Is this another UK club biting the dust?

London 18 August 2018

They say that death by a thousand small cuts is the worst way to go. For a current example conforming to this type it’s probably necessary to look no further than the ever present Brexit story, every week bringing another small unfolding drama. This weekend is no exception, when one of the less likely episodes in this lamentable contrarian chronicle is likely to play out in an unusual location: that of a classical music concert.

A concert with a live audience of almost six thousand in a packed Royal Albert Hall to be precise. Plus many thousands more listening on BBC radio 3 in the UK and around the world. Together they will hear a Sunday morning BBC Prom concert performed by an orchestra credited by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as being “the best possible ambassador for the European Union”.

39298_0006The EUYO performing at the BBC Proms

Juncker’s comment by no means stands alone. Feted around the world, the orchestra in question – the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) – comes to London in the midst of a six-week tour. The London concert follows sold out concerts in Warsaw, Berlin, Amsterdam and its summer home in Austria’s Grafenegg, during a year that has so far seen it pick up two awards – the European Orchestra Prize in Dresden and an international Cultural Diplomacy award in Abu Dhabi.

But as Andrew O’Hagan wrote this week in his selection of the BBC broadcast of the concert as this week’s Radio Times ‘pick of the week’, “They’re not just a fantastic orchestra, they represent an ideal”. And that is the point: as the last chords of Sunday’s concert die away, that ideal will, in all likelihood, begin to come crashing down as far as future young talented UK musicians are concerned.

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The irony – the very big irony – is that amongst the Orchestra’s approximately 140 members selected annually from several thousand hopeful applicants across 28 EU member states, the UK has always had a distinctly strong showing. Places in the Orchestra are hotly contested and in an average year many EU countries can boast only three or four members at most. Yet on Sunday seventeen UK players will be on stage as part of the BBC Prom performance in what is by no means an unusual UK showing. Perhaps this has something to do with training for young UK musicians; the EUYO, for example, has become a natural progression route for generations of talented UK classical musicians once they have graduated from the exceptional National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

And here is the rub: as the Orchestra opens its Sunday concert conducted by LSO chief guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda with the UK premiere of the young Polish composer Agata Zubel’s aptly named Fireworks, it is worth considering that this may well be the last time that an EUYO orchestra that includes UK members appears at the famed BBC proms.  As a current UK member of the Orchestra recently remarked, this is devastating news for young UK musicians. Yet another exclusive club that the country is about to leave.

Many people will likely say, ‘yes, very sad for the few hundred young UK musicians that might otherwise have been EUYO members in the next few decades, but in the grand scheme of things how important is a youth orchestra?’ And of course this is true: the EUYO’s move of headquarters from London to Italy earlier this year has not had – and will not have – any juddering economic effect on the UK’s economy or the level of sterling. Or indeed the state of most people’s lives in the UK or Europe. Yet it is a metaphor worth pausing to consider.

The ideals that O’Hagan mentions the EUYO as representing are at the heart of that metaphor. Sitting in the audience on Sunday will be the Orchestra’s now 88 year old co-founder, the indefatigable and visionary American (yet another irony …) Joy Bryer, who began the EUYO with her South African husband Lionel Bryer, Sir Edward Heath, and the legendary conductor Claudio Abbado in 1976.

The ideals were, and continue to be, simple but powerful: bringing together the European Community’s finest young players to work at the highest level of excellence in an ensemble that mirrors the EU’s most important higher-level aims of cooperation and harmony between nations. It sounds like the very definition of an orchestra, which is precisely why the EUYO is such a powerful metaphor and ambassador for the EU and its ideals.

But such an arrangement mirrors the EU in another important respect: it balances the natural tension between European and national aspirations. The players come together as Europeans, they play as Europeans, yet they never lose their own national identity. Unity in diversity, as the EU slogan puts it.

You will hear this diversity in the Zubel commission that celebrates the 100th anniversary of Polish independence. You can also see it in the way the Romanians never cease to amaze with their improvised folk playing at the drop of a hat, or in the Spanish players’ habit of taking to the stage even after the end of a concert to play a quick paso doble and to host a riotous annual summer sangria party. I could go on. Each country retains its place, its meanings and its identity then, in this most European of organisations.

In the current febrile atmosphere of increasing nationalism across Europe this is an unusual win-win, even a rare modern utopia of sorts, making the Orchestra something of critical importance beyond simply being a well-respected international youth orchestra of exceptional quality. And that’s great for everyone.

Except, it seems, the UK. As the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s heroic fifth symphony die away on Sunday into the multiple byzantine recesses of the magnificent Royal Albert Hall, yet another little  ‘cut’ will have taken place in the slow Brexit progression. The EUYO is not, and should never be, a political organisation. But If ever ‘second referendumers’ had wanted a background hum for their slowly rising campaign, then the sounds of Sunday’s concert will surely provide just the metaphor they should be reaching for.

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The Ultimate Theatre of Art

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Lorenzo Quinn’s Support rearing up onto the Ca’Sagredo hotel on Venice’s Grand Canal
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Taking the pulse of Venice’s art during the city’s 57th Art Biennale

The shadow of Dante Alighieri, universal commentator on life, has a tendency to hover throughout much of the poet’s home country of Italy. But it is perhaps nowhere more present than in the maze-like web of streets and canals that have given us the world’s most unusual urban landscape, the city (and former Republic let us not forget) of Venice.

Dante visited Venice towards the end of his life in 1321. It’s said that he was particularly impressed by the Arsenale dockyard where the ships that contributed so greatly to the city’s fearsome power were constructed and maintained with a quite astonishing degree of organisation and skill. Dante seems to have been impressed enough with this huge military enterprise to have written the Arsenale into his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy. For in Canto 21 of the Inferno he invokes the place in describing immersion in boiling pitch as a punishment for swindlers:

Quale nell’Arzanà de’ Viniziani
bolle l’inverno la tenace pece
a rimpalmare i legni lor non sani

(As in the Venetians’ Arsenal 
all winter long a stew of sticky pitch
boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships)

Beyond this somewhat chilling example, the spirit of Dante’s writing, with its portraits of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, hangs pungently through the many seductive moods of Venice, taking centre stage particularly during the festive periods: Carnival, New Year, feast days, and the string of celebratory events such as (to name one of many) the annual Marriage of the Sea. This spirit seems to be the city incarnate: practically everywhere you look there are hints of the theatricality with which Venice has entranced not just Dante, but many millions of visitors down the centuries. It is the quintessential ‘show’: exotic, inviting, enchanting.

Into this theatrical impossibility of a place, this stage set of grand palaces, art, masks, gondolas and the tourist clichés and tat that summon an ever growing, almost impossible number of tourists1, comes the once-every-two-years art show known simply as the Biennale.

There is of course nothing quite like the Biennale. (The proof of this is intimated in the name: nothing pays the compliment of fame quite as much as ownership of the generic title). To begin with there is the sheer volume of art on show.

This year you can see eighty four country pavilions, non-national installations, and a central international exhibition, together constituting several thousand works of art scattered both within the two major exhibition areas of the Giardini and the Arsenale, but also in buildings and places all over the city. In addition there are the cleverly timed national and international major exhibitions in non Biennale galleries, museums, churches and Palazzi.

And that’s before we start on the seminars, symposia, open nights, performances, and the before, during and after parties. From May to November of every odd numbered year, the spidery map of Venice is blotched with such a fantastic volume of events that the metaphor (beautifully captured in Lorenzo Quin’s Support pictured above) of a city slowly sinking under the volume of art, advances to meet the actuality of a city slowly sinking under the advance of water. (Implication: nothing lasts, go whilst you can).

No wonder this is such a perfect location for the artifice of art: here is a place – if ever there was one – that invites the artist to play, to imagine, to create worlds of impossibility made possible. Part messy Royal Academy annual show, part cleverly thought out blockbuster exhibition, part global shop window, part Frieze art fair but without the buyers (except for Damian Hirst, see below); it’s an invitation to create with play.

Of course given the plethora of regulations and bureaucracy, ‘playing’ in Italy is a complicated, if admittedly national, activity. But at the Biennale unthinking play seems to have found its home. As a North American festival director recently commented to me, ‘Italy can be so capricious that it suits the guerrilla artist far more than the establishment one’. Yet the Biennale is where the establishment – as well as the upstart – can really play the guerrilla.

As with any large Festival, the really big question is how much of the city and how many of the people you can command. For the Biennale, there is a new director every year to look at this challenge, more often than not an internationally recognised art curator or chief. This year is the turn of Christine Macel, Director of Paris’s Pompidou Center. You might be tempted to think that a visual arts curator is the obvious programming route, but the Biennale could do far worse than exploit its unique qualities by going now and then for something quite different, perhaps a theatre group like Complicite, or better still, Punchdrunk. Oh that would be some Biennale.

But enough of context: it’s time to look at the art.

This year’s Biennale brings some big names and established artists as well as a host of lesser known global voices to Venice. Robert Wilson, Damien Hirst, Ernesto Netto, and (of those no longer alive) Philip Guston, Warhol and Rauschenberg lead the charge of the establishment. These artists are mostly to be found outside of the Biennale pavilions for the simple reason that the pavilions are not big enough to hold their status, fees or indeed any other aspect of them.

The largest exhibition by far is by Hirst, who to be honest dominates this year’s Venice with a show that is astounding, and has taken years (actually around a decade) to produce. It’s big in just about every way.

It is not just the number of artefacts spread across two of Venice’s largest exhibition spaces – the Pinault Collection’s Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana – nor even the size of some of some of the pieces, startling though a number of these are, but more the sheer depth of storytelling that Hirst weaves. An idea of scale can be got from the fact that the basic guide for the exhibition (the sort of thing that some museums and galleries give away for free with a handful of pages) numbers some 70 pages.

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Just how big? the Demon with Bowl that greets audiences at the start of the Palazzo Grassi section of Damien Hirst’s exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. It fills the entire central courtyard of the Grassi, all three floors of it.

Hirst has basically taken a believable idea – mounting an exhibition of shipwrecked treasure and some modern copies – and produced a sort of theme and variations on it with utterly obsessive and virtuosic attention to detail. It’s a bit like Steve Jobs, but for art rather than the iphone. The biggest question I heard people in the exhibition asking, was, ‘what is real and what is a copy’? The answer to this question is worked out on so many levels that you are forced to confront and question your own idea of the reality at work. You look at an object which has been so worked on as to give it the air of being a ‘treasure’, and try to both see it and also give it context.

The result is an exquisite hall of mirrors. These are pieces from the wreck of belief, art for a ‘post belief’ age if you like, an idea that leads us straight to the Exhibition’s title on the front cover of the guide: ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. Damien Hirst’. (it’s interesting to dispense with the full stop in the middle of the title, and this one suspects, is what Hirst is always encouraging us to do).

Many of the pieces are tactile, vigorous, inviting and by turns beautiful and or imposing. Hirst invites you into a world of both luxury and modernity: he mixes bronze, silver, gold, marble, tourmaline, amethyst, pearls, rubies, agate, lapis lazuli, selenite, sapphires and topaz with painted MDF, stainless steel, aluminium, polyester and acrylics. And the mythic subjects are endless – a panoply of figures ranging from Bachus, the Minotaur, Pharaohs, Sphinxs, demons, warriors, animals, crowns, nautilus shells, and ‘ancient’ coins. He has got his team to produce a world of worlds.

A few of the fantastic figures in Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. 
Far Right: Hirst as collector. For more images of the Exhibition see the Book online.

And all the way along, in room after room, you are being played, with enough side and sub references, jokes and jibes, to make this a fertile Phd subject for future art historians. Shakespeare, Picasso, Homer, Holywood films, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, ancient Chinese dynasties, Micky Mouse, TV documentaries, previous Hirst exhibitions, ancient African cultures, anagram signings of the artist – this list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. The play even extends to a meticulously made video of the ‘raising’ of the objects from the ocean that looks for all the world like one of those state television large spend documentaries.

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The ultimate artifice: stills from the video of the ‘making’ of Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable that is viewable at the Palazzo Grassi during the exhibition

There are of course some big downsides. A lot of the ‘old’ pieces are beautiful, but when he resorts to MDF and aluminium for modern ‘copies’, their lack of textural interest can make them really quite tedious.

Hirst has also overplayed his hand with the number of objects. Yes, it’s quite brilliant as an idea, but there is only so much of it you can take. What starts out as imposing can all too easily become exasperating. In the end I was begging to be let out. Has he taken the Pinault – or rather us – for a ride in the process? You bet. Of course to be a cynic (or perhaps I mean a realist?) you just need to see this as a massive opportunity for future sales, something at which Hirst, as we know, is the undisputed master.

But more important are the telling arguments about cultural appropriation that the show has brought to light. It’s not clever to take a culture’s work and pass it off in a story telling device sort of way as an anonymous find of treasure from the depths. There is a good Huffington Post piece about the 14th century Nigerian Bronze Head unearthed in 1938 in Ife that is reproduced (i.e.copied) in the exhibition. Artist Victor Ehikhamenor’s comments on Instagram are worth repeating here: “Golden heads (Female) by Damien Hirst currently part of his Venice show “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at Palazzo Grassi. For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s”.

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Nigeria’s Ife Bronze Head in Hirst’s version/copy/appropriation?

Is this a return to form for Hirst? It seems way above the quality of some of his last few years of work (remember that skull?) and will no doubt end up being seen as his big middle years project. The best pieces are extraordinarily impressive, and its exploiting of an overarching fictional story telling device is probably without comparison in the last few years of the global art world. It reveals him as not so much an artist as a fabulist.

But the last word on the exhibition should perhaps go to the following catalogue description of a representation of one of the most mythic objects from the ancient world, The Shield of Achilles (in gold and silver): “Although this fractured object may originally have been presented to the collector as a priceless historical artefact, Homer’s shield is – by its very nature – a fiction, an exercise in artistic invention that exceeds anything a human craftsman should be capable of producing”. ‘Artistic invention that exceeds anything a human craftsman should be capable of producing’: yes, yes Damien, we are mightily impressed, but please, don’t overstate.

Elsewhere in Venice, some of the best installations are the ones prepared to use a bit of fun and lightness. If you want something bright, then American stage director Robert Wilson has celebrated coffee producer Illy’s 25th art collection anniversary with ‘The Dish ran away with the Spoon’, a series of rooms in the old salt warehouse in Dorsuduro that seemed to bring a smile to everyone’s face. To quote Julie Baumgardner in Wallpaper online, this is a “brilliantly bonkers journey through Wilson’s imagination”.

And what an imagination. Taking his cue from a nonsense nursery rhyme that dates back to medieval England he riffs in each room on different ways to bring the nonsense alive and kicking in glorious technicolour. Try this facebook video of the rooms for size.

Robert Wilson on form with Illy coffee and English nonsense nursery rhymes

Nearby, the Grenadan pavilion also plays a few jokes, and in the Arsenale you can find a Tunisian kiosk that will stamp you a free visa for citizenship anywhere in the world. Nice joke in these days of migrant crises, or simply irony? I let other visitors decide.

Sometimes that wit can work by also being deadly serious. Claudia Fontes’s Argentinian Arsenale installation The Horse Problem was described in the guide as “focusing on the idea of nation, territories and national identities, [it] gives a key to interpret history and future”. Art speak? Yet in practice it was riveting. A powerful assault on the senses that used the space with confidence and effect.

Claudia Fontes’s Argentinian installation The Horse Problem

And the same sense of power in the Arsenale comes from a very different piece from New Zealand, a highly original narrative playing out the violence perpetrated by British colonial soldiers on the indigenous New Zealand population, all presented on a rolling multi incident video screen, as powerful as it is imaginative, innovative and entertaining.

The power of indigenous culture was even more present in Ernesto Netto’s installation Um Sagrado Lugar (A Sacred Place) at the Arsenale. It’s archetypal Netto; a netting structure recreating the feel of the sacred spaces of Amazon rainforest Indians, a Cupixawa (meaning a meeting place of social, political and spiritual ceremonies). And not far away, Slovenia’s film by Nika Auto uses the idea of trains, and the Belgrade Ljubljana line, as another set of symbols for displacement, marginalisation and immigration.

Finally there are the big national pavilions in the Giardinia. Russia’s pavilion tops the ranking for me, a powerful cohesive rendition that gathers together ideas of totalitarianism, imagination and morality in a beautifully produced all white sculpted series of objects of tantalising imagination, each room serving a different but useful purpose within the whole.

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20170616_104710Russia’s Theatrum Orbis, commissioned and curated by Semyon Mikhailovsky. It consists of a variety of sculpture, installation, video and sound pieces, by artists Grisha Bruskin, Recycle Group and Sasha Pirogova.The title of the exhibition refers to Abraham Ortelius’ ‘Theatre of the World’ atlas (the first modern atlas), published in 1570 during Europe’s great age of colonialism and discovery.

The last room, by Recycle Group, (explanation text in the image below) has a particularly contemporary take on Dante, with sinning figures of today’s internet trapped in sculpted blocks (try the app):

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Elsewhere, everyone was talking about the German pavilion, where Anne Imhof in Faust has created a series of often harrowing tableau including people trapped below visitor’s feet, screaming soundtracks and figures, literally crawling up the walls. Unfortunately (ditto the Canadian and Japanese pavilions) it was closed during my visit due to storm damage, although I did manage a look inside Geoffrey Farmer’s Canadian pavilion, where the roof-less and largely wall-less construction seemed to have anticipated the storm with some clever foresight. But of course I missed the objects placed inside the deconstructed building that are placed to complete the idea of breaking from the past. That same trick – breaking with the past – is also evident next door in the British Pavilion.

The British pavilion sits at the top of the national avenue in an arguably supreme location. Recent years have brought impressive installations from the likes of Gilbert and George, and Jeremy Deller. But this year I strained to see the point of Phyllida Barlow’s Folly, a child-like series of Papier-mâché like blotch coloured spheres and objects hanging on precarious looking sticks. Her previous work such as Peninsula, Stint, TIP and the Tate’s 2014 commission impressed with their insistent almost violent deconstructionist mantra, but here the objects of Folly seem marooned and unimposing.

Similarly disappointing was the French pavilion which mounted an interesting looking set of objects around the idea of instruments, music and sound studios. The problem was the curation – or rather lack of it. The day I visited it was unclear what, if anything, was supposed to be happening, and no one around who seemed to know anything. (I gather from seeing subsequent Facebook posts from conductor Ilan Volkov that when the right musicians were around it could really take off. Not when I was there).

Of course this listing could go on for many more pages, and much of what can be encountered, or even the best of some of the rest is missing. To my shame I missed Philip Guston at the Academia, and Daniela Ferretti and Axel Vervoordt’s latest offering at the eclectic sumptuous Palazzo Fortuny sounded enticing as always. Yet attempting to conquer the whole of the Biennale would simply be a painful folly.

What soon becomes clear however, is that Christine Macel has definitely brought this year’s theme back to the creativity of artists as opposed to the 56th Biennale’s more political outlook, even if as usual it’s down to individuals to decide how to tow the line. Some may have found Macel’s main pavilion a little unpersuasive. It was pleasant enough, a sort of homely drop in art cafe, and it did add a nice participative note to what can often be an overly passive experience. But the big question it leaves me with is that question about relevance: look at the world today. Should art be made to disturb? Is it allowed anymore to simply exist in the aesthetic zone, or should we require it to be instrumental as well as intrinsic? How you think about this question will probably determine how you feel about No. 57.

But however you look at it, it is Venice – and particularly the Arsenale – that emerges yet again as the greatest story of the Biennale, a unique platform for the artistic spur. In the Arsenale you can both wander and wonder for hours before even encountering any pavilions, challenging any artist to raise their game on entering.

Tip of the iceberg: views onto the North east corner of the Arsenale

Back to the City. On my last evening in Venice I took in the opportunity of a rare performance of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno D’Ulisse In Patria (The Return of Ulysses). Written in 1643 in and for Venice, it is Monteverdi’s last opera. Its music and its drama are infused with the same sumptuous harmonic colour and intense theatrical drama that suffuses the city of its creation. As you walk out of the Fenice opera house at the end of the performance, down the entrance steps that take you from theatre to city, something quite extraordinary happens: there is no sense of the usual transition from artifice to reality. It is as if you are moving simply from one stage to another, with no change in the suspension, or to any resumption, of reality.

You look out, and you are met by a scene of buildings, streets, people, and indeed of spirit that are what make Venice the ultimate theatre of art, and its Biennale the ultimate emanation of that theatre. I know of nowhere else in the world with quite this sensation. And then there is its transience, and vulnerability. The Venetians know all too well that nothing lasts forever. If that theatre is your quest, then go whilst you can.

Marshall Marcus, July 2017

Note 1:
It is currently estimated that on most days of the year there are more tourists than locals in Venice. This article from a UK newspaper outlines current worries and plans to limit numbers: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/italy/veneto/venice/articles/venice-considers-capping-tourist-numbers-to-stop-overcrowding/

Photo credits: Marshall Marcus

 

 

Global Symposium on diversity and inclusion

Thanks to the Sphinx Organisation, in association with hosts Southbank Centre, Chineke!, London Music Masters and Sistema Europe, for the recent and first Global Symposium on diversity and Inclusion in Classical Music, held at London’s Southbank Centre on 18 July 2016.

You can download the day’s programme here:

Sphinx_Symposium_Program-2016

And here are some (very) rough visual notes pulling together some of the conversations:

Global Symposium No. 1 on Diversity & Inclusion - informal sum up 1

Global Symposium No. 1 on Diversity & Inclusion - informal sum up 2

Global Symposium No. 1 on Diversity & Inclusion - informal sum up 3

This was a really energising day, thanks to inspirational voices like trailblazing ‘doers’ Aaron Dworkin, Rosemary Nalden and Chi Chi Nwanoku, and up and coming younger performers like  Braimah Kanneh-Mason and Ravi Veriah Jacques.

Apologies for this rough and ready summary (which omits the actions agreed), and here’s to a more detailed note, and plans for the next convening!

Ce soir nous sommes tous La Philharmonie

It’s big. Actually, it’s massive. Good things may indeed come in small packages, but as tonight’s five star audience including President Hollande and various music industry magnates sit down in Paris’s new 2400 seater Philharmonie concert hall for the official opening concert, everyone should be awed by this humungous and daring piece of spatial construction by architect Jean Nouvel. And that’s before even the first note sounds. Sitting inside the hall is like being cocooned in a gigantic egg like space, with hanging sections of audience seating protruding from the walls and coming at you in all directions, and softly elongated curvy acoustic baffles stationed above like majestic sets of passing clouds. In design terms it’s as if the French Republic had declared an end to the rule of the Cartesian straight line in favour of asymmetric natural curved forms, with a structural and acoustic design derived from – but significantly extending – Berlin’s namesake Philharmonie, the ‘granddaddy’ of all great post second world war concert halls. It’s definitely a vote (to paraphrase Billy Bragg on the Festival Hall in London) for the future.

20150113_185218[1]Some of the hall’s acoustic baffles

I know a little about this hall only because I had the luck to attend the previous night’s general rehearsal (for which read general concert) with run through performances by Paavo Jarvi, Mathias Goerne, and the Orchestra de Paris and its choir, of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite 2, 3 movements from the Faure Requiem and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, plus a little open rehearsal thrown in for good measure.

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OK, ok, I hear you say, so much for the architectonics and the invites, but how does it sound? Well having spent decades of my life playing in the world’s greatest – and less great – halls, and years of my life as head of music in a hall that was being acoustically refurbished and retuned, I know that that is a complex question that will take more than one visit by one person to answer. And the sound in the hall will anyway change. Definitely. I don’t want to come over too Churchillian here, but we are only just witnessing the end of the beginning. Here, nevertheless, are a few preliminaries:

The big, and I guess good, news, is that there is a fair amount of the two really fundamental requirements of the acoustic of any successful concert hall, viz. bloom and clarity of sound. It’s certainly not overly warm compared to the world’s three really iconic concert halls (Boston Symphony, Amsterdam Concertgebouw and Vienna Musikverein). Forget bathroom synonyms for example, but there is enough brightness here to be going on with, and with that relative, but not huge, level of bloom, comes a pay off of epic proportions in terms of some really interesting clarity, and for me that’s an incomparable gain. Yes, the likes of Vienna can make you swoon, but you know what? By now I quite like hearing the detail of what’s being played. And the new hall manages this clarity, crucially, without the hardness of otherwise great halls like Lucerne. Relatively bright it can be, but on last night’s showing, never hard. This then, despite its scale, is still a musician’s hall.

And for orchestras who play here, you’d better hear it now: this is not going to be an easy hall to hide in despite its size, as was demonstrated time and again last night. When the likes of Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Bavaria and Budapest alight here (not to mention an impending Bolivar Dudamel Mahler 5) every one of those great orchestras better be ready and prepared.

I suspect that it is also going to depend a lot on where you sit.  The highest level 5 seats were way too vertiginous for my elderly and knowing companion, and no one in their right mind would have wanted to sit behind the orchestra and watch the backs of the chorus singers in the level 4 seats that we were given. The word had been that the best sound would be – as it often can be – in the cheaper seats towards the top of a hall where you catch those 2nd and even 3rd reflections of sound off the walls and ceiling more quickly. But for last night  a few of us opted in the first half of Ravel and Faure to get ourselves into some prime centre front stalls seats around row 10, and in the second half moved back to the rear stalls section just before the shallow overhang begins a couple of rows behind the front of this section.

Even in these two places not that far from each other, the sound was significantly different, and as you get into some of those higher up overhangs I imagine that things will change yet again. Nearer the front there was a real feeling of engagement and warmth with the sound, but further back I felt that the sound rarely leapt into the hall towards me. This difference is not necessarily a bad thing, it just means it’s worth getting to know the hall and choosing wisely for artist and programme.

Time and again though, details amazed me. Big final chords positively erupted into the hall with a reverberation that is still, the following day, an excitement to remember. Yet the pianissimo trumpets in the second half of the Rite of Spring played quieter than I can ever remember hearing a brass instrument at that distance, whilst being perfectly balanced and easy to hear, and the sound of the muted ‘cellos and violas that followed was only broken by an accidental bass bow hitting what seemed like a music stand. I swear I even heard the cor anglais player close his reed box towards the end of the Stravinsky. There are also ‘noises off’ from the audience and foyer areas in such a lively space, and so throughout the evening my ears were assaulted with sheeting coughs in quiet passages.

First violins often sounded as if behind a veil, both when loud and also when on their own. And I was astounded at one point that their pizzicatos – with violins facing towards me – sounded less clear than the bowed violas that followed, despite the violas pointing away from me to the back of the hall. Care will need to be given to the height of the back riser (the lower the riser the more resonant the timps and percussion as their sound hits off the back wall), which worked well enough for the enthusiastic bass drum player who turned a section of the Rite into a festival for bass drum with orchestra.

Mathias Goerne was the undoubted hero of the evening, and showed that this will be a great space for the best singers. His sound was continuously rich, creamy and imperious, and he looked as if he had oodles of voice to spare. The choir was by turns impressive and deeply troubling: Their Daphnis opening was as dreamy as you could ask, and yet they had the penetrating clarity required for the opening of the Faure – it was as if they had started in London’s Royal Albert Hall and decamped to a small dry cathedral – yet their intonation often found them as flat as a pancake, with the organ chords following them sounding embarrassingly sharp.

One of the questions about this hall is its location, bang on the Paris Périphérique ring road and away from traditional cultural, political and physical heart of Paris. Without doubt that may cause a problem for the fur coat brigade, but with the need for classical music to get away from – not nearer to – cultural snobs and conservative fur coats, this is undoubtedly a move in the right direction. Think Demos and you can already see the deep intelligence of its locus.

I wandered around at the interval. The foyer varies from the nicely designed lower floors to the ugly 80s night club low ceilings of the upper spaces.  Backstage is the usual transition to lower orders design. Mind you, nice toilets backstage (see picture below).

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What will work here? Actually quite a lot, because the clarity and balance allows both large and small scale. On a practical level, when it’s actually ready (months off from what I could see, I was really astounded by the lack of finish throughout), if they can stop the stalls seats from wobbling, if they can get rid of the excruciating background hum that I could hear in every silence, when it’s staffed by ushers who all know the answers to our questions, when the storm over the Salle Pleyel has died down  – and it will – and when we have forgotten the gargantuan bill for its construction – and, again, we will –  then this will be one of Europe’s best halls. And so in the end this is nothing but a cause for celebration, a bold enterprise in an age noted more for anxiety and doubt than confidence and self-assurance.

The other two Alpha+ cities of London and New York will – for now – only be able to look on with envy. Of course New York has Carnegie, but if London ever needed an argument for having a great conductor and a great orchestra inhabit a great hall (and we all know who and what I am talking about), then the Philharmonie in Paris is indubitably it. Well done Paris, well done master acousticians Sir Harold Marshall, Marshall Day Acoustics and Yasuhisa Toyota, and well done Laurent Bayle, the quiet super human who in the end has made this success a financial and political possibility.

As the audience take their seats in the next few minutes, remember only this: Ce soir nous sommes tous La Philharmonie

Not a Sponsor, but a Game Changer …

This blog is based on an article first published in the June 2014 edition of the ‘Ensemble’ Magazine
May 2014 – 786 Words

It was recently announced that Venezuela’s National Electricity Corporation (Corpoelec) will form a new youth orchestra in Caracas under the aegis of El Sistema, with the aim of eventually enrolling up to a thousand children. (Stop for a moment and think about that announcement: it’s nothing short of a revolution in institutional and model development for El Sistema). Not long ago came the news of Maestro Abreu’s plan to extend El Sistema’s work into schools throughout Venezuela. Another big, very big, idea. Meanwhile in Barquisimeto the proposal for one of the world’s greatest architects to build an opera house complements the announcement last year of Milan’s La Scala opera house partnership with El Sistema.

Here are three examples – plucked almost at random from El Sistema’s ever burgeoning and seemingly unstoppable structural and institutional growth – of radical new models to advance the spread of successful Sistema work in Venezuela. After almost 40 years, the unremitting daring pace of structural expansion there remains mind bogglingly ambitious, and whilst such changes take their place alongside highly valued pedagogical and musical developments too numerous to list in a blog of this humble length, they are no less integral to the success of El Sistema. Actually perhaps more integral; a point we can often miss.

Now I could go on at length about the developmental ingenuity of Maestro Abreu’s model development and its critical importance for the growth of El Sistema, but instead of preaching to the possibly converted, here’s my question for today: what is happening in the rest of the El Sistema world that can even begin to compare with the virtuosic depth of long term strategic planning and development of El Sistema in Venezuela?

Answers, I suspect, could be proffered on an extremely small postcard.

The fact is that many people are so justifiably impressed by the methodology and pedagogy of El Sistema, that, in my opinion, they have arguably neglected the radical nature of the model development side. Now don’t get me wrong: there are some great programmes and wonderful teaching approaches out there, and there are also some very impressive institutional initiatives, such as Take a Stand and Salzburg Festival’s recent mass Sistema play-in that brought almost 1500 young Venezuelans to perform in one of the world’s most important music festivals.

But how many of these initiatives are being planned on, say, ten – forty year perspectives in order to provide new engines for institutional development in tomorrow’s world at national or regional level? What does the next President of the US (or the one after that) know about the social problem solving capacity of El Sistema? Who has engaged with the George Soros’s, the Bill Gates’s or the Thomas Piketty’s of this world? In England last year, for example, when Sistema England made a presentation to an invited audience with members of the in Harmony Scheme, the question from the floor from the UK government’s Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, was words to the effect ‘this is all wonderful: have you been in contact with the Ministry of Justice?’

So we have here a philosophy, a methodology, a pedagogy, actually a complete aetiology of positive  social change in a proven program of community cultural activity. (Apologies, proven is a big word that remains arguably short of our current grasp). But is it only Maestro Abreu that we should be relying on to argue the case in front of the World Bank, Davos, G20 and TED people?

My thesis is that to begin to be successful at such a level, at a level where there is significant institutional leverage on big international stages, El SIstema programmes need to be more imaginative and bold in their institutional thinking. And somewhat more outward facing. The laboratory phase of hundreds of varied Sistema organisations worldwide has been great – and continues to be – but it’s essentially a laboratory of pedagogy. What is now needed to lay alongside it is a laboratory of institutional and model development that takes Sistema organisations into daring new partnerships and as yet unimagined alignments.

A couple of examples from Europe: Big Noise in Scotland is hosting an international teachers’ conference in October 2014. How great an opportunity is that for major international tech. companies or inter-governmental organisations to eavesdrop on this gathering? Or the next Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra camp in Istanbul in August. Why not invite major international corporations to come alongside it to see how young Europeans from a dozen countries or more are learning to communicate effectively across major language, social and cultural barriers? Fact: somewhere near you is a company like Corpoelec Venezuela; not a sponsor, but a game changer. Fact: unlocking that change is just a matter of imagination.

 

Europe’s Sistemas: Lessons from the Past – Patterns for the Future

Where are Europe’s Sistemas going? There has been an almost explosive growth in the development of the Sistema Europe network since its formation in 2012, and within the last 5 years, more than 30 Sistemas in 20 European countries have brought Sistema inspired work to around 15,000 young people. What will the next 5 or 50 years bring for these and other nascent European Sistemas? I recently gave the 2013 Honorary Fellows lecture for the Worshipful Company of Musicians in London at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre on 28 June 2013 as part of Southbank Centre’s Nucleo weekend:

Subject:  Europe’s Sistemas – Lessons from the Past and Patterns for the Future.
it was great to have 2 hours to go into this question in some depth. My headline conclusion: to develop to their best potential, Europe’s Sistemas, especially those from countries like the UK, might want to focus on four areas:

Screen Shot 2013-07-07 at 17.50.34If you have any time at all I recommend looking and listening to the video from our Turkish friends (with a little help from Guatemala) in slide 40 in the power point presentation below. (There should be embedded video that you can play by clicking on the image). Most of the kids in the video have been playing for around 4 months. This shows what Can be done far away from Venezuela.

Here, first of all though, is a Visual minute of the session by Arianna Corradi of Creative Connection (Thank you Arianna!)

SB - el sistema - 28.06.2013 webYou can also view a video recording of the lecture, in three parts, thanks to Reynaldo Trombetta, Director of Communications of In Harmony Sistema England :

Part 1/3 Opening Lecture 40′: http://youtu.be/kDYK3vFmDw0
Part 2/3 Panel Discussion 50′: http://youtu.be/tVYmfA4nQNY
Part 3/3 Open Discussion 30′: http://youtu.be/9Lo_K9j3HVs

Here also, are the powerpoint slides, since they were not always that clear in the video
scnucleotalk

Panel Members:
Introduced by Leslie East, Pastmaster Worshipful Company of Musicians
Yemisi Blake – poet, artist, producer and researcher
Pam Burnard – Reader in Music Education at the University of Cambridge
Nathaniel Facey – Alto saxophonist
Claire Fox – Director The Institute of Ideas
Marshall Marcus – CEO European Union Youth Orchestra, Founder & Chair Sistema Europe, Trustee In Harmony Sistema England

A Transcript of the 2010 THE WORSHIPFUL COMPANY OF MUSICIANS ANNUAL DEBATE ‘El Sistema: will it translate into English?’ referred to in the lecture can be found here

Eric Booth’s essay The Generous Laboratory, also mentioned in the lecture, can be found here

The image by The hashtag for the Nucleo is #NucleoFest

And finally here is the visual minute (also by Creative Connection, directed by Tim Caswell) from last year’s Sistema session at Southbank Centre’s previous Nucleo weekend, that included Julian Lloyd Webber Chair of In Harmony Sistema England, Nicola Killean Director of Big Noise Sistema Scotland, Dan Trahey Director of OrchKids Baltimore USA, Jonathan Govias Canada, Ricardo Castro Neojiba Salvador Bahia Brazil, Juan Antonio Cuellar Batuta Colombia, and Etienne Abelin Director Superar Switzerland:

Sistema SessionPlease post any comments here: