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Community service for conductors? Romantic music for bassoonists?
All this and more with classical music's agony aunt, ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

I would appreciate your advice on how to listen to Romantic music; I just don't get it. I really have tried and earlier this week I went to hear the Florestans playing Schumann, Fauré and Schubert. The Schumann I just couldn't fathom, the Fauré was so passionate it made me feel ill, and the Schubert seemed to me hopelessly sentimental and trite by turns. What's wrong with me? I know I'm missing something, but I don't know how to find it. I'm a bassoonist, but I don't think that matters, does it?


Dear bassoonist,

Well, I know what you mean, even though your email (forwarded by Keith) reached me at the exact point where the tum-diddly-pom-pom-pom of 'you've got mail' clashed most rancidly with the Dvorák concerto I was practising (Wathen Hall, St Paul's School, Barnes, 8pm, March 28th, be there or be square!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)! Some romantic pieces (not, luckily, the Dvorák cello concerto) are just plain over the top.

Which is why judicious, fair-minded quartets make a cut in the interminable, repetitive final movement of Schubert's lovely Death and the Maiden quartet, for example. Which is why most groups frankly wouldn't tackle three lushly romantic works in one concert. In fact, what you have here is not a music appreciation question so much as a music programming question. The Florestans are wonderful, but I'm surprised they agreed not to leaven good old Fauré and Schubert with Haydn or Beethoven. Perhaps their arms were twisted, or it was one of those weird and wonderful 'themed' things: a late Valentine's day concert, come get slurpy slush from the Florestans, free glass of wine and those silly things on sticks thrown in.

The fact is that Schumann, as was widely recognised at the time, often goes in for perversely idiosyncratic harmonic progressions, and Fauré can be just so gooshy and French, and that Schubert was generally at his best in his little, jewel-like lieder, otherwise frankly he just goes on a bit. After the little lot you describe, I'd have had two choices: bathe the ear in clear Josquin or scour it with Bach.


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I hear that Barenboim is putting down his baton in Chicago, complaining that they expect him to help fundraise, and do social activities. Do you think that this is a loss to Chicago? I live here, and seems to me that he's just too keen on new pieces for the audience: I'm a musician and half the time the new works he does leave even me cold.

D G, Chicago

Dear D G,

I haven't experienced Barenboim's conducting myself, but I do think there is a fine line between encouraging young composers and alienating core supporters, and that a lot of conductors underestimate the sheer, unadulterated, passionate, infuriated hatred of the latter for the former.

However, as for his announcement, it's easy to criticise (why can't he go on the rubber chicken circuit and massage the egos of a few Chicago matrons, if it means more and better concerts for his orchestra? God knows they're paying him enough) but I actually feel that this is a growing problem. It's not enough to be able to carve, these days: no, you have to combine the skills of a chief executive of a City firm with a medium-sized accountancy with the charm of a professional gigolo. A conductor's wife told me not long ago about the terrific strain of, not the musical, but the extramusical duties required of her husband, how hard it was for family life etc and how the constant financial stresses take it out on his health (and this guy is terrific at it). However, there's also the sad fact that many conductors, especially those barely house-trained, are very bad at it. The conversations can go something like this:

Lady Patron (whose moneyed family singlehandedly pays for half the second violin section): 'Maestro! What a glorious occasion! Of all the concerts I've ever heard, that was the most exquisite! The sound you coaxed from the tromboners and the hornetists!!! That bit where the fluter slipped from one note into another! I've never heard an orchestra sound so together, so At One! Truly you must be the greatest conductor since Sir Timothy Beecham!'

Conductor: (grunts)

My solution, however, is as simple as it is ingenious. What should happen is that conductors hire body doubles to eat the rubber chicken, press the flesh and salute the wobbly bosoms of their sponsors and major benefactors. The conductors can slip out the back entrances in Batman masks, leaving their charming, elegantly-dressed, good-natured and delightful doubles to raise the dosh. There are currently loads of Saddam Hussein body doubles fresh out of work; and most conductors look a bit mass-murderish at the best of times.


Copyright © 27 February 2004 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK



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