Thursday, 29 March 2012

Schubert Laboratory or Schubert Lobotomy?

BBC Radio 3's Spirit of Schubert runs on. It's being sold as a gimmick, with come-ons like "Schubert Lab" which examines Schubert "under a microscope". I kid you not! Those words are used. But music isn't scientific. It's subjective.You might learn facts like strudel making but you won't learn Schubert until you listen with your soul. And that's a skill that comes with time and the willingness to fully engage. This isn't Tom Service's fault. It's the result of a continuing process of dumbing down that's affected the whole culture business.

Fundamentally, the media are hooked on the idea that mass means value, not quality. Look at any newspaper. The more outrageous the article, the more comments, even though most of the comments are gibberish. But that doesn't matter, as long as the article gets attention. It's mob rule via new media.  Far from encouraging new ideas and opinions it stifles genuine, independent  thought. Live blogging, for example, works fine with breaking news stories, because no-one knows the story yet. Live blogging during performances is moronic. Sure we're responding every moment but until we've processed all the data we're in no position to understand the whole.  Someone told me recently about a broadcast where tweets went across the screen like subtitles. Yikes! The message there is, don't listen or watch, read what other people think, however fragmentary (and often brainless).  Everyone has an opinion, but it's what goes into making the opinion that counts, and it's not an instant process.

So the BBC Spirit of Schubert is an interesting experiment. It operates on many different levels at the same time, and its range is so wide you have to pick and choose. In Australia, car boot sales are called "Trash and Treasure". In amongst the tat you might find a rare gem. There are some marvellous things on this Spirit of Schubert  week, scattered around so you have to be alert and prepared for surprises. It's quite amazing how much there is. This series is not something anyone can run up in a weekend. Extremely rewarding, though sometimes you have to zap the mute.  For me that's part of the fun, and without fun, what's the point?

You never know what you might learn. Request shows are naff for many different reasons (often nerd territory) but these have thrown up unexpected wonders. One man asked for Peter Dawson's Erl King sung in stilted Victorian English (before German recordings were easily available) Yow, it was dated, but the beauty was in what it meant to the man, who heard it as a boy and became hooked. His Dad bought him a piano, though that was the last thing a military family needed to cart around. A window on a world now gone. But it's a wonderful story, because it shows that people can learn in all kinds of situations.

I love hearing about experiences like this. Once I met someone who had come to Schubert via John Cage. His insights were refreshing and taught me so much. Years ago, before Amazon and Paypal I was part of a gang who smuggled Lieder into China. Passionate listeners, who treasured every song. Every discovery is a step on the road to greater adventure. Hyper-ventilating instant opinions substitute the idea that learning is quick fix and finite.

Last night, at the Royal Festival Hall, there was a schools orchestra event. The place was full of excited under 12's with scaled down instruments. The kids had been having fun playing, improvising, learning to "really" listen and create.  Kids don't need dumbing down, nor adults.  Treat music with respect. In the concert afterwards, Lisa Batiashvili showed the same creative spirit when she conducted as well as played Mozart Violin Concerto No 3, in the absence of the scheduled conductor. It was a chamber experience, the LPO players communicating with her as individuals. Batiashvili's style is lithe and gracious, so the performance was very individual and personal. Exactly opposite to the Mahler 9 mechanically delivered and mangled. On paper, it looked OK, but as music it was awful. Sure, the conductor was a substitute, but this time the back up system did not work. The LPO deserved better.

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