More local cultural knowledge:

One morning in Maida Vale studios, as the great Pierre Boulez was rehearsing the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he stopped and said suavely,

“Please, we play again from measure* 180.”

Brilliant cockney percussionist Gary Kettel, from the back of the orchestra, punched the air gleefully and screamed out,


Since Boulez’s broad erudition didn’t stretch to the world of UK darts, he was somewhat nonplussed [‘Ow you say in French?] by Gary’s recondite allusion to the fabled score of three triple 20s. Still, he and Gary always had the utmost respect for each other’s musicianship.


*Boulez always used the French word for “bar”. Endearingly, he called the cor anglais “ze English ‘orn”.

Mahler 9

Mahler 9 is always overwhelming in performance. The NYO Prom in 2015 was amazing (cf. here), and I’ve just heard Esa-Pekka Salonen doing it with the Philharmonia (reviewed here; cf. here; see also Harding’s Mahler 6 Prom).

I’ve got a lot of time for Salonen—and not just because of the wonderful story about his interview for the LA Phil job! There’s something special about composers (also including Boulez) conducting Mahler, some personal identification with his struggles. Mahler anyway foretold the whole torment of 20th-century history—his music atomized, fragmenting, ersterbend—and we can only hear the 9th symphony with our own ears (that link also referring to Taruskin; see also here). Mahler never got to conduct it, or even hear it; while it remains startlingly modern even today, it’s hard to believe that after its belated UK premiere in 1930 it wasn’t played in the USA (where Mahler was fêted even while he was composing it) until 1931. The symphony only became a pillar of the repertoire with the Mahler craze of the 60s—where I came in. Without entertaining any notions of the moral value of WAM, I have a fantasy of getting Chicago street gangs to sit through it.

Salonen brings out the Philharmonia’s talent for making chamber music amidst grand forces. Not having worked with him, I find him easy on the eye, and he looks comfortable to work with—more selfless, less anguished than Bernstein or Rattle, but far from the schoolmasterly air of Haitink or the aloof conductors of yore.

Anyway, like the Abschied, or Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen, Mahler 9 live is a devastating experience, not to be missed.

Mahler 9 end



Barbed comments

My dubious encomium for Rowan’s CV (The Feuchtwang variations, n.3) reminds me:

The brilliant Roy Mowatt (see under comments here), a real bedrock of the early music orchestral scene, has long tolerated my violin playing in the section he led. I treasure a remark he made to me over a beer or three in a piazza in Parma after a Mozart opera (evoking Hugh Maguire’s comment to Pete Hanson—“Pete, even if your strings are out, you must play in tune! Just do it wit’ your fingers!”):

Thing about you, Steve, is that it doesn’t make any difference if your strings are in tune!

You can take that either way, and I think he meant it both ways. I was quite adaptable; yet my intonation wasn’t necessarily helped by tuning up… Cf. “It was in tune when I bought it”.

While I’m in confessional mood, here’s another comment I might add to my CV. Just around that time, a certain maestro took me aside and observed suavely,

Steve, I can’t help noticing that you have a somewhat low threshold of boredom…


Photo © Jim Four.

Like the review of the Berlin Phil’s response to Simon Rattle, it lacks a certain nuance.


As Kate Fox observes, the creativity of the English language reveals itself at multiple levels.

The fragrant Gary Lineker recalls how the the team-mates of the footballer Kiki Musampa called him Chris (think about it). There are more where that came from, like Fitz Hall—known as One Size.

Brian Smith, a “straight” symphony-orchestra violinist who became a semi-detached admission to the rarefied early music scene in the 1980s, had a whole series of drôle nicknames for his new colleagues, making his conversation surreal: “I think Identikit’s gone off with Ironing Board”. Once word got round that I was making regular trips to China, I became The Missionary. He only used the real names of musos who had a life outside early music and thus qualified as Real People.

Conductors’ nicknames are another rich vein under the rubric of maestro-baiting. The great Charles Mackerras was known as Slasher—not an allusion to his conducting technique, but an abbreviation of his anagram: Slasher M. Earcrack.

Performance ethnography

Pace Robert Hanks and indeed the great man himself, one can never have too much of Alan Bennett.

From his 2008 diaries, more perceptive ethnography of both orchestral musicians and audiences (cf. here and here), about a TV broadcast of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from the Proms:

… one of the cameras fascinated with a particular woodwind player who has a good deal to do, but who in turn obviously fancies the flautist who’s next but one. So at the end of his own contribution he’ll often half-turn in order to pass the tune or whatever to this flautist, and she is equally attentive during his solos. There’s a cellist with a cheeky face who plainly makes jokes, a bear of a violinist who throw himself about a lot, and next to him the child violinist with a face made tragic by concentration. It’s hard to conceive how such a small figure copes with the great winds of Brahms, though he’s more composed about it than his hairy and demonstrative neighbour.

It’s moving, too, of course because of the moral stance of the orchestra, though the players are by now probably bored or at least matter-of-fact about this ethical burden. But with similar experience in the theatre (including I hope The History Boys), one longs to stay with them once the performance is over and they disperse. Who looks after the child, I wonder, whom does the cheeky cellist sleep with and are the flautist and the woodwind player as close as their performances suggest? So there’s sadness too in being excluded from all this and longing, just as there is coming away from the theatre or for some people, I imagine, the football stadium.

Competing with the lofty claim of detached spiritual contemplation of the work in hand, such observation is a universal yet little-documented feature of attending public performances—just the kind of detail that ethnomusicologists might seek, and that the “absolute music” wing of WAM scholars would eschew.

My work with the Li family Daoists is full of such detail, both for their funeral practice at home—such as Golden Noble corpsing the others while reciting the Invitation memorial, or the reluctance of the kin to pay attention to the liturgy of the Daoists they still feel obliged to hire—and for their concerts on tour (such as this, and this). But even in the 1990s I had apparently read enough Geertz, Barley, and so on to pay attention to the behaviour of the Gaoluo villagers—like this passage (Plucking the winds, pp.304–5):

After supper on the 15th, the “temple” courtyard is packed. Apart from South Gaoluo villagers, some have also come from the North village and elsewhere. Many have come to offer incense, but many also just for the fun. Boisterous children are chasing around letting off firecrackers, both outside and inside the “temple”. Five sticks of incense are considered “a bundle” (yifeng).

As to ordinary villagers, though there are more women than men offering incense, quite few of the people are elderly: young and middle-aged women and young men seem to be more active in this. Many pray silently to the goddess Houtu for a healthy son, or for the health of their aged parents; more generally, people pray for good luck and prosperity. One couple were offering incense for the safety of the husband, who is a driver—even for the most diehard atheist, recourse to divine help is particularly tempting on Chinese roads. The atmosphere is highly jocular as people enter the courtyard. As they go to offer incense and kowtow they look embarrassed, but then when they are actually doing it they become extremely serious. Then as they get up and dust down their trousers, they look all embarrassed again, and, avoiding meeting the gaze of all the onlookers, they leave the area, often going into the “temple”.

Of course, Geertz, Barley, and indeed Bennett may do it better, but as with WAM, such social ethnography is quite rare in (both Chinese and foreign) studies of Daoist ritual, which are more concerned with recreating the abstract deep structure of medieval texts and ritual sequences. And similarly, it’s not one or the other—both angles are desirable.


Later in 2008 AB notes a comment on the distressingly populist Classic FM radio:

“Elgar’s Nimrod conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.”

Conducting from memory

As S-S-Simon Rattle formally takes over the LSO, his latest media love-in reminded me of Harry and Paul’s fine departure in their Scousers series:

But seriously though folks, some thoughts about conducting from memory. As both a performer and a concert-goer, I love it when conductors do this. I suppose it excites me partly because I’ve spent most of the last three decades toiling under what Norman Lebrecht calls “semi-conductors” in the early-music world, where it’s very rare—but never mind them.

We may compare WAM soloists—and musicians in most the world (to take an an entirely random instance: um, Daoist ritual specialists…). Conducting from memory now seems to me like a basic courtesy to the orchestra. Conductors don’t have to worry about strings going out of tune, or reeds misbehaving, or splitting notes—they’re earning a zillion times more than the poor people who actually play the music, and all they have to do is “wave the stick until the music stops, then turn around and bow”. And the benefits, for both players and audience, are immense.

Conductors have more nuanced views, of course. Here’s Paul Hostetter:

Conductors had the score in front of them, not because it wasn’t memorized most of the time, but rather almost as a reverent gesture to the composer’s intent.

Similarly, John Murton:

I always interpreted this as a sign of humility towards the music they were performing, perhaps even in some quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance.

This is revealing. But Will Crutchfield comments:

… among [conductors] it is becoming something of a point of honour to perform without a score.
And why shouldn’t they, if we’re going to say soloists ought to? There are essential differences. First and simplest, it’s harder. There are many instruments and thus far more notes to be memorized; even if you can easily recall the musical substance, the matter of who’s playing what, when, with whom is complex and constantly shifting. And the conductor does not have the benefit of motor or tactile memory of how the notes feel because he does not play any of the notes.
For the same reason, conductors are the only musicians who can fake memorization, or perform a piece ”off book” when it is only partly learned. If it’s a matter of putting down the right keys on the piano, you either know it or you don’t. But if a conductor succeeds in memorizing the score at a gross level (the basic rhythms, the major entrances), he can go ahead and conduct ”by heart” while he’s still learning the details, or perhaps without ever learning some of them. If you don’t think this happens, even in big places, have a beer with any longtime orchestral player and ask.

The practice caught on from Toscanini. Furtwängler, Karajan (sorry), BöhmBernstein, Barbirolli… Of all conductors I would expect to dispense with the score, it would be Rozhdestvensky—he’s so spontaneous and direct. But apparently he always has it in front of him, and it’s electrifying anyway.

The score can serve as a safety-net for the conductor; for the band, as a psychologically stabilizing element. But it’s also as a protective layer insulating the conductor from communicating directly—we know how much more thrilling a performance is without the safety-net.

The focal position of the score reminds us all that we’re here not so much to celebrate an incandescent moment of communication between musicians, as to reinforce the hegemony of a dead composer. During the “performance” the audience may even consolidate this by occasionally resorting to the printed programme.

I just find it distracting, and a sad limitation to the potential for the direct engagement that should be intrinsic to any kind of performance.

What better illustration of the wonders of memorization than Simon Rattle with the 2nd movement of Mahler 5:

Even more radical is to get (and pay?!) the orchestra to play from memory too, as the Aurora orchestra often does:

Mahler 6 at the Proms

There’s nothing to beat the atmosphere of a Mahler symphony at the Proms. Following the first, second, fourth, and tenth symphonies this season, I just went to hear the sixth, with the amazing Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Harding.

Hot on the heels of the equally fine Concertgebouw orchestra in the fourth symphony, the Vienna Phil sounds like an enormous marshmallow cake, with individual personalities smothered in Schlagrahm—apart from the cowbells, evidently from a large herd. Notwithstanding changes in performance practice over the past century, standing beside recent early-music versions of such repertoire, venerable orchestras like this convey a tangible feeling of direct continuity with tradition.

And the Vienna Phil is even belatedly allowing a handful of women into its ranks—whatever next?*

Here’s Barbirolli’s 1967 version with the New Philharmonia (as the old Philharmonia was then known):

There’s the usual lengthy debate about the position of the exquisite slow movement (unfairly eclipsed by those of the fourth and fifth symphonies, I feel). In line with Mahler’s own rethink, Harding put it second, but I side with those who overrule the composer’s revision of the order—not so much for the argument of the tonal scheme, but rather so that the Scherzo can continue the demonic power of the first movement (as in the fifth symphony), the slow movement then making its full impact before the devastation of the finale. Christoph Eschenbach makes this argument in an interesting page where various conductors reflect on all the symphonies.

God, how I’d love to get stuck into passages like this again (from 1.10.39 on the Barbirolli version, responding desperately to the hammer-blow):M6 1

M6 2

M6 3
Let’s return to the Vienna Phil, with Mahler in more meditative vein—the divine slow movement of the fourth symphony under Bernstein, followed by the final song:


* “I dunno, where’s it all going to end, eh? They’ll be demanding control over their own bodies next. PC gone mad if you ask me.”