Saturday, 18 September 2010

What's a conductor worth?

I love all sorts of music and there are some classical works that are always with me, enriching my inner life. That makes me an elitist, in the sense that only a small percentage of the population cares about classical music at all. In a recent article in the Irish Times, Enda O'Doherty deplored the dumbing down of classical music which he sees as a misguided attempt to appeal to a larger population; when the focus is on the celebrity performer rather than on the music then the fundamental value of the work is lost. I think he's absolutely right, although I must guiltily admit that a morbid interest in the tragedy of Jacqueline du Pré is what first led me to discover Elgar's Cello Concerto, a work which now has worked its way into me so completely that it is almost a part of me.

It's an odd paradox though when an elitist art form such as classical musical is funded through government spending - we all pay for it, like it or not. The Montreal Symphony Orchestra is funded by Lotto-Québec, and I can't imagine there are many regular lotto players who attend its concerts. This doesn't seem just or democratic, yet I'm in favour of it on the basis that I don't see a workable alternative. But spending public funds in this way needs to be done transparently and with constant focus on the goal: ensuring the survival of an art form that might otherwise dissappear or become inaccessible.

So when La Presse reports that the conductor of the MSO, Kent Nagano, is paid more than $1million per year, well at that point I think that the focus on the goal has been lost. Nagano, a Japanese-American, is a celebrity who garners a lot of publicity for the MSO - but clearly not enough for it to break its reliance on public funds. It's not easy, even for this elitist, to understand his value from a musical perspective. Couldn't a local conductor do as good a job, thus promoting musical talent from Québec and saving maybe $900,000 that could be better spent elsewhere?

This strikes me as just more celebrity-fixation, more dumbing down. It should be about the music.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

I love my iPad, except...

I’ve been an iPad user for a month now thanks to my partner-in-life paying attention to those not-so-subtle birthday present hints. It’s my first ever Apple product as I really dislike “lifestyle” products – I want to use technology, not make some kind of statement with it. But as I struggled to find a place for my laptop on the Saturday-morning breakfast table, the iPad seemed a perfect solution. Well almost. Ideally I’d like to have The Irish Times weekend edition in my hands in dead-tree format but I’m in Canada, not Ireland, so the online version it has to be.

And thus far the iPad has worked out really well. The screen is quite beautiful and the browsing experience is slick and responsive. The mechanicals seem tough, the battery lasts for ages and the software has been 100% reliable. But it’s not quite perfect.
  • It’s heavy, noticeably so after 20 minutes in your hands when it starts to feel quite awkward. There's no obvious "right way" to hold it - unlike a laptop, which sits, obviously, on your lap. It needs a stand.
  • It doesn’t cope well with buttery fingers. I never realised how wonderfully matched are newspapers and hot buttered toast, but things get a bit more slippery with a touch screen.
  • The lack of multi-tasking in the OS means you have to open the email application to check for new emails, which is not very slick at all.
  • It has a magnetic attraction for kids: my 2-year-old loves to grab hold of it, demanding to see Hi-5 on YouTube. There's something about the iPad that just says "pick me up"; the laptop doesn't have the same effect even if little Philou loves banging on on the keyboard. So I can’t leave the iPad just lying around...
But all in all I'm well pleased with it. So what does that say about me?

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Who wrote that anyway?

I've long believed that any work of art should be considered by itself, independent of any assessment of the personality of the artist. It's not a popular idea in this era of celebrity: five minutes after publishing a book an author is tearfully recounting an awful childhood experience to Larry King or giving his opinion on all and sundry in a Vanity Fair spread. Or if he does try to remain discretely hidden behind his work some hack will expose him regardless, warts, open sores and all.

I try to avoid all of these exposés, but sometimes you just can't help knowing what you know - you just have to consciously forget it so that it doesn't stop you appreciating the work. So yes, Philip Larkin was a spiteful misogynist, but The Whitsun Weddings is still a wonderful evocation of our hopes setting out on life's journey. And though Ted Hughes seems to have had some serious flaws in his character, Wind still blows me away. "This house has been far out at sea all night..."

But now I've come across an unavoidable challenge to my belief. One of my most beloved books is Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. It's the only book where upon finishing it I immediately started to read it again from the beginning, to savour it and follow all the myriad sidetracks and insights. I know little about Sebald: he was German, lived in England, and died in a car crash a short time after Austerlitz was published. However I've now read one of his earlier works, Rings of Saturn; it is also (seemingly) a delicate blend of fact and fiction, of autobiographical detail and mental exploration, but contains more obvious personal opinion and reflection than his later work. It's the section on Roger Casement that troubles me. In it, Sebald expounds on the romantic view of Ireland's Easter rebellion of 1916, referring to the republican protagonists only as school-teachers and poets in order to explain how the refined humanist Casement became involved. Unlike his ruminations on Croat massacres of Serbs in the Balkans, I have some knowledge of the 20th century history of Ireland and this romantic view is hugely problematic for me. School-teachers and poets were also murderers, and most Irish nationalists in 1916 were waiting for a political solution to be negotiated with Great Britain at the end of the Great War. And the romanticising of 1916 in Ireland led many a mis-guided youth into we now call terrorism, the barbaric acts of violence committed in our 30-year "troubles" beginning in 1969.

Frankly, Sebald is demonstrating considerable ignorance in his simplistic description, but this would not be apparent to many outside Ireland. So have I been similarly misled in his ruminations about other events he described in his works? My third reading of Austerlitz is likely to be quite different from the first two, as I comb through the book for over-simplification and misleading opinion.

Dammit, the book is ruined for me...