Archive for January, 2014

Anniversary Edition

It’s impressive that the Umbrella (available at has reached 20 years of publication, and great credit is due to all the editors and contributors through the years – but from my viewpoint particularly to co-founder and present Editor Mike Royster, long-term Editor Chris Hieatt, and producer Marcia Fialho. I think it’s great that the English-speaking Community in Rio de Janeiro has this interesting news and comment from amateur contributors, with its wide range of subject matter. So responding to the Editor’s prompting, here is an Anniversary look back at the Good Listening column.


Why and wherefore

I started writing about music motivated by the intense pleasure I get from listening to it –when I find that some music is a wonderful expressions of human creativity and skill, is it possible to share this appreciation? Of course, the answer is that people may not know about this music and even if they do, may not like it. But liking or not is also linked to a background knowledge of what is going on. So I wrote down some objectives – Explain something about the skills of performers and what they do; Draw attention to qualities, to set the music into context and deepen appreciation; Pick out notable performances; Help broaden musical tastes. All this with regard to my personal tastes in music, which is pretty pretentious. But since this covers a wide range of music, and is similar to that of much of the Umbrella’s readership, I thought I would try.

The first Good Listening essay, written in February 2004 – exactly 10 years ago! – was about Claudio Dauelsberg playing some of Bach’s Concertos for piano and orchestra: absolutely wonderful stuff, played by a little-known Brazilian with a Russian orchestra. What?- this deserved passing on! And so, aided by the acceptance of Umbrella Editor Chris Hieatt, I got into writing regularly. The second GL was about the Beatles (could I resist?) and the third about a stunning performance of Mendelssohn’s violin Concerto by Itzak Perlman. After that, it was no problem picking topics to write about from classical music, Brazilian popular music, jazz and occasionally pop.

I’ve had some great times preparing these columns. For a start, it is simply amazing what you can find when you go burrowing after a topic on the Internet. Wikipedia and the artist’s site are starting points, but then you can follow other references, listen to music (particularly on YouTube), find magazine articles. Several GLs were written after reading books about the composer and artist – and there is nothing like listening really closely to the music itself.

But for much of Brazilian popular music, that doesn’t really work because there is not a lot of literature available – you have to go and find out for yourself. So one evening years ago, after a friend’s introduction, I was sitting down with one of the old sambistas of Portela, who soon called his wife to bring a new bottle of whisky and glasses, and we settled into a long session of stories and remembrances!

This kept going pretty well until April 2011, when a combination of having to move house and a lack of enthusiasm from the then Umbrella Editor stopped production of Good Listening – although the results of an Umbrella reader survey in 2012 gave some encouragement.

But luckily when Editor Mike Royster assumed in September 2012, he again requested contributions, but more directed to the theme of a particular month. Like this one!


The Good Listening site

Thinking to make these essays more widely available, I found that it is really quite easy to set up a site on the Internet using WordPress: once you have chosen the format, you copy stuff in from Word, or photos, or music clips. So on the site you can find all the articles I have written since Feb 2004, usually embellished by having links so that you can listen to the music being discussed, or watch video clips. Ah, the wonders of our modern world…

Since a site is available to everybody, it is interesting to find out if anyone is actually going there – for which there is a remarkable free service called Google statistics! I discover that there are still some 5-10 hits a day even though the site is rarely updated, and that the readers are from the US, UK and Brazil mainly. Absolutely negligible by Internet standards, but nevertheless an encouragement to an amateur author!

Over the two years to end 2013, the article which attracted most attention was about Galina Vishnevskaya, the Russian lyric soprano, which was published in Sept 07. For some reason, in December 2012 this suddenly got thousands of hits over 3 or 4 days – from Russian readers!

Second most popular is the Sept08 article about Red Bird Dancing on Ivory – the poetry and jazz made from Christopher Logue reading a free translation of Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems, with jazz backing by the Tony Kinsey Quartet. The sound track included on the site is a real rarity, because it was a pirate recording done by my brother from BBC radio in 1958, and the full recording was never issued commercially. Several people posted comments on the site saying “thanks for making available a long-lost love” – and really the combination of poetry and jazz is a great work of art.

Third up is the GL about Dave Brubeck (Dec12), written after his death, while the long-standing favourite is the one about Luciano Pavarotti, from March 2008.

Among my personal favourites are the reports on Oliver Sack’s writings on the interactions between music and the brain (Feb08 and Dec08) and the analysis of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (April07).


The paths of music?

They say that the music Industry, threatened by widespread piracy through the Internet, was saved by the iPod and the ability to download music at modical cost. This helps to keep revenue flowing to recording companies and the artists themselves. In this market, classical music has shrunk to less than 2% apparently, which seems so little for the huge variety of music and all the different instruments and talented artists in this genre. Will everything else be solo singers, electric guitars, hypnotic rhythms and the pyrotechnical displays of the world of pop? The absolute dumbness of some lyrics?

But knowing that there are stills loads of riches to be explored in the world of classics, jazz, and the Brazilian popular music scene in Rio, I am hoping that there will still be a call for the Good Listening-type comments in the Umbrella.


So meanwhile, check out the GL site and…. Good Listening!

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