Prodigy: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a child. Picture: Rex features
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Extended play: the world's longest Mozart festival debuts at Wigmore Hall

On Mozart 250 and Sarah Connolly in America.

When the Mozart family arrived in London in April 1765, they had been on the road for a long time. Since leaving Salzburg two years earlier, the eight-year-old Wolfgang and his 12-year-old sister, Nannerl, had performed for rulers and courtiers all over the Holy Roman Empire, as well making visits to Paris and Versailles. Their father, Leopold, had embarked on this lengthy and risky journey as way of sharing his children’s exceptional musical abilities with the wider world, with the hope that it would make them influential connections to call upon in the future – in the 18th century, being a composer was a precarious existence.

The year that the young Wolfgang spent in London was a particularly formative musical period for him. As well as playing for George III, he was introduced to the musicians Carl Friedrich Abel and J C Bach (son of Johann Sebastian) and was exposed to the Anglo-German musical culture that had grown up in the city since the Hanoverian accession in 1714. He began to write his first symphonies, as well as vocal pieces such as the sacred motet “God is our Refuge”, which was dedicated to the newly established British Museum.

The debut concert of the Mozart 250 project (Wigmore Hall) sought to capture the musical flavour of this crucial year in the young composer’s life. Listening to Ian Page and his Classical Opera ensemble play Mozart’s Symphony No 1 in E flat major, it is difficult to comprehend that this confident and technically assured composition issued from the mind of an eight-year-old. It is perhaps possible to discern a certain childish flavour in the slow second movement – is that heavy, ascending figure in the bass inspired by Leopold’s tread on the stairs, as he comes to shoo his young son away from the keyboard and back to whatever he was supposed to be doing? The care and delicacy that Page’s players take with this early instrumental music makes it possible to hear new lines in even the most familiar pieces.

The programme featured works by Haydn, Gluck, Sacchini and other composers working in 1765, alongside Mozart’s own compositions from that time. Sarah Fox produced a warm, tender performance of an aria from J C Bach’s highly influential opera Adriano in Siria, but her fellow soprano Anna Devin was less successful with an intricate selection from Gluck’s Telemaco – her brittle tone and overactive vibrato struggled against the composer’s ever-more elaborate ornamentation in the vocal line. The early Mozart concert arias included in the programme provided tantalising glimpses of the potential that would flower years later in works such as The Magic Flute and Così fan tutte.

For Ian Page and Classical Opera, this concert is just the beginning. The Mozart 250 project will track his work and influences for the next 27 years, with the intention of bringing little-known contemporaneous pieces back to our attention in the versions Mozart would have heard. It is a monumental undertaking, and, if this first outing is anything to go by, one that will be well worth following.

Leap forward a couple of centuries or so and you arrive at the very different musical landscape explored by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and the Britten Sinfonia. Their selection of 20th-century American compositions, including Aaron Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson poems and music for the ballet Appalachian Spring, came together into an intriguing programme for the Barbican at the Guildhall School of Music (even if they were performed in rather a strange order).

The highlight was undoubtedly the rarely performed A History of the Thé Dansant by Richard Rodney Bennett (an adopted, if not native, American). The smooth, evocative songs suited the deep tones of Connolly’s voice perfectly, transporting us to a 1920s dance hall with a foxtrot in full swing. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings provided a compelling counterpoint, the Britten Sinfonia expertly emphasising the dissonance and overlapping suspensions that mark it out as a modernist masterpiece.

The encore came as a bit of a surprise – two numbers from the American Songbook. Connolly’s usually astonishing voice sounded flat and restrained in these simple songs, and the Britten Sinfonia’s strings, so warm and rich when playing Copland, became blowsy and exaggerated to meet the demands of overwritten arrangements. It made for a striking and not altogether welcome contrast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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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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