Friday 21 April 2017

Harpsichordists at War

At the risk of coming off like another, more salacious music blog, I bring news of an astonishing broadside fired between harpsichordists. I don’t much care for the harpsichord and its repertoire, but the rapid rise of Mahan Esfahani hasn’t escaped the notice of my twitter timeline. He added to his trophy cabinet with victory in the BBC Music Magazine Awards’ instrumental category for his DG Goldberg Variations, but it seems his high public profile has not been universally popular among colleagues. An interview with Van Magazine this month led to a blistering response from fellow period-keyboardist Andreas Staier, who’s clearly been holding it in for a while:

“He’d sell his soul for a little publicity. A little calm would be much better. But he can’t afford it. His fame and his career have more to do with his words than with his music.”

There’s a lot more, which you can read here. It’s a patient and careful takedown from someone who really knows what he’s talking about that – though it’s certain Esfahani won’t see it like that. What piqued my interest particularly, though, was his criticism of the classical music press:

“The press is at fault here too. In none of the interviews I cited was a single critical follow-up question asked. And the media has such a short attention span that contradictory and inconsistent statements are ignored even if they occur within just weeks of one other.”

I’ll no doubt sound like yet another blog if I dwell for long on the media-PR complex that constitutes the vast majority of words written about classical music, but suffice it to say, Staier has a very valid point.

Now, I promise not to live-tweet the ensuing historically-informed flame war.

Saturday 8 April 2017

The Lost City and Found Music of Z

Whenever I go to the cinema (which has been quite a bit lately) I have at least half an ear trained on the score. This is hardly surprising, given that this is a music blog, but I am often dismayed by how little attention is paid to film music by a lot of mainstream film criticism. I don’t think I’ve read any reviews that mention quite how music is used in the film The Lost City of Z (out now in the UK and I think coming shortly to the US), and perhaps the failure to notice the snatches of Ravel and Stravinsky that pop up in the film reveals something about the musical tastes of most film critics.

The Lost City of Z is a slow, meditative account of the Amazonian explorations of Percy Fawcett who, in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, paid three visits to the Bolivian jungle and became convinced he’d stumbled across the remains of an ancient civilisation. The film touches on the uproar caused by his theories, the implication being that an ancient and advanced culture tucked away in the rainforest would challenge the then-prevalent assumptions about the unique achievements of European “civilisation” (very much used in the singular).

It’s not done that well in the UK and I can see its pacing and fragmented narrative diminishing its commercial appeal, but I liked the film a lot. It looked to me like director James Gray wanted to achieve something of the tone of the infamous box-office failure Heaven’s Gate (which I actually rather like), with perhaps a touch of Terrence Malick on a good day. The lead, Charlie Hunnum, is something of an uncharismatic presence, but some fine supporting roles, particularly Sienna Miller and Ian McDiarmid, make amends.

The music, though. I had a dawning realisation during an early scene, that the chugging of a train was underpinned by a certain famous driving and stabbing moment from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I kept waiting for the next bit, but it became clear that it had been recomposed to peter out in a gentle, conventionally filmic way that left me a little troubled. Why troubled? I’m well aware that existing music is used all the time as background score in films and television. Doesn’t The Rite of Spring, though, deserve more than being repurposed as a musical backdrop, as though its only so-many-feet of filler? It’s not as though the use of the music suggested any meta-textual meaning, in the way that pop songs often do in film, nodding or winking at the audience to make a connection not otherwise apparent.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe – specifically the glorious sunrise – gets a more extensive outing, suggesting the heavenly wonder of the jungle towards the end of the film. The filmmakers have, though, chopped it and looped it to avoid reaching the music’s climactic point too early, which rather took me out of the moment. The use of the music seems more justified, particularly given that they’d have struggled to find a film composer who could match Ravel’s abilities. In this case, it’s been sensibility and mostly respectfully handled, but I’m sure the composer of the rest of the film’s music, Christopher Spelman, could have come up with some chugging, driving music to avoid the repurposing of Stravinsky’s incendiary masterpiece.

It’s a very good film and well worth seeing in the cinema, if you can. In an age of franchise megablockbusters, it’s heartening to see films like this can still be made, films that don’t pander to short attention spans and formulaic plotting. If filmmakers are going to appropriate great classical music, though, I’d like to think it’s because the moment really demands it.

Saturday 1 April 2017

Some thoughts on the passing of Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I was just this evening thinking about Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The collaboration with Dmitri Shostakovich which, I think, will come to be seen as the defining moment of his career, happened early in his life. His poem Babi Yar, about the massacre of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis in 1941, piqued the interest of the Russian composer, who selected a few more of 
Yevtushenko’s poems and set them in his 13th Symphony. The 1962 premiere was beset with problems. First, the great conductor and frequent Shostakovich collaborator, Yevgeny Mravinsky, withdrew his cooperation and refused to perform the work’s premiere. Then, Shostakovich and replacement conductor Kirill Kondrashin had to contend with their first choice of bass soloist being removed from the performance by the authorities, and the premiere only went ahead because the understudy happened to have turned up unexpectedly at the final rehersal. Yevtushenko, whose reputation was made by Babi Yar, demonstrated tremendous bravery by refusing to be cowed by Nikita Khrushchev at a meeting the night before the premiere. Khrushchev angrily stated that the poem had no place in the Soviet Union; Yevtushenko retorted that challenging anti-Semitism could only “enhance the authority of our country”.

I was thinking about all of this because, as those who know me must be tiring of hearing, I’ve been working on a fictionalised version of this period of Shostakovich’s life, and it just so happened that I had been mulling over the scene in which Yevtushenko arrives at Shostakovich’s apartment to hear a run-through of the 13th Symphony. For both men, the moment of their collaboration marked their most overt acts of political dissention. Shostakovich had always toyed with dissent but, to the frustration of some contemporaries, often retreated from a principled anti-authority sentiment, or submerged it in irony and double meaning. Yevtushenko seemed to be the most courageous of a younger generation of brave Soviet artists, but the trajectory of his career frustrated many when he too moved away from outspoken criticism of the regime. The first signs of this came when Yevtushenko acquiesced to official demands by removing references to Judaism and the Jewish victims of Babi Yar in the poem, instead emphasising Russian suffering.

Shostakovich, Kondrashin and Yevtushenko, in 1962

For some, including the Russia soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, this was the beginning of the end of Yevtushenko’s dissident credentials. In her autobiography, she reacted to the revision of Babi Yar by saying:

“He quickly learned how to pander to any taste, how to keep his nose in the wind, how to know when to bow and when to straighten up. Thus he swung from side to side, from Babi Yar to the Bratsk GES or, even more exaggeratedly, to Kamaz, in which the toadyism is enough to make one nauseous.”

Bratsk GES and Kamaz were, respectively, poems in celebration of a hydroelectric power station and a car factory. Vishnevskaya goes on:

“And when no one expected anything good from him any longer, he suddenly appeared on the speaker’s platform at a meeting of the Komsomol aktiv in the Halls of the Columns of the Palace of Unions – a meeting dedicated to the memory of the poet Esenin – and flattened everyone with his remarkable poem:

“…Dear Enenin, old Russia has changed…
…When the ruddy Komosomol chief
Thundered at us poets with his fist

“The meeting was televised live and nationwide. Judging from how soon afterward the government sent him off to some construction project, he must have taken quite a drubbing.”

Vishnevskaya then describes Yevkushenko visiting the Paris apartment of her and her husband Rostropovich, after their defection. Vishnevskaya had by this time built up quite a head of steam over what she saw as the poet’s double standards, which she unleashed on him over dinner. How could he write what he did while ordinary people suffered in the Soviet Union? Yevtushenko seems to have been amused by her moral indignation, offering no real defence. Vishnevskaya was, ultaimtely, torn between her own outrage and an understanding of the powerlessness of the individual against the forces of ideology. She ends her account with this incredible passage:

“In this vast, monstrous theatre, with our faces twisted by underground jargon, we Soviets wriggle and squirm for one another. We are actors by compulsion, not by calling, in an amateur theatre run by no one. And all our lives, we perform our endless, pathetic comedy. There are no spectators, only participants. Nor is there a script, only improvisation. And knowing neither plot nor denouement, we act.”

There’s a long and fascinating biography to be written about Yevtushenko that would take in his film career and election to public office in 1989, but two final thoughts relate to education. Yevtushenko’s last years were spent teaching literature at the University of Tulsa and I wonder if some of his students really understood the magnitude of his achievements and the import of the events through which he lived. I stumbled across some reviews of his teaching on, which are amusing and unexpectedly revealing of a great man freed from previous strictures:

“YY's classes are probably the easiest classes you can take at TU. That said, he is very difficult to listen to. He goes off on tangents the majority of the class that don't seem related to the subject material. Also, he doesn't have a syllabus because he believes they are "too constraining" for his class. Easy class, but take with a grain of salt.”


“yevtushenko is the most hilarious man in Oklahoma and slightly subtracts from the redneck nature of this two-bit town. go see him on stage... history at your fingertips. Funniest thing is when he handed out a biography of himself before the class started, what a trip!!”


“If you can't get an A in this guy's class you are a total moron. furthermore he is a good guy and passionate about his work. One warning...if he likes your paper, you have to read in front of the whole class. Keep that in mind when you write your papers.”


“insane. likes to make fun of people, i.e. me every night. however, he is fun and a breath of fresh air at this odd school-- just take the class you will get an A and you will have stories to tell your grankiddies! He once turned on a projector with an umbrella he spent 19 minutes looking for in his car. whacko poet.”

And so on.

Lastly, as a teacher, I have taken genuine inspiration from this poem, called Lies.

Telling lies to young people is wrong.
Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
Telling them that God’s in his heaven
and that all’s well with the world is wrong.
The young know what you mean. The young are people.
Tell them that the difficulties can’t be counted
and let them see not only what will be
but see with clarity these present times.
Say obstacles exist they must encounter
sorrow happens, hardship happens.
To hell with it. Who never knew
the price of happiness will not be happy.
Forgive no error you recognise,
It will repeat itself, increase,
and afterwards our pupils
will not forgive in us what we forgave.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1932-2017