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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

A walk on the web side

By Norman Lebrecht / November 8, 2006

Take your eye off the internet for any length of time and, like a hyperactive child, it grows up and makes whoopie. Scanning the classical music blogs, I was struck by how greatly they had matured from the early rants that looked as if they were typed on an old Remington and filed through a red letterbox. Today’s blogs are tastefully styled in designer fonts with picture inserts (not always legally obtained) and a tone that pretends at reasonableness and public interest.

They are frequently interlinked and well-informed, creating not so much a community of interest as a safety net of social control, almost equivalent to an editorial office in which no writer is allowed to go barkingly off the rails. Make no mistake: there is intelligent life in classical blogworld and it is getting smarter. It is also getting read.

Classical blogs come in two streams, pro and am. One the pro side are newspaper critics who blog on their employers’ website; on the am, there are buffs and fans and wannabes. The first group is fairly uninspiring. Journalists, until they get genetically reprogrammed, will always save their best stuff for print. As for the wannabes, the most successful of web crits, a man who gets asked onto music-biz juries at Cannes, turns out to be a New York estate agent by day, hardly the most trustworthy guide.

There is, however, a third forum and it is growing by the day. Musicians and industry insiders are blogging with a vengeance. It is the last thing they do before bedtime, instead of Dear Diary.

Blog Central, for classical communication, is, which, beside a daily survey of the best cultural journalism in the English language, runs a panel of blogs by serious players. They include administrator Drew McManus who writes on orchestra management, New York critics Greg Sandow and Terry Teachout, composer Kyle Gann and, freshly recruited, the president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, Henry Fogel.

AJ, which gets an attractive redesign this week, reaches quarter of a million readers. Its Seattle owner, Doug McLennan, tells me that his blogs get ‘anywhere from a couple hundred hits a day to a couple thousand’. Fogel, a suit once hired by the Arts Council to abolish London orchestras, is unlikely to get my fingers tingling but the others write fluently and analytically, often picking a fight with something they read in print, a medium that remains bedrock for critical blogging. If newspapers were to vanish, most blogs would dry up overnight.

Closer to home, my eye is often caught by Jessica Duchen. A persuasive novelist, married to a London Philharmonic violinist with whom she shares a cat called Solti, Jessica blogs enthusiastically about life and music, inviting interjections from others far afield - a harpist in Munich, a viola player in Vilnius, an opera lover in Dunedin, New Zealand, a place further than any other from a world-class opera house, where a Renee Fleming album is a surrogate for life.

Jessica, who gets 160-250 hits a day, helpfully references, where there is much more opinion but little by way of revelation. Many travelling players, like the soprano Geraldine McGreevy, run road diaries: ‘Last night I had a fall onstage. I think I slipped on my dress but I don’t remember the moment.’

The one blog that aims to break news, and occasionally does, is On An Overgrown Path, named after a hauntingly lovely piano piece by Leos Janacek. Written by Bob Shingleton, a retired EMI executive, it flags up this week’s John Taverner premiere through the bloggings of oboist, Nicholas Daniel.

Shingleton gets 1,000 unique visitors every day, the majority of them Americans, though he claims a high uptake of BBC users, which is not surprising since he has a bug about the BBC. Yesterday, he blogged a broadside under the headline ‘BBC historic broadcast was fraud, say experts’. Apparently, as part of the 80th anniversary season of Choral Evensong, Radio 3 announced a 1950s archive special from the Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, under the direction of Boris Ord. Alert ears spotted that what was played was not an 1954 BBC tape but a 1956 Argo commercial disc. ‘The BBC should be ashamed of their deception,’ roars Shingleton. ‘It is yet another example of their fixation with anniversaries and spin.’

Tacky and, if true, worthy of condemnation. But had the blogger called Broadcasting House to validate his discovery, producer Stephen Shipley would have explained to him (as he did to me) that the Argo set was an integral part of CE history, having aired twice on the programme. The reason it was used was because the BBC had no complete recording of its own of Kings and Ord. The archive had been wiped. That is the real scandal and it could have been exposed had the blogger taken the trouble to check his scoop.

Esoteric as it may seem, the supposed fraud shows up the flaws of a classical blogosphere that trades in unchecked trivia. Classical blogs are spreading but their nutritional value is lower than a bag of crisps. Unlike financial blogs, which yield powerful and profitable secrets, classical web-chat is opinion-rich and info-poor. Until bloggers deliver hard facts and estate agents turn into credible critics, paid-for newspapers will continue to set the standard as only show in town.

Best of blogs:

Jessica Music Blogspot

The Overgrown Path

Polyphonic (for orchestral musicians)

Arts Journal- Adaptistration

Geraldine McGreevy


Silence, please

Saint Cecilia’s Day will never sound the same again. A year ago, Bill Drummond, the eccentric KLF pop musician, decided that what the world needed more than anything was 24 hours without music. And when better to declare No Music Day than November 21, eve of the art’s patron saint day?

Without much fanfare, Drummond flung up a website, It drew so many responses that the London radio station Resonance FM has now agreed to play no music this year on November 21 and the Unsound Festival in Cracow, Poland, is planning to open in silence.

What’s the big idea? Drummond says his ears got jaded and needed a break. ‘Maybe my perceived impasse… is something singular to me,’ he says, ‘but if the idea of No Music Day resonates with you, make use of it.’

Well he can count me in on the classical side of things, where the summits of western civilisation have been converted into ineluctable slush by 24/7 radio, advertising jungles, in-store ooze-music, mobile ring tones and please-hold snooze tracks from public utilities. Getting away from the sound of music is harder than shielding your email from penis enhancers. Anything that makes us stop treating the art as wallpaper and value it as God’s gift can only be to the glory of Cecilia and humanity’s gain.

And I can add a dash of personal evidence that tuning out really works. I have just emerged from a month of mourning during which, in Jewish tradition, music is prohibited. Yesterday, I slipped a disc into the deck not with my usual critical detachment but with the trepidation of a teenager dressing for a date. The sound hit me like iced water after a desert trek. Every note was a bejewelled drop, every phrase a restorer of life. In music, abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. Do your ears a favour and switch off for the day on November 21.


CD of the week

Panufnik: Homage to Polish Music
Polish Chamber Orch./Mariusz Smolij (Naxos)

Half a century ahead of the present influx, a lone Pole came to London in 1954 seeking relief from Communist oppression. Andrzej Panufnik was, at the time, Warsaw’s most successful composer, so much so that the shock of his defection provoked a thaw in cultural policy. Settling in Twickenham, in a house whose garden ran unfenced into the river, Panufnik spent the rest of his life writing complex diagrammatic symphonies, the utterances of a curious and unfettered mind. The music performed here is his early stuff. To appease the Stalinists without compromising his principles, Panufnik recast old folk tunes in the laconic manner of neo-classical Stravinsky. The Old Polish Suite and Concerto in Modo Antico are bright, though never quite carefree, while Hommage a Chopin for flute and string ensemble avoids sentimentalising the national hero and reflects more on his introspection than his insurrectionist zeal. You don’t have to be Polish to feel the beauty and the pain.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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