First Posting to the Toccata Blog: Opening-up Classical Music

TOCCsmallLogoWelcome to the first posting on my new blog. Quick introduction for those who don’t know me: I run the CD label Toccata Classics and publish books on classical music as Toccata Press; I also write a bit about music in various publications in Britain and abroad. My degree (from the University of St Andrews, in 1977 – I’m a Scot) was in mediaeval French and German, and thereafter I worked in economics for twenty years, in London and Paris; I’m now based back in London. The main thrust of the postings here will be in classical music, but since I am a secular liberal and free-marketeer with a healthy contempt for politics (economics is the study of the creation of wealth, and politics is the process by which it is wastefully dispersed) and a guarded resentment of religion, please don’t be surprised if I occasionally thump the tub on issues other than forgotten composers and other aspects of the musical world. I’ll also be asking colleagues on various Toccata projects to tell you about their work in guest blogs.

Let me begin by taking a poke at the stuffiness of classical music in general. Go to a concert of any other kind of music – rock, jazz, folk, whatever – and what’s the first thing the musicians do when they get on stage? Talk to the audience, bid them welcome, hope they’ll enjoy the show. Everyone relaxes. A classical musician walks on briskly, bows briefly to the audience, forces a smile and, after adjusting stools and stands and strings and stuff in nervous silence, starts to play. The initiates in the audience expect the formality of this rite. But supposing you’re just an ordinary person, brought in by a friend or curiosity – you’ll feel like a trespasser, an outsider who hasn’t learned the secret formulae and the funny handshakes. No one bids you welcome.

Almost every time I ask a girl to a concert, if she’s not a regular concert-goer the answer will be: ‘What should I wear?’ And my answer is always: ‘Wear whatever you like’ – it’s not, or shouldn’t be, a fashion-parade where people go to be seen. Quite the opposite: you should go to a concert to forget about all that worldly guff, to lose yourself in the music and emerge with a lightness in your step or your soul sluiced clean, depending on what you’ve just heard.

Another response is: ‘But I don’t understand classical music’. The conductor Hermann Scherchen had the best answer to that: ‘Music doesn’t have to be understood. It just has to be heard’. Understanding comes gradually, in its own time; there are plenty of music professionals who have been grappling with the late quartets of Beethoven for years without ‘understanding’ them. I once confessed to the writer Hans Keller that, although I was profoundly moved by the C sharp minor Quartet, Op. 131, I didn’t understand the musical processes at work. ‘If you are profoundly moved,’ Hans responded, ‘there is already a glimmer of understanding.’ We all have to start somewhere.

When I write programme notes for concerts or CDs, I try to give the listener a handrail that can be used to follow the progress of the music and, inevitably, there’s a bit of technical jargon involved. The trouble is, the outsiders read stuff like that and feel their outsiderness reinforced: the technical vocabulary that allows writers like me to cut a few corners excludes the folk who don’t know it. Newspapers have easy and cryptic crosswords to cater for the variety of their readers. Has any concert organisation thought of something similar for its punters? I bet not.

Unless classical music, in all its manifestations, finds some way of bring the rest of the world on board, it is inviting a slow death – but it would die with 95% of its assets unheard. Another thing I’d bet is that if you took the concert programmes of the world’s orchestras and knocked out the works that occur in other concerts across the world, you’d be left with a tiny handful of pieces, largely contemporary ones. Most of the world’s major conductors and instrumentalists live off a tiny number of works, which they recycle again and again and again, as if there were only a handful of symphonies and concertos worth performing. Now, of course, concert audiences insist their Beethovens and their Brahmses and their Tchaikovskies: you need something familiar in the programme or they won’t turn up. You could offer them one of Reicha’s operatic overtures, a Ferdinand Ries piano concerto and a symphony by Nikolai Peyko, all of which they’d lap up if they gave them a chance, but these names are unfamiliar, and half-a-century of post-WW2 modernism has taught audiences if it’s unknown, they probably won’t like it. So they’d stay away – until you can build a degree of trust, and you do that by gradually expanding the repertoire alongside the tried and trusted concert favourites.

Two or three months ago I was sent for review a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, with Christian Lindberg conducting the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra (recently founded in Tromsø, at the very northern tip of Norway) on BIS. It’s a perfectly acceptable performance: Christian is a terrific musician, the playing is more than up to the mark, and any BIS recording will be a sonic wonder. But according to www.arkivmusic.com, which is where I usually go to check these things, it is the 158th recording of Tchaik 5 on the market. What is the point of that? Yes, I know a new orchestra has to earn its spurs, but their first release, of music by local Romantic composer Ole Olsen, was immensely more important than yet another of something already hugely over-represented in the catalogues. And there’s oodles of excellent Norwegian orchestral music waiting to be recorded: why didn’t they go for a CD of Catharinus Elling or Egil Hovland or Ludvig Irgens-Jensen or Ragnar Söderlind or one of dozens more?

It was frustration with this constant recycling of repertoire that led me to launch Toccata Classics in the first place, in 2005, and there have been 158 releases to date, every one of them bringing something new, and I’ll keep going until God decides to bring this atheist up short. Most of the releases so far have been modest in scale, generally chamber and instrumental music, with orchestral releases as resources permit. I’d love to have the wherewithal to record the seven symphonies of Vassily Zolotarev and the eight of Waldemar von Baussnern and the nine of Nikolai Peyko and the ten of Ferdinand Thieriot. Hans Gál’s operas haven’t been heard since the 1930s, Anton Reicha’s since the 1830s. Perhaps that time will come if news of my activities comes to the ear of a wise sponsor; in the meantime I’ll struggle on as best I can.

Those two themes – opening classical music to a wider audience and expanding the repertoire – will, I hope, run through future postings on this blog. I’ll try to make them a weekly event, though time will tell whether I can stick to it. And please feel free to respond with a comment, as caustic or encouraging as you think fit.



  1. Thanks for the blog – this looks like an interesting one to follow.

    Performance “etiquette” described in the post is similar to what I have experienced in Western European and UK concerts, but it’s a big world out there and there is so much exciting music happening around the globe in a variety of formats and cultural contexts. Those of us in the Pacific Colonies, even with our strong UK ties and encumbered traditions, have a far more relaxed concert format. Many groups engage and converse with their “jandal and shorts” audiences in a relaxed, informal and friendly manner and it creates a very different feel. There are some ensembles who are still horribly stuffy and a few soloists who are beyond dismal when they attempt to talk to the audience, but these are the exception rather than the rule.

    Far more exciting however are places such as South Korea which has the fastest growing chamber music audience in the world – and they are between the ages of 20 and 35! When you have to queue to get tickets for a string quartet (and I mean QUEUE) and then people are turned away because it’s overflowing – that’s when you can get a real audience buzz. Performing in parts of China can be like being transported to Shakespearean England with a raucous audience talking through the performance and having a fabulous time. Western orchestras and ensembles are offended instead of realising the cultural difference and that the people are there to enjoy the music – and themselves. They would get a much better reception and enjoy the experience more if they engaged in the spirit of the event instead of trying to retain their stuffy demeanor and feeling unappreciated and not “respected”. Again, in other parts of China, the formalities are quite different, and walking out in the right order needs to be respected, let alone retaining your stuffy demeanor.

    My personal favourite to watch at the moment is India. The absolutely enormous upsurge in interest being shown currently in the study of Western instruments is causing a complete redefining of how performances need to be staged. Without the concert halls, churches and town halls where these events traditionally take place, a whole new world opens up as to how, when and where you perform music. Stuffy is not even an option.

    In terms of “what to wear” – best not to comment. Even the grocery store can be a tough decision 🙂

  2. […] Welcome to the first posting on my new blog.  […]

  3. I don’t know that so many audiences still demand their Beethoven, Brahms, etc. of orchestras. But orchestra managements usually think they do. Much of the music you and I know but many people don’t isn’t hard to listen to and offers unique experiences that standard rep does not. The failure I see is in orchestras that don’t actually want to market anything but standard stuff, often to older people. Yes, they may stick something quasi-newish into a concert once in a while, but only if it’s under ten minutes and in a position on the programme where they figure people are least likely to walk out. If it has pretty visuals to go with it, so much the better.

    The lack of artistic leadership or even thinking in many orchestras’ management is appalling.

    • Bravo, Paul. As a libertarian, I naturally blame government, at least in part. When state institutions like the Arts Council here in the UK stepped in to direct the funding for new music through committees of the great and good rather than through the pockets of the paying audience, it set off a chase of stylistic extremes: the bureaucrats had to justify their salaries by commissioning music that would not otherwise have existed; composers, to get the commissions, had to follow suit. (I intend to return to this subject in a later post.) And so audiences learned that if they saw the name of a composer they didn’t know, they should assumed it was a new piece fulfilling the orchestra’s unspoken quota of contemporary music, and so, as rational beings, they learned to fear the unknown, as we all do one way or the other. But an audience that loves Brahms would adore Röntgen, Nielsen enthusiasts (and even Nielsen is still a bold choice in programming terms) would adore Poul Schierbeck; likewise Sibelians for Madetoja, Beethovenians for Fesca or Ries,, Strauss/Schmidt or Enescu, Shostakovich/Ilves, Schumann/Bargiel, Tchaikovsky/Myaskovsky, Mozart/Hummel, Handel/Fasch, etc. — it’s a no-brainer, as you suggest, Paul, and the lack of imagination in orchestral management is making a ghetto of classical music, where the inhabitants are slowly growing older and dying off.

      • There are exceptions, of course, also the tendency that comes and goes of putting most of the new music in concerts by themselves, even making a “festival” out of that. The problem arises that such music may be programmed to be timid artistically, at least to be most likely to succeed with the fewest number of rehearsals. In the country I am unfortunately in, there have been successful such festivals even in unlikely places, but more often continual failures. And no festival can adequately represent what it should be represented.

        The bigger failure is refusing to try to integrate music of the past 100 or so years into orchestral concert life. Despite exceptions, orchestras are in the sense we’re discussing no longer alive, merely in the business of falsifying history, about which they care not at all.

        • I still agree with you! Festivals of new music are simply ghettos of a different flavour. If a new piece of music is any good — whatever style it’s in — let’s hear it alongside some more traditional repertoire. I have the same objection to concerts of film music: if a piece of music is good enough to perform in the first place, perform it in a normal concert. But managements know that film-music concerts fill the house and so perpetuate this particular exclusion zone.

    • A lover of new music, I must disagree with you on this point. Orchestras need to survive. A lot of that survival, particularly in the USA and countries where arts funding does not come mainly from government sources, but from private business – depends on making the numbers work. Whether we like it or not, Beethoven and Brahms sell tickets. Not only that, business who support the orchestras feel comfortable bringing donors to these sorts of performances. Also, in trying to reach new audiences, it is seldom that even devoted orchestral listeners will bring a friend or uninitiated listener to hear “new music”, they choose something that they know will be a winner. The best presentation that I’ve ever heard on the topic of balancing the programming of new music, “bums on seats”, keeping the audience happy and keeping the funders happy, was by Zarin Metha a couple of years ago in Seoul. The New York Phil remains one of the strongest orchestras in the world, with a very loyal audience base and just looking at the breakdown of facts and figures in that case was quite eye opening.

      Then – there is the rest of the world. What is “old” music to the “West” is actually still “New” music to many around the world. Orchestras when touring in Asian countries often want to include new music programming in the rep. It just doesn’t work. It’s like food – you need to experience the basic flavours first, before you can appreciate the combinations and more exotic creations. Much of our Western society today has not heard Beethoven or Mozart in a concert hall, and the same applies to them – it is “new music” to anyone, the first time that they hear it. If we are wanting to develop audiences and make music accessible, we can not only programme for the elite connoisseur.

      Likewise, don’t be too harsh on artistic programmers and managers. Yes, there are some that are absolute nitwits, some who are downright idiotic and others who we should only judge harshly because of frequent body odour issues. However, many are playing a very delicate and dangerous balancing game of financial survival vs artistic sensitivity. Better to programme Beethoven and Brahms than to not exist at all.

      • Although I can’t speak about Korea, you’re actually supporting my point. Orchestra administrations don’t know how to promote new music, and many don’t want to, which means they will remain not knowing how as long as they can sell Beethoven and the boys, which some of them can’t any longer, at least not in the usual way. You assume that only standard repertory will sell tickets. That assumption needs to die, because there’s plenty of evidence that it’s false.

        At this point I leave this discussion — the topic needs a radical rethink from many orchestras that I’m not prepared to outline.

        • I have to concur with Paul on this one, but there are orchestras and orchestras. I believe a crucial point is how the orchestras are founded – if they are very dependant upon “bums on seats”, the programming will inevitably be more safe. If funded through State, the programming can be rather more adventurous – often making a new composer, like the Schnittke Festival in Stockholm I was part of instigating.

          • I think that you have brought us to one of the core issues – what are the measures and functions of an orchestra? Again the answer is multifaceted but one part definitely goes back to the economic support structure. Our country has recently had an orchestral review of our minuscule amount of orchestras (We have only one excellent and consistent orchestra with full time musicians; four average-good but inconsistent orchestras, also considered professional but employing musicians only part time; and five orchestras which can at best be considered amateur and at worst, dire). The orchestral review was done through bureaucratic processes at a top government level by people who assess any number of activities. Their jobs are to do “reviews”. Only very basic understanding of the role of orchestras in our arts and cultural environment was employed in the study – yet, this is now the determining how these orchestras will function going forward, Artistic vision and process have no part in it at all. Statistics and population sectors lead the way. Even with out tiny environment, the situation isn’t nearly as terrible as in Germany who appears to have “lost” 37 orchestras in two decades.

            We have created another monster here too in our support for “New Music” by our orchestras. Particularly the regional orchestras can receive much larger funding grants for presenting music by our own composers. The desire to commission and present local work in order to access better funding, can then lead to the programming of a lot of sub-standard or poorly crafted work. We have some wonderful composers, but we also have some – not… Work is performed, even when it is realised that it is substandard, because otherwise, you haven’t fulfilled the terms of the funding grant. It is a downward spiral in which members of the public can become genuinely scared of what is going to be served up in the name of “new music”. I know that we are not isolated in this situation. It is a problem almost everywhere that funding works on this basis.

            I have no solutions at all, to this, but do believe that the problem is often not at the level of the orchestral programmers, but rather the bureaucrats higher up to whom they are accountable.

          • Having read your 2 posts I still cannot figure out whence you come, so “”our” orchestras” doesn’t tell me much.

            But, in principle, only time will tell what is good, indifferent, or mediocre. Few pieces stand the test of time, but a prerequisite for having a chance is that they are heard, and preferrably recorded, be it by local Radio or commercially. A local concert isn’t enough. For that reason one can only be complimentary to those record labels that give the listeners a choice, namely to be able to hear a work and then decide if that gave any positive result for that particular listener. A prerequisite for those recordings is that the work is rehearsed and performed.
            Had it been up to the Soviet authorities and their artistic judgement, Schnittke would still have been a well-kept secret. Now he is universally established as one of the greats of the 20th C.

            Therefore I heartily subscribe to the funding of the State/community/sponsors to give that music a chance. Some of it is unmitigated crap (says I) and will be readily forgotten. Some of it is anything but, however, without the funding system, would Brett Dean really have had a big chance (which he so richly deserves)? Aho? What Toccata does so well, and his colleagues along with him, is to give people that choice to decide what they feel is good.

            Sometimes it is a tit for tat situation with the orchestras. ‘Yes, we can record that new, unknown piece, but we must also be able to do something that puts us on the map’ (I am not implying that this was the situation with the Arctic SO, but I can say that this is the situation quite often). I see nothing wrong with it. A record deal is a give and take, and in the the best situation everyone feels that they are the winners.

            Robert (von Bahr, CEO, BIS Records)

          • Thank you, Martin!

            Osmo and the Minnesotans had it coming. The SACD is superb!


          • Osmo, as you may know, is also a patron of Toccata Classics, so we take some local pride in your joint achievement as well!

  4. Thanks, Beth, for casting the net rather wider than my nothern-hemispheric outlook had gone. I’d love to see the Wigmore Hall crowd trundle up to a gig in short and sandals — though they’d risk frostbite if they tried it at the moment. And you raise an interesting point. Obviously, I’m all for people brushing aside formality in the presentation of concerts — but I do expect silence when I am concentrating on the music (in fact, even when I’m not concentrating and catching up on my rest…). It takes only one arsehole nearby to whisper to his girlfriend that “I like this bit” to shatter the ivory tower to which people expect to be able to retreat for the duration of the concert. Equally obviously, it takes familiarity to learn the one important rule of concert etiquette — basically, don’t disturb anyone else (and that includes farting, whoever it was the other night — I will not forgive you in a hurry). I went to a production of Falstaff on Gozo in October, presented in conditions that can’t have changed much since Verdi’s day: no air-conditioning, after a day when it had reached 30 degrees, so that the entire ground floor of the theatre looked like a wind-farm, with fans and programmes oscillating vigorously, and everyone bloody talking. It made it very difficult to concentrate on what was happening on stage. Russian audiences are the same, in my limited experience, apparently respectful of what’s happening in front of them except to the extent of keeping their gobs shut.
    So how do we square this particular circle? The only way, it seems to me, is to follow the path I suggested in my opening blog: to throw the gates of the temple wide open, invite everyone in and encourage such direct familiarity with the music that listening becomes an individual, not a collective, experience — as, ultimately, it must be. So if there’s talking in concerts for the foreseeable future, let’s hope it’s just part of the learning curve — but I reserve the right to turn and glower.

    What a wonderful, beautifully written first blog. I don’t think any musicologist in the world knows more about “unknown” composers deserving to be heard, or forgotten, than Martin Anderson. I might be guilty of perpetuating the mold of the 250th recording of the “New World”, but my puprpose was to include the earlier, wonderful symphoneis by Dvorak, which have been neglected by conductors and record labels, and still now considered “lower class” by many. What happens is that someone writes this comment, others read it andperpetuate it. In fact, Dvorak’s early symphonies are magical. The latest one I recorded with the BSO, Symphony No. 2, is certainly a master piece. I did the same with Glazunov for my cycle of the complete symphonies. And earlier on with Ives, Ned Rorem, William Schuman, Peter Mennin, Leonardo Balada, Christopher Rouse,
    Robert Beaser, Tomas Marco, and countless other composers, too many to mention here. Your record label fulfills a crucial need in the music world. Bravo! JOSE SEREBRIER

  6. Since I am blocked from participating on Lebrecht’s “Slipped Disc” (even when my company is singled out)(he doesn’t like people that can stand up to him), here is my answer to Martin:

    While I often can sympathise with my good friend Martin, I
    find that he is on very thin ice here, when he singles out
    BIS’s efforts in the recording field. As he knows himself,
    BIS have, under its 40-year history, released more albums of
    unique repertoire and new discoveries than Toccata will ever
    be able to match. Names like Tubin, Schnittke, Aho, Sallinen, Jón Leifs,
    Fagerlund, Holmboe, Beamish and scores more were discovered by me. But
    we also think that a brand new orchestra should have the right
    to measure itself against others with standard repertoire. Or
    should that be the prerogative of only established bands?

    The whole post smells – to my nose – of a different way to
    self-glorify Toccata’s efforts, which, while totally laudable,
    aren’t as unique as Martin would like to pretend. Labels like
    Marco Polo, Wergo, Ondine and why not BIS were there, doing
    the same thing, long before Martin took the plunge. Which is not in any way, shape or form belittling what Martin does and does so well. However, he should be more careful when he singles out a record from us, as it is not only the repertoire that is important, but also the artists. If, through recording Tchaikovsky, the same orchestra can come into the position of recording other stuff, say, unknown tuba concertos by contemporary composers, why not, then?

    Robert von Bahr, CEO, BIS Records

    • I hope, Robert, now that (I presume) you’ve seen my example in context, you’ll accept that your company wasn’t “singled out”: that Tchaikovsky recording just happened to be one that illustrated my argument — though I concede that I should probably have chosen one from a label with a less honourable history than BIS. But we’re getting off my point, which I hoped to illustrate with the statistics I just posted on Slipped Disc: using the listings on arkivmusic.com, there are the following recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, from 1 to 9: 222, 214, 301, 233, 344, 283, 310, 249 and 342. Now Brahms: 252, 211, 201 and 229. Even Schumann knocks up 113, 119, 118 and 149 recordings of each of his symphonies. I list four symphonic composers at the end of my posting, with a total of 34 symphonies between them, not one of which has appeared on CD.

      • Dear Martin, I take your concession at face value and, yes, I think you should have….,however, that’s water under Paris’s bridges by now.

        In principle, I totally agree with you, and BIS’s output shows exactly that, however, the problem isn’t as easy as all that to solve, since we (and presumably you) are commercial companies, meaning not what we produce, but that we have to live from whatever the income of selling the discs yields. And the negotiations with the orchestras, to which I refer in another post below.
        So, since we believe in the same thing, and are both working towards the same goal, we (or at least you) will have to respect that we have to make records also to make it possible to follow that other goal.
        When we can find incredible artists like the Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki, Ronald Brautigam with forte-piano complete recordings or Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Sudbin in more or less standard piano repertoire, it isn’t even a concession – it is a damned pleasure. And they do make it possible to continue recording Aho, Beamish, Corigliano, Dean, just to start off the alphabet.