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Norman Lebrecht in Interview with Marc Bridle

At the launch party for Norman Lebrecht's new book on Covent Garden  (see review) guests were routinely being told by the staff of the Royal Opera House that no such launch had been booked and was certainly not in their diary. Only later was it discovered that there had been a booking and guests were finally admitted to the Conservatory. One such guest was Michael Kaiser, the outgoing chief executive of the ROH, who left shortly after Lebrecht began his speech, perhaps feeling uncomfortable at the truths being laid out before him. It is hard not to feel that perhaps Covent Garden was intent on some revenge for its humiliation at the hands of Norman Lebrecht, a writer who strikes accord and discord among readers and with equal passion. In recent days, on an American newsgroup devoted to classical music, Lebrecht's name has cropped up persistently as the one critic readers are most willing to describe as a charlatan (with many failing to note that Lebrecht is not actually a music critic). There is no doubt that the man courts more controversy than perhaps any other modern day writer on classical music.

Why this should be the case is, I suspect, largely unknown to many. Lebrecht's most well known books are all about music - whether it be on conductors, the record companies, or, now, the one arts institution in Britain that has become a symbol for failure and financial incompetence, as well as an iconographic symbol of state neglect, the Royal Opera House. However, Lebrecht was at pains to point out to me that he fell into music journalism almost by accident after having previously been a war correspondent and a writer of books on sociology and psychology. Not ideal qualifications perhaps, but no less tangible than the many conductors who have followed previous professions before standing on the podium (one thinks, perhaps, of the equally maligned Giuseppe Sinopoli who had trained as a doctor, a by no means unique route for a conductor). If Lebrecht's books sway more towards the investigative than the overtly critical, if they are more aggressively assertive or provocative than they are placatory, the reasons are now more understandable for Lebrecht's perspective has always been from within the larger picture. At a time when music criticism is itself in a state of crisis, with many reviewers happy to endorse performances or recordings rather than upset opera companies or record labels by being a little more subjective in their criticism, it is surely a welcome approach. Lebrecht has always given us slightly more than half the truth and most of us secretly enjoy reading about the gossipy world he describes.

Our meeting spans almost two hours but starts with Lebrecht's new book. In my review I had criticised the book's generic subtitle, which suggested it might be more broadly focused than it eventually turns out to be. "I was born in 1948, at a time when people's perceptions of post-war life were different. We had the National Health Service and a state subsidised opera house. It was a time that seemed to promise much. Ultimately, however, the book was limited by both time and length - and I had already cut it by ten percent". There were elements mentioned in the book that he would have liked to have discussed in greater depth, notably the artistic period during the 1960s under Kubelik and much more on ballet, a passion that probably means more to Lebrecht than opera itself. A key revelation that Lebrecht makes, and one he is almost certain to investigate in greater detail at a future date, is the Prime Ministerial pension given to Margot Fonteyn. Lebrecht stumbled across this almost by accident, but its repercussions cannot be exaggerated in a country that often takes the integrity of its politicians for granted. It is almost certain that there are more revelations to come about this astonishing act of largesse and the charges of cronyism with which it will invariably be compared.

Reviews of the book have mentioned some less than objective handling of some of the more recent principle characters in Covent Garden's history. In Lebrecht's own paper, The Daily Telegraph, the reviewer thought that Lebrecht had been kinder to both Mary Allen and Lord Chadlington than he had to Genista McIntosh. I asked him whether, in retrospect, he may have described some people more generously and others more harshly. His answer was emphatic. "No. I think in retrospect that I got the balance perfectly right. Genista McIntosh was very open with me and I did see the unpublished letter which she wrote before her resignation which quite clearly defined the reason for her departure. Mary Allen did give me almost unlimited access to the archives but that did not affect my final judgements". Gerald Kaufman, who comes out of the book as a man determined to destroy Covent Garden, and who was literally within minutes of bankrupting the company, is someone Lebrecht openly dislikes, at least when discussing the thorny issues of the inquiry into Covent Garden's finances. "I have absolutely no hesitation whatsoever in saying that what he did was an abuse of parliamentary privilege". It is as damning a verdict as Lebrecht's powerful indictment of Kaufman's reasons for his intense dislike of the Royal Opera House, reasons that bordered so heavily on the personal that Kaufman's sense of perspective was all but absent from the committee meetings which Lebrecht attended. It is also one of the reasons Lebrecht quotes Kaufman's Spectator article about Covent Garden so fully. Lebrecht's outspokenness is not just confined to these principal characters - his views on the Chief Music Critic of the Sunday Times, Hugh Canning, and of Michael Kennedy, of the Sunday Telegraph, are also imbued with a sense of balanced, though critical, judgment.

Not surprisingly, Lebrecht sees the state as having a moral obligation to fund the arts, although he is more than willing to qualify this by saying that it is becoming increasingly unlikely this will ever be a valid argument for modern, even liberal, governments. Part of his conclusion about the future funding of Covent Garden is that it will only ever become the opera house people want it to be if it is entirely privately funded, as it was before 1945. The issue of funding, and how far governments should (and do) go is something that he no longer sees as a purely British disease, but one that has now taken on global proportions. He quotes the current financial crisis in Berlin which, more than in London even, is burdened by unsustainable state funding running into many more millions of pounds than we in Britain could ever hope to match. With its seven orchestras and three opera houses it is facing impending disaster. Lebrecht stops short of accusing the leaders of these country's governments of philistinism but is nevertheless philosophical about the future. "Although Thatcher and Reagan could hardly be termed friends of the arts, they at least enjoyed going to the opera. Heath and Schmidt were both musical leaders. With Blair, Clinton, Scrhoder and Putin it is simply a case of these people detesting what the arts stands for. There is virtually no hope of the arts prospering under these leaders". Phlegmatically, Lebrecht believes that state funding for the arts is now so far off agenda for most governments that they are almost compelling orchestras and opera houses to seek private sponsorship. There is every prospect, Lebrecht concludes, that the situation will continue to worsen before it, improbably, gets better.

The major record companies have always been criticised by Lebrecht - whether it is in his book, When the Music Stops, or in his weekly column in The Daily Telegraph. With further consolidation likely, Lebrecht is firmly of the opinion that the major players, with the possible exception of Deutsche Grammophon, have already sacrificed artistic development in favour of aggressive marketing and achieving profitability. When I mention cross-market discs, and the appeal the record companies hope these will have, Lebrecht counters that in fact these discs do not sell at all well and make losses which have to be absorbed somewhere. "It really is true to say that record companies are no longer interested in the artistic side of things". The pessimism is evident in Lebrecht's voice as he speaks on the subject.

Where Lebrecht sees hope is in the Internet and the development of music within those channels. He does see the Internet as a viable, even crucial medium, for music criticism but is firmly convinced that it will never fully supplant the mainstream media. "One of the major difficulties with music sites, and with music criticism on the Internet in general, is that it is very uneven. There are good writers, but there are also a large number of bad writers". Whilst agreeing that much of what passes for criticism in the mainstream print media is often of an uneven quality, and can occasionally be sterile, he believes it will last, and may even be invigoured by the challenge of Internet journalism.

The development of the Internet, according to Lebrecht, proffers other virtues. One is the revelatory nature of what it can offer. With downloads of music now easily available through MPEG, orchestras, notably those in the USA, have used the medium as a way of channelling new and unfamiliar music to an ever wider audience by broadcasting simultaneous live concerts. Apart from the universality of the broadcast Lebrecht believes it offers people the chance to experiment with music as never before. "People are able to become much more engaged in what is happening and are less frightened by the prospect of hearing a concert over the Internet than many would be by actually attending a concert. They will be able to familiarise themselves with what is being broadcast and see if that is the type of thing they are going to like".

"The Internet, however, is not the only way of doing it. ENO did a fantastic thing with the Mark Turnage opera, The Silver Tassie, where they distributed compact discs to every ticket holder before the first concert. When you received your tickets by post you also got a copy of the opera on disc. You could listen to the opera before you went to the performance. One sensed that the audience was far more supportive, and responsive, than you would normally expect for a first time opera". The obverse happened, of course, at a South Bank event celebrating Pierre Boulez' 75th birthday where 12 world premiere piano works, played by Rolf Hind, were recorded and then distributed to ticket holders after the concert. Lebrecht sees this as one of the most significant developments, and threats, to conventional music distribution and recording. "It is another reason why the record companies are becoming redundant. Now you will be able to go to a concert and have a souvenir of the event. You won't necessarily listen to it as a recorded studio masterpiece, but if you want to listen to it as a particular memory from a certain time in your life then you have it on your shelf - dated, catalogued etc".

His books, particularly those he has published for Simon & Schuster, are controversial and have attracted enormous followings on both sides of the Atlantic. Both The Maestro Myth and When the Music Stops have been continually updated to take account of new developments, but it is probably the Companion to C20th Music of which Lebrecht is most proud. "This is controversial. I attempt to break with biographical convention and take sides. Partly this is to show up the pretence and hypocrisy of mainstream biographical dictionaries which pretend to be objective but aren't at all. One makes human decisions, and one does it individuality and collectively. The other books have been updated as and when the book is translated into a new language. The current edition of The Maestro Myth has been updated for the new Hebrew translation. They are now year 2000 updated. The Maestro Myth was, is, the first history of conducting in any language for twenty five years so it is important to keep it updated."

One of the inspirations for The Maestro Myth was Lebrecht's friend, the composer and conductor Berthold Goldschmidt. "He had the most infallible memory of anyone I have ever met. Time and time again I would test him and I was never able to fault him. But he not only had the most factual and musical memory, he also had an incredible dramatic memory. He could imitate almost anyone and since he had been, maybe not at the dawn of conducting, but a student of conducting in 1919, and had unprecedented access to the Berlin Philharmonic the insights were always real. He could, for example, imitate not only Nikisch's style of conducting but even the way he walked. He was incredibly valuable for many details. He was really a living presence through many episodes of that book".

Lebrecht's views on conductors are as focused as ever. In a profession which perhaps accepts idolatry more willingly than any other, and which seems incapable of the objectivity most other professions take for granted, Lebrecht's opinions have an unshakeable truth about them. One of the conductors whom Lebrecht seemed, in the first edition of The Maestro Myth, to be less critical of than many contemporary London music critics was Giuseppe Sinopoli. "There was great irony in the phrase 'Great conductor' as applied to Sinopoli. I said that he was being developed as a great conductor, and I was less antagonistic towards him than many were, although he has never moved me. He has not developed into a great conductor in the slightest. He is what he always was - quirky, controversial. He does things that are so outrageous they are interesting. He will do Mahler 2 without there being any sense of resurrection - it is a neutral, laboratory performance but I'm not going to hold it my memory as a performance to cherish. It's instructive in certain ways - he is quite good at illuminating texture. The basis of his career, however, was a ludicrous contract, an act of madness, with Deutsche Grammophon who signed him for 85 recordings but who have now bought him out of his contract with three dozen or so actually made".

On Celibidache Lebrecht is as interesting, and revealing, as I had expected. "Firstly, he was the most phenomenally gifted musician. He could shape a piece any way he liked, and did. I have never seen any one in rehearsal stretch the texture of a piece so you could see through the holes. I remember him doing it in London with Ravel's Daphnis and Chlöe with the London Symphony Orchestra. He was abusing the players all the time and telling them they couldn't play. But he wanted to do it in a particular way and you saw the work in a new light and you saw it with light shining through it. It was a wonderful experience. He demanded and obtained impossible conditions and there was always the risk that the orchestra would be bored by the time they came to play the actual concert. I heard a performance of Bruckner's Fourth that had been given fifteen rehearsals. It was obvious it was not going to be the liveliest of performances. But of his musicianship, his ability and his showmanship there can be no doubt. His intellect was prodigious - he spoke fifteen languages, or it may have been thirty. Who knows? I have recently been speaking to Ida Haendel who knew him as well as anyone and whose admiration for him, despite some pretty unpleasant things he did to her, remains undiminished. He was a truly, truly great musician. He was certainly a character and conductor one can't ignore in terms of the development of conducting in the second half of the twentieth century".

Of today's conductors his frankness is often alarming. "We now have a generation of dinosaurs - conductors in their sixties and upwards who carry on as if the world hasn't changed - the Maazel's, the Mehta's, the Muti's. They play the role of the grand maestro when the grand maestro doesn't really exist anymore. One day they're going to look down and it's going to be a very long drop. You then have the next generation - the Rattle's, the Chailly's where very interesting things are happening, although things have not quite been as acutely realised as they might have been. Rattle has matured into a very fine artist, but I sometimes feel his interpretations lack, not penetration, but personality and that disturbs me. I want to feel that a conductor has stamped his own authority and own identity on a piece but I don't feel that with Rattle. I sometimes think his performances are too reticent but I hope it will come with time. He is in a process of development. And he is certainly in for the long haul. Esa Pekka Salonen is almost invariably interesting. I have never heard a performance by him that has not intrigued me and some have moved me. The two who really rank with the foremost conductors of any generation, conductors whom one would swim the Atlantic to hear, are Mariss Jansons and Valery Gergiev.

"Janson's always gives to the limit. It is as if every performance is going to be the last and he will go that far. Gergiev is not always the full shilling - his Rotterdam performance at the Proms seemed unusually casual, but Jansons always is the complete conductor. These two are truly great conductors. What I do find fascinating is that the next generation have taken the lessons on board, no strutting around like the grand maestro's I have already mentioned. These are the under forties - Parvo Järvi, Svenska, Oramo. Chailly has a technique that outstrips anyone else's. If you had to have brain surgery you would pick Chailly for the technique, but I'm not quite so sure the penetration matches the technique. But I have heard some superb performances - a searing Mahler 10 with the LSO in 1996, wonderful".

Although we are now in a new Millennium, the position of women in music remains as outdated and antiquated as ever. Whilst the last ten years or so have seen significant changes in orchestral personnel (with the exception of the Vienna Philharmonic), in that more women than ever are occupying more positions within major orchestras, the same argument cannot be equated to women as conductors. It is something Lebrecht finds difficult to understand, although he is not optimistic about any future developments. "We won't have a woman conductor of a major symphony orchestra. They're still beating up on them and it is wicked. Look what happened to Sian Edwards. Admittedly, there has not yet been a women conductor with both the gifts and the grit to make it. Edwards had the gifts, and her teacher Ilya Musin reckoned her to be among his best pupils, but she didn't have the grit to fight through. I think the odds are very much stacked against them. Composers? They're coming through. Again it's difficult, but they are fighting in a predominantly male world. I recently heard the Tenth String Quartet of Elena Fursova - I was absolutely balled over by it. She's now fifty but has really matured and has become a composer who has both a real voice and something quite special to say".

And the future? Lebrecht has no immediate plans to write a further book - having locked himself away, both physically and mentally for so long, he has only just formally reintroduced himself to his children. "I was very glad to have had the opportunity to have written about ballet and how the arts function in society in the Covent Garden book. I will probably focus more on this for the next book, but haven't yet committed myself to any subject".

The Radio 3 programme is perhaps the most important new development in Lebrecht's career to date and something which he considers to be of considerable significance for both music and broadcasting. "It achieved something before it was even broadcast, in fact the moment it was announced. This was to change the character of Radio 3. Radio 3 is no longer aloof, it is now audience responsive. Listeners are aware of it, and the station is aware of it. It has taken broadcasting into a new dimension - using the Internet in a way that hadn't been done before. It is rewarding for them and energising for me and at the moment the relationship is a very good one. Because of the way that I have structured it, it has to have absolute fluidity. Nothing is written in stone and nothing is scripted. I will not have a piece of paper in the studio. It has changed the perception of Radio 3 and the way that things are done. They say to me that we need to know what the next programme is about so it can be listed in Radio Times, and I say that I'm not bothered about what appears in the Radio Times. There really is no point, besides the Website details what is going to be on but even that can change at the very last moment depending on what is happening etc. I want to be responsive to the issues of the minute, we want to have that sense of excitement and danger, that sense of unpredictability that is so unlike Radio 3. It's given Radio 3 an opportunity to be at the vanguard of the Internet revolution - and to reach an audience outside this country and to get a response from a world wide audience, as the emails from Europe and the US testify".

"What else do I want to achieve? I want to try and quantify the voice of the art's listener, to engage them in debate. Too much of what goes on comes from high up, but the audience has a voice - we see it all over the Internet with people tackling issues that are people's passions rather than their main professional interests. I want these things to come out on the Internet and radio and I want to see people engaging in conversation with the movers and manipulators".

It should probably not be forgotten that writers of Lebrecht's vision are few and far between. The subject matter of the books may initially court controversy, but it is the underlying motivation behind the books which ultimately matters. In exposing the blatant masculinity of the conducting profession what Lebrecht really achieves is the exposure of its elitism and self-harming prejudice. When Lebrecht takes on the record companies, with interests more akin to financial prosperity than the love of music itself, we become more aware than ever of how manipulative, and restrictive, the market has become. When Lebrecht criticises the moguls who dominate the way we hear live music through getting their own conductors on the podiums of the great orchestras with record contracts in tow, the ultimate aim is to make us criticise and refocus our own perceptions of music-making in the concert hall.

As Lebrecht says, "I want to see people take more risks, with people relying less on established, and supposedly safe commodities. I would like to see American orchestras appointing young new conductors rather than clapped out Europeans, more women, and more people from the ethnic minorities. There should be more instinct, and less concentration on the balance sheet. Go along with the chemistry rather than the financial viability of something. The risk should mean getting away from conductors who have a modest reputation and trying someone new. I want to see the arts achieve a greater rootedness in society, to dig deeper than before but not by education, education, education. (For Non UK readers, this is a subtle, but revealing, snipe at the Blairite, Third Way mantra which Labour used to win the general election in 1997). I want people to be aware that the arts come from the people and are for the people. It is one of the best democratic inventions of all. I want to feel, as I did at Covent Garden during the Kirov season, that I have to be there, that I have to go out for the fear that I am missing something. One of the most important things is to get rid of this obsession with pre-planning things. Operas and concerts are often booked up to four years ahead. Often by the time you get to hear them they are just boring, which is one reason I very rarely attend things nowadays unless it is something I really want to hear. There has to be more immediacy in our artistic life. That is something I would really like to break".

The most striking thing about the Norman Lebrecht revealed in this interview is the passion he has for the arts and how this has been the crucial raison d'être for his books. By revealing the warts-and-all story of the music industry the challenge is how to improve it for the benefit of us all. Lebrecht is certain, for example, that his new book will be read by government ministers but is not certain how it will even begin to change things. It is, however, something that cannot be taken for granted and something that we cannot rely on the state continually offering subvention for. The message given is not one unique to any individual country, but one of universal proportions which affects people globally. Although I would hesitate to call Lebrecht a revolutionary, the prognosis he suggests is not short of being a revolution itself. The challenge is whether we have the courage to do something about it.

Marc Bridle

Norman Lebrecht was in conversation with Marc Bridle September 2000 © Marc Bridle

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