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On Thursday each week my column appears in the Euro Weekly News. My opinion is just that, an opinion. Feel free to put your oar in but in a constructive way if you please. Thanks so much. - Michael

Something Funny Happened at the Theatre
26 October 2011

Great music wouldn’t be quite as great without the colourful characters that over the centuries created great music for us to listen to. Colourful they were and what I find as interesting or enchanting as their music are their life stories and their quips. I have my own favourites and I thought I would share them with you.
‘Ah music! What a beautiful art! But what a wretched profession!’
Aaron Copland was browsing in a bookshop when he saw a customer holding a copy of his book: What to Listen for in Music and also a Shakespeare play. ‘Shall I sign it for you,’ he asked. ‘Which one’, she replied.
Philip Hale was no admirer of Johannes Brahms. He wrote to the New York Herald: ‘someone should request manager Ellis to have a special door built in Symphony Hall with a sign over it in red letters: ‘Emergency Exit in Case of Brahms.’
Composer Daniel Auber (1782 – 1871) refused to attend his own operas and hated listening to new composers. When the work of an aspiring composer was placed before him, he remarked: ‘This boy will go far, when he has less experience.’
If you thought that scathing: A young man sat before Rossini and enthusiastically played through his first composition. As he finished it, the gifted Italian composer raised his hand: ‘That will do, I prefer the second piece.’
A young composer approached Johannes Brahms and asked if he might play for the maestro a funeral march he had composed in honour of Beethoven. Permission granted the young man played his composition. When finished he asked the great man’s opinion: ‘I tell you, said Brahms with disarming candour. ‘I’d be much happier if you were dead and Beethoven had written the march.’
Listening to great music can have a remarkable effect on the listener; especially when experienced in the concert hall. When Hector Berlioz first heard Beethoven’s 7th Symphony he left the theatre. He said afterwards; he was in such a daze he couldn’t find his head to put his hat on.
Not everyone likes Richard Wagner’s musical dramas but those who do can be counted as ecstatic enthusiasts. After a promenade concert which concluded with the third act of his Gotterdammerung, the young audience cheered for half an hour after its end. Then, the performers went to their homes and the theatre’s lights were switched off. The audience carried on cheering in the dark.
The definition of a true musician: when he hears a lady singing in the bathroom, he puts his ear to the keyhole.

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What a Way to Conduct Themselves
09 October 2011

It is difficult to imagine how orchestral music and opera earned a reputation for being elitist and stuffy. Those who made quality music their calling added much to our lives but their behaviour was often less than inspirational. At least they have a sense of humour and their wit is often aimed at colleagues. The percussion sections of an orchestra are often referred to as the kitchen department and by the more profane known as the bang gang.
Musicians can be scathing of their colleagues: One was asked what he would have been had he not chosen music as a career. ‘A drummer’ he replied.  Culture can change perceptions too.  Before any concert the players tune their instruments.  It is difficult to imagine a more jarring sound; it is audio-anarchy.  An Asian statesman was asked which part of the program he liked best. ‘The beginning,’ he replied: ‘Just before the man with the stick came in.’
Music doesn’t necessarily bring people together.  Sir Thomas Beecham was one of England’s great conductors.  On finishing his Australian tour he was asked by a reporter when he would be returning.  He replied:  ‘Does anyone ever return to Australia?’
A quote attributed to Beecham was made to an unfortunate cellist during a rehearsal: ‘Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands and all you can do is scratch it.’
Great divas are under no illusions as to their value.  When the great soprano, Maria Callas named her fee for appearing at the Metropolitan Theatre in New York, she was curtly told that even the President of the United States doesn’t get that much. Callas replied: ‘Then let him sing for you.’ Born in the U.S. of Greek parents, living in Italy and fluent in the French and English languages the gorgeous opera singer was asked what language she thought in.  She replied, ‘I count in English.’
Johannes Brahms was a petulant wit. A young composer asked if he might play a funeral march in memory of Beethoven. When he had finished the master turned to him: ‘I would be much happier if you were dead and Beethoven had written the march.’
After finishing her set piece Anton Rubenstein was asked by a pupil what she should do now: ‘Get married,’ he replied. Pity the hapless violinist who asked George Bernard Shaw what he should play next: ‘Dominoes,’ was the playwright’s retort. 
Mark Hambourg, the noted pianist, was not amused to see a man reading his newspaper during a piano recital. Aware of the maestro’s penetrating glare the man looked up from his newspaper and said: ‘Do go on playing; you do not disturb me in the least.’
Those who think Eastenders and other soaps are going too far with their storylines may be interested to know what George Bizet wrote:  ‘As a musician I tell you that if they were to suppress adultery, fanaticism, crime, evil, the supernatural, there would no longer be the means of writing one (opera) note.’

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Classical or Quality Music: Is There a Difference
02 October 2011

There’s no such thing as a classical music expert simply because the subject is far too big. Wonderful people like BBC journalist John Suchet, have devoted much of their lives to studying and writing about just one composer.  In his case, Ludwig van Beethoven.  I doubt he would say he knows all there is to know about this one master.  Now think on; there are thousands of composers who, over several hundred years, have composed tens of thousands of pieces of music.  The Strauss family between them; dad and three sons’, composed about 3,000 dances; waltzes, polkas, operas. Who could possibly be arrogant enough to claim expert status?
There is also a commonly held belief that classical music is for the pretentious, an affected and conceited elite. Do try to remember that this is a false image; concerts are an opportunity to dress and behave elegantly but it is all part of the charm. How often I have smiled to see a youngster in jeans chatting amicably with a dinner-suited aficionado, or sat next to a lady in a cocktail dress.  Think of such social engagement as a plus, not a minus. It is all part of the overall appeal.  If you’re new to it, say so. People in the world of quality music love to engage with newbies for they too get bored with know it alls.
When enjoying concerts at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, many in the posh bar were there to be seen; they were not there to see the concert.  Have you noticed that the really grand boxes at great opera houses are the worst place to be in if the occupants actally wished to see the show? This was a puzzle to me until I visited Riga’s Opera House, where it was explained. ‘The titled set had these boxes designed so they could be seen.’ Okay, I have got it now.
What is classical music? The purists’ notion is that the term classical stretches between 1750 and 1820.  Might it not be better then to drop the term ‘classical music’ and opt instead for the term, ‘quality music?’ 
In my view the term quality music identifies any music that has stood the test of time. It was Elton John, a pop musician who I think summed it up best: ‘I regard all pop music as irrelevant in the sense that people in 200 years won’t be listening to what is being written and played today. I think they will be listening to Beethoven.
My son’s reply made me question Elton’s view. ‘In 200 years time much of today’s more memorable film scores will be being played.’   I think he has a point.  You see what I mean? Let’s not go down that road; quality music is so omnipotent that no one person will ever be able to scratch its surface.  Let us think of another take on it. What is the difference between good and bad music? Answer: If you like it then it is good music; if you don’t, then it is bad music.
Leaving music aside spare more than a thought or a handclap for the musicians; not just the composers but the members of the orchestra; there can be as many as 96 of them. That is what I call teamwork. Think too of the individual artistes’; the singers, individual musicians, dancers of goodness knows how many dance forms from tango to ballet, cultural, waltz, polka.
All artistes are individuals who work very hard to share their gifts. They too have personalities; friends, family, likes and dislikes. If you are genuinely interested in quality music then do more than clap a performance. Get to know them; they are not a race apart. Enrich your musical experience further by getting to know the artistes better. Adopt a harpist or a percussionist; help to fund their training; watch them practice; take an interest; buy them gifts; remember their birthdays. You will fill your lives not just with good music but with friendship and love.
In my experiences performing artistes are the most wonderful personalities. I can think of no other professional community as personable, empathetic, and endearingly loveable.  

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