Archives for January 2011

Arf-arf! Having a laugh with Basil ...

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Katie Derham Katie Derham | 13:22 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011

 

Picture of Katie Derham with Basil Brush. Photo: Philip Mattison

 

There is a common paranoia throughout the TV and radio industry around the time of Comic Relief … am I really being asked to do something for charity, or am I the victim of a childish but highly elaborate gag? I’ve got to confess: when Radio 3 suggested I’d do some filming with Basil Brush and a load of Kazoos, I could picture a bunch of 20-something comedy writers sniggering over their laptops and lattes...

But sometimes real life in broadcasting becomes blissfully surreal, and so it was that last Sunday morning I arrived at studio 80a in Broadcasting House, scene of fabulous musical performances every day on Radio 3’s In Tune … to be greeted by the eponymous fox, and ten glamorous young lovelies in highly camp white shiny uniforms, practising their instruments, and calling themselves 'Masters of the Kazooniverse'.

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular instrument, a Kazoo is a small plastic horn into which you hum, rather than blow (something that Basil Brush found quite difficult to grasp. Or at least intone into, maybe because he’s a stuffed toy...) It makes a buzzing, whining noise which can range from the deeply irritating to the vaguely tuneful, if played by people who know how the tune goes. I suspect it still helps if you’ve had a couple of drinks: both to play and to listen to...

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Tripping the ...

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 17:03 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011

 

Picture showing 'Music While You Work' organiser Mr Wynford Reynolds on a factory visit.

'Music While You Work' organiser Mr Wynford Reynolds on a factory visit in 1942 to receive feedback on the programmes. © BBC

On your way to finding this blog entry, via the Radio 3 Home Page, you can't have failed to notice the central promotion for Light Fantastic. As the text of the promo begins by calling on users to click through 'if you play in a band', you would be entirely forgiven for passing over this invitation if you do not fall into this category! Had you nevertheless done so, you'd have alighted on the Light Fantastic index page which tells you something more of the event. I'd like to take this opportunity to expand on the information about Light Fantastic and explain what it's all about.

 

The reason we're starting early with Light Fantastic, in the sense that the broadcast schedule associated with the project doesn't kick off until June, is that we're keen to encourage as many people as possible who play in bands to engage (or re-engage) with the delightful, rewarding and historic genre of British light music.

 

Repertoire throughout the Light Fantastic festival will shine a light on major orchestral works by the principal composers of the genre including Eric Coates, Haydn Wood, Robert Farnon, Ernest Tomlinson, Ronald Binge and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

 

Radio 3 could, of course, assemble a festival such as this for broadcast, merely by tapping in to its library of recordings and sheet music, and by deploying the BBC performing groups to give some concerts – and that is indeed part of the plan.

 

But there is a sense in which we're keen to introduce (or remind) listeners of a fascinating genre of quality music which has been superseded in musical history; as you'll find out from the programmes and documentaries we're preparing, this is very much tied up with the history of broadcasting itself: from the BBC Light Programme to 'Music While You Work' during and after WWII, and, eventually, the establishment of Radio 1 as a response to the new wave of popular music.

 

That's why we are taking these immediate steps (in partnership with Making Music) to involve the huge community of people in Britain who play instruments in bands: they will be able to download sheet music, use the BBC Music Library free-of-charge, send in recordings for possible broadcast, and also have the chance to come in and record with  BBC engineers in a BBC studio.

 

Looking ahead, the Southbank Centre’s Light Fantastic weekend will include a gala event with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and John Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall on June 25.  The previous evening Gavin Sutherland joins Radio 3 and Radio 2 to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra live from the RFH for the first ever simultaneous broadcast on both Performance on 3 and Friday Night is Music Night.  Elsewhere, live from Salford, the BBC Philharmonic explores Light Music’s cultural heritage by recreating 'Music while you Work' and the BBC Concert Orchestra presents a special 'seaside special' concert in Plymouth on June 26.

 

Suffice it to say that if you are a fan of light music, or think you might become one, it would be unwise to be out of the country at the end of June: as well as the live concerts, Radio 3 programming will take up the light music theme and you'll have a chance to hear recordings made by the bands and ensembles we're recruiting to the cause now.

 

Watch this space!

 

Graeme Kay is an interactive producer for BBC Radio 3 and BBC Classical Music TV

 

Find further details of Light Fantastic from the BBC Press Office 

      

 

Counting down to the Midi harp concerto ...

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Sioned Williams Sioned Williams | 13:39 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011

 

Picture of the Camac Midi Harp

The Camac Midi Harp

Yes - Musical Instrument Digital Interface… does that sound like a heavenly harp? No, but you can forget images of angels - this is a new era in harp sounds. The new Camac Midi Concert Harp is a fantastic instrument. Basically - for those who are not so technologically minded - the harp looks like a full-size conventional pedal harp, and is shiny black with some matt black stripes down the soundboard and a white edging. Each of the 47 strings has an individual pick-up which can make the harp be just an ‘electric’ harp (if it is not switched on this harp makes no acoustic sound at all). But in addition, these sounds convert through a computer process and therefore can trigger any sound possible: how about a harp which sounds like running water, or a crowd at a football match, a dog barking or cars tooting ...

When I first saw and heard a demonstration on Camac’s prototype at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, my creative juices went wild. As I am principal harpist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, I tentatively asked our very patient general manager Paul Hughes whether he would consider my playing a concerto for the instrument. The result? Tomorrow, Wednesday 26th January, at 7pm, a completed concerto by Graham Fitkin will be conducted by Andrew Litton and performed by me at Maida Vale Studio 1 at 7pm. You can hear the broadcast on February 1st on Afternoon on 3.

The harpist lives on - just about - having made friends with a new breed of harp, screamed for technological help from a long suffering Dominic Murcott (composer and technological expert) and longed for peaceful massages to relax the confused brain and soothe the painful limbs after many, many, many hours of practice!

I explained to listeners to Woman’s Hour (Radio 4) and In Tune (Radio 3) that the new harp has required some adjustment to my technique: audiences have been fascinated, as they were at the recent midi harp seminar –‘New era or fancy toy?’ at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’…

Why not come and make your own mind up about the instrument and its potential? The concert is officially full, but if you are really keen, you could make a request through the contact page on my website www.sionedwilliams.com. I have a few spares from friends who are unable to make it now …or maybe they are not daring enough to try it out! I will let you know on this Blog, how it all went.

Sioned Williams is principal harpist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra

 

Responding to your Musicality Test comments ...

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Michael Orwell Michael Orwell | 16:13 UK time, Wednesday, 19 January 2011

 

Photo of an early language laboratory

 

Thanks to everyone for all your comments about the Musicality Test. It might be worth emphasising a couple of things to help put the test into context.  Here at BBC Lab UK, one of our prime aims is to create new science by engaging the BBC audience, while our participants discover something about themselves. We have to be guided by what are the most scientifically rigorous and interesting areas to investigate, within a certain sphere. Secondly, wherever possible, our scientific sponsors encourage (and we fully endorse) using previously published instruments and measures. The reason for this is that we can vouch for the scientific validity of feedback that the participant receives but also the scientific researchers can compare the results of the BBC study with countless other studies, making the data far more powerful.

Some of you have made reference to the 'Group the music' part of the test. This is a difficult exercise, and the only part of the experiment where some prior knowledge of some particular areas of music was required. It was based on a well known psychology paper by Carol Krumhansl called 'Plink' about the musical notions which can be expressed in very short pieces of audio. We copied the genres she used in her experiments, as jazz, hiphop, rock and pop are well known in every continent and on a global scale, represent the highest numbers of unit sales, making them the most likely to be recognised, worldwide.

In the rest of 'How musical are you?', there was no further investigation into genres and the survey asked questions which could apply to any listening taste. In the other listening tests, we emulated highly cited instruments such as the 'Beat Alignment Test' and while we copied lots of the similar musical types as used by Iverson and Patel, we managed to have an incredibly eclectic selection of stimuli material, which took in blues rock, tea-dance music, orchestral and gypsy jazz. Our Radio 3 colleagues remarked that the spacebar tapping and melody memory parts of the test were very reminiscent of traditional musical theory exams, so I feel we achieved a good balance of the innovative with the tried and tested.

For those of you who were put off by the genre-sorting exercise; had you persevered, you may have found some challenging tests and thought-provoking questions about your relationship with music. I'd urge you to have another go; if there's a part you don't like or can't do, the skip button will take you on to the next section, your feedback still should be accurate and the data will still be useful to the scientists.

For those of you who completed the test but seemed unimpressed by the test or the feedback; well, thank you for taking part and submitting data towards this fascinating research goal.

This particular test aimed to examine people's attitudes and engagement to the music they listen to (in 7 different ways), then compare that to 4 different ways of measuring objective musicality. If the test didn't measure the things you were hoping for then we'll take that on board and look how we can improve future versions of the test.

Michael Orwell is a producer for BBC Lab UK, a BBC website where you can participate in groundbreaking scientific experiments.

A wealth of emotions ...

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Roger Wright Roger Wright | 12:55 UK time, Monday, 17 January 2011

Composite graphical image for Mozart

 

It's been a busy start to 2011!

 

The response to our season The Genius of Mozart has been overwhelming, Music Planet has begun and the Musicality Test seems to have caught the public imagination.

A few years ago we offered A Bach Christmas and the feedback flooded in about what Bach meant to our listeners. I suppose we might have anticipated it, but the combination of the universality of Bach's music, its power to move, console and inspire, and the timing of the programming seemed to unlock an outpouring of emotion. I certainly didn’t expect a similar type of reaction to Mozart, but we got it.

The new year seems, like Christmas, to be a time of reflection as well as fresh beginnings, and from the listener interaction with the station it is clear that Mozart provided a perfect musical companion to match the mood. Sara Mohr-Pietsch's programme Play Mozart For Me unlocked a wealth of emotions and reminded me of the special qualities of late night radio. It has a particularly intimate atmosphere and offers a safe, confidential space to listeners for them to share some reflections. As has been noted, Mozart had a powerful ability to write music that is happy and sad at the same time, and that range of emotions was certainly presented by the memories and stories of our audience.  The composer John Tavener's commentary on Mozart as a sacred composer was just one of the many remarkable elements of this treasure trove season.

Yet again there is huge speculation about when we might offer another such composer festival and who the composer might be. Despite the demand, these seasons cannot come too often. They involve a huge amount of work (I chuckled at the waspish comment from one writer that we had put on the Mozart season because we were all on holiday!) and, although we offer different formats for each composer we tackle, we want to avoid formulaic programming. So no word for a little while about when and who, or even if!

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Tuning in to the Music Planet ...

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Andy Kershaw Andy Kershaw | 13:22 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011

Photo of Andy Kershaw and the Radio 3 team recording fishermen for Music Planet: Oceans

 

Music Planet, beginning tonight, is a major new 8-part Radio 3 series to accompany BBC One’s Human Planet. Presenters Andy Kershaw and Lucy Duran go trekking across the globe to bring us music from the peoples of some of the world’s remotest regions, visiting many of the places featured in the TV series. Here, Andy recounts some of the highs and lows of the recording expeditions.

The routing was not ideal: we had to enter Laos from Thailand in order to get to a rocket festival in, well, Thailand. (Don’t ask why. I didn’t ).* This detour did, however, afford the opportunity to visit another country previously untroubled by Ramblin’ Andy and his band of Radio 3 ruffians. When one has visited around 90 of the world’s 193 countries - soon to be 194 with Southern Sudan or whatever they are going to call the oil-rich bit Khartoum will not readily relinquish - it comes as a surprise to find oneself not on familiar ground.(This was for many years a problem for my colleague, Lucy Duran. No matter the advertised destination of the aeroplane which Lucy boarded, whenever she disembarked, she was always in Mali).

 

Laos, like many other destinations on our Music Planet capers was, therefore, refreshing. Particularly refreshing was the monsoon-lashed lunch of deep-fried crickets we were enjoying at a floating restaurant - heaving would have been more accurate - on the Mekong river before having to abandon ship, our main course still under preparation as the torrent plucked our al fresco pontoon from its moorings. Laotian music was pretty good too, as you will hear in our Music Planet Rivers programme. The songs we recorded during sunset in a temple qualified, I think, for Rivers categorisation because the temple was close enough to the location of the aborted lunch for us to arrive there still wet through, slouched and slopping under the weight of our clothes.

From Savannakhet, we roared back across the border to throw ourselves heartily into Thailand again and the insanity of the Yasothon Rocket Festival, an annual event, nationally televised, for which the Thai authorities clear air space above the city to allow the good-natured locals to fool simultaneously with large quantities of explosives and strong drink. Our musical excuse for being there is an appropriately deafening carnival parade leading up to the home-made ballistic missiles competition. If Risk Assessment ever get a glimpse of Yasothon on YouTube, we will never be allowed out of Broadcasting House again. (I’m sure you will enjoy it, however. Have a look: click on this link ).

 

Heading south from here, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge in northern Cambodia was, comparatively, meat and drink to your battle-hardened Radio 3 commandos. Up a dirt side road we were directed to the spot on which Pol Pot was cremated by his comrades in 1998. The ground was still charred, marked out by a rectangle of upturned jam jars and covered by a rusting corrugated roof. No more than the old bastard deserved.

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A last hurrah!

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Petroc Trelawny Petroc Trelawny | 11:53 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011

 

Photo of Mozart's birthplace

Mozart's birthplace in Salzburg

And so it’s over. The 'Laudate' Dominum from the Solemn Vespers the final complete work broadcast just before one am this morning.  And then Sara Mohr-Pietsch promised a pause for thought,  taking us to the place where Mozart is buried, St Marx Cemetery in Vienna.  We recorded the ambient sounds by the spot where he is thought to have been buried last week.  It wasn’t serene calm - no birdsong - instead, a gentle hum of traffic from the major road that runs nearby,  a gusty breeze blowing over the monument that marks the spot. It’s a far cry from the musicians' colony in the Zentralfriedhof where Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and a trio of Strauss’s rest.  Mozart lies alone, his legacy worshipped in the concert hall, in museums and archives,  and on the radio,  rather than in a windy graveyard.

In Studio 80A,  our Mozart studio at Broadcasting House,  the lights had been going down all evening.  Full beam for Sean Rafferty,  a little dimmed with the uplighters on for Suzy Klein and myself,  single bulb for Sara.  Finally extinguished as Through the Night's Susan Sharpe welcomed listeners to a Covent Garden performance of Rossini’s Matilde Shabran,  and Mozart’s exclusive ownership of the Radio 3 frequencies came to an end.

The phone lines were literally overwhelmed at the start of ‘Call Cliff Eisen’ last night.  I’m sorry if the engaged tone was all you got to hear.  Marginally better than an electronic version of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, I guess.  On to the airwaves came calls about cadenzas,  bassoon concertos, the languages Mozart spoke;  his children.  For the record, two survived - Franz Xaver Wolfgang and Karl Thomas.  Neither had issue.  FXW was a child performer,  who first performed in public at a Prague memorial service for his father in November 1797.  Half a century later he played a key role in the celebrations around the unveiling of the Mozart statue in Salzburg.  He died in 1844.   KT was seven years older,  and thus had many memories of his father,  who used to take him to the theatre in Vienna when his mother Constanze was ill.  He preferred to perform in private,  and worked as a civil servant for the Viceroy of Naples in Milan.   He died in 1858. If you missed the broadcast and would like to here it, this link will connect you to the iPlayer for the programme.

After we finished the phone-in,  Cliff asked me if I was on-line.  Did he want to check a vital K number ?  No.  He wanted to see if his beloved Arsenal had beaten Ipswich.  The news was not well received.   His passion for Arsenal seems almost as great as his love of Mozart.  But does this faith extend to any other composers?  ‘There are two music makers whose inventiveness I never tire of,’  he said on his way out.  ‘One is Mozart and the other is The Beatles’.

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What's behind the Musicality Test ...

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Michael Orwell Michael Orwell | 15:01 UK time, Wednesday, 12 January 2011

 

Screenshot from the 'Musicality Test'

 

Michael Orwell is a producer for BBC Lab UK, a BBC website where you can participate in groundbreaking scientific experiments.

When Radio 3 Interactive approached BBC Lab UK about creating an experiment connected to a forthcoming Mozart season I had mixed reactions. The once popular notion that listening to Mozart can increase intelligence, namely theMozart’ Effect, has been roundly dismissed as fanciful thinking. But I was fascinated by the idea of testing the population’s sense of music, an intangible notion which has rarely been examined on a large scale.

BBC Lab UK create mass-participation experiments that invite the BBC audience to take part, learn something about themselves, but crucially, also contribute to brand new science. Last year we launched The Big Personality Test and Brain Test Britain, both of which were ambitious and bold studies which have never been attempted on such a scale.

Every BBC Lab UK experiment is designed and curated by recognised scientific experts in the field and this test was no different. Although we contacted lots of researchers who were actively involved in the science of music, all roads seemed to lead back to Dr. Lauren Stewart and her team at Goldsmiths. After a brief meeting, it was clear that there was an exciting opportunity to collaborate on a nationwide study. Lauren’s research partner, Dr Daniel Müllensiefen, had already started work on a project to map the musicality that exists within the population.

 

Graphic of Mozart with headphones

 

Goldsmiths designed a ‘test of two halves’, to borrow from the lexicon of football managers. The first part tests people’s attitudes to, and consumption of music. A self-report survey asks each participant to estimate their music consumption, perception and listening habits. The second part provides an objective measure of musicality across memory for short melodies, spotting the beat in pieces of music, tapping the beat using the computer spacebar and spotting musical genres from tiny fragments of sound.

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Last lap - and you can get in on the show ...

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Petroc Trelawny Petroc Trelawny | 13:17 UK time, Wednesday, 12 January 2011

 

Photo of Paul Frankl

Radio 3's Mozart Mastermind, Paul Frankl

And so we’ve reached the final day.  I’m feeling a mixture of conflicting emotions.  I’ve resisted listening to any other music during this 12-day marathon,  and would be lying if I didn’t say that I’m looking forward to hearing something not of Mozart’s hand.

But I’ve also got a feeling of slight melancholy.  It’s a bit like a Sunday after a long holiday:  back to school tomorrow. I can’t help thinking that I’ve let Mozart into my life these 12 days,  and got close to him in a way that I’ll never be able to replicate again. It might feel a bit disloyal introducing Schreker, Elgar and Strauss tomorrow night.  What do you think -  will you take a complete break from Mozart now,  or will you have wean yourself off slowly?

The idea of The Genius of Mozart was born at the start of last year,  and for many months remained a closely guarded secret.   I think it was probably about May that editor Paul Frankl was given the task of overseeing what became akin to a  military operation. 

Negotiations immediately started with the BBC performing groups as to what they could add to the mix,  and the distinguished musicologist Cliff Eisen came on board as series consultant.  Paul came up with the brilliant idea of themed days,  covering childhood genius,  travels,  freemasonry,  1791 etc. And crucially he decided how long the event would last. Played non-stop, Mozart wrote about 180 hours,  ie 7-and-a-half days,  of music.  The 12-day broadcast schedule has allowed space for considered speech,  features like the play Amadeus and our downloadable ‘History of Mozart in a Dozen Objects’.  It’s also given a chance to contrast and compare very different performances of the great works.   As Paul told me this morning,  the season has affirmed his belief that ‘Mozart was the greatest musician who ever lived. His humanity shines through his music,’ he continues, ‘from the earliest works to the late masterpieces. Making this series has been a labour of love.’

 

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Keeping track of the tracks ...

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Petroc Trelawny Petroc Trelawny | 23:46 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011

 

Photo of senior producer Emma Bloxham

Emma Bloxham and the Mozart spreadsheet

The Genius of Mozart has been a long time in the planning.  For the past six months, senior producer Emma Bloxham has been painstakingly building up an enormous spreadsheet,  with an entry for every work that he wrote.  Mozart scholarship has leapt forward spectacularly in recent years,  which has meant close liaison between Emma and series consultant Cliff Eisen.  Eisen, a distinguished Canadian musicologist, is recognised as one of the greatest Mozart experts in the world today.  He’s been the final arbiter of what’s been played - and what’s been left out;  new discoveries in,  out with a handful of pieces once attributed to Mozart but now reckoned to be by another hand. 

Though computers have been vital in building the on-air shape of the festival,  pen and paper have not been entirely eliminated.   A big notice-board hangs in our 8th floor studio,  listing a series of short works - minuets,  duos,  and extracts from the London sketchbook – which have proved useful in ensuring programmes fill their allocated time-slots. First thing each morning,  Emma checks the board to find out what’s been aired the previous day –  even the tiniest minuet deserves its moment in the spotlight.  As we start Day 11,  we’re perfectly on schedule to fit everything in.  And you’ll be pleased to know that mainlining Mozart for months has not put Emma off the composer;  far from it.  ‘Hearing everything in this way,  late works in context with early has made me fall in love all over again,’ she told me last night.  ‘I no longer take the greatness of the late works for granted.  His genius has hit me afresh.'

 

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The BBC Symphony Orchestra goes to Hollywood ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 16:11 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall has been suffering from 'too many notes' - not Mozart, but John Williams! Here, Phil describes a special treat as the orchestra has the chance to play film music

In previous blogs I've mentioned the versatility of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, playing everything from Pergolesi to Panufnik, but there is one genre we seldom get a chance to perform in and that is Film Music. Due to our mandate to Radio 3 (practically everything we do is recorded and 'sold' for broadcast), there is usually no opportunity in the schedule for BBC orchestras to take part in film sessions: TV music, yes, but not film. There is also the difficulty that orchestras can be booked late in the day for such sessions (once the film has been shot) but these invitations can then be withdrawn at the 11th hour. Quite often, too, there is a lot of tedious underscore in film music which leaves one just playing long notes with little interest other than trying to divide the fee by the note. On the other side of the spectrum, however, are composers who really know how to use an orchestra thrillingly to enhance the mood of the movie and write a thousand notes a minute - a recent concert I did exclusively of John Williams's music left me wishing for a new left wrist! Thrilling and well-known 'though his scores are, for my taste the best quality is found half a century earlier in the scores that influenced Williams, notably those of Korngold, Rosza, Waxman et al, so it was with pleasure to read on the BBCSO schedule that we'd be doing a concert of 'Golden Age Hollywood' film music.

Photo of John Wilson

John Wilson

A big problem in performing old film scores is locating the parts. Another problem is reading them. A lot of the parts you get (if you are fortunate enough to have tracked them down in the first place) seem to have been copied by a talented spider and are well-nigh illegible. These scores, however are the lucky ones: they have survived. Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, in their wisdom, decided to bury all their scores and parts as land-fill for a car park once they had served their purpose and been recorded. Thank heavens, then, for the determination and tenacity of John Wilson, who took on the Sisyphean task of unpicking these 'lost' scores by ear, from the soundtrack.

He's a canny lad, John - a Tynesider with a terrific sense of humour. He cajoles the orchestra into trying to sound like one of the great Hollywood studio orchestras of the '30s and '40s, imploring the strings to use special fingerings and lashings of intense vibrato, the wind players too. He asks the vibraphone for its 'comedy-outer-space-setting'. He gets upset if some players aren't giving 100% - 'You are giving me a pain right here,' he sighs, pointing at his abdomen, 'Please don't send me to an early grave...'. That he loves this music passionately is clear from the labour of love he took on in transcribing hours and hours of it, but he also knows how to ignite the orchestra with his customary 'crackle and vim'. At one point he breaks the cork end of his baton (one which used to belong to Barbirolli) and seems genuinely saddened by this loss of talisman. But Mutiny on the Bounty crackles along at a rate of knots and Gone with the Wind goes like... the wind: by the end the audience is clamouring and I need another new left wrist.

 

 

Go on, go on - take the musicality test!

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Petroc Trelawny Petroc Trelawny | 08:00 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011

We’ve been talking lots over the past week about Mozart’s unprecedented skill as a composer, performer and entrepreneur;  one man who really did deserve the ‘genius’ appellation.  Ever since his death his output has been the subject of extended scholarship.

But clearly you don’t need to be a musicologist to appreciate the man.  The vast, vast majority of us listening to Radio 3’s 12-day festival can’t read music, and don’t play an instrument. Yet we still derive vast amounts of pleasure from this extraordinary figure working two-and-a-bit centuries ago.   Human beings are naturally musical,  to an amazing extent, and today the BBC is launching a significant scientific experiment to discover more about the nation's relationship with the art.  The study hopes to define what it really means to be ‘musical’. It’s called  ‘How Musical Are You’.  

Screen shot of the Musicality Test home page

 

I was up early this morning to discuss it on Radio 4's Today programme,  with my boss Roger Wright flying the flag for 5 Live listeners.  It’s a brilliant idea,  which sits perfectly alongside The Genius of Mozart,  and is run jointly by BBC Lab UKGoldsmiths, University of London, and Radio 3.  The idea is that tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people,  will log on and do the test. It takes less than half an hour,  and scores respondents in five areas – enthusiasm, perception,  emotional connection with music,  social creativity and musical curiosity.  It’s great fun to do -  there are various technical tests;  one where you use the spacebar on your computer to beat time,  another where you have to compare tunes played in different keys.  And alongside that it asks you dozens of questions about how you use music in your life.  I got 91% for musical perception,  though was beaten by my colleague Katie Derham,  who clocked in at an amazing 99%.

One key point the study hopes to establish is whether people who are untrained but passionate about music can be just as musical as people who have been formally trained.  I would guess the survey will prove that often they can;  look at people's ability to beat time or to hum from memory a tune that they’ve only heard once or twice.  ‘Oh but I’m tone deaf’ is a frequently heard cry;  in fact 'tone deafness' is relatively rare. ‘But I must be because I can’t sing in tune.’  Well hang on, if you can perceive the fact that you veer towards being sharp or flat,  then you can’t be tone deaf, can you? 

I’ll be interested to know as well whether musicality varies depending on the type of music that people like.  The online tests cover most genres of music - and the organisers hope the study will later be rolled out to other networks like 6 Music and Radio 1.  Will Radio 3 listeners be naturally more musical than those who tune in to our sister stations?  I wonder...

 

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Where we're at ... and Mackerras remembered

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Petroc Trelawny Petroc Trelawny | 22:04 UK time, Saturday, 8 January 2011

Picture of Sara Mohr-Pietsch with the lights down low in Studio 80A

Sara Mohr-Pietsch with the lights down low in Studio 80A

Radio Three programmes normally come from a tiny studio deep inside Broadcasting House.  So far inside, in fact, that there’s no daylight. It’s on the third floor, and was once a consecrated space, complete with altar, used for the Daily Service.

For The Genius of Mozart we’ve relocated to the top of the building,  a much larger studio on the 8th floor,  that enables us to accommodate live music at any point in the day.  You might have caught Leon McCawley playing sonatas on Classical Collection and Afternoon on Three,  the Heath Quartet on Breakfast,  fortepianist Richard Egarr and baritone Sir Thomas Allen on In Tune.   It’s a lovely space, originally the BBC’s Military Band Studio.  During the recent refurbishment of Broadcasting House,  two faux ocular windows were opened up, so now light streams in,  the sun setting just before In Tune takes to the air.   

I’ve had the lights bright when I’ve been in the studio presenting Performance on 3,  but my colleague Sara Mohr-Pietsch prefers something more intimate during  Play Mozart for Me.  On the first night, we spent some minutes experimenting with the fancy light switches.  In the end Sara went for almost complete darkness,  a single energy saving light bulb in an Anglepoise providing enough illumination for her to see her notes.  It certainly creates atmosphere in the studio. 

I’ve been thinking much about Charles Mackerras and his  Mozartian legacy this weekend -  we celebrated his enormous contribution towards Mozart research and performance in a programme this morning.  He was 16 when he first started writing Mozart pastiches,  a process which convinced him that a) he wasn’t going to be a composer,  and that b) Mozart had an extraordinary ability to turn out works on demand.  ‘There are sometimes occasional signs that Mozart was writing extremely quickly,'  he told Gramophone Magazine in 2005.  ‘But even Mozart writing at top speed has something completely special about him.’

In the early 1960s Sir Charles went to Donaueschingen,  then best known for its radical new music festival,  but also home to a rich collection of Mozart opera scores used for early performances.  There he became fascinated with Mozart’s ability to re-write and reshape arias for individual singers, often making major changes at the eleventh hour.  He also studied Mozart’s use of appoggiaturas and ornamentation,  which influenced his seminal Sadler’s Wells production of The Marriage of Figaro in 1965,  performances that were mocked by some,  and hailed as seminal by others.  Mozart’s operas went on to play a major role in his career;  Cosi Fan Tutte at Glyndebourne last June turned out to be his final work - he died just a few weeks later.

As I said on air, it was great presenting the tribute from the studio where Mackerras regularly joined Sean Rafferty and I on In Tune.  He was always jovial,  with plenty to say about the works he was performing, offering fascinating details of musicology clearly explained in his no-nonsense Australian brogue.  Just hearing his voice again brought a smile to my lips.

Picture of the Heath Quartet relax before performing live on In Tune

The Heath Quartet relax before performing live on In Tune

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A Mozart bombe, and a one-handed trumpet

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Petroc Trelawny Petroc Trelawny | 18:26 UK time, Friday, 7 January 2011

Picture of the Mozart Bombe

 

We have passed the halfway mark in The Genius of Mozart.  There are no signs of any reduction in the energy of my colleagues here at Broadcasting House,  but I thought a little cake might help boost all our sugar levels.  This is a Mozart Bombe,  a speciality of Café Schwartzenberg in Vienna.  We had a slice there on Sunday before returning to London.  From a distance,  it didn’t look promising;  the green food colouring somehow triggered my brain to think of oleaginous sickly sweetness. In fact it was delicious, pistachio flavoured, light and delicate.  Worthy of the Vienna Torte Association Gold medal. 

A great evening last night at Kings Place,  with the Aurora Orchestra.  Hall One was completely full for what is the first of five appearances the orchestra makes as part of the venue's year-long Mozart Unwrapped Festival.  In the interval half the audience joined us in Hall Two for a discussion on Genius.  Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy revealed he is no chess grandmaster, and single-handed made the case for Arsenal footballer Cesc Fabregas to be acclaimed a genius.  Writer Peggy Reynolds reminded us that the word's current usage was settled around the time of Mozart.  ‘It was the romantics at the end of the 18the century that set up the idea of the solitary,  tortured individual, suffering for their art’. 

Not that Mozart was that tortured.  Simon Keefe,  co-editor of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Mozart explained that he was certainly able to switch off his brain from time to time.  He loved being a host,  holding court, encouraging dancing after dinner, telling those long,  scatological jokes of which he was so fond, all as a way of switching off his prodigious brain.  Simon reckons we can distil Mozart’s genius down to one factor,  his ability to balance perfectly his twin roles as composer and performer.   He knew instinctively the different things required when writing for a favourite singer,  or creating a piano concerto for himself.   The true sign of his genius comes,  says Simon,  from his ability to effortlessly negotiate between the two skills. 

We also got on to the idea of whether geniuses are born or nurtured. Born definitely, argued Peggy,   but nurtured too countered Marcus.  He may have had terrific genes,  rich DNA,  but said Simon,  ‘in Mozart nature and nurture flow together brilliantly’.   And we must credit Leopold,  who often gets a bad press,  for releasing his son's talent.  ‘Here we’ve got one of Europe’s leading musicians,  who takes his son around the continent,  introducing him to all the great figures of the day.  In 1777 Mozart writes to his father telling him he could imitate any style of composition heard in the great cities of Europe.   Mozart was able to exploit his genius in part because of his father’s brilliant skill as a networker.  Remember,  Simon added,  Leopold got his son playing for George III just five days after arriving, almost unknown,  in London. 

It was a stimulating discussion,  that travelled from Catalan footballers to the slicing up of brains,  to TS Eliot and the Indian mathematician and autodidact Srinivasa Ramanujan.  If you missed it,  listen again here, and catch the Aurora Orchestra’s exciting concert as well.

 

Picture of the broadcast debate on genius

Broadcasting the debate on genius

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Genius examined on Radio 3 tonight ...

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Petroc Trelawny Petroc Trelawny | 15:57 UK time, Thursday, 6 January 2011

Photo of the Aurora Orchestra

The Aurora Orchestra rehearsing at King's Place this morning

The Genius of Mozart runs for 12 days on Radio 3.   London concert venue Kings Place has decided to dedicate all of 2011 to the great composer. 

Photo of Fflur Wyn

We’ve just finished rehearsals in Hall One for tonight’s concert in Hall by the Aurora Orchestra,  which includes the last violin concerto,  the 'Linz' Symphony,  and a pair of ravishing arias sung by the young Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn (left).

The concert was due to be conducted by that great British Mozartian Sir Colin Davis.  Alas he has succumbed to ill-health,  and is currently being treated for a minor infection.  The good news is that he’s expected to be discharged from hospital tomorrow.  So that means an unexpected place in the spotlight for Nicholas Collon (below),  founder and music director of the Aurora Orchestra.  He’s a hot young talent,  who is causing much excitement in the business. Having worked with the Britten Sinfonia,  London Sinfonietta, Glyndebourne and Opera North, he makes his debut with the London Philharmonic next year.  He’s also got a great sense of humour - as seen in his collaboration with Basil Brush at the Proms last summer.  So, a chance to catch a new talent early on as he conducts Mozart,  live on Radio 3 tonight at 7.30pm.

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Don't diss those Mozart Piano Sonatas ...

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Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 11:11 UK time, Thursday, 6 January 2011

 

Picture of Mozart at the piano

Mozart at the piano

Radio 3's The Genius of Mozart is helping us think again about the maligned Mozart piano sonatas, says writer and critic Jessica Duchen (Radio 3's Mendelssohn Blogger for Composers of the Year).

I've been tuning in as Radio 3 plays every note that Mozart ever wrote (to the best of all our humble knowledge). The initial concept did not precisely make me reach for the 'on' switch (I can't listen to music while I write in any case). But in yesterday's Piano Day, the Piano Sonatas were centre stage, thanks not least to the brilliant Leon McCawley, and it seems high time for a bit of defence for these astonishing and oft-maligned works.

Now, the curse of received opinion and false tradition works against music of every era. Baroque: precious and vibrato-less. Mendelssohn: shallow. Schumann: mad. Liszt: loud and vulgar. Faure: difficult, austere and drippy. Korngold: Hollywood schmaltz. Cage: random and unemotive. And Mozart piano sonatas: written for fortepianos, designed for home-based amateurs in the salons, therefore insignificant and tinkly. Musicians too often come to the music they play with little more knowledge of the context, truths and texts than such poisonous preconceptions (at least two of the above were notions originally put about by the Nazis, yet have seemingly entered universal knee-jerk-reaction consciousness). Recordings are imitated unthinkingly and thus false traditions build.
Look a little deeper, look into the text itself and take on board what you find. It may not be what you expect.

The Mozart piano sonatas are glorious works. Stop the tinkling, stop the Jane Austen images: the composer of the great C minor Fantasy and Sonata, the frenetic and pre-Schubertian A minor K310, the dazazling F major K533/494 gave us Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflote. He created those incredible string quintets, 27 inspired and beloved piano concertos, the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, and, for heaven's sake, most of the greatest Requiem ever written. So how are his piano sonatas tinkly and insignificant? Strip away the fear of incorrect phrasing, the academic insistence on articulation from a treatise or two and the idea that you cannot so much as touch a pedal while playing them; immerse yourself in the operas, the orchestral works, the choral music. Then come back to the sonatas and plunge in. The colour, fantasy and imagination you can then find is immeasurable. Take the F major sonata above: try it after hearing Figaro and you can find comparable characters in the sonata: the bubbling Susanna, grand and angry Count, the rebellious pranks of Figaro, the yearning Countess. Place the C minor work alongside Don Giovanni and ... you find the Don's blazing reckoning within it.

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It's a family affair in Manchester

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Petroc Trelawny Petroc Trelawny | 21:07 UK time, Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Picture of the Salford Family Orchestra

The Salford Family Orchestra

Mozart in Manchester again ...   I’ve been introducing the second of a trio of lunchtime concerts the BBC Philharmonic have been giving here at New Broadcasting House.   My colleague Catherine Bott will present the last one,  which we broadcast on Friday -  which leaves me with a slightly sad feeling,  as I’ve probably just done my last ever broadcast from Studio 7.  The Phil will be amongst the first to occupy the new BBC North site at Salford,  which they move to in May.  It’s sad to say goodbye to Oxford Road,  from where I made my first ever broadcasts for Radio 3 nearly fourteen years ago. I was also presenting a  Manchester news programme at the time,  and earlier went to find the studio where we worked from.  It’s now a store room,  with a thick layer of  dust covering every surface.  The BBC Phil players and staff are very excited about their new home – they get a splendid new studio,  with better acoustics,  better backstage facilities, and rather more comfortable seating for the audience. And the Blue Peter garden on the roof.

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Live from Manchester on Grand Tour Day

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Petroc Trelawny Petroc Trelawny | 12:05 UK time, Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The BBC Philharmonic rehearsing today's Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert

 

Grand Tour day – and I’ve made a journey myself. Alas not quite in the footsteps of the young Mozart.  In his seventh year he visited Munich, Schwetzingen, Frankfurt, Coblenz, Bonn, Cologne, Aix La Chappelle, Brussels,Paris and Versailles. I’ve taken Virgin Trains to Manchester.

 

I spent the journey,  as we sped past hoar-frost covered fields and still frozen canals, reading about Mozart’s travels. There’s an excellent article on London by Simon McVeigh in the Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia.  Mozart, Nannerl and their father Leopold arrived on April 23rd, 1764,  after a journey from Paris via Calais and Dover.  Leopold soon discovered that even a moderately attended concert could raise over £100, ‘a sum that exceeded his annual salary in Salzburg’.

London in the 1760s was rich and confident, the ‘centre of a thriving trading area, flushed with military success around the globe’; enormous wealth sat side-by-side with grinding poverty. This paragraph is worth quoting in full,  as it gives a good flavour of the city the Mozart’s arrived at:

London already numbered some 700,000 inhabitants, and Leopold Mozart’s letters revel in amazement at the size of the sprawling metropolis, the number of churches and squares, the learned societies and libraries, the shops and taverns, the victuals it consumed.  He was clearly shocked by the contrast between the  violence of a rioting mob, protesting against French silk imports, and the gentility and ease of cultured society, the broad avenues and fine squares of the West End, the brilliant lighting, the fine horses and carriages. Yet he was also intrigued by the mix of society milling together around the open-air bandstand at Vauxhall Gardens, whose magical setting he found so enchanting’.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart always wanted to return to London, and there’s a suggestion that English friends in Vienna (including the London-born soprano Nancy Storace) almost got him to return in the 1780s.  ‘It’s been suggested that the last three symphonies and even Cosi fan Tutte may have been intended for London,'  concludes McVeigh, ‘but we can only fantasize with Mozart about the wealth and acclaim he would surely have received there’. 

 

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Bon-bons from Vienna

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Petroc Trelawny Petroc Trelawny | 17:48 UK time, Monday, 3 January 2011

Picture of HK Gruber and broadcaster Daniele Zimper in the ORF Studios in Vienna with Petroc

HK Gruber and broadcaster Daniele Zimper in the ORF Studios in Vienna with Petroc

I’m back home in London after the excitement of starting 2011 in Vienna.

Walking back from the ORF radio studio on Saturday afternoon,  I couldn’t help but mull over the sheer omnipresence of music and musicians in the city.  In the 10-minute stroll back to our hotel I passed the former apartments of Wolf and Szymanowski, and the church where Mahler married his beloved Alma.  As I mentioned on air, Beethoven and Schubert are buried in the Central Cemetery,  and the legacy of the Strauss family can be found in a dozen different theatres,  casinos and houses.

But it’s Mozart’s name that dominates above all others.  Unhealthily, in the view of HK Gruber,  who reckons its been hijacked in the name of commercialism. And when it comes to performance, he says,  we treat Mozart with kid-gloves.  He cites Simon Rattle ’s advice as being the best  –  approach Mozart as if it’s Stravinsky.  Gruber – conductor, composer, chansonnier and legendary son of Vienna -  was commissioned to write a piece for the Mozart celebrations in 2006,  and demurred at first.  In the end he created a work with the title ‘Hidden Agenda’.  Treat Mozart with a bit less respect – that’s the message he wants to get across. He’s even more concerned now period performance has become mainstream.  ‘Those vegetarians,’ he groans, his damning title for any musician who leans towards the authentic. Vibrato,  no vibrato,  who cares – play it with love,  he says,  just as Mozart would have done.  Gruber joined us in the studio after staying up until 5am to work on his new opera – and was in combative mood.  Listen again by following this link to the Cafe Mozart programme in the BBC iPlayer. I love his dismissal of Salzburg,  as being nothing more than a provincial market town outside festival time. There speaks a true child of the Vienna Woods.

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