Monday 17 December 2012

Going Dutch with Max Bruch: the Moszkowski Ensemble in The Hague

The Three Pieces Op 83 is quite something at 12 noon on a Sunday: all those throbbing  chords and broken chords flying up and down the piano to the viola´s  heart-rending melodies and the violin´s  passionate counter melodies! Maybe you are like me and have heard only a tiny part of this Romantic composer’s output. It´s a shame, his work deserves more attention. It was a pleasure to hear the Three Pieces so beautifully played and they followed naturally after the Sonata in F for Violin & Piano Op 57 by Dvorak.
This concert marks the last of a short series at the Muzee in Scheveningen in The Hague. The old school building has been lovingly converted into a museum, and as I noted in a review  of The Hague String Quartet concert, the acoustic in the recital room is excellent.

The Moszowski Ensemble are  Heleen Kuiper – violin, Paul Eggen – violin & viola, and Menno Boogaard – piano. On this occasion they were joined by a group of Heleen Kuiper´s students from the city.  The surprise entrance by the young violinists, playing Shostakovitch´s Prelude as they processed into the hall, was followed by the Vivaldi double Concerto Op 3 no 8 in A minor. The older players were clearly of an  advanced standard and soon they will be trying the solo parts for themselves, while the younger players were given the less challenging movements. It was all very sweet and well prepared and all the attendant parents were clearly delighted.

I was confused and surprised when Hellen Kuiper announced the encore piece. Actually, I spend quite a lot of my time confused here in Holland because my grasp of Dutch is pretty limited or pretty awful. But, yes, I had heard correctly and they played one of Piazzola´s gems. Now here is a funny thing: I admire the Argentinian maestro very much, as I have written before  . But music is very much about context and this work did not stand up well in such direct and immediate comparison to the Bruch pieces. The similarity in instrumentation made the power of Bruch’s music all the more obvious, and left the sugary sweet cleverness of Piazzola bare for all to see, or hear. There is no question that the Moszkowski Ensemble playing was perfectly up to the task these three musicians from The Hague can play anything set before them: it was the music itself that paled by comparison.

I remember Alan Hacker, the recently deceased clarinettist and conductor,  used to encourage his students to avoid including tune-ettes and to go for what he called real music when preparing a programme. I think this  is just what he would have had in mind. See Norman Lebrecht   for a powerful obituary.

So, the star of this show was certainly Bruch for me. Thank you to the Moszowski Ensemble, their young players and the Muzee in Scheveningen for a really enjoyable Sunday morning.

Thursday 13 December 2012

German Youth Orchestra perform with The Hague’s VHJO Youth Orchestra

3 November 2012: 140 young musicians playing Pirates in The Hague

One of my Year 11 students plays in a local youth orchestra and she is going through the hoops to arrange for my school  to host a joint concert of her youth orchestra and a visiting school orchestra from Germany. Yes I would very much like to spend my Saturday evening at school and is there anything I can do to help, say I when invited to attend......
In the end the concert did take place, and it was a joy to hear the local young musicians from the Vereniging Hofstads Jeugd Orkest of The Hague and their guests from the Orchester  der Friedrich-von Bodelschwingh -Schulen Bethel. The host group is part of a musical association with a history which dates back to 1923 and they played a well rehearsed set of light music with great enthusiasm. They are a boisterous group who enjoy their music with an informal approach. The German visitors were more formal in their attitude and they played a selection of orchestra pieces and chamber music to feature their woodwind and string sections.
It was clear that this is a mature group in every sense, and I was able to talk to the school´s Headteacher who confirmed that the orchestra was founded over 20 years ago. The teacher responsible for the orchestra’s  growth is still at the school and unfortunately was not able to take part in this trip. I was impressed by the way a number of students played their solo parts with skill and musicality and by the 14 year old student who shared the duties of conductor.
 It was a very enjoyable concert and the highlight was a performance by both groups, some 140 players, of an excellent arrangement of Zimmer´s music for Pirates of the Caribbean. The prodigious percussion section included rattling chains to set the tone, together with a boy singer intoning a pirate song. We all shared a sense of sheer exhilaration of seeing and hearing 140 performers playing together: young musicians from two countries inspired to raise their game by a well written and well arranged piece which is part of their shared experience.
The concert organizers have posted a  a video on youtube of  the combined orchestras.
Thank you to our students  for your all your efforts to make this event happen, and thanks to the teachers and players of both orchestras for the music.

Sunday 4 November 2012

The Hague String Quartet

The Hague String Quartet began their concert on 4 November with a work by Haydn and as I listened I wondered about the woman whose portrait sat in the display cabinet at my side. She was a near contemporary of Haydn, though living far from him.
The room settings at the concert venue, the Muzee Scheveningen in the coastal district of The Hague, show by the number of instruments on view that music played a large part in the lives of the 18th century locals. After all, the silverwear and other jewellery on display also show that this was a prosperous neighbourhood, where fishermen’s families were soon to become accustomed to seeing visitors stroll along the beach in their fine clothes, and the paintings by Isaac Israel (1865-1934) bear witness to this.

What would the portrait woman have made of this quartet, opus 76 number 2? Would she have marveled with me at the beauty of the opening Allegro with Haydn’s characteristic uneven phrases and exquisite melodic lines? Would she have found the variations of the second movement charming and joyful, and would she have heard the Finale fly by in a flash, as I did?  All that’s a maybe. I am sure she would not have made the same reflection I did about the Minuet: this movement has a powerful and dark ring to it, with canon devices between violins on the one hand and viola and cello on the other. The sombre character is a far cry from the Minuet of the dance suite and is as much a transformation of dance movement to concert inspiration as are the waltzes of Chopin.
The Hague String Quartet are Paul Eggen and Heleen Kuiper, violins, Ron Ephrat, viola and Monique Heidema, cello. They are all well established local professional musicians who have played together for many years and this was clear in their fine ensemble playing and common understanding of the music.

In her spoken introduction to the Debussy quartet opus 10 which completed the programme, Heleen  Kuiper  commented that the French master showed the influence of many styles in his work, including music hall. I heard echoes of Smetana’s Ma Vlast and a foretaste of his own La Mer in the first movement, was bedazzled by the moto perpetuo of the second movement and was enthralled by the beauty of the last two movements, which  were indeed doucement expressif and avec passion respectively.
This concert is one of a series at the Muzee Scheveningen, which has a resonant acoustic entirely suited to chamber music and today’s audience obviously enjoyed the concert, as I did. I am sure our silent witness from centuries past enjoyed the music too as she listened from her portrait’s frame.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Traditional marching bands in Denia, Spain

This evening more than 20 bands from surrounding towns will accompany "filas" or groups of local people dressed to commemorate historical battles in Denia in Spain's Alicante province.
Here's one of the first groups:

Thursday 19 July 2012

Barenboim’s Madrid concert cancelled

For the last 8 years Daniel Barenboim has conducted  the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in an open air concert in Madrid’s  Plaza Mayor, free of charge for the audience. This year Madrid was booked in as one of the venues for the European tour of this orchestra, which was founded by Barenboim and the Palestinian writer Edward Said in 1999. Then, in May it was announced that the Mayor Ana Botella was cancelling this concert and a number of high profile arts events as part of the budget cuts.

In the end there was a concert in the Plaza mayor earlier this month and the replacement orchestra was the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid  (ORCAM) , conducted by José Ramón Encinar. The cancellation surfaced as a news item this week because it was raised at the  press conference  in Madrid for the tour, which kicks off in Seville and includes a series of Proms concerts. Norman Lebrecht   made a mention of the cancellation via Twitter @NLebrecht.

At the press conference Barenboim insisted there had been no discussion about the cancellation of the concert and that he had not been given the opportunity to suggest alternatives to reduce the cost to allow the concert to go ahead. He described the way the way the matter was dealt with as “Neither intelligent nor elegant”.
I think there is no need here to describe the severe problems facing the economy in Spain, but you might be interested to know more about the orchestras which are based in Madrid. In addition to the ORCAM referred to above, Madrid residents can enjoyed an annual series of concerts by the Orquesta Nacional de España and chorus  (OCNE) , the state television's Orquesta de la RTVE and chorus, whose previous principal conductor was  Adrian Leaper , and the house orchestra at the  Teatro Real  opera house, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid  (OSM) . Don’t forget the Banda Sinfónica de Madrid , a symphonic wind band which performs a lovely free summer series on Sunday lunchtimes at the bandstand in the amazing Retiro park before moving indoors for their Winter concerts.
All of these ensembles are made up of full time professional musicians and all of them except the OSM are civil servants employed either by the city, the Madrid regional government, or the national government. They have contracts for life and all other benefits associated with a civil service post. The OSM players are employed through a subcontract arrangement, but even so most of their salaries are paid from public funds.

Four symphony orchestras, two choruses and a symphonic wind band are competing for an audience in a city with a  population  of 3.237.937 and where the Madrid Region  has a population of 6.387.824. Of course, when I use the word compete it is misleading: these ensembles do not really compete for an audience because they do not depend on ticket sales for their survival, they simply rely on government funding. I am not going to do the maths here but  when my grandfather used to talk of people who lived a champagne lifestyle on a beer income he might have been talking about classical music provision in Madrid.

Daniel Barenboim’s concert will have been missed, but there are very pressing needs here in Madrid and using a local orchestra instead of his touring one has not exactly brought the city to a halt. The Plaza Mayor was just as as full  to hear the ORCAM conducted by José Ramón Encinar as it would have been to hear the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Barenboim. Among the clatter of plates and glasses with tapas and cerveza, and the waiters in the bars around the seats in the square calling out their orders, some people might not even have noticed the difference.
(This post was amended to include a correction about the RTVE on 21/7/2012)

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Tap Show Project: Teatro Alfil in Madrid

Last week I went to see a show called Nobody is who they seem to be Nadie es quien parece ser  at the  Teatro Alfil here in Madrid. The theatre is one of the most long standing and best  known venues on the city’s very active alternative scene, and has recently removed part of the rows of seats to make way for a cabaret style table and chair arrangement, which makes it a perfect setting for this kind of show.
This is the first full length show to be produced by the Tap Show Project.

Tap Show Project’s  original feature is that it is a dance group which specializes in tap. The show, according to the company director Lucas Tadeo, is aimed at catching the imagination of children and opening their eyes to the world of tap. According to John O’Brien, the show’s choreographer, it’s a great example of the best  family entertainment, where parents take their children along and then find themselves enjoying it as much as or more than their children.   
There are lots of familiar elements as the evening goes on, a mad genius type writer looking for inspiration, who turns out to be the pianist, comedy routines  and a large helping of audience participation.  John O´Brien, Lucas Tadeo, Roberto Bonacini, Angélica Arévalo Moya and Ainara Prieto are the expert and always entertaining dancers who make this show stand out from the rest. Their routines vary from ensemble pieces to solos and include competitive dueling which is part of the tap tradition.
The music is a mix of original tunes by the pianist Augustín López, and  well know Broadway melodies. I expect that as the show develops there will be less dialogue to leave room for a couple more dance numbers, and that technology might be included in the moments where it would enhance the show, such as in the body percussion number, where some simple  midi sound pads would make all the difference.
My favourite moments of the night? Definitely the dueling between Lucas Tadeo and John O’Brien,   and John O’Brien’s amazing solo number, showing off his brilliance as a tap specialist of long experience by bringing so many styles and so many changes of mood into one extended solo.

For a review of the show in Spanish it's worth taking a look at the blog called Blog de Musicales by Norman Marsá:

I wrote a few lines in an earlier post about  the  Madrid Tap Fest here: 

Thanks Tap Show Project for a fun evening out, and good luck with the remaining shows coming up at the Alfil.

Monday 18 June 2012

Intercultural dialogue in action in Liverpool: small steps to a Big Society

Bridges across cultures at Frontline faith group, Liverpool: the power of bringing everyone to the table.

Frontline faith group is based in the Wavertree district of Liverpool, England. Frontline was featured recently  in the Guardian and I was pleasantly surprised at the writer´s positive account of the group’s work. Over the years the Guardian has been routinely skeptical and occasionally mocking of all things faith driven. The most striking feature of the article and the accompanying video is the huge input from rank and file group members, individual persons making their voluntary contribution in a very unglamorous and unrewarding setting. 

Among the many other actions which have taken place at Frontline is the drama workshop and discussion group, Circles, which aims to build bridges between women from different cultures.

Photo of Charlotte Sawyer by Paul  Briggs

Over a spell of two months, Charlotte Sawyer, a member of Frontline and at the time final year degree student at  Liverpool Hope University , put her faith into practice by arranging for a small group of women representing different community, ethnic and religious groups in the city to get together to learn more about each other and to break down barriers.

‘We started with discussion groups held at a woman’s house, using the Circles of Peace Method by  Initiatives of Change  which is so easy to use. We follow  programme discussing personal change leading to change in our communities from reaching out to people who are different to us, sharing our story, forgiveness and integrity, 

The women who join in do not have to be members of Frontline to take part, in fact, given the variety of religions represented, it is amazing that they all agree to meet in a place of worship. That is one of the achievements of Frontline.

There is no charge for those taking part. As Charlotte said to me when I spoke to her: “Frontline allows use of the building at no cost, and we give our time plus tea and biscuits as part of our commitment to Frontline.” 
The women are all adults, and some bring their tiny children to the discussion groups. The group is actually a spin off from a larger scale action organized at Frontline with funding from the European Union, which involves a monthly meal invitation to approximately two hundred women, also drawn from different faith backgrounds. 

In both cases, the actions seek to build bridges between sections of the community who do not normally interact. They are simple to arrange and demonstrably effective: there is no question that these women meet and share their experiences and learn more about other women who live in the same neighbourhood. The work that Charlotte and her friends are doing recognises that while society is made up of identifiable segments which can be defined, counted and traced statistically, these segments are made of individual persons. Understanding and integration does not happen through segments, it happens through individuals, through personal interaction and communication.  

British Prime Minister David Cameron  launched  his Big Society concept for the nation shortly after his election and he decided the setting for this significant announcement should be the Liverpool Hope University, recognising the contribution  that this university is making to its local community, made up as it is of a combination of faith based academic institutions.   

The  Big Society Network  in UK exists to "Support and develop talent, innovation and enterprise to deliver social impact. ….(to) unleash the social energy that exists in the UK to help build a better, healthier society."

Charlotte Sawyer has now graduated from university and is working on a number of projects through Initatives of Change, where she has recently been appointed a member of the  International Support Team 
Describing the team’s role, Charlotte Sawyer writes:“Young people have energy, enthusiasm and, at times, unlimited aspirations. However, in order to lead we must learn from the mistakes and wisdom of people before us to have a comprehensive understanding of how to tackle the problems of this world.”

One opportunity to develop this understanding will be a conference in Switzerland in July 2012 which seeks to tackle issues of multiculturalism in Europe,  Learning to live in a multicultural world, when      diaspora communities and those from Europe will gather across generation and cultures to work together on issues such as a lack of integration in Europe and individual responsibility. 

The problems are numerous but so are the opportunities for positive change. Treating people as individuals rather than as a unit of a statistical segment, and creating opportunities for persons to understand each other are components to build a better, healthier society, whether you like the Big Society label or not. 

It is all to do with the power of bringing everyone to the table. 

Saturday 21 April 2012

A blog post of Tweets: can smartphones solve poverty?

In his recent book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr describes how “cell-phone novels” have become popular in Japan.
His comment gave me the idea of creating a blog post out of Tweets.

It all started at the end of last month when I read that a renowned economist said that poverty will be brought to an end by the widespread ownership of smartphones. The point is sound but it seemed to me that while we watch the value of Apple reach the equivalent of the GDP of Europe a lot persons will go on suffering.

Here’s the translation below for those who need it:
Reply from JMM: Well at least you know the route
TJ: Agreed, but how to convince everyone else?
JMM: You don't convince me
TJ: If I can't convince a fine man like yourself, there is no hope
JMM: Yes there is, we keep on searching
 Meanwhile JMMelo marked the original tweet as a favourite
TJ: The technology exists, what's missing is the will on the part of decision makers
 UMS: Excellent that this debate has arisen. I also think the technology exists. The challenge is enormous, but it's possible
TJ: If only as well as being true it were easy to solve. If only there were a spirit of sacrifice to eliminate poverty
JMMelo:I believe that willingness will arise from understanding how unjust and unequal is the socioeconomic system which tolerates poverty
JMM: If you take a look, there are thousands of gestures of empathy between persons every day

JMM writes very interesting and his  blog Corto y Cambio  is translated in a number of languages.
Thanks for technical suggestion about this post are due to:

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Ruben Yessayan new Debussy recording

Ruben Yessayan, the Madrid based pianist and composer, has just released his second cd, a selection of Debussy's music including the first book of Preludes and Children's Corner.

Mr Yessayan brings to this music his vast experience as a solo and ensemble performer who has specialised in music of the 20th century.

As a graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music in New York he studied piano with Nina Svetlanova and chamber music with Isidore Cohen.  It was during this time that he performed as principal pianist with the Claremont Ensemble. I remember hearing him perform with this group in a piano trio in an evening of Bartok music when I visited the Manhattan School of Music in 2004. His technical virtuosity combined with a rich and deep understanding of the music make his playing a joy to hear.

 At the same time he worked as apprentice conductor of the New York Youth Symphony Orchestra under the guidance of Mischa Santora. Later Mr Yessayan returned to Europe, where he has developed a career as soloist and teacher.

He is also Artistic Director of the  International Music Festival  "Villa de Medinaceli", a post he has held since 2007.

This new cd is available online via Amazon, Spotify and iTunes, as his his earlier cd, with music by Khachaturian, Mozart, Albeniz, Cage and Igoa.

International Art Camp in Mozambique, Africa

I have just received the up to date information about this year’s Tambo International Art Camp which will take place in Mozambique, organised by the Tambo Tambulani Cultural Association.

The setting is magical, in Pemba, Mozambique, and the cost is exceptionally reasonable, at only $120 including food and camping. The array of music, theatre and dance on offer is huge.

The most attractive feature of this Art Camp is that it incorporates a festival of local artists who are participating near their own home setting and performing for their local audience. Campers who travel from other places are experiencing a genuine festival of local culture, not a contrived hash served up for tourists.

The feeling I get from reading all the available materials and following the organisation's web site is one of real celebration and I am reminded of the fascinating and moving experience of Gillian Howell, the Australian education practitioner who spent several months in Timor l’Este: her most worthwhile moments ere spent working alongside local musicians  who kindly welcomed her into their own musical and cultural celebrations.

You can see from the detailed information about  last year's camp that the week includes many different activities and many different music and dance styles.

Here is some information about Pemba from the Mozambique tourism office 

“Formerly known as Porto Amelia, Pemba in Mozambique is the beautiful gateway to the Quirimbas Archipelago and Quirimbas National Park. The Niassa National Reserve can also be reached via Pemba. This city in Mozambique has a delightfully relaxed feel although this is changing as tourism projects take off. Visitors to Pemba can see lovely Portuguese colonial architecture and strong Arab influences, also magnificent views over the bay from the city heights.
The capital of Cabo Delgado Province, Mozambique, has all modern amenities including an airport, shops, banks, patisseries, cafes and restaurants as well as bars. There is also a massive market where just about anything can be bought. The old part of Pemba also has traditional markets to explore which is the place to go for beautiful arts and crafts (especially work by the Makonde people which is renowned) and handmade silverware.
Pemba Bay forms a huge harbour and stunning coral reefs lie close to shore providing wonderful diving and snorkelling adventures. The surrounding landscape of bay is characterised by forests of Baobab trees growing down to the shoreline. The most popular beaches are Wimbe and Farol for accommodation and restaurants. Dhow safaris are a popular way to sail around the bay and beyond. There are great beaches further north of Pemba or visitors can hop on a flight to visit the Quirimbas Islands.”

While your mind is on Africa, I’d like to tell you about a   beautiful choir of children   from Madagascar who visited Europe recently.

Thanks to Michael at Tambo for taking the trouble to send me the 2012 International Art Camp  information. I do not have any personal experience of this festival and I pass on this information in good faith.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

The Polyglots, The Beatles and a Spanish Monster

How many times have you done some work and found that the experience of meeting the people you worked with was worth much more than the fee you were paid?

This was my experience a couple of years ago in Madrid. First there was a call from a music producer asking for help to arrange for her to audition my students. Easy, just sent a message out and dozens of wannabes turned up to sing. Finally one of my pupils was selected and earned a handsome reward for her part in the recording. Then I was asked if I would call in at the studio and listen through the adult and children´s recordings to check on the English pronunciation. All good, easy and fun to do, a bit of cash and a change from routine and a chance to meet some wonderful musicians and actors.

Then I was asked to look over some lyrics for the next stage in the recordings. This meant that, after meeting so many talented and courteous people I also got to meet the big boss, and this was a real pleasure. The boss is none other than Oscar Gómez, a “Monstruo” in music recording in Spain. Sr Gómez has written songs for top entertainers over thirty years which have become part of the cultural landscape in Spain and Spanish speaking countries.

This was supposed to be “a couple of quick chats” but turned into numerous visits and each session was like a Spanish inquisition, though Sr Gómez would perish at the thought of being associated with that part of his country’s history. Whenever I suggested a word change he put me through an interrogation to justify my requested change. After all, he had chosen every word of every line with great care, his English was really good and he had been writing hit songs forever.

It´s hard to argue your case for changing a word when all you have is a feeling that it´s not quite right: it doesn’t have to be a matter of grammar, just a sense of up to date use of the language in the end. His attention to detail and his perfectionism are clearly part of his success story, and sometimes he even let me convince him I was right.

One day we were about to start and Sr Gómez wanted me to wait and asked if I had heard the recently issued Love album of The Beatles remixes. He played the opening track Because through the studio speakers and out came this amazing acapella sound of The Beatles in close harmony, which had existed for nearly 40 years but had so far been unheard in that form. He was transfixed, lost in admiration for The Beatles, for their music and for the production quality that made this miracle a reality. These are among the characteristics of truly great professionals, aren’t they? It’s their ability to recognize the achievements of other practitioners in their field, and their capacity to be impressed by something new even when you would think they have seen and heard it all.

All this brought about the cd and video featuring some loveable characters, lovingly created and expertly realized by a team of slightly mad but extremely professional actors and musicians: they are…..
The Polyglots ......
Big-O a big-hearted flirty rapper, Patata a fun mischief maker, Karim shy, timid and absent minded, Violeta a bad tempered dancer, Tati miss perfect, a true romantic and poetess and Correcto a likeable true blue Brit teacher.

Two boys and two girls, together with a ferret and a penguin, make up The Polyglot team, singing their cool songs designed to make learning English that bit more fun.
It was a great pleasure to see this project come to life. Most of all I enjoyed meeting these amazingly creative people, especially Oscar Gómez, a Spanish monster in the best sense of the word.

Sunday 8 April 2012

The musicians who sank with the Titanic

One of the many touching scenes in Titanic is the moment when the musicians decide to go on playing. There they are in their formal suits, instruments at the ready, and their future is already clear, there seems to be no hope for their survival as their place in the queue for a seat in a lifeboat is very near the back. Who would forgive them for going off for a smoke, or going to look for a stiff drink in the unattended bar? Who would be left to reprimand them for not finishing their set, and what little chance was there that they would be alive long enough to be reprimanded anyway?
Yet, given the choice which faced all the persons aboard the stricken ship, they opted for courage instead of cowardice, for honour instead of skullduggery, and their actions earned them a place of pride in …… the story or in history?
One of the difficulties of James Cameron´s film is that it mixes fact and fiction, hard truth and fairy tale. So I was very touched to come across a plaque honouring these musicians, and confirming that the scene played out in the movie chimed with reality.
The last time I visited the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, England, was in 2008 and the large wooden plaque is on display for all to see just inside the beautiful art deco style building. The names of the musicians are listed, with a brief note of tribute to their heroism and their musicianship. I was curious about this plaque because I was fortunate to hear many concerts at the hall given by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) in the ‘70’s and I could not understand how I had not noticed it. Our guide explained that it had been hung in the band room in the months after the Titanic sank, and for many years orchestra players touched it on their way onto the stage as a good luck charm. When the building was renovated recently, the impact of the movie had been so great that the orchestra members thought there would be sufficient interest among concert goers to see this very original memorial to some very special musicians.

  Photo credit:
At the same time, placing the plaque on public display was a way of reminding all visitors of the RLPO’s great history. According to the orchestra's web page

"The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is the UK’s oldest surviving professional symphony orchestra and the second oldest concert-giving organisation in the UK. The origins of the Orchestra’s concert series date back to the formation of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society, which administers it, by a group of Liverpool music lovers in 1840. Liverpool Philharmonic has remained at the heart of Liverpool’s cultural life ever since."

Like many arts institutions in the UK, the RLPO is extremely aware of its changing role in society, and it is among the most adventurous orchestras in its programming and in special projects. I have written with admiration about the orchestra's  commitment to promoting social inclusion  under the direction of Peter Garden  as Executive Director (Learning & Engagement).  The orchestra was so active when Liverpool was European City of Culture in 2008, it was said that the RLPO provided the soundtrack to the year’s events.  

Among the many music groups active in Liverpool is the Phoenix Concert Orchestra    

There is a footnote not told in the movie: the notes on the plaque go on to explain that it was the custom for musicians to hire their suits when they went to work on the ships. Apparently the tailor from whom these brave men had hired their suits sent a bill demanding payment from their families in the days following the disaster. There was such a huge outcry in the local press that the tailor was forced to withdraw his demand for payment and forgive the debt. 

Wednesday 4 April 2012

How to be more creative

For anyone who wants to be a more creative person, one of the most important tasks is to define what creativity means for you. 

Over the last decades there have been a number of characteristics associated with the term, and some of them have moved away from a concept which was widely accepted from the days of the storm and thunder of the Romantic poets and composers and which held up past the “Sputnik moment” of the late 1950’s. It’s reassuring that in recent years, at last, someone has come to redefine creativity in line with that early and valid meaning. Skip to the end if you can’t wait to know who I am thinking of.

For many generations, creativity was a term associated with someone whose work was novel and groundbreaking in its originality, and which was appreciated as being of unquestionable quality, and which was widely understood as being of value in its field. A composer such as Beethoven, a painter like Goya and a poet like Blake would be paradigms of this concept of creative persons.

I suppose it was in the 1970’s that terms became confused and the concept of novelty took precedence over everything else. The idea of being original, which had previously implied a recognizable standard of quality, was diluted and what was left was the idea of something simply different, novel. Artists of all kinds and fashion designers were applauded simply because they produced something  that had not been done, seen or heard before: never mind that nobody would ever want to see, hear or do it again. Newness was everything, quality was passé. 

In the 1980’s the word creative became associated especially with the advertising industry, and the creatives were the talented persons who used their imagination to persuade the rest of us to buy, buy and buy. It mattered little whether the images they used and the story they told were verosimil: their skill was in convincing a relatively gullible public to part with their cash. Their worth to their employers and their salary had nothing to do with the quality of their output by any artistic measure, it only mattered whether the campaigns they invented caused an increase in sales. In fact, some advertising campaigns were so entertaining and striking that the product was lost, buried by some much humour, glamour or glitzy location filming, and after all the money was spent all that remained in the public perception was the famous face, joke or beach, not the product itself.   

In the 90’s a more sinister connotation attached itself to creativity. Soon after we in Britain had got over a senior government figure admitting he had been “economical with the truth”, we learnt that company leaders in the USA has encouraged their accountants to be creative in their accounting. This was all very well until the moment of truth arrived. As huge companies like Enron collapsed in a heap of worthless paper that was a mild presage of the financial crisis of 2008, thousands of customers, suppliers and investors were less than appreciative of company workers who had let their creativity run wild.

After the dotcom bubble burst, when I was working in a large organization, the staff handbook included descriptions of competencies which were to be developed and encouraged in the organization. One of these was creativity, which did not surprise me. What did cause me to look twice was the definition of creativity, which was the capacity to build relationships and partnerships with external partners. I was more than happy to play my part in building relationships and was delighted that one of my personal interests, which is establishing partnerships, was valued by the organization. It was just that creativity as a label that never quite seemed to fit.

At last it has been a great relief to hear Professor Ken Robinson   the education guru who has become best known through TED talks, who has reestablished the earlier characteristics associated with creativity. Ken Robinson is a passionate and convincing advocate of identifying, promoting and developing creativity in schools and beyond. His conviction is that our current methods of schooling are contrary to the flowering of creativity in our students, and he has argued tirelessly that nurturing creativity is important firstly for the well being of our personal selves and secondly because only creatively thinking persons will be able to find the solutions which are increasingly necessary for the well being of our civilization and the plant we inhabit.

Ken Robinson has no hang ups when it comes to defining creativity. If you have time, go direct to the source and follow his lucid and entertaining explanations first hand. If you only have time for a sentence, here is his definition of creativity taken from one of his presentations:
"Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value."

Does that sound familiar?
If you want to be a more creative person, that’s what you should be aspiring to.   

How to run the best advertising campaign

You could call this How to run the best advertising campaign or Madrid subway poster: a ticket to nowhere
Here’s a photo from the recent campaign by the subway company in Madrid, Spain. 

It’s a great idea as it aims to show very simply and clearly what good value you are getting for your ticket when you ride the subway in Madrid by comparing the charges on subways around the world. The timing was important because the campaign ran just as the company were implementing a pretty drastic hike in the price of fares.

Unfortunately, the campaign generated so much negative feedback that the posters were hastily taken down, that’s to say the ones that had not been ripped up by angry commuters who felt the company were trying to play them for fools.
At first sight, the argument seems to be clear: the price of a ticket on the Madrid subway is lower than in many other cities and there are the figures to prove it.
But they don’t.
In the first place, some subway users felt that some of the figures used were inaccurate because they do not compare similar journeys, as they knew from their holidays abroad.
In the second place, and more importantly, the figures do not take into account the relative wage levels in the different cities quoted. This was really most angered the Madrileños, who suffer some of the lowest wages in Europe. Apart from the huge number of young, qualified adults  who are becarios, working full time hours in exchange for a grant, there are thousands working for a minimum wage of less than 1,000 euros a month. How can you compare ticket prices for those persons with ticket prices in London where salaries are generally much higher?
So, a great poster, great idea and perfect timing. Just a shame the company didn’t think about who their customers are before printing the ads. This was a ticket to nowhere and the light at the end of the tunnel was a glare of bad publicity.

  On second thoughts, maybe you should call this How to ruin the best advertising campaign.

Thursday 29 March 2012

How to be a more fulfilled person

On hearing my friend triumph in a Mozart flute concerto ….
Q: What is the Coca Cola reason for being a non-pro musical performer?
A: Obvious isn´t it? It´s the desire to get other people tapping their feet .. as in I want to teach the world to sing
That was one of the reasons I put forward about what motivates people (myself included) to dedicate time and energy to perform in public without an economic incentive. Yes, I know a simpler way of saying it is to use the expression amateur music making. Unfortunately the term amateur musician has taken on pejorative connotations, so I’m using the longer description.

Among the groups I have most enjoyed hearing over the years there are many which perform without an economic incentive, not least the admirable Eclectic Voices who I heard in concert at Union Chapel in London, directed by the wonderful   Scott Stroman

The stress level involved in performing as part of a group, even in the most challenging repertoire and in the most famous venue, is cushioned by the support and companionship of fellow musicians. So much so that it is not hard to see how singing in a choir or playing in an orchestra can be a pleasurable experience.

I can see too that playing pop or jazz music has its lighter side and the informality of the scene often means that even playing solo can be a relaxed experience. After all, didn’t the great Miles Davis say that in jazz there are “no wrong notes”. Yes, you got me, he didn’t really mean you can be a rubbish player, but you know what I mean, in a pub full of drunks and smoke of all varieties, an odd note here or there is not the end of the world. Talking of Miles Davis, and his experience of being obliged to use electric keyboards in large stadia, the great Keith Jarrett said that electric instruments are like toys, all you can do is play with them….

So, where was I? Yes, in a classical orchestra concert of players from many nations and who follow many professions or none, where my friend was soloist in a Mozart concerto for Flute & Harp. So, why does a successful professional person, whose work does not involve her directly in performing on stage, place herself in this hugely stressful situation? Not only was there an audience of strangers lost in the dark of the theatre, but there they were, in the front row, my friend´s work colleagues from her office, right up to the big boss. Since they already know and like her and respect her professional ability, there is nothing for her to prove, only the the awful prospect that a bucket full of nerves could lead to her turning in a dire performance.

Needless to say the nerves were kept under control and the performances was totally enjoyable and deserved the prolonged applause which followed. Then came the answer. We don´t do this for the applause, we don´t do this for the conductor´s pat on the back, we don´t do this because we need friends and colleagues to like or respect us more…..

In the end the real reason for putting oneself in this stressful and challenging situation is for one´s own personal satisfaction, to become a more fulfilled person. 

As my friend said to me backstage: 

“One more thing off the list of things to do before I …..”

Saturday 10 March 2012

Employment statistics in the cultural sector in Europe

If you work in the cultural sector in Spain you are twice as likely to be a graduate as a person working in other sectors, and you represent part of 1.3% of the total working population. Your German colleagues represent 2.2% of their country’s working population, with the figures for UK at 2.1%, France at 1.7% and Italy at 1.1%. Across the 27 EU countries in 2009 the average was 1.7%.

Writers and creative artists
The number of persons employed as writers and creative artists in Spain rose from 77,600 in 2004 to 101,500 in 2009.
The corresponding figures for France are 150,500 / 180,200 and for the UK 140,500 / 195,600. If you want near stagnation go to Italy, with almost no change in 5 years from 118,300 to 119,100. 

Which European country has the largest number of persons employed as writers and creative artists? If you want to know the answer, go to the end of this post.
Big numbers do not necessarily mean that you have more chance of being employed in the cultural sector. The figures for what writers and creative artists represent as a % of the total number of employed persons are remarkably close across countries. In 2009 in Spain writers and creative artists took a 0.5% of total employment; in France and in the UK 0.7%; in Italy 0.5%; and in Germany 0.8%.
If you want high % rates, go to Netherlands, with 1.3%, or Finland and Sweden with 1.5%. In Iceland the figure rises to 1.9%, but the beautiful island of the hot water springs is something of an exception due to its small population.

This fascinating information forms part of data presented in the pocketbook "Cultural Statistics 2011", published by the European Commission. I have written in an earlier post about  other aspects of culture such as levels of participation in cultural activities and citizen involvement as consumers and creators, also from this report.
In the Cultural Statistics pocketbook, the data are taken from the EU Labour Force Survey (LFS). Detailed statistics concerning employment in cultural economic activities and occupations can be obtained on request from the EU. You can read it all for yourself at the EU culture portal 

This current set of data refers to employment, and is especially relevant in these times when jobs are so hard to find. If you considering working in the cultural sector it is very useful to be able to compare the % rates of total employed persons who can thrive in the cultural sector; or that writers  and creative artist can represent  a larger or smaller share of the total of employed persons.
As well as knowing the data, it is essential to have access to the actual job opportunities available at any given time. A search through the relevant jobs sections of the press, on paper and digital, is one method. It is also important to understand the level of mutual interest between countries. Here are some notes on a recent report about the current state of linguistic interaction between Spain and Germany. 

I recently wrote about two sites which give a constantly updated summary of job opportunities as well as a wide range of information about developments in the cultural sector and they are certainly essential to any person who is serious about searching for job opportunities  in the cultural sector. They are LabforCulture and FabricaCultural.

Opportunities currently available on LabforCulture include:

European Cultural Foundation is looking for an experienced and enthusiastic Digital Communication Officer. If social media and online communication are second nature to you, and if you want to share your digital know-how within a stimulating, international environment, then find out more about this vacancy (see LabforCulture)
International Arts Management Lab
For arts managers and arts administrators
March 23, 24, 25 
Vienna, Austria

The Lab is the introductory course which opens the door towards the new collaboration project in Russia in autumn 2012 - 
the six-week period of performance creation in a Russian repertory theatre together with Russian actors and performers from different countries!
There are several scholarships available for participation in the Lab in March in Vienna!
The scholarship covers the full participation fee.

Among the opportunities currently displayed at FabricaCultural are the following:
Auxiliares de biblioteca. Madrid
Assistant/Associate University Librarian. California.
Traductor y revisor de francés. Naciones Unidas. Yugoslavia. 
Interprete de francés para conferencias. Naciones Unidas. PHNOM-PENH 
Graphic Arts Assistant.Naciones Unidas. Nueva York
Prácticas de documentalista en Institut de Recherche PIERRE FABRE. Francia. 
Profesor en Sheffield Hallam University. Reino Unido. 
Prácticas de documentalista en SCE. Francia. 
Monitor de teatro para actividades extraescolares.
Archivista Bureau van Dijk Ingénieurs Conseils. Francia

Also, they are also promoting an interesting workshop on grants and other funding from Spain and Europe:
Taller "Financiación de proyectos culturales: subvenciones, concursos y ayudas españolas y europeas"

You can follow FabricaCultural on Twitter  @fabricacultural 

By the way, the European country which has the largest number of persons employed as writers and creative artists is Germany, where the figures for 2004 and 2009 are 235,000 / 327,800.

Monday 5 March 2012

Sir James Henderson School Choir & Orchestra concerts in Madrid

 One of the most varied and entertaining groups to visit us in Madrid was the one directed by Martin Biggs, Director of Music at the Sir James Henderson School
I realize it was quite a long time ago since he brought his group from Milan, Italy. I am going to do some checking now to see exactly when, but it is certainly a visit full of happy memories.
A colleague of mine who had a four year old child at our school said to me one day that his little boy had gone home saying that he had heard an opera singer from Italy sing in the playground. It was quite true, as Martin Biggs’ group included a trained opera singer who just happened to be a parent and had joined the tour to take part in the music and act as chaperone. Their first concert with us was, as with all visiting groups, for our youngest pupils, and several hundred tiny children listened attentively and clapped enthusiastically at the open air performance. 

Photo: singing opera in the open air for little children
Later in the day the whole group, including chamber orchestra, choir and their accompanist, moved inside to perform again, this time to secondary pupils. The longer time allowed for a wider repertoire to be sung and played. Highlights again were the opera arias, and for me also the Italian folk songs, which went with a real swing.

Photo: preparing to perform for secondary students
As I had been busy helping to arrange the concerts at my school, it was a refreshing change to attend the performance at the Italian cultural centre in the heart of old Madrid, housed in a grandiose residence, not for nothing called a “palacete”. The acoustics were excellent, the sight lines ideal and the audience I think brought together almost all the members of the Italian community in Madrid, plus lots of interested local people for good measure. Under Martin Biggs’ direction all the music went well, even the most challenging pieces. There is no doubt that the real crowd pleasers were the Italian folk songs, and these were repeated as an encore. Talking to the students afterwards, they were surprised at the audience’s insistence on hearing more folk songs, and they were a little disappointed that there seemed to be less appreciation of their more serious pieces on the programme. The truth is that they did perform the serious pieces well, it’s just that their renditions of the folk songs were so special precisely because of their authenticity and the natural charm of their performances.

Photo: Celebrating success at the Italian cultural centre

I have to confess that when I booked the post concert meal in town I looked for a restaurant that was close to the group’s hotel, offered good value, served meals until late and accepted a group booking for a Saturday night. There really are not many establishments which meet all the criteria, and the group from Milan ended up celebrating at an Italian restaurant!
You might understand why it has taken me so long to get around to writing about the SJH school visit when you take a look at other posts I have been adding recently which include accounts of visits to Madrid which I have helped to arrange, including schools from several states of the USA and the United Kingdom, including the La Jolla Country Day School from California, King's School in Canterbury and Folkestra, from the Sage Gateshead 

Yes, I just checked, and the group from Sir James Henderson School, Milan, came to Madrid in 2008. It is a credit to them that the visit is still fresh in my mind, and I hope it is in their minds too.

Thank you Martin and all your team for a great set of concerts.

Thursday 1 March 2012

La Jolla Country Day School Choir in Madrid

Even before this choir arrived in Madrid I knew they were going to be wonderful: even so I was overwhelmed by their good nature, willingness to join in so many activities, and their ability to adapt to the circumstances. In the end, this is all due to their excellent all round education at La Jolla Country Day School and especially to their musical preparation by choral director Jennifer Boyum. 

Photo: the choir in California before the Madrid trip
I had been fortunate to enjoy the generous hospitality of colleagues, administrators and parents of the La Jolla Country Day School in Spring 2009. I went to California with a small group of high school students who were what turned out to be the last cohort of a successful homestay exchange programme.  They were given the most amazing time, not only seeing the top spots in nearby San Diego, such as Sea World, the old town and the aircraft carrier museum, but also enjoying day trips to Los Angeles, not forgetting Beverly Hills and Universal Studios. In the end it was not the spectacular and the grandiose aspects of life in La Jolla that won the hearts of my students, it was the warmth and kindness of their host students and their families. 

The success of this homestay exchange was due largely to the inspiration of two sisters, working half a world apart, who created an opportunity for their respective students to see the world through a different lens: a special initiative by two very special persons. I know all the students who have been involved over the years are enormously grateful to them for their investment of skill, time and energy which made the exchange such a great venture.
While I was in La Jolla I sat in one of Jennifer’s rehearsals and it was a joy to see her students racing through a series of songs for an upcoming Burn´s Night performance. A combination of efficiency and attention to musical detail made the choir an outstanding group of performers.
We talked about a music exchange and I am so glad that at least one side of the plan did come to fruition, so that Jennifer arrived in Madrid with her 32 students in January 2010. There were 20 girls and 12 boys, and the singers included a significant number of senior students who had gathered considerable performing experience over the years, and this showed in their excellent performances.
During their week long stay they performed at a range of situations, from the most informal to the very formal, in venues that ranged from a less than 5 year old Elementary school to a 500 year old monastery.
As was our custom we invited the visitors to sing for our very youngest children, and they listened attentively to a short selection of songs and there was an evening concert at for 150 students, aged 14 to 18, who come to the school in the evenings to study English. We had asked the visitors to prepare a few words about life in California, their daily school routine and their plans for university and their audience were spellbound as they listened to their contemporaries from across the ocean. They had thought carefully about what to say, and their presentation and delivery were exemplary, and much appreciated by the local staff and their students.

 Photo: a day in the Madrid school
I have written in an earlier post about a concert given by the Madrigalia Choir from the King’s School from Canterbury at the chapel of the St Thomas monastery in Ávila. It was a great pleasure to be able to arrange a similar concert for the LJCDS singers. Without a doubt it is true that the young Californian singers have never experienced singing in such a venue, and the magnificence of the centuries old chapel, more like a cathedral in its dimensions, brought out their very best performance. In a moving closing message, the Abbot encouraged us all to continue bringing together persons from different countries, origins and ages, as we had been able to do on this occasion, and he expressed the appreciation of the large and knowledgeable audience.

 Photo: arriving at the St Thomas Monastery in Avila
It was at this concert that the full emotional power of the Jennifer Boyum’s musical selection was most evident. The title for the concert was Music with a message: Memory, Peace and Hope, and in her introduction to the printed programme, Jennifer wrote the following:
“I have always been fascinated with how music and history intermingle. Just as a barometer forecast trends in weather, music gives us insight into current and future social attitudes. Music provides a catalyst for healing for those in pain, allows us to speak out against injustice, gives a voice to those who are lost but not forgotten, and permits us to hope for a better tomorrow. Music may not always be “pretty”, warm or pleasing to the ear, but it allows us to express what mere words cannot.”
The Memory section opened with In Remembrance by Eleanor Daley, followed by In Flanders Field in an arrangement by Emerson and Jacobson, When I am Silent by J Varner, and In Remembrance by Jeffrey Ames. The Peace section was sung to texts from the Song of Solomon and St Francis of Assisi in settings by David Childs and Jody Lindh, Set me as a seal upon your heart and Lord make me an instrument of thy peace.  The Hope section included Inscription of Hope by Z Randall Stroope, Stand Together by Papoulis and Prayer for the Children by K Bestor.
The beautiful music, wonderful singing combined with the audience’s empathy and the historic setting to make this a powerfully moving performance, one to remember for a long time to come.
A surprise performance opportunity arose during the week, as my school’s own Christmas concert, due to be held in December, had been postponed due to snow, and the alternative date was chosen at short notice and made it possible for the Country Day choir to take part. It was a great privilege to hear the choir again, this time in a 1990’s church building which is the local parish church, and which has a starkly beautiful architecture with a favourable acoustic for choral singing. The visitors knocked us all out when they appeared in their immaculate evening suits, and they left an indelible impression. 

 Photo: formal dress at the local parish church in Madrid

They have also left a legacy at the school, as the  current choral singing programme came into being in response to the impact made by the Country Day choir, as they showed how much high quality work can be achieved when the right programme is put in place and properly resourced.
Thank you to all the wonderful singers and your chaperones for an unforgettable week. I hope you will all forgive me for taking so long to put these thoughts in order. Thank you most of all to Jennifer Boyum, an extraordinarily gifted musician and choir trainer. Hope to welcome you all somewhere, soon.     

La Jolla Country Day School Concert Choir
Director (2010): Jennifer Boyum

Ryan Hastings-Echo    
David Farley                
Daniel Stein
J.J. Jaurez-Uribe                       
Blake Mohseni             
Mac Anderson
Hunter Higgins            
Guito Olortegui                       
Joel Juarez-Uribe
Teagan Boyd               
Junior Togiaso        
 Ian Han
Joelle Juarez-Uribe       
Jodi Morris                 
Rachel Atkins
Alexandra Trifunovic   
Lauren Torres             
Stephanie Niefeld
Megan Arnold             
Annalisa Race              
Danielle Schwartz
Leah Schoenfeld                      
Adrienne Krichman     
Laura Grossman
Lydia Khorsandian      
Kimberly Roesler         
Laura Morgan
Yuvi Anchondo                       
Hannah Cobb             
Sarah Upson
Danielle Poitker            
Zoey Turek                  

(I have amended this post on 3 March to include photos and the choir names, with permission from  LJCDS )