Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The Sacrifice: An epilogue

In the wake of my euphoria over The Sacrifice (see below), I felt I had to e-mail James MacMillan, whom I’ve interviewed once and collaborated with on the Chandos liner notes for A Scotch Bestiary. He had come under fire from certain quarters, so I thought some lines of warm praise might not go amiss (this is part of a general resolve, which I thrashed out with Lynne Walker, to make sure to tell people in our sphere when we’ve been moved or impressed by something; it doesn’t happen often enough in our mealy-mouthed world).

He replied – and told me he was happy for me to reproduce the reply, citing names and all (though I hang fire there, as it might seem like sour grapes from me): ‘Your messages are intriguing and have provoked some thought! Someone said to Michael Symmons Roberts ((poet and librettist of The Sacrifice)) and I on Monday that the new music police "smell their deadliest enemies" in people like us. We have sometimes toyed with the idea of writing about this, but have so far decided against it, as it might look like whingeing. Nevertheless there is a story to be told about the narrow thinking of the contemporary music ghetto mentality and their unfriendliness towards those who depart from the party line. The situation is not helped by ((certain)) people....who continue to be the abrasively aggressive cheerleaders for "the cause", seeing people like myself as some kind of dangerous opposition.

'They haven't managed to land any meaningful blows on me, but I do worry about the impact they might have on the musical culture generally, and how they might depress younger figures coming through who are bullied into paths they might not want to take.’

We are trying out various sounding-boards, following James’s cue to ‘park our tanks’ on the mafia’s lawn, and hope Stephen Johnson might join us. I, too, fervently believe that direct communication in new music still tends to be frowned upon, and that the press wing of the contemporary music mafia continues to peddle the view that new works in performance are setting the world alight when the audience responds tepidly: a new piece a couple of years ago by Richard Barrett was a classic case in point.

Ultimately, no-one should come out of a concert-hall scratching the head and saying, ‘Not sure what I thought about that – what did you think?’ One’s either struck by something – even if one doesn’t understand it all on a first hearing – or not.


Pierre said...

I'm rather surprised that you buy the line there's some sort of conspiracy against MacMillan's Sacrifice. Off-hand, I recall a very sensible review by Richard Morrison in The Times - not someone I'd think of as a cheerleader for austere modernism - where he demolished the premise that all would be made 'alright' by the final sacrifice. I think most of the notices I read were variations on that same theme (all making due allowance for the fact the music is accessible - I really don't think that's the issue). It may be worth reflecting that supporters of Foulds' World Requiem - such as Malcolm MacDonald - similarly have hinted that there was a conspiracy against that work which brought about its downfall. I would suggest, then, be wary of assuming, simply because you're in the minority in liking something - and especially given your evident dislike of the Foulds - that everyone else must be plotting against MacMillan's opera.

David said...

Hello again, Pierre - I hope you picked up my response to your Lancbery query.

Agreed, Morrison is usually agin the 'New Music Police' and wrote a very amusing review of a by all accounts dismal London Sinfonietta concert. I was disappointed by his Sacrifice review, as I intermittently am by some of his ideas although generally I like him - not because it held an opinion different to mine but because he failed to give sufficient thought to what the work was trying to achieve. And in any case the ambiguous slow fade to the final ensemble gives the lie to the idea that 'all would be made "alright" '.

Other reviews gave even less space - notably an absurdly short one in The Guardian, whose chief critic definitely is anti-MacM.

I don't have any problem with people not liking the work - have you seen it, by the way? - but something of this ambition deserves to be met with detailed consideration, not casual rejection. And as far as the public goes, I'm certainly not in the minority. In any case, the reviews were very mixed - some critics liked it very much indeed.

Pierre said...
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Pierre said...

Yes, I did pick up your reply re Lanchbery - many thanks.

I'm afraid I've v little time for the Guardian's chief critic - clearly has little understanding or patience with things which fall outside his v small stamping ground (John Adams, some modernists etc).

I did see the opera (at Cardiff) and found most of it over-loud and overbearing (IMHO not enough of the kind of light-and-shade you might find in Wozzeck, for example). I agree with you, though, that the central love duet was moving (though even there I found the libretto cringe-worthy - something about 'skin is the new frontier', was it?). I think my main objection was that none of the characters struck me as real human beings - they all seemed to be types of one sort or another, and I didn't end up caring for any of them, which seems to me pretty fatal in a story of this kind. But then you obviously felt differently about it. I would be interested to see your further thoughts on Sacrifice when the dust has settled a bit.

David said...

Indeed, I think it was said critic and followers who were JMacM's main antagonists, and he was happy for me to quote him on that.

So that's the beef - a 'small stamping ground'.

Maybe you're right about the archetypes, though I thought that was OK given the grand-operatic brief. And I did find Lisa Milne and Christopher Purves sympathetic.

As you say, it will be interesting to see what happens when the dust settles - whether this will last. I have a hunch it will, and I didn't come anywhere near to thinking that about anything I've seen between this and the 1987 Edinburgh premiere of Nixon in China.

starcourse said...

Is this the origin of the sub-title of Iolanthe: "The Peer and the Peri"??

David said...
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David said...

starcourse, you're in the wrong bit, but never mind, good to hear from you.

The answer is, possibly: Schumann's intimate oratorio was popular in the 19th century, so Gilbert and Sullivan probably heard it. Even so, peris from Persian mythology were common property. Being the offspring of a fallen angel and a mortal, they have more in common with Strephon - who is 'a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal' - than with his mother, Iolanthe. Anyway, there are moments in Iolanthe, not least the lady's appearance in Act 1, which are every inch as magical as the best bits of Schumann's oratorio.

There's also Dukas's ballet La Peri of 1912, which shows there was more to him than just The Sorcerer's Apprentice (the opera Ariane et Barbe-bleu is pretty wonderful too).

David said...

Oh, and starcourse, how disappointed I am to see from your own blog that you think the thought-provoking Dark Materials trilogy is 'insidious atheistic propaganda'. Ah well, to each his own.