Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Divas and urban myths

It’s over twenty years since I started researching and writing about the life and work of the great Australian diva, Dame Nellie Melba. Throughout that time, when I asked professional singers and other musicians about her, they would smile knowingly, and there would be a pause…

“Don’t you know that she was into oral sex?… In the intervals of operas… in her dressing room… said it was good for her vocal cords.”

I must have heard it dozens of times. And yet, of course, there seems to be no real evidence, beyond the fact that it’s an urban myth.

So I was quite surprised to read in Rupert Christiansen’s column in the Daily Telegraph recently that she would “haul stage hands into her dressing room…” Someone had told him that it was true – and Christiansen’s story at least has the embellishment of the stage hands.

How can one possibly know the truth at this distance in time? And only recently I was told that the original story was not about Melba at all, but about her great competitor, the Italian soprano Luisa Tetrazzini.

Of course, there’s no actual evidence for that either, unless, of course, someone in the know told you…

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Music and success

How often we read an article which propounds an appealing notion, apparently with supporting evidence. A recent one is Joanne Lipman’s piece in the New York Times, “Is music the key to success?”  

In it the author ties together training in music with outstanding achievement in some other field. She opens: “Condoleezza Rice trained to be a concert pianist. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a professional clarinet and saxophone player…”

The project certainly enabled her to have interesting chats with several of the great and good. And, as I say, it’s a notion one would like to believe in. Better focus and discipline, new ways of thinking and communicating, improved listening and problem-solving, able to push beyond what currently exists, making multiple connections in multiple spheres, an enriched life, collaboration, creativity, the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas… What’s not to like?

Problem is: Lipman could just as easily have found a cohort of trained musicians who were unsuccessful in other walks of life. Or, indeed, another cohort of high achievers who had no training in music whatsoever.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Mosque or synagogue?

That rampant racism is an ever-present factor in Ukraine is well-known to followers of football. Only last month FIFA ordered Ukraine to play their next World Cup qualifier (against Poland) behind closed doors following racist behaviour by their fans – monkey noises, gestures, Nazi salutes and so on in the match against San Marino.

And this is just the latest in a long line of shameful incidents.

So it really comes as no great surprise that the admitted murderer of an 82 tear old grandfather in Birmingham, a Muslim, Mohammed Saleem, would be a student extremist from Ukraine. The attack took place just five days after Pavlo Lapshyn arrived in Britain, and was followed by the planting of bombs at three mosques in the West Midlands.

What really struck me was the interview conducted by ITV News with Lapshyn’s father back home, in which it was denied that his son was a murderer, nor that he was a fascist.

“But then, why did he blow up a mosque, not a synagogue?” enquired father, apparently unaware that this disclosed his own profoundly racist attitudes.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Improving and outflanking

I’m very clear with clients that if they haven’t got what it takes to be breakthrough innovators, they should concentrate on studying competitors products and services, existing and new, and outflank them by making improvements in key areas. And moving fast.

After all, that’s substantially what has taken Apple to their current dominant position. And Samsung after Apple.

The power of this strategy first struck me in the years that I worked on new product development with the Rowntree company in York (now owned by Nestlé). It was frustrating that the senior managers would initially be positive about new ideas, but over time it became clear that nothing would actually happen.

Then, one day, one of them took me aside and explained to me the source of their success. “So many of our biggest and most profitable brands were developed as improvements on existing products made by other companies, usually abroad,” he told me.

All this came back to me in recent days, as the Rowntree chocolatier, Brian Sollitt, who died recently, has been feted in the British media as the “genius” behind many of Rowntree’s new products – Lion Bar, Yorkie, Drifter, Matchmakers and, most famously, After Eight.

But while Mr Sollitt undoubtedly was a skilled improver of products, he was not really an innovator. For example, the idea for the wafer thin chocolate mint, After Eight, came from an existing local product in Sweden.

Friday, 18 October 2013

"Jesus, there is but one art: to omit"

There are lots of quotations that swim around web, endlessly repeated, often incorrectly attributed, frequently without source of any kind and usually growing textual amendments to suit the new context. One such is this:

 The only art is to omit.

It has been used most recently (and negatively) by a reviewer of Eleanor Catton's lengthy Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries.

To be fair, it is nearly always given as by Robert Louis Stevenson, which is right. But where on earth is it from? I couldn't locate it, so eventually I asked my friend Roger Swearingen in California. He's one of, if not the leading RLS expert in the world. He, of course, knew immediately. "RLS to his cousin Bob, ?30 June 1883," he emailed, appending the plaintive personal note: "I only wish I could learn that art."

And so say all of us.

The correct version of the aphorism comes at the end of a paragraph in the letter, in which RLS, the great stylist, deals with the inadequacies of Balzac as a writer:

He was a man who never found his method. An inarticulate Shakespeare, smothered under forcible-feeble detail. It is astounding, to the riper mind, how bad he is, how feeble, how untrue, how tedious; and, of course, when he surrendered to his temperament, how good and powerful. And yet never plain nor clear. He could not consent to be dull, and thus became so. He would leave nothing undeveloped, and thus drowned out of sight of land amid the multitude of crying and incongruous details. Jesus, there is but one art: to omit! O if I knew how to omit, I would ask no other knowledge.
Cousin Bob, by the way, was the pioneering (and still valuable) art critic, RAM Stevenson, author of a seminal book on Velasquez.

Above: RLS photographed by H Walter Barnett in Sydney, 1893

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Patiently waiting for the reviews

I went last Wednesday to the English Chamber Orchestra’s concert at Cadogan Hall in London. The orchestra was in tremendous form.

It was an extraordinary programme, featuring the world première of a new work by a Brilliant Young Composer ("Serenade for Strings"); a mature piano concerto by Mozart (No 23 in A, K488), directed and played by the same BYC; Tchaikovsky’s "Rococo Variations" for Cello and Orchestra, scintillatingly played by Michael Petrov and conducted by our BYC; and the fourth symphony of one of our best and best-established British composers a follower of Benjamin Britten David Matthews, and conducted by the BYC.

Hmmm… Britten. Didn’t he famously undertake all three roles - conducting, composing and playing concertos at concerts with the same ECO - half a century ago?

Surely our London music critics will all have been there last Wednesday? After all, it was a pretty rare occasion. What’s more, there was nothing else in the classical music line at the other leading concert venues in London that evening.

Really, I’ve been waiting, quite patiently, for the reviews. Thus far, there’s been not a word. And we’ll not need to hold our collective breaths any longer. Perhaps they all needed an evening off.

The Brilliant Young Composer, conductor and concerto pianist was, of course, the amazing talent that is Alissa Firsova.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Being of “insufficient artistic merit”

A few years ago I proposed to English Heritage that they put up a Blue Plaque in Montague Square, London, to the artist, John Glover.

Born in Leicestershire in 1767, Glover was to become a successful contemporary and rival of Constable in England, noted for his romantic landscapes, before emigrating to Australia, living in Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then called). Extraordinarily, he was already 64 years old.

In Tasmania, he painted a great series of landscapes, one of the earliest European immigrants to tackle the bush, the “remarkable peculiarity of the trees” as he described it, and include aborigines and aboriginal life in his work.

I’ve always thought his work very special. But English Heritage did not agree, knocking back my proposal (after due consideration by their panel of “experts”) on the basis that Glover was of “insufficient artistic merit”.

I thought of this again a couple of weeks ago, seeing several of his finest canvases at the current Australia exhibition at the RA, including the magnificent “A Corroboree of Natives in Mills Plain” of 1832. In the current BBC series on Australian art, Edmund Capon announced that Glover could not have seen a corroboree as the Aboriginal population had effectively been ethnically cleansed by the settlers. Really he could not have executed this painting and others without studying the native population quite closely, and, as Ian McLean has demonstrated, he seems to have had opportunities to do this before the clearances were completed.

This sighting was followed a few days later by the sale of Glover's “Ben Lomond from Mr Talbot’s property – Four Men Catching Opossums” at Christie’s for £1.7 million.

I do hope the acquirer of that work knows that Mr Glover’s work is not worthy, at least so far as English Heritage is concerned.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

All the world before you

I seem to be in the midst of an intensive Australian phase here in England currently. The exhibition at the RA I’ve written about, but in parallel with that I’ve been doing some judging of young Aussie musicians, applicants for scholarships from the Australian Music Foundation.

What an amazing array of talent is out there. We started this year with fifty-eight, whittling them down to ten for the finals at the Wigmore Hall. We were looking not only for talent and capability, but also for potential – something much harder to assess.

Young Australian musicians still come in droves to study and launch their careers in Europe and America, as they have for over a century. If Nellie Melba thought they had potential, she sent them off to study with her own teacher in Paris, Madame Marchesi. Percy Grainger sent them to New York, to the Juilliard School, to study with the then dean of the school, fellow-Aussie composer-pianist, Ernest Hutcheson.

The winners this year were an extraordinary recorder player who specialises in contemporary composers, Rhia Parker; two brilliant violinists, Suyeon Kang and Sally Law; and a big-voiced tenor, Gerard Schneider. Past and present scholarship winners then gave a brilliant recital at Christie’s (heralding their auction of Australian art).

Although there has been a steady stream of Australian sopranos, contraltos and basses from Melba to Sutherland and beyond good Aussie tenors have always been a rare breed, so it was good to be able to help one in the early stages of his career.

Having said that, what a fine tenor Stuart Skelton is – brilliant as Britten’s Peter Grimes (above) under Vladimir Jurowski in Birmingham and London, and at the same time singing the taxing role of Florestan in Fidelio for ENO at the Coliseum.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Getting a gong from the IAA

Last week, at a fun dinner in London (to celebrate their 75th anniversary), along with several other worthies, I was given a gong for the contribution I had made to the International Advertising Association two decades ago.

I was elected world president of the IAA at a rather critical moment. First, the Soviet Empire was crumbling, and a whole new range of countries was emerging as market economies. And second, advertising was under attack, seemingly throughout the western world, with governments threatening to legislate for ad bans on all sorts of products that were legally sold.

At that time, in 1989/90, the IAA was the only organisation that could address these threats on a global basis, representing, as it did (and does) the three parts of the business the manufacturers, the media and the advertising agencies.

And yet, the organisation was clearly completely ill-equipped to create and implement the programmes necessary to defend freedom of commercial speech. The whole ethos of the IAA was not connected with advocacy, but rather was a global club, where the primary reason for belonging was to network.

So I embarked very early on a re-structuring of the governance of the organisation, reducing the executive committee from around twenty-five to just a handful of key players. Of course, this was much resented by all those who were being jettisoned.

And, together with the paid executives, director-general Norman Vale and his number two Richard Corner, we deployed three initiatives: first, to be alert to threats as they emerged, sharing best practice in dealing with each; then to create a roadshow that would travel through the emerging post-Soviet markets Russia, Czechoslovakia (as it was), Hungary, Poland and, importantly, China setting out the case for advertising, and inaugurating IAA chapters in each; and, perhaps most important, we launched a global “Campaign for Advertising” (together with tracking research), proclaiming the economic and social case the media space and time all donated.

I wonder how well the IAA would cope today, faced with similar opportunities and threats?

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Dame Kiri as Dame Nellie in Downton Abbey

My friend Robert Reitano was not happy from the start. “Undeserving” was how he described Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (actually that was the least offensive word he used), when it was announced that that she would be appearing as Dame Nellie Melba in Downton Abbey.

Certainly Kiri has a quite different sort of voice from Nellie, but aside from that mere detail, they do appear to have several things in common. In the 1920s, when the current series is set, Melba was in the evening of her career – as Kiri is now. They were both major operatic stars and household names. And both conquered Europe and America, having grown up in Australasia.

However, now it’s clear that Kiri will be singing “O mio babbino caro” (O my beloved father) from Puccini’s comic opera Gianni Schicchi, Robert is positively outraged.

“Have you seen the trailer?” he asks.  “Gianni Schicchi was only premièred at the Met in December 1918 and the aria was virtually unknown outside of the opera until Joan Hammond’s famous recording in English in 1941. Surely Melba would have sung ‘Home, Sweet Home’, or ‘Comin’ thru the rye’ or ‘Annie Laurie’ or something by Hahn or Bemberg or Tosti. An operatic aria is unlikely on such an occasion in such a venue. Yet another Downton solecism, surely.”

What’s right about the re-enactment is that Melba did indeed sing at evening soirées in aristocratic houses, as did many of the opera stars of her era. The difference was that they all arrived by the tradesmen’s entrance, sang behind a velvet rope, did not mingle with the guests and left by the same door.

Melba, on the other hand, entered and departed through the front door, cleared away the velvet rope and chatted freely with the guests, many of whom were close personal friends. Her charge for such an occasion was £500, equivalent to around £40,000 in today’s money. And for this consideration she would sing perhaps three songs.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

No junk mail

Distributing leaflets door-to-door is time-consuming but necessary if we want to attract an audience for a concert in our village.

It’s a task I undertake on a pretty regular basis, and I’m always rather shocked by the hostile notices that people put on their doors in an effort to fend off “junk mail”.

After all, whether the “junk” is coming from an impoverished local charity (as with our concerts), or from a major supermarket promoting its special offers, or from a local trader, it’s always distributed on a targeted basis and, compared with TV or press ads, is expensive on a per capita basis, both in terms of time and money.

So why is it that home-delivered mail arouses such hostility? In some way, it seems to me that people feel violated by it, but not by all the other ads that come into their lives and homes more indiscriminately on a continuous basis.