Sunday 28 October 2018

Lourdes Perez Sierra and Antonia Brico

Lourdes Perez Sierra is an expert arts administrator based in Madrid, Spain. I have attended numerous concerts which she has organized, sometimes paying for a ticket and at other times as a guest and I have seen at first hand how she has been able to combine imaginative programming with top class performers in outstanding venues:  in other words, a perfect storm of musical experience. Lourdes is the founder of  Arts for Leadership and other initiatives aimed at promoting high quality development of talent in Spain and beyond.
In her recent blog post Lourdes takes the role of the orchestra conductor as a case study with regard to leadership. She explores different conducting styles, from the most authoritarian Karajan technique to a more democratic, egalitarian style of leadership.
I enjoyed this post and I hoped to get around to asking her to explore the role of women as conductors in a future blog post. Before I got to that I saw a new film about a woman conductor. At the moment I am living in the Netherlands so I got first chance to see De Dirigent   , The Conductor, a  film   produced with Dutch finance and expertise, about the fascinating true story of Antonia Brico.
 Brico was born in Rotterdam, NL in 1902 and was separated from her parents and taken to New York as a child. Thanks to her determination and strength of character, together with financial help from a friend, she was able to study conducting in Berlin and return to the USA, where she worked as a conductor and where she remained until her passing in 1989.
Brico´s story is inspiring and in many ways a positive view of progress towards recognition of gender equality.
There is a disappointing note at the end of the film, crediting Gramophone magazine statistics which show zero women conductors among the greats. First there is a quote from 2006 and then another, I believe from 2017, showing no women among the great conductors. 
On the one hand, it´s ok for the producers to make a point that women have not been given a fair chance on the podium of the world´s leading orchestras. On the other hand, it is a disservice to the achievements of those women who have achieved recognition at the very highest levels of musical accomplishment.
If you look at the long and distinguished career of   Marin Alsop ,for example,  from her early days as assistant to Leonard Bernstein to her current engagements with the world´s leading orchestras, or the huge achievements of Mirga Grazinyte Tyla, Principal Conductor  of the City of Bermingham Symphony Orchestra, it is clear that the suffering of Antonia Brico has not been in vain.
Recently I wrote a letter of recommendation for a student who left my school and moved to Germany. I wrote that she was the most exceptional student I have met in 40 years of teaching and that she reminded me of the young Simon Rattle who I knew as a young musician in Liverpool. Before she left, I encouraged her to pursue a career as a conductor. Was I doing her a disservice by comparing her to a (male) Simon Rattle? I am convinced the answer is no: I am comparing her to the highest standard that I have in my living memory.

At the beginning of this post I introduced you to Lourdes Perez Sierra: I mention her as an expert arts administrator, not as man or woman, simply as an expert. I hope that the sad and difficult experience of Antonia Brico will at least serve this current generation of young musicians, male, female and non-gender, as an inspiration to achieve your highest level of achievement, not as gender based, but as a person, a living, breathing, musical  human being.   

Sunday 21 October 2018

The Liverpool Band, from a Liverpool Boy

Earlier this year I saw a show by The Liverpool Band, not in Liverpool but in Denia in Spain. It turns out these four incredible musicians are from the Alicante area, so the Condado venue, a former cinema in 
Denia´s high street, is more or less home ground.

Watchy Watchy is what too many substandard bands in Spain use to fill in for the English lyrics they cannot understand and/or cannot be bothered to learn.  Happily there was absolutely no Watchy Watchy from the Liverpool Band as they sang every song with perfectly accurate content and with fantastically clear diction. My admiration for this quartet grew by the minute as they showed their complete mastery of the Beatles catalogue and their own skills as instrumentalists and singers.

This was a long show, starting with those amazing 3 minute wonders from the early sixties, perfect gems that are over almost before they have begun: they had to because that was all that would fit onto one side of a 45rpm single record. Then the band moved on to the later material from the White Album and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and they played and sang with effortless ease those polyrhythmic figures and complex harmonies, one song after another without putting a foot wrong.
I do not know the names of the members of The Liverpool Band but apparently they started in 1997 and have been working continuously on this material since, and it shows. In between versions of complete songs they played little fragments of so many other songs, teasers for another gig, another night. I am full of admiration for their individual musical skills and for their superb ensemble togetherness as well as their perfect vocal harmonies: there seems to be nothing these musicians cannot do.

As the gig I saw was in the summer there were many Brits in the audience and I suppose many of us have Beatles stories to tell. I enjoyed a Paul McCartney concert in Madrid in the nineties and that took me back to early days of listening to the Wings albums, trying to contain the guilt at enjoying this music which was the result of the break up of the Fab Four.

In 1963, I believe it was, The Beatles returned to Liverpool from their first triumphant tour to the USA. This was a historic moment because the popular music charts had up to then been the absolute domain of American artists such as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, and here were these four young men from Liverpool who had broken the mould, taking over the highest places in the pop charts the world over, and especially significantly, in the USA. You have to remember that the Liverpool of that time was drab, grey and still showing the scars of the tragic effects of the 1939-1945 war. How could they have dared to achieve so much?

On the day the band returned to Liverpool there was a line of people on the streets from the airport to the city centre: I know because I was one of them. As my memory has it, and I could be wrong, I walked, or rather I was taken, since I was only 6 years old, along to the main road where they were due to pass by, and waited a hugely long time until finally a cavalcade of big black cars drove by. The window of one of the cars was partly open and a hand appeared through the window to wave. The hand belonged to Paul, or maybe George or John or Ringo… or maybe one of their assistants, and then they were gone. 
Many years later Paul McCartney gave one of his free concert at the Liverpool riverside, called the Pier Head, and someone my age was there with her teenage daughters. When the great man appeared on the stage there was near hysterical applause before even a note had sounded. One of the teenage daughters said: What are they all clapping for, he hasn´t done anything yet. To which her mother replied: It’s not about tonight, it´s about the last 50 years that everyone is applauding.
All these memories of the original Beatles only go to increase my respect and admiration for The Liverpool Band, and I look forward to catching up with them the next time I am in Denia.