main: February 2009 Archives
Let me share with you a memo from a Promotions Executive at Universal Music Group:
I have had a request from Int Tune (Radio 3) to have Tutula Bartley on the show today to discuss Christopher Ravens sad departure and to speak of her memories of him. I don't suppose she is around and in the UK
I have withheld the names of the parties to this correspondence and reprinted the document verbatim. At first sight, I thought it must be someone on the pop side of Universal who had never heard of Ms Bartoli and Mr Raeburn. But no: the person who wrote this missive actually works as an executive for the classical side of Universal.
She knows not Cecilia Bartoli, fancy that. What of Luciano Epiglottis, Joan Scuttlebutt and George Shorty? Are there no limits to Universal ignorance?
Chris Roberts, head of the UCJ division, insists that Decca is still functioning and that its artists are valued assets. This memo, and much else, gives the lie to that. I must get some of those Tutula Bartley records.
Today is the funeral of Jimmy Lock, the last defender of the Decca Sound. May he rest with the immortals.
John Adams's opera Doctor Atomic had its fifth production and UK premiere at English National Opera last night. It is, I think, deepening with each exposure and every aspect of the ENO performance was polished by the experience gained by director Penny Woolcock and several cast members at the Met, Amsterdam and elsewhere.
What came over more searingly than on the DVD pre-release was the diversity of styles that Adams adopts, one for each scene of the first act. He starts with the language of Berg's Lulu, segues into the English hymnody of Herbert Howells and Benjamin Britten and emerges in a post-minimalist instrumental patter and a vocal line somewhere between Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. This is high opera, and no mistake, sometimes a little too high on its own aspirations.
The story of the Los Alamos scientists who conducted the first nuclear test is dramatically told. When Edward Teller informs the General that he does not know if the blast will knock out New Mexico or the whole human race, he does not exaggerate. The excitement and danger of science is everywhere in this piece, the driving force on stage. Even the drop curtain displays the periodic table.
What I miss is the sense of dislocation. The core scientists were Hungarian Jews who belong in a cafe, not a desert. Their intellectual and emotional lives are absent. Personal qualities are invisible and Peter Sellars' script is often too wordy. Read Kati Marton for context.
Gerald Finley is outstanding as the project director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who sold his soul to the war effort, and Sasha Cooke is fetching as his wife Kitty. Both characters need more script development. A purple dress is not enough to express sexual frustration. Jonathan Veira as the General adds menace to the experiment.
ENO's orchestra has not sounded this wonderful for a long time and the young conductor Lawrence Renes was intensity personified. The atmosphere in the house was almost epochal and the ovation for Adams was the loudest of all.
Doctor Atomic is real opera. It sets you thinking and sometimes touches the heart.
She was only doing her job.
She was a late stand-in for the pregnant Nicole Kidman.
She was just obeying director's orders.
She would prefer to be remembered for films she made after the war.
Kate Winslet cannot be faulted in The Reader. She spoke the lines she was given and acted to the best of her immaculate ability. I did not intend here to diminish her triumph.
My problem is with the film itself, specifically with David Hare's clumsy and anachronistic script which dispels whatever intellectual quest was to be found in Bernhard Schlink's novel into a simplistic bluperint for vindication.
As a stand-alone, the film could be dismissed as an aberration. But allied to other historically distortive works of the moment, in particular to Jonathan Littell's odious novel The Kindly Ones, The Reader leads a dangerous drift towards even-handedness in the treatment of the Nazi attempt to wipe out large sections of the human race.
Instead of regarding the Holocaust as a matter of pure evil, we are invited to understand mass murderers, to sympathise with their situation - 'I am a man like other men ... a man like you', says Littell's perpetrator - and to regard the victims as either dispensable or insignificant.
Once the wickedness of Hitler's plan is compromised in this way, it is only a short step to acceptance that there must have been good and bad on both sides, just cause for the victims to be killed. We are on the threshhold here of moral equivalence.
That Oscar gave great pleasure to millions of racists and revisionists. Kate Winslet ought to feel some shame for accepting it. A visit to the Holocaust Museum would be a good start on the road to reflection.
My heart sank to see Kate Winslet getting the best actress Oscar for her role in The Reader. Nothing to do with her acting, which was restrained to the point of inertia, nor to the way she looked on screen, which was seductive as ever.
The problem is the subject and the present context. The Reader is one of a present wave of works that is retweaking the Holocaust to a perpetrator perspective. The most pernicious is Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones which retells the war through the eyes of a Jew-killer.
The Reader is not far behind, suggesting through Winslet's performance - as I have written in a Littell review in today's Evening Standard - that 'a persuasive Kate Winslet conveys in her curvaceous nudity and expressionless enunciation the ugly falsehood that concentration camp murderers were ordinary people like you and me, only prettier.'
The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi takes issue on rather different grounds with Tom Cruise's revisionism in Operation Valkyrie. And I have further problems with Daniel Craig, in Defiance, as with Bernhard Schlink's original novel.
What we are dealing with here is not Holocaust denial. Far from it. The common angle of approach of all these works is to suggest that anyone can commit genocide - you, me, or the girl at number three. The danger here is not delusionism on an Iranian Ahmedinejad scale. Rather it is the normalisation of a maniacal moment in history - a normalisation which, if it is allowed to persist unchecked, will assist and precipitate the next holocaust.
Kate Winslet did her job as an actress. She won an Oscar. She is moved to tears by that accolade.
She should be ashamed of her role and afraid of its insidious influence on warped and vulnerable minds.
James Lock's funeral will take place this Friday in Golders Green and Christopher Raeburn's the following Friday in Amersham. I guess the Universal Music Group will send a wreath or two.
After repeated inquiries from musicians and members of the music profession as to why Decca had not issued any notice of the deaths of its last backroom legends, an external publicist was contracted to put together a press release at the very end of the working week - and almost a week after Jimmy died.
The press release, needless to say, was as personal as a parking ticket. It was constructed around a paragraph from Universal Classics and Jazz chief Chris Roberts, who gave no intimation of having met either man. Its opening sentence, a semi-literate sales blurb, is about as far you need to read:
Christopher and James' legacies are incalculable as both worked for decades on hundreds of recordings that will always be listened to and enjoyed by millions of people.
How absolutely miserable that none of the remaining staff at Decca was allowed by the bonus-chasers at Universal head office to offer anything like the personal tributes that former colleagues are contributing here and elsewhere.
Valerie Solti has posted a fond tribute to James Lock on the Gramophone website.
And an aide of Luciano Pavarotti has been in touch to say how much he loved Jimmy and Christopher Raeburn, staying in touch almost till the day he died.
If any readers want to share personal memories of Jimmy and Christopher, from within the Decca studio or one of those famously indiscreet lunches, do use the comment space below as a message board.
If your life was changed by one of their records, likewise let us know.
I don't expect Universal Music Group to commemorate their legacy.
a friend in London, who was at the Royal Festival Hall last night, reports :-
See LATE EXTRA below
The sad news has just reached me of the deaths, within days of each other, of the last two stalwarts of the Decca golden age - Jimmy Lock, the chief sound engineer, and Christopher Raeburn, the label's driving-force producer.
Jimmy was in the throes of selling his north London house and moving to work in a Portuguese studio when he was found dead by a visiting estate agent. He had joined the label in 1963 and advanced the famous Decca Sound into digital and beyond. Sir Georg Solti, I seem to recall, had great respect for his ears and great affection for his character.
Christopher joined Decca in 1954 and, as I related here, was conscripted almost immediately into John Culshaw's Ring project in Vienna, the first studio recording of the Wagner cycle. He could have succeeded Culshaw as head of the label by chose not to compete with the shadowy Ray Minshull. From 1975 he was Decca's director of opera productions. His greatest discovery was Cecilia Bartoli but he also worked happily over the years with Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Renee Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu and other Decca properties. Unusually for a Decca man, he was notably fond of female company. He stopped taking phone calls early this month, dying discreetly of lung cancer.
Why are you reading of their deaths here? Because no-one at Decca has put out a press release on the passing of these company lions. Decca, as I've reported, has been eviscerated by corporate paper-shifters at its Universal owners and no longer functions coherently.
Decca, sad to say, is deader than Jimmy and Chris, whose work will live on. The label has lost its classical core, its educational drive, most of its staff and the last relics of its soul. Hard-copy evidence of the Decca Sound and the Decca style will outlast the label's bonus-seeking executioners.
LATE EXTRA: BBC Radio 3 have responded to this blog by invting Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge to reminisce about Raeburn and Lock on In Tune tonight. If you miss the live tx, you can pick it up later on streaming.
If you read the small print in The Times newspaper tomorrow, you will find the announcement of an engagement between Gus Christie, 45, master of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, and the soprano Danielle de Niese, supreme in steely and determined baroque roles.
The pair have been an item for about four years and De Niese, Australian born of Dutch and Sri Lankan parentage, has left critics and audiences breathless with admiration pretty much every time she steps on stage.
Last summer, she told my colleague Fiona Maddocks in the Evening Standard: "People keep referring to me as the chatelaine of Glyndebourne. I just love that expression, chatelaine," de Niese hoots. "But I'm not. Actually I still live with my parents in New Jersey. Gus and I are having a lovely time getting to know each other. We see each other when we can. I'm travelling so much, that's not always easy.'
It sounds like they've made it easy, after all.
Congratulations to Gus and Danielle. Life, like opera, is not always what you plan.
This just in from a veteran Decca producer:
The editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has written a tender-hearted feature about his former schoolteacher, Derek Bourgeois, a composer who claims a British national record for writing the most symphonies.
With 44 in his folder, Bourgeois is well ahead of the unstoppable William Havergal Brian, who composed 32 symphonies, two-thirds of them between the ages of 78 and 96. One of Brian's works, the Gothic, drew a twitter of attention when it was taken up by a member of the Grateful Dead - I once discussed structure and tempo with Phil Lesh - but for the most part these mass-production outpourings seem destined to remain unheard.
Bourgeois, who had an early symphony performed by Adrian Boult, ascribes his neglect to the 'avant-garde', which seems unfair. He is a versatile composer with a solid career. A soundtrack for the BBC's dramatisation of Mansfield Park lingers in my ear and there's a trombone concerto on my shelf, recorded by Christian Lindberg. Does it not occur to him that, as he piles symphony upon symphony, musicians will shy away from sheer volume and give the whole lot a miss?
He is by no means the only man who cannot stop writing symphonies. The Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam, a full-bearded master of orchestras, has composed 215 symphonies, ten of them in the month of August 2008 alone. Segerstam is an exceptionally skilled interpreter, able to pull together a last-mi nute performance with a minimum of fuss. What is it that makes him carry on writing symphonies, and listing them at the Finnish Music Information Centre? Does he not appreciate that a snowball would stand greater chance of success and longevity in Dante's Inferno?
Myself, I blame Papa Haydn. The format he invented for the symphony is so inviting that, like a cake mould, anyone with the right technique feels obliged to fill it. Haydn wrote 104 symphonies, certainly too many. 'He was the father of us all,' said Mozart. And so say Derek Bourgeois, Leif Segerstam, William Havergal Brian and all.
It's all over, bar the paper shuffling.
In response to my column last week, the Universal Music Group issued a statement confirming that Decca's crossover output will be absorbed into the parent company's UCJ. It maintains that the label itself will remain 'active' and that London will continue to be its 'creative centre'. It names this process 'realignment', which I shall promptly add to my growing lexicon of recession-era synonyms for corporate elimination.
The facts are simple. Without crossover, Decca is dead. Its pop side has been defunct for years and its few extant classical artists - Renee Fleming, Julia Fischer, Erwin Schrott - are being shunted over to Universal's other property, Deutsche Grammophon.
Conversations with staff members suggest that all that will remain is an office front, one desk-jockey without a budget and a PA to answer the phone. A helpful cross-poster from the classical music forum brightcecilia comes up with much the same conclusion.
The death of Decca may be inevitable in present economic circumstances and it is certainly very sad. But, by covering up with factoids, euphemisms and simulations of continuing life, the bonus-seekers at Universal merely sustain the corporate make-believe that brought Decca to its knees in the first place. Some day Universal's head of classics and jazz will be called to account for demolishing a sub-culture by a thousand cuts over a dozen years. Maybe Georg Solti will come back to haunt the vandals from his Hungarian resting-place. Or Pavarotti's ghost will rise to sit on them. He knows where they live.
The story I broke in my Evening Standard column yesterday that the Decca record label is about to be shut down has kept me in phone calls and emails all day.
Producers phoned from London, Paris and Vienna to question the motives of Bogdan Roscic, the not-terribly-active Decca chief who jumped to a non-job in Sony the moment he heard his label was for the scrapheap. A Universal insider called to suggest that Chris Roberts, president of classical and jazz, may himself be heading for termination.
And the production team behind Julia Fischer's new album protested that, while they have no idea what it takes to create a Decca sound they are, at Polyhymnia, the last of the Philips studio team. Sic transit gloria mundi - or, there goes another one. And just in case you have forgotten, it is all predicted here.
One of the day's most interesting comments came from Rainer Mockert who, after 20 years in feature films, became involved in producing classical music DVDs.
Here, in part, is what Rainer says about the record bosses:
I was shocked at the level of some people in the top management of the former important labels. I recognised that these people think and act only in short term profit, based on a few artists who are very good but not good enough on a long term. It reminded me of discussions with brokers on Wall Street, when I produced the only feature of Peter Sellars during a small recession in the 1990s. Their only interest was how to secure their BMW's or second/third apartments, by handling other people's money. The black humor line from this time I never forget: Your money is not lost it only belongs to somebody else. This is true again today and has reached the classic music world.
I am not worried about classic music and what is happening right now is probably refreshing and renewing the business. The big record companies totally forgot to support talent, they only invested in shooting stars who are forgotten in a few
I am not worried about the violinist from Munich you are talking about because she is not only very good she seems also very secure about herself and what is important for her as an performer and artist.
You might ask, why I am very positive about classic music. Since I am back in this world I saw during the last 18 months some brilliant stagings of operas, which are attracting younger audiences. I left the music world after I produced the Mozart/DaPonte/Sellars cycle and Peter's GIULIO CESARE in the early 90s because everybody started to copy him like 10 years earlier Chereau ( I was a young line producer on this RING at UNITEL). Peter was for sure also influenced by Jonathan Miller's RIGOLETTO at the ENO, but he worked out his own way.
I started 14 months ago to produce live recordings for dvd and tv of operas which were never done before or very seldom or very different to existing ones. We are just finishing the postproduction of the Weimar RING. Not a staging like most of the other 10 RING's I saw since the Chereau RING, which very often looked like Cirque du Soleil productions.
Two nights late due to snowfall and a dozen years after he last held the stage, Jonathan Miller's production of Boheme opened last night at English National Opera. It was about forty watts short of full power.
Miller, as he made clear, shifted the setting to Brassai's monochrome 1930s Paris of stony-eyed tarts and wall-faced punters. The visuals worked well on the whole and Isabella Bywater's gray-white colour scheme was seasonally apt.
The flaw was Miller's decision to position Rodolfo and his chums not as struggling artists but as spoilt Withnail rich kids who are slumming it as bohos for a couple of years before sprucing up for a job in Daddy's business. That conceit, eliminating existential need, created an artificiality in the love relationships and cost the show heavily in emotional impact. The hankies did not come out until very late in Act Four.
Alfie Boe was a sweet-voiced, unimposing Rodolfo while Melody Moore sang a serviceable Mimi who never occupies centre stage. Roland Wood was a restrained Marcello, his restraint the more obvious for the exuberance of Hanan Alattar's Musetta. This Lebanese-American soprano, on debut, is definitely one to watch. Miguel Hart-Bedoya conducted, inflexibly for my taste. There was no rubato, no hint of momentary inspiration in any quarter.
I wonder whether television was not partly to blame for the feeling that we were at a general rehearsal rather than a first night. The show was filmed, front stage and back, on two channels of Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV. Was it in order to manage the close-ups that the lights dimmed on stage at crucial moments, casting Rodolfo and Mimi's faces in shadow through scenes of love and parting? Is the Coliseum on an energy-saving scheme?
More light, I wanted to shout. Where the hell is Goethe when we really need him?
No matter: Boheme will run and run, at www.eno.org
English National Opera are offering best seats for tomorrow's opening night of Jonathan Miller's new Boheme for as little as £20 - a saving of £59 they shout, in a last-minute email.
Just click online - www.eno.org - and you could be rubbing shoulders with the Great and the Good - you know, like the new chairman of the Arts Council, a gaggle of critics, some out-of-work actors and leading insolvency practitioners.
The premiere night has, admittedly, been postponed by two nights because of snow (let's not go there again).
But if ENO are having to give away best seats to its top draw for as little as one Adam Smith note (about $27 in greenbacks) it's not just the snow that's keeping folks at home. This could be turning into a box-office winter of severe discontent.
An excited reader has notified me that Playboy magazine is running a feature titled Too Hot to Handel: the sexiest babes in classical music.
Before you waste a moment's click on the site, let me assure you that all of them are decorously clad. Along with the all-too predictable Anna Netrebko and Danielle de Niese, Playboy has selected violinists Leila Josefowicz, Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen, Hilary Hahn and Anne-Sophie Mutter, the last in a photograph that must have been taken at least ten years ago, or in very flattering light. Ms Mutter is described as Austrian - she's German - and a MILF, which is a term that does not bear cultural elucidation.
Two relative unknowns are included. One is the oboist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the other, perhaps, someone's girlfriend.
All good clean fun, right? Wrong.
Let me tell you a story. Ten years ago, a Finnish violinist called Linda Lampenius allowed herself to be talked into posing nude for Playboy under the stage name Linda Brava. Her centrefold appearance landed an EMI record contract and an avalanche of media attention. Her first record reached number 14 in the UK charts and there was no follow-up. She was taken up as a talent by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, and quickly dropped. She appeared on Baywatch, just the once.
A victim of unrealistic expectations, Linda went through years of turmoil before making her way back home to Finland, where a producer friend of mine recorded her some months ago playing chamber music - rather well, he said. The story has a happy ending. Linda, 38, is expecting her first baby in the coming weeks. Let's wish her well.
The Playboy experience is not to be recommended as a means of advancing a musical career. It's exploitation, that's the bare truth. Don't bother to look.
For the first time I can remember, an opera premiere in London has been cancelled by severe weather. The snow is six inches thick on the ground and Jonathan Miller's keenly awaited return to the Coliseum will have to be awaited until Wednesday, as English National Opera cannot guarantee getting its employees - let alone the audience - safely home to bed.
Such a shame. Three thousand people could have sung along to 'your tiny hand is frozen'.
Whatever happened to Spirit of the Blitz?
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