Music review: London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Mark Elder does Elgar without a hint of tweediness.

The Kingdom - Elgar
The Barbican, 30 January

If Elgar's great oratorio The Dream of Gerontius doesn't quite begin with a whimper, it's certainly not with a worldly bang either. The orchestral Introduction - radiant and delicately exploratory questioning from the strings - already seems to have bridged the heavenly divide, to have made the journey together with the "alleluia from earth to heaven". Saturated in Newman's Roman Catholicism, Gerontius is the stuff of air, a work from beyond the veil; The Kingdom, by contrast, is all emphatic earth - a work that can gaze and reach upward, but whose feet of clay root it perpetually in the human.

The verdict of history has been with heaven, but a few champions (Sir Adrian Boult loudest of all) have claimed The Kingdom's right to sit alongside Gerontius among England's choral masterworks. As a work of national character it is arguably the greater, trading the Wagnerian influences of Gerontius for a distinctive musical vernacular. Not two bars of the Prelude, with its yearning flourish of strings and brass, pass before we are securely in Albion. Every musical device colours more vividly the landscape - the transient world of "dustceawung" (contemplation of dust) that has shaped Englishness from Anglo-Saxon lyric verse through Lycidas and of course Gray's "Elegy".

The danger of so much national fervour is that it can all too easily feel dated - the death-throes of a moustachioed relic, grasping after faith in an age of atheism. Thanks to Mark Elder and the generous virtuosity of the London Symphony Orchestra however, there wasn't a tweed-clad or jingoistic moment to be found. Big orchestral gestures (matched by big-voiced soloists and the might of the London Symphony Chorus) gave Elgar's expansive work the space and sincerity it needed to escape the snare of kitsch.

Pacing - so essential if the oratorio's meandering narrative through the New Testament is not to pall - was swift, Elder's articulate advocacy manifesting itself in quality of sound rather than any lingering over climax or melody. The part-writing of The Kingdom is astonishing, prefiguring the Symphony No. 1 that Elgar was shortly to produce. Here, in the Barbican's rather close acoustic, it retained its textural clarity while still providing structural blocks of primary colour - colour gilded by the justly-celebrated LSO horn section.

With illness doing its usual winter worst, soprano Susan Gritton was a late stand-in for Cheryl Barker, whose chest-infection had also spread to Stuart Skelton - singing, but with no small struggle. It was an interesting substitution; while Gritton possesses a sheen at the top of the voice that Barker lacks, there is a groundedness and focus to Barker's tone that I did miss, particularly through the more sustained passages and duet of Part II. It was in "The sun goeth down" however that Gritton's vocal shading and spun pianissimo came into their own, matched for fretful loveliness by leader Tomo Keller's solo line.

In recent appearances at English National Opera, Iain Paterson's particular gift for expression has been submerged, and so it was a delight to hear him in the role of Peter, coaxing line and phrase into ever more delicate contortion. "Repent and be baptised", with its first sung iteration of the climactic "in the name of Jesus Christ" theme, would have defeated even the most disenfranchised of Englishmen. Despite Skelton's illness, the pairing of these two voices made a persuasive case for ENO's forthcoming Parsifal in which they will take the roles of Parsifal and Amfortas.

Conceived as a continuation of The Apostles, with the possibility of a third and final work still hovering in its themes, The Kingdom glances both forward and back. Any performance of worth retains this sense of contingency, of an utterance in a silent dialogue. It's grounds for many to discount the work, but in the hands of Elder and Boult it is reconceived, reworked as a symbol of earthly faith - a gesture never freshly begun, nor ever fully completed, but necessarily and potently unfinished.

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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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