebook, was an excellent and equally enjoyable example.

 

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Music For The Day

One of my favourite pieces today, the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. Here we have the second movement, in a recording by Emil Gilels with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eugen Jochum.

Against some stiff competition, this remains my favourite recording of the work (though Radu Lupu gave it a run for its money in a live performance with the LSO / Colin Davis I attended at the Barbican back in 2002).

Listen to the piano’s final entrance, from 12’02” onwards, the delicate falling notes from 12’18” and the trills from 13′ leading to the hushed re-entry of the orchestra. Magical.

 

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Music For The Day

This Remembrance Sunday, take some time to switch off from “broadcast” mode and enjoy a few moments of quiet reflection

The second movement (Andante) of Samuel Barber’s violin concerto, Op. 14, performed by Hilary Hahn with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff.

As Michael Steinberg summarises in programme notes for the San Francisco Symphony:

The Andante begins with another inspired melody, this one given to the oboe. With touching tact, Barber lets the oboist bask in that glory, for the violin enters and occupies itself with quite different, more rhapsodic material; only at the recapitulation does the violin take the oboe theme, singing it molto espressivo low on the G-string. The coda, one of Barber’s most beautiful pages, is one of the products of the revision.

Listen to the whole piece here.

Now seems to be a particularly good time to enjoy the music of a quintessentially American composer. What were Samuel Barbers’ own personal political views? Would he be a Clintonite or a Trumpist if he were still alive and lived through the 2016 presidential election campaign? Would he believe that we are Stronger Together, or want to Make America Great Again? Would we consider Barber acceptably progressive or deeply intolerant by today’s standards?

Who cares? Today we know Barber as an American composer, not as a progressive or a conservative. Some things – like art, at its best – transcend our fierce little contemporary political debates. A point well worth keeping in mind on a day in which we recall that we are very much part of history, but blessed to be burdened with the the problems of 2016 rather than those of 1916 or 1936.

 

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The Age Of Anxiety

Now is the age of anxiety

Both professor and prophet depress,
For vision and longer view
Agree in predicting a day
Of convulsion and vast evil,
When the Cold Societies clash
Or the mosses are set in motion
To overrun the earth,
And the great brain which began
With lucid dialectics
Ends in a horrid madness.

W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

 

We are just back from a refreshing weekend away in Paris, where we were able to soak in some culture and indulge in excellent food.

If you find yourself in the vicinity, I strongly recommend a trip to Yam’Tcha for lunch or dinner. In an horrific act of oppressive cultural appropriation (…), chef Adeline Grattard makes an amazing dim sum style bun filled with molten Stilton cheese and cherry, a sublime Franco-Chinois combination that works so well that you just want to stuff one into the whining mouths of every little SJW on tumblr, only of course they are far too good to waste. It is a beautiful but small space, so you will need to book well ahead to get a table. Non-celebrities like us gave it a month.

We also took in an excellent exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie, entitled “The Age Of Anxiety“, a display of American art from the depression-era 1930s. The exhibited works (featuring paintings by Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Cadmus and Grant Wood, including the first overseas loan of “American Gothic” from the Art Institute of Chicago) give an insight into how different artists of the period captured or reacted to a period of great economic turbulence, uncertainty and (for many) deprivation.

The theme of the exhibit picked up the thread of my last blog post, in which I pondered why it is that Americans were able to endure the Great Depression with its attending sufferings and indignities without coming close to electing a hyper-authoritarian strongman as president, while today’s America may potentially elect Donald Trump to the presidency on Tuesday.

As I wrote last Thursday:

Now, this blog has every sympathy for many of Donald Trump’s supporters, who feel utterly let down by an American political class which has alternately pandered to them before betraying them, ignored them or held them in open contempt. And while this blog is very much pro free trade and managed immigration, the fact that Americans have not even had a choice when it comes to these issues based on the position of the two main parties is sufficient reason alone for the rise of a populist like Trump, albeit not necessarily a candidate with Donald Trump’s gargantuan personal flaws.

So yes, things are bad, and yes, the political class has not been responsive. But America managed to survive world war and economic depression in the twentieth century without coming this close to electing a dangerous authoritarian. Whatever afflictions the struggling “left behind” class said to make up much of Trump’s support may now be experiencing is nothing compared to the suffering of, say, the Dust Bowl. To react to these present circumstances by reaching for Donald Trump when their ancestors typically bore their tribulations far more stoically is in some way a reflection of American moral decline, which is very worrying indeed.

A few Trumpian defences immediately spring to mind – the fact that the stagnation of real wages and living standards among the squeezed middle is in some cases decades long now, leading to a much greater build-up of anger than was perhaps the case prior to 1929, or the fact that the alternative to Donald Trump is such a flawed candidate. But I think the criticism remains valid, and the question a pressing one.

Regardless: given that we are but two days away from the American presidential election in what is very much shaping up to be a 21st century age of anxiety, today’s Music For The Day is the Masque (Part 2, Section B) from Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety, performed here by the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, with pianist Kirill Gerstein.

This nervous, skittish piece with its odd syncopated rhythms and unpredictable air seems to perfectly encapsulate the current American political climate (and my mood).

I’ll be live-blogging the election results here on Semi-Partisan Politics on Tuesday night and through into Wednesday morning, while also hosting an election watch party and serving up some of Sam Hooper’s famous Buffalo chicken wings.

Do pour some strong coffee and join me.

 

 

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Bottom Image: New York Movie by Edward Hopper, 1939

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