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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Sounding a revolution

By Norman Lebrecht / November 5, 2003

The advertising oligarch Lord Saatchi – the music-loving Maurice, not the art collector, Charles – has a pleasant autumnal custom of inviting the managing and marketing directors of major clients around of an evening to listen, in exclusive company, to one of the world’s most rarified performers. Nothing too formal or heavy - just half an hour of solo virtuosity in the agency's white atrium, with serious business still buzzing away in all the floors above.

The first recital, two years ago, was given at Saatchi’s piano by Daniel Barenboim. Last year the event went downmarket with Opera Babes, drawing a thicker attendance of marketing directors, but rather lowering the tone. Last week, Saatchi made amends by presenting Gidon Kremer, probably the most accomplished violinist of present times.

Kremer, 56, left the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and avoided settling anywhere else. Lacking the cliched attributes of stardom – unsullied youth, plunging cleavage and a Colgate smile – he plied the esoteric edges of acceptable repertoire. In Herbert von Karajan’s sybaritically conservative Salzburg Festival, he played astringent Webern. Contracted to record the Beethoven concerto, he inserted a cadenza by Alfred Schnittke - a dazzling piece which runs a whistlestop tour of every major concerto since Bach’s, but which (they warned him) would deter record buyers in their droves, and duly did. After the USSR disintegrated Kremer, reverting to first loyalties, formed a Kremerata Baltica ensemble of musicians from his native Latvia and its reinstated neighbours, lending his cosmopolitan prestige to struggling cultures.

Kremer is one of the few living violinists who can be recognised instantly by ear; his ever-so-slightly hoarse tone has the allure of brushed velvet - reassuring to the touch yet awkward to fold and to hold. At Saatchi’s, he played a warm-up tango by the Argentine, Astor Piazzola, before launching into 14 minutes of unaccompanied Bach. Picture the scene: some of the weightiest spenders in world advertising standing around, champagne flutes in hand, trapped in a web of baroque wizardry. Some lounged across a marbled bar, others strolled around the better to see the magician at work from different angles. None, it seemed, had been subjected to anything quite so intense in their time-coded lives. Kremer went on to perform two short encores and introduce a promising Lithuanian pianist in a Bach prelude. ‘I didn’t know what to expect,’ he exclaimed after leaving the stage.’They were standing around me, so close. I wasn’t playing to them, as I would if they had been sitting down, but among them. It was a totally new experience.’

I am not sure that Maurice Saatchi intended to break the mould when he neglected to furnish seats at his soiree, but bits of mould were shattered all over the marble floor as musicians and musical virgins alike assimilated a concentrated dose of art within a working, hard-selling environment. Everyone I spoke to wanted to do it again, somewhere else, slightly differently. It was a classic example of enlightened entrepreneurship – the presentation of art pour encourager les autres – and it was brought about at no great cost to the agency. Totting up the soloist’s fee, flight and accommodation and the cocktail-hour victuals for a crowd of 80, the event came in at less than the price of a page of advertising in the Evening Standard. In return, M&C Saatchi gave clients a priceless experience and a free plug for its in-house arts division. Alltold, the agency might yet wind up in profit.

The following night at the Barbican, Kremer sat glumly among the judges of the Masterprize final as the Latvian entry, an intriguingly morose tango by Arturs Maskats, lost out to a synthetic confection by the American Christopher Theofanidis invoking a hymn by Hildegard of Bingen amid ten minutes of orchestral cladding. The result aside, Masterprize was a triumph. The competition (in case you missed its mass media coverage) is the brainchild of the faintly mysterious John McLaren, who gave up a Foreign Office career to become a City banker, thriller writer and movie maker. McLaren’s dream, he told me years ago, was to make contemporary classical music as compelling as pop, redeeming it from the strangular grip of recondite theorists.

After three competitions, he has failed to change the musical landscape or, indeed, put a single piece into the performing repertoire; but the concert world revolves at snail’s pace and it may be too soon to judge. One of McLaren’s past finalists, Stephen Hartke, had a symphony commissioned by the New York Philharmonic; another, Carl Vine, is established as Australia’s foremost composer; a third, Pierre Jalbert, is resident composer with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. They might have achieved these heights on merit, but without Masterprize they would not have risen so quickly.

At this year’s contest, the immediate difference was that the finalists were less filmic. Where ‘accessible’ classical music was once defined by the magpie pickings of John Williams, Masterprize 3 was richer in substance and texture than previous contests. A sixth symphony by the Frenchman Nicolas Bacri was formally, apres-tonally elegant; Maskats’ accordion-driven tango was perfect for an outdoors concert on a summer’snight; even the winning entry was not without its moments. Two continental orchestral managers whom I bumped into rubbished most of the entries as ‘empty-headed populism’ but there were signs that their occupational scepticism had been eroded by McLaren’s conviction.

What Masterprize 3 demonstrated to a mass audience on Classic FM and US National Public Radio is that new classical music need not necessarily be nasty and that composers are not collectively out to avenge childhood traumas. The event has shifted perspectives, demystifying the process of how music is made. During two finalist pieces that were irredeemably dire, it struck me that kids in youth orchestras who played in the early rounds must have thought to themselves: ‘we can do better than this – why don’t we compose a contemporary piece?’ Such ideas would have been inconceivable before McLaren came along, encouraging anyone with a sharp-nibbed pen and five-lined stave to try their hand at composition. It is inspirations, or improvisations, of this kind – the Saatchi stand-up, the Masterprize makeover – that give culture its kick-starts. More than government strategies or flashes of creative genius, it is the obstinate initiative of individual enthusiasts that moves music into its next development.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001