Room to breathe

The Middle Temple Hall could become London's venue of choice for lieder.

Mark Padmore, Julius Drake & Richard Watkins
Middle Temple Hall, 7.30pm Thursday 19 November, 2010

Generously equipped with large-scale concert halls, London is strikingly lacking when it comes to spaces for lieder. The Wigmore Hall (while acoustically blessed) is too deep for real intimacy, Cadogan Hall too sprawling and the Purcell Room too rarely used for this repertoire. Predating them all and putting their purpose-built structures to shame, the Middle Temple Hall is a revelation. With pianist-in-residence Julius Drake joined by tenor Mark Padmore in this gem of a space, the latest concert in the Temple Song series had all the elements for a superb evening of music. All that is, except the joy.

With a world premiere of Roxanna Panufnik's miniature song-cycle The Generation of Love framed by lieder from Schubert and Beethoven, the programme had a clear sense of architecture. Add in Beethoven's cycle An die ferne Geliebte and his Sonata for horn and piano however and it became dangerously overloaded, straining both the audience's attention and Padmore's upper register.

Suffering from the start, it was evident that Padmore was ailing. His trademark floated top notes were gripped and increasingly flat as the evening progressed, despite evident effort on his part. Musicianship and diction were as sensitive as ever, but with vocal issues so audible it was hard to see past technique and into the narratives he and Drake were crafting.

Claimed as the first real song-cycle, An die ferne Geliebte broods on love and separation, aspiring perpetually toward a relationship that remains unfulfilled. Padmore can squeeze and spin a line from nothing (as evidenced later in the Panufnik), and Beethoven's long, outreaching phrases flowed freely. The inward character of "Wo die Berge so blau" and "Nimm sie hin denn diese Lieder" was well-judged, their understatement tempered with a tender simplicity in contrast to the rather rough excesses of the earlier "Neue Liebe, neues Leben".

Hindered by the piano's bright tone, Drake rivalled rather than supported Padmore in this repertoire, pushing the straining singer to risky dynamic levels and clouding the fragile precision of mezza voce passages. Balance issues dissolved however in the Schubert, where the supportive pianistic textures drew some of Drake's most delicate playing. Star among these latter songs was the extraordinary epic-in-miniature "Des Fischers Liebesgluck". With its rigid strophic form, the song's challenge is sustaining a sense of direction and progression through its meditative repetitions. While defeated by the exposed octave leaps in the latter part of the verse, Padmore's narrative commitment and sense of pacing were unerring, guiding us through the fisherman's tale with the intelligence of his interpretation.

At the centre of the evening's music was The Generation of Love, a new cyle of just three songs from British composer Roxana Panufnik. Setting Shakespeare sonnets for piano, tenor and horn, the work traces the progress of a relationship from infatuation to ironic familiarity and ultimately parting. Characterised by bitonal harmonies and edgy sonorities for both voice and horn (played gamely by Richard Watkins), the songs seemed an exercise in musical unbeauty, assaulting the ear with disjunct lines and quivering semitone clashes. Balance issues inherent to the writing saw the horn become unduly dominant, crushing both Padmore and Drake underfoot in the outer songs.

Most successful was Panufnik's take on "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun", styled as a wayward, Brittenesque cabaret song, complete with laconic commentary from the horn as musical compere. Elsewhere text and music seemed barely on speaking terms, with little to distinguish the early romance from the lovers' parting save some rather crassly comedic horn textures in the latter. For a composer capable of the minutely calibrated vocal blends of the Westminster Mass it was uncharacteristically blunt writing, blotting the poetry it should have been illuminating.

Although far from the recital its performers might have delivered, this misfire of concert from Padmore, Drake and Watkins did suggest the intimate potential of this unusual performing space, a potential hopefully to be fulfilled in the coming year. With Sarah Connolly, James Gilchrist and Jacques Imbrailo all joining Julius Drake for Temple Song recitals in 2011, the Middle Temple Hall has the goods - if only it will use them - to become London's venue of choice for lieder.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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