16 September 2020

Death of Jan Krenz

The Polish conductor Jan Krenz died yesterday, 15 September, aged 94. I heard him on 19 October 1962 conducting the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Nottingham Albert Hall. The programme began with Michal Spisak’s Concerto Giocoso (1956), followed by Walk to the Paradise Garden (Delius), Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Rakhmaninov – soloist Wladyslaw Kedra), and Tchaikowsky’s Fourth Symphony; all superbly played, and very exciting for a sixteen year old schoolboy only in his second season of serious classical concert-going. (Nearly sixty years later, I’ve never lost that initial excitement, I’m glad to say!) And a great occasion for Nottingham with its large Polish community, which turned out in force. (Many had served in the Polish Air Force during the War, based in Nottinghamshire, and had stayed on and married local girls.) Earlier in the year the Czech Philharmonic had come, conducted by Karel Ancerl, and the following February we were to hear the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gyula Nemeth. I note from the programmes that all three concerts were promoted by the City of Nottingham Corporation, in association with Borsdorf and Company. Those were the days!

08 July 2020

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

This letter is signed by 150 writers, artists and musicians living and working in America, including Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, Michael Ignatieff, Garry Kasparov, Wynton Marsalis, J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie; but it has universal relevance at this time. 

The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue. 

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Text and full list of signatories is here: https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

16 June 2020

Protect our shared history, memorials and monuments

I've signed the attached petition - I agree with all the points made by the proposer - please consider signing also.

Whatever decisions are taken, they must be taken as the result of a proper democratic process.

Thank you.

13 June 2020

Open letter from Simon Rattle and Mark Elder:

There are so many pressing problems to solve in the UK that it takes courage even to mention the desperate situation of classical music in the time of Covid-19.

There’s a real possibility of a devastated landscape on the other side of this; orchestras may not survive, and if they do, they may face insuperable obstacles to remain solvent in our new reality. What we write applies, of course, to all types of music, not just classical music which is our area of expertise. Our music is essentially a live experience and requires all the participants, performers and listeners alike, to be in the same room together. What we may do individually over the internet in these months is all well and good, but the living core of our work is a live communion, a sharing of space, art and emotion which is both vital and healing.
This healing will become ever more necessary in the coming time as we attempt to bear witness and understand what we have all gone through. In such an existential crisis, the realisation of our shared vulnerability will surely change and deepen our relationship to all the arts. In our own field we are asking ourselves; how can we get back to live music? How can we give our audiences the courage to gradually return?
More immediately, how can we maintain musical continuity when orchestras are silenced? And how do we nurture a generation of young musicians whose prospects look bleak just as they embark on a career in this ever more uncertain world?
The recent extension of the furlough scheme is a blessing and enables many organisations to hang on. For freelance musicians, which include four of the London orchestras among others, huge problems remain. Currently many freelancers fall between the cracks of the government’s self-employment schemes. We need to find a way to sustain some kind of backbone of income so that we will eventually be able to play whenever that will be possible. At the most basic level, despite all appearances to the contrary, musicians are humans. They need to eat and pay their bills. But we also need to play together and train, just like any sports team, albeit in a totally new environment. Crucially, this musical team is part of a complex structure that is focused around, and serves, its home town or city.
Our venues will have to learn to shepherd audiences in and out of performances in safety, and accept that at maximum only 25% capacity will be allowed, with all the economic knock on effects that this reality implies. We MUST find a way to play together soon, even without an audience, if we are to maintain anything like our normal standards, and we badly need clarity from government, a timeline, of when that might be and how it can be implemented. We understand that we cannot expect to revert to everything as it was before; we will be creative and tireless in making contingency plans and solving problems.We will have to reinvent the wheel in so many ways. Learning to play while remaining distanced from each other will be much harder than it may initially seem.
All musicians of whatever genre share the magnificent problem of an art form which is, fundamentally, songs transmitted to people in a room. When will our audiences have the chance to experience this once more?
We refuse to believe that live music will die, but it will not survive merely on energy and optimism. It will need support and understanding, particularly when it ventures out in public once more. The first year of performing with fewer musicians to a much smaller public will be our toughest time, and we will need a helping hand to make it through.
In Mainland Europe orchestras are gradually opening up and finding different ways to deal with the problems of distancing. Good practice is being built up: in the UK we must gain time by learning what has already been proved to work, rather than starting from the beginning yet again, with people not from the performing arts making the decisions. Until we have some practical idea of what our future might entail, musicians in our country will continue to feel out in the wilderness.
Sir Simon Rattle, OM, CBE, Music Director, London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder, CH, CBE, Music Director, HallĂ© Orchestra

12 June 2020

From today's Church Times (copyright):

Paul Vallely: Don’t try to erase the past, study it

Colston’s statue should be in a museum, says Paul Vallely

WHEN a Roman patrician donated a new bathhouse, aqueduct, or road to a city, he would often have a prominent stone inscribed D.S.P.F., or de sua pecuna fecit. It meant “paid for with his own money”. In return, his fellow citizens often put up a statue to him. When the great man fell from public favour, the statue was often torn down — a practice, as I learned while researching my forthcoming book on philanthropy, which became a great symbolic gesture in any revolt or sedition.
The lessons of history go far wider than that, as we have seen this week with the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, once lauded as the city of Bristol’s greatest philanthropist, but now reviled as a slave-trader. The event tells us something about the nature of history, the need to remember, the danger of forgetting, and the fact that we do not stand detached from history, but are part of it.
The need to remember is perhaps the easiest of these lessons to learn. Colston gave the contemporary equivalent of about £25 million to build schools, almshouses, hospitals, and churches, although he excluded as beneficiaries the Catholics, Dissenters, and Whigs whom his politics led him to despise. But his fortune was built on the sale of 84,000 slaves, of whom 19,300 died in the ships that he used to transport human beings from Africa to the Caribbean, and then bring tobacco, sugar, and rum back to Britain. It is hard to argue that such tainted money can ever be fully redeemed by good works.
The danger of forgetting is clear from those who fail, or refuse, to understand that, at the time, slavery was generally condoned by the educated churchgoing classes. John Locke, that most celebrated philosopher of liberty, was a shareholder in Colston’s company. The protester who sprayed “Churchill is a racist” on his statue in Parliament Square may remember historians’ revelations that Britain’s wartime leader privately used derogatory anti-black language — but appears to have forgotten that the choice in 1940 was between Churchill’s slang and Hitler’s genocide.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, several Eastern European countries took down their statues of infamous Communist dictators, but, rather than destroy them, placed them in statue-parks so that children could learn something of the context that the past gave their present. History is a better option than the uncontrolled emotion on show in Bristol this week. Liverpool, whose splendid array of Grade I listed architecture is a testament to another city whose greatness was built on slavery, has responded to the complexity of its own history with a Slavery Museum, in which future generations can learn to comprehend the complexity of their own chequered past.
In such ways do we make our own history in an honest and healthy fashion. Colston died in 1721. The notorious statue was erected only in the era of Victorian imperialism — almost 200 years after his death. Removing the statue to a museum would merely have been another stage in the way a city makes its history — and one from which its children could learn far more than this week’s attempts simply to erase the past.