Monday, April 27, 2015

Facing the Music

I've referred to an ongoing interview series at the Guardian before, but I haven't mentioned the title of the series which is "Facing the Music". The latest installment is an interview with Carolyn Sampson. Now it is entirely likely that she is a wonderful singer and excellent musician (her debut recording, Fleurs, is just out--no reviews on Amazon yet), but it is hard to tell from the interview. Here are some excerpts (read the whole thing, at the link above):
What’s your musical guilty pleasure? 
Wham! (yes, the 80s English pop duo)
Is applauding between movements acceptable?Yes. Spontaneous applause is always acceptable. I think it’s great to group songs, or movements, but I also think it’s wonderful when there is an immediate reaction from the audience – be it a laugh, an intake of breath, or applause. It means that they’re with us, and relaxed enough to respond. 
What single thing would improve the format of the classical concert?
A lack of fear. As performers, we should be relaxed on stage and be aiming not at perfection but at being our best on that day, and communicating with the audience. The audience should also feel comfortable and free to respond (see above).
What was the first ever record or CD you bought?A Boney M album. On record 
Do you enjoy musicals? Do you have a favourite?Yes, I do. I enjoy most things. I’m a very good audience!Starlight Express made a big impression on me as a child. It was such a spectacle. I had a tape of the songs, to which I sang along with passion. 
How many recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies do you own? Do you have a favourite?
Hmmm … I think I once had some of the Beethoven Symphonies recorded by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. But I’m not really sure!
Which non-classical musician would you love to work with?Those who know me won’t be surprised that my answer is George Michael! He has a beautiful voice and is a great musician. 
Imagine you’re a festival director here in London with unlimited resources. What would you programme – or commission – for your opening event 
An event in which I get to duet with George Michael. 
What do you sing in the shower?
Whatever I’m currently learning. Or Hey Mickey, by Toni Basil. 
I think I have included all the relevant responses. So my question is, is there anything there that would lead you to think that she has had an adequate musical education? Is she familiar with the classical repertoire? Does she have the depth of aesthetic and cultural understanding to interpret great works of music? She might well have. But the impression you get from the interview is that she has all the cultural depth and musical understanding of the mythical 14 year old girl from Cleveland. Would I rush out to hear her sing Schubert? Not bloody likely! George Michael, indeed!

So this is the problem with the watering down of classical music and bowing down to the gods of pop music: it drives away those people who really do appreciate classical music. Now there's a winning strategy for ya!

Let's give Carolyn Sampson a chance to show what sort of singer she is. On YouTube, most of the selections are early music: Purcell, Bach and Handel. Here she is singing a wonderful song by Caccini: Amarilli mia bella:

Great job. So I guess the point of the interview and the new album with its repertoire of Britten, Debussy, Poulenc and others, is to move her career from the early music ghetto to wider acceptability. But again, trying to sell yourself as some kind of pop artist who happens to sing classical music seems, well, counterproductive.


Marc Puckett said...

Is that how the powers that be think? that 'early music', poor Purcell and Bach and Handel live in their own ghetto, let out only occasionally? Hmm; since you mention it, I don't immediately recall any of that music, apart from Handel's Royal Fireworks a couple of years ago, at the Eugene Symphony. [In any event, this year and next the earliest composer represented at the ESO is Mozart, ha. I listen online etc to so much of the ghetto music that its absence from the main stage, as it were, hasn't ever occurred to me.]

CS does sound pretty good in that video; I had never seen her name even, to be honest, and I doubt I've ever heard any Caccini, either. Listened to Cecilia Bartoli and Philippe Jaroussky, too, and while I prefer the... warmth? in the B. version, CS is perfectly fine. CS's advice to be relaxed-and-not-perfect was the red flag, for me: as you suggest, it may just be nonsense she wrote down to satisfy what the G.'s people want to hear, but it sounds like the debased pedagogical nonsense so prevalent in schools etc, 'be yourself, be relaxed, good X Y or Z will happen'.

Marc Puckett said...

And browsing at Face the Music, I noticed that Jaroussky replied, "I think the format works well, that’s probably why it hasn’t changed very much this last century!", which sounds familiar. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

That phrase "early music ghetto" was just me in my sardonic mode. I think that the powers that be think of all classical music as inhabiting a tiny little niche. Yes, I thought her Caccini was excellent.

Anonymous said...

I think you're being unfairly harsh. I don't know anything about her but her wikipedia entry mentions Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Donizetti, etc. Sounds like a pretty robust musical education to me.

She's still fairly young, so her desire to duet with George Michael might be no different from you telling us that you wish you had jammed with John Lennon. Pop can be fun: nothing wrong with that as long as it's not a career move.

Nathaniel Garbutt said...

Hi Marc,

I actually agree with her comment regarding being relaxed and not perfect. This attitude of perfection, in my opinion, has been extremely detrimental to performance as it inhibits performers taking more spontaneous risks.

How many improvised cadenzas do you hear these days during a Mozart concerto? The answer is almost 0% when it should be closer to 100%. This is just an example of how classical performers are pressured into playing it on the safer side during a live performance as audiences now expect the "perfection" achieved in the recording studio. It is a shame.

Marc Puckett said...

Nathaniel, I think that perhaps CS posed the question imprecisely: the opposite in this context of 'relaxed' is (it seems to me) 'disciplined' or 'attentive', in any event not 'perfect'. I didn't read her comment to mean that she feels inhibited from improvising when improvisation is clearly called for. But the fact is she could have meant any number of things: I live in a community where 'relaxed' means anything from drum circles to sexual libertinage, including, commonly, a lack of moral seriousness-- which I hope is far from CS's meaning. If she intended what you are suggesting she did, wonderful.

Bryan Townsend said...

@Anonymous: I think you are mistaking my criticism of the INTERVIEW for criticism of the ARTIST. Carolyn Sampson, based on the clips I have listened to, like the Caccini Amarilli mia bella, which I know very well from having performed it numerous times, is an excellent singer. I think I said that in the post? No, my critique was entirely directed towards the ideology behind the Guardian's series of interviews, which seems intended to portray classical musicians as being ill-educated panderers. Also, she is 41 years old. But nothing wrong with pop, even AS a career move. I hear there is lots of money in it. But it is different from classical music, I think we can agree on that?

Nathaniel, I agree completely. The perfection of digital recording and editing is a terrible burden on performers and does tend to make us tense and over-cautious.

I think that Ms. Sampson very likely was improvising ornaments in the Caccini, by the way.