The classical music industry’s dangerous obsession with its past and why it’s killing classical music

Classical music is dying.

No really, it is. 

The classical music industry has stagnated; 70 years of neglecting the music of the present in favour of championing historical music has left us in a coma, just about breathing through a tube but it’s on life support and sooner or later the plug needs to be pulled.

The latest classical news last week: Missy Mazzoli finishes her tenure as composer-in-residence at Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the culmination concert is billed as Muti Conducts Beethoven 4 & 7. Mazzoli’s piece is the opener to the concert, translation – not the main event.

One of today’s foremost classical composers doesn’t get top billing on a concert because a composer who died 200 years ago will sell more tickets.  Seriously, that is a really messed up situation.

“No one in orchestral admin is deliberately trying to destroy contemporary music” tweet from Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager for London Symphony Orchestra.

Whether or not anyone is deliberately trying is irrelevant, the fact is it is happening. It’s been happening at least since my 32 years on Earth and a lot longer.

Contemporary music gets destroyed every time a contemporary piece gets performed only once in favour of 10 performances by Mozart. 

Contemporary music gets destroyed every time someone decides to record yet another album of Beethoven Piano Concertos instead of Magnus Lindberg.

“Headlining an unknown when you’ve got Yuja playing Tchaik on the same bill isn’t so much idealistic as irresponsible.” Tweet from Richard Bratby, Classical music writer and former concerts manager for CBSO.

Missy Mazzoli should not be an unknown at this point, in fact if she were a pop artist of similar stature she would be already a superstar with sold out stadiums, million pound record deals, played everywhere.

And why is programming today’s music be seen as irresponsible?

Classical Archives list The Greats, the 60 ‘great’ composers. Not one of them was born within the past century. What does this say about classical music? 

Why have no composers in the past century been added to the list of greats? Is it because not enough good music has been written since then? 

Hell no. It’s because not enough of the good music has been performed.

We’ve constructed an industry so obsessed with saturating us with music by the dead that music of the living is seen as a risk.

There are 94 performances of Beethoven’s 5th in the next 12 months (according to Bachtrack.)

Caroline Shaw’s Valencia on the other hand, one of the coolest and most popular contemporary pieces, is being performed twice in the next 12 months (again according to concerts listed on Bachtrack.)

That’s nearly 50 times more performances of a piece written in 1808 than a piece written in 2012!

Bachtrack lists 1547 upcoming performances of Beethoven.

Caroline Shaw has 15 upcoming concerts listed on Bachtrack. That’s over 100 times more performances than one of today’s most brilliant composers. 

Even John Adams, arguably the most well known, popular living composer has only 45 concerts listed, compare that to Mozart’s 748.  Mozart died over 200 years ago and is being performed now 6 times more than the most well known living composer.

Then you have recordings. Unsuk Chin has 14 recordings of her music on PrestoClassical. Tchaikovsky has 6,175 recordings listed. 56 of those recordings were in the past 3 months alone! 

“Audiences are very skittish and can be easily put off by the unfamiliar.” Tweet by Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager for London Symhony Orchestra.

The saying goes ‘People like what they know and and they know what they like”. People are so overwhelming overexposed to music by dead composers so that’s what they like. All contemporary music is unfamiliar and unknown because it’s they’re never exposed to it so they don’t like it. It’s a vicious cycle.

If we can’t get people to be interested in music that is being made now then we have a serious problem. We may as well just stop, call it all historical music and have done with it.

And if it is because all the best music was written over a century ago and nothing good enough’s been written since then some serious thought needs to go into why we’ve been continuing to teach composition for the past century? Why have we been training new brilliant composers? Nothing they ever create will compare, it mostly likely won’t be heard more than once or recorded so why bother?

How long can this continue? One does wonder how classical music can continue as a living genre when the living music is perceived as too risky.

The music we champion is getting older and older, further receding into the past whilst the music being written just keeps fading away, being forgotten because it’s not being kept alive. Ironically we’re keeping the dead alive and we’re killing off the living.

This is where we need to look at pop marketing.

Popular music has a much healthier relationship with its past.

The unfamiliar is scary. It’s true, but pop/rock music embraces this whereas classical music just reacts against it.

People are skittish when it comes to anything new. No-one likes change, not in music, not in life. 

Pop music celebrates the new. There is new music coming out all the time and it gets played so much. All the new music coming out is unfamiliar but it gets played all the time, people get used to it and then suddenly we have a huge number of new hit songs. Some classics for the ages, some eventually fade for all but the hardcore fans.

Just look at Uptown Funk. A brand new unfamiliar song then suddenly it was played everywhere, radio stations, playlists, shops, clubs then everyone new it and it was top of the charts. Now it’s a classic 21st century song.

The pop/rock music industry constantly turns the terrifying risk into popular art. 

Pop and rock music also constantly add to their canons of greatness. You can seen the line of amazing female singers from The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Adele. In 30 years time people will be just as likely to remember Amy Winehouse as they do Diana Ross.

And in rock you have The Rolling Stones, ELO, Queen, Bon Jovi, Oasis, Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Muse, Kings of Leon. 

The music of the past is still played. It’s become comfort food, nice to have something warm and familiar to fall back on sometimes.

The classical music industry spends its life on the edge of the swimming pool of contemporary music, dipping its toes in every now and again then squealing and running back to the comfort of the past. 

But we can’t stop listening to Beethoven!

The next argument for playing new music is that we can’t stop listening to Beethoven or Mozart or any of these dead composers.

I will bet anything that no-one has ever said that about ABBA, Queen or Aretha Franklin and no one ever will. 

They’ve survived the enormous popularity of Whitney Houston, Oasis, Beyonce, Coldplay and the hundreds of other platinum selling artists that have succeeded them. No matter how many albums these more recent acts have sold. There have been so many famous, popular, amazing singers since Aretha Franklin but people still continue to listen to Aretha, as well as enjoying all the more recent artists.

No one will ever stop listening to Beethoven or Brahms. They’re still fantastic composers. We’ll just listen to them as well as Thomas Ades and Anna Meredith.

Luckly we have even more resources at our disposal. We have the 8th wonder of the world that is the internet. Youtube, Spotify, iTunes, embedding, streaming and more mean it is easier to access music and listen to it, engage in new ways before spending money and time on concerts.

Today’s generation of teenagers and 20 somethings are all computer fluent. Embracing these technologies and resourcess is going to be a key way of engaging the current generation of young musicians, composers and listeners. They are who will keep classical music alive.

Can you imagine what would happen if people performed Anna Thorvalsdottir as much as Beethoven?

The fact is this is not a quick fix. An entire lifetime of marginalising living music in favour of dead composers it’s not going to change overnight. 

The only way out of this is through. The only way to make people comfortable with new music is to perform it regularly, record it a lot and play it on the radio regularly with the same obsession that we currently programme dead music.

What if music by the dead composers is like the one good cover version every band has in their repertoire? Mixed in with the band’s new and original music. The cover’s not why you bought the ticket to the gig but a delightful surprise when they play it, fun to hear, sing along and enjoy as well as their new stuff.

We just have to dive in to the pool, instead of dipping our toes in we need to dive headfirst. The water may be initially a bit cold but oh so lovely when we get acclimatised to it. 

There is amazing music being composed all the time, amazing music written for the past 70 years. Let’s start celebrating it before it is too late.

Elizabeth de Brito

Producer, The Daffodil Perspective. 1st ever gender balanced classical radio show.

Afterword

The Daffodil Perspective at the moment usually plays 3 contemporary composers on each show. That’s 3/12 composers.

From now on there will be 4 contemporary composers on each show. 2 male and 2 female to maintain gender parity. A third of composers will be living and as close as possible to 1/3 airtime as well.

Why not more? The show is actually of historical interest as it champions female composers, all of whom have been marginalised for centuries. The aim of the show is to rewrite classical music history. If gender parity already existed with composers like Louise Farrenc and Emilie Mayer just as well known and performed as Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn then I’d be playing a lot more contemporary music.

 

Gatekeeping in the classical music industry

Post any article championing women or calling for diversity in classical music on one of the various classical music groups on Facebook and you’ll likely get a slew of sexist comments and narrow minded conversations.

One common sexist argument is that no-one is actively avoiding programming music by women.

The classical recording retailer Presto’s Recording of the Week is a brilliant example of an active, conscious decision to do exactly that.

Guess what Presto Classical’s recording of the week is?

Yet another recording of Beethoven complete symphonies!

Seriously, how can this pass for the most exciting recording this week?

James Longstaffe at Presto who chose the recording said:

“With a plethora of recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies currently available, any new performance that wishes to stand out from the crowd must have something pretty special to bring to the table.”

At this point the only way to make a recording of Beethoven symphonies in any way  pretty special is to have the flutes play the violin part, bassoon play the cello part, euphonium play the double bass part and vice versa.

Or screw it, why not just get the BBC Singers, divide them all up and get them to hum each part. At this point that is the only way you can get a recording of Beethoven’s complete symphonies worthy of being Recording of the Week.

Really James? You couldn’t find anything in the past decade, hell, even the past century that’s worth shouting about?

The Presto team also do a New Release Round up every week.  This week they have: Mahler’s 4th, Wagner, Schumann, Schutz and Cavalli. Basically nothing composed in the past 70 years and everything composed is by a well known, well recorded white male composer.

In picking the Recording of the Week James Falstaffe would have looked through the exciting new releases featuring women, the cool contemporary music and deliberately ignored them all to feature the most well known classical music on the planet.

And they do this every single week. Every week there is a deliberate choice between exciting and perpetual, new and old, diverse or patriarchal, change versus stagnation, heard or unheard.

The recordings that caught my eye on Presto this week were:

  1. Piano Miniatures by Female Composers – Viviane Goergen. A brilliant cross section of piano music from the past 150 years. Everything from Mel Bonis and Marie Jaell in the 19th century, Germaine Tailleferre and Vitezslava Kapralova in the early 20th century to living composer Alicia Terzian. All immensely talented composers and stunning performance from Viviane Goergen.
  2. Kaleidoskop: Works for Contrabassoon – Hans Agreda. Contrabassoon is one of these instruments lost in the sea of violin repertoire. It has a gorgeous sound and is not performed enough. So exciting to see a great musician showcasing works for this underrated instrument.

There have been over 60 recordings of exclusively women composers released on Presto so far this year (pales in comparison to the number recorded by men but still), there’s been at least one new recording every week, sometimes many more (see week of 8th March). Many of these releases were world premiere recordings and all are absolutely brilliant.  The only one Presto took any noice of was debut release by latest hotshot pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, she released a CD of Clara Schumann’s piano music.

There’s all this talk of classical music dying, orchestras getting shut down but what can we expect when the mainstream industry is entirely based on obsessively championing overplayed, over-recorded music from nearly 200 years ago?

There are legions of brilliant women composers from the past two centuries and more musicians than ever are championing these great women composers, creating many wonderful albums that are redefining our entire knowledge of classical music history.  All these recordings are being completely ignored by the classical music establishment. You can check out all the amazing recordings made this year alone here.

Then there are hundreds of really amazing contemporary composers creating new music all the time and some people are willing to put it out there. NMC Recordings have been putting out great recordings of British contemporary music for 30 years, plus record labels Navona Records and Divine Art are putting out high quality recordings of amazing contemporary music all the time.

But what is going to happen to all these recordings if they aren’t talked about?

What’s the incentive for new composers to keep creating when all the music industry wants to talk about is the same few composers from the 18th century?

Composer Stephen Hough wrote a recent article in the Evening Standard talking about the Proms saying:

“The composers whose works we play were often radicals and outsiders”

Note the past tense. It’s so common for people to think of classical music as past, all the music got created long ago and it doesn’t exist anymore.

Mozart and Beethoven together make up just over one third of all classical performances (statistics from Bachtrack here). Add the next 4 most played composers – Bach, Brahms Schubert, Tchaikovsky and they make up 78% of classical performances. Over 400 years and hundreds of amazing composers but nearly 80% of all performances are of just 6 white male composers that all died over a century ago?!

Is the past tense any wonder if that’s the only music being performed?

There’s a current call for more audience diversity, and talk of dwindling ticket sales, people saying they should do things to attract new audiences but what’s the message you are sending them? Come and hear the same 6 dead male composers at every concert. There are almost no women composers, no black composers, hardly any living composers. It’s an entirely monochromatic experience of a stagnant art form.

That’s what is currently being shouted at through current programming.

If you want to attract new audiences, new people from all walks of life you will have to change the message.

Classical music is not just written by a handful of dead, white male composers. It never has been but that is the message that people are being sent.

So how do we change this?

Do we either need to get through the current gatekeepers or do we need to create new gates?

 

Elizabeth de Brito

Producer of the The Daffodil Perspective.

The Daffodil Perspective is pleased to be completely gender equal. On the show this year I’ve played 16 of these new releases of women composers as well as playing contemporary music every week. Also in 8 months of doing the show I’ve played Beethoven once, Mozart twice.  Every week I make the choice to find as much exciting, varied, previously unheard music out there. Head to the Listen page to see the full tracklist. Classical music is alive and kicking on my show with a vibrant, diverse range of awesome music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Monthly Residency!

Excited to announce that The Daffodil Perspective is collaborating with Divine Art Recordings to bring you another monthly residency.

Every month on the album of the week section I’ll be featuring one of Divine Art Recordings fantastic albums of women composers.

It’ll be mostly contemporary music with a few historical composers as well. Including Nicola LeFanu, Galina Ustvolskaya, Helen Hobersham, Sadie Harrison and many more!

Fun starts 4th August!

https://divineartrecords.com

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The Daffodil Perspective 7th July 2019

Tracklist

Airtime Composer Work Performer Album Label Buy
0 Ulysses Kay Overture to Theater Set Chicago Sinfonietta, Paul Freeman African Heritage Symphonic Series Vol 2 Cedille Presto
5.35 Elfrida Andree Organ Symphony No.2 4th Mvt Massingsensemble, Ralph Gustafsson, Ragnar Bohlin Elfrida Andree Organ Works Swedish Society Presto
10.57 Norman Symphony No. 1 3rd Mvt National Symphony Orchestra of South Africa, Mika Eichenholz Ludvig Norman: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 Sterling Presto
18.1 Elfrida Andree Symphony No. 2 3rd Mvt Stockholm Symphony Orchestra, Gustaf Sjökvist Elfrida Andrée: Fritiof Suite & Symphony in A minor Sterling Presto
24.16 Stenhammar String Quartet No. 3 2nd Mvt Gotland Quartet Stenhammar: String Quartets Caprice Presto
29.5 Alfven Swedish Rhapsody No. 1 Midsommervaka Orchestra Symphonique de Montreal, Charles Dutoit Rhapsodies Decca Presto
42.37 Elfrida Andree Fritiof’s Suite: Prelude Stockholm Symphony Orchestra, Gustaf Sjökvist Elfrida Andrée: Fritiof Suite & Symphony in A minor Sterling Presto
53.03 Jennifer Bernard Merkowitz The Best of Both Worlds Suzanne Newcombe, Steven Wedell N/A N/A N/A
1.05.22 Chen Yi Spring Festival Rutgers Wind Ensemble, Rutgers Symphonic Band, William Berz Distinguished Music for the Developing Band, Vol. 10 Mark Records Presto
1.08.30 Toshio Mashima Naval Bleu Showa Wind Symphony, Eugene Migliaro Corporon Dancing Winds Cafua Records Presto
1.13.07 Catharina von Rennes Vocal Quartets Op. 24 No. 5 Dufy String Quartet, Frans van Ruth, Christa Pfeiler, Irene Maessen Six Dutch Female Composers NM Presto
1.15.39 Elisabeth Kuyper 6 Lieder, Op. 17 No. 5 Dufy String Quartet, Frans van Ruth, Christa Pfeiler, Irene Maessen Six Dutch Female Composers NM Presto
1.18.52 Erika Fox Malinconia Militaire 4th Mvt (Poem) Goldfield Ensemble, Richard Uttley, Richard Baker Paths NMC Recordings Presto
1.22.49 Lamothe La Dangereuse William Chapman Nyaho Asa: Piano Music by Composers of African Descent Volume 2 MSR Classics Presto

The Daffodil Perspective 26th May 2019

 

Tracklist

Airtime Composer Work Performer Album Label Buy
0 Marcello. A Oboe Concerto in D Minor 1st Mvt Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra Festin Baroque Analekta Presto
5.16 Lucija Garuta Prelude II in E Major Reinis Zarins Lucija Garuta: Music for Piano SKANI Presto
8.55 Vitols Fantasy on Latvian Folk Tunes Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Dmitri Yablonsky Vitols: Orchestral Works Marco Polo Presto
16.32 Lucija Garuta Lord, Thy Land is Burning, Our Father State Choir Latvia and Maris Sirmais Our Father, Lord Thy Land is Burning – Single Estonian Record Productions iTunes
21.38 Ivanovs 5th Symphony 3rd Mvt Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Dmitri Yablonsky Ivanovs: Symphonies 5 & 12 Marco Polo Presto
28.44 Kalējs Prayer Iveta Apkalna Light & Dark Berlin Classics Presto
36.48 Lucija Garuta Piano Concerto 2nd Movement In Memoriam Atvars Lakstīgala, Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, Reinis Zariņš Lucija Garuta: Music for Piano SKANI Presto
46.58 Chihchun Chi-sun Lee Quartet for Mallets McCormick Percussion Group Vanguards 1 Ravello Records Presto
56.48 Florence Price 2nd Violin Concerto Er-Gene Kahng, Janacek Philharmonic, Ryan Cockerham Florence Price: Violin Concertos Albany Presto
1.11.38 Samuel Coleridge Taylor Pilgrim’s Song David Shaffer Gottschalk COLERIDGE-TAYLOR, S.: 24 Negro Melodies (Shaffer-Gottschalk) Albany Presto
1.15.22 Camilla de Rossi La Vita De Mare Ondoso from Sant Alessio Agnieszka Kowalezyk (soprano) Daniela Dolci (harpsichord & direction) Musica Fiorita Rossi, C: Sant‘ Alessio Pan Classics Presto
1.19.45 Mathilde Von Kralik Komm Mit Mir/Come With Me Donald George, Lucy Muaro Komm mit mir! (Come with me!) Romantic Songs of Mathilde von Kralik (1857-1944) Delos Presto
1.22.43 Caroline Shaw Valencia Attacca Quartet Orange Nonesuch/NewAmsterdam Presto
1.29.01 Gershwin Prelude No. 3 in E Flat Major Jean-Hisanori Sugitani (piano), Julien Herve (clarinet) Waiting for Benny Naxos Presto

The Daffodil Perspective 12th May 2019

 

Tracklist

Airtime Composer Work Performer Album Label Buy
0 Sullivan Yeomen of the Guard Pro Arts Orchestra, Malcolm Sargent Gilbert and Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard Warner Classics Presto
7.42 Amy Beach Gaelic Symphony 1st Mvt Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Schmerhorn Amy Beach: American Classics Naxos Presto
19.09 Chadwick Symphonic Sketches 3rd Mvt Hobgoblin Czech State Philharmonic, Jose Serebrier Chadwick: Aphrodite etc Reference Recordings Presto
25.3 Macdowell Woodland Sketches 1 and 3 Dario Mueller Edward Macdowell: Piano Works Dynamic Presto
30.24 Amy Beach Tyrolean Valse Fantasie Kirsten Johnson Amy Beach Piano Music Vol 4 Guild Presto
40.17 Foote Piano Trio in C Minor 2 nd Mvt Arden Trio Arthur Foote: Piano Trios Nos 1 and 2 Naxos Presto
46.2 Amy Beach Piano Trio in A Minor 2nd Mvt Monte Piano Trio Triptych Genuin Presto
53.15 Michiru Oshima Memories Hilary Hahn In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores DG Presto
57.15 Copland Fanfare for the Common Man Minnesota Orchestra, Eiji Oue Copland 100 Reference Recordings Presto
1.00.58 Joan Tower Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin RCA Red Seal Century Soloists and Conductors RCA Presto
1.04.26 Jeanine Rueff Diptyque Ana Oltean, Simon Bucher Ladies First! ARS Produktion Presto
1.13.27 Caroline Charriere Petite Suite 1. Contrastes Ana Oltean, Simon Bucher Ladies First! ARS Produktion Presto
1.17.55 Shanna Metallidi Flute Concertino Ana Oltean, Simon Bucher Ladies First! ARS Produktion Presto
1.29.16 Kabalevsky Galop from the Comedians BBC Philharmonic, Vassily Sinaisky Kabalevsky Piano Concertos Volume 1 Chandos Presto

The Daffodil Perspective 16th April 2019

 

Tracklist

Airtime Composer Work Performer Album Label Link to Buy
0 Bernstein Magnificent Seven Theme All Souls Orchestra Prom Praise – How Great Thou Art Integrity Music Amazon
6.28 Emilie Mayer String Quartet 2nd Movt Klenke Quartet Emilie Mayer: Symphony No 4 Chandos Presto
10.13 Loewe Alpenfantasie Linda Nicholson (piano) Carl Loewe: Piano Music Volume 1 Toccata Classics Presto
19.36 Emilie Mayer Piano Concerto 3rd Movt Neubrandenburg Philharmonie, Sebastian Tewinkel, Ewa Kupiec (piano) Emilie Mayer: Symphony No 4 Chandos Presto
29.07 Wagner Lohengrin Prelude to Act 3 Philadelphia Orchestra, Christian Thielemann Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, etc. DG Presto
32.38 Liszt Piano Concerto No 1 1st Mvt Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Kurt Masur, Michel Béroff (piano) 100 Best Liszt Warner Classics Presto
38.23 Emilie Mayer Symphony 5(&) in F Minor Kammersymphonie Berlin, Jurgen Bruns Mayer: Symphony No. 5 / Hensel: Hero und Leander / Le Beau: Piano Concerto Op. 37 Dreyer Gaido Amazon
50.21 Sarah Wallin Huff Courage Triptych 1: A Garden Prayer Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra,
Petr Vronský
Vit Mužik (violin), Lucie Kaucka (piano), Jakub Lâtal (violin), Jaroslav Kužela (soprano saxophone)
Soul of the Machine: Sarah Wallin Huff PARMA Recordings Presto
55.34 Rosanna Scalfi Marcello Cantata 3: Aria – Clori No Sempre Nel Core Darryl Taylor (counter-tenor), Ann Marie Morgan (baroque cello), Deborah Fox (theorbo), Jory Vinikour (harpsichord) Scalfi Marcello: Complete Solo Cantatas Naxos Presto
1.00.02 Scarlatti Con Qual Cor Mi Chiedi Pace Max Emanuel Cenčić (counter-tenor), Yasunori Imamura (theorbo), Aline Zylberajch (fortepiano), Maya Amrein (cello) D Scarlatti: Cantatas Capriccio Presto
1.05.03 Jeanne Leleu Suite Symphonique Pour Instruments A Vent Et Piano Orchestre d’Harmonie du Conservatoire de Maastricht Anthologie des musiques originales pour orchestre à vent au XXème siècle – Femmes Compositeurs, Vol. 5 (Anthology of wind band music 20th Century Women Composers Vol. 5) Cristal Records Amazon
1.08.04 Florence Collin Les Catacombes De Pompei Orchestre d’Harmonie du Conservatoire de Maastricht Anthologie des musiques originales pour orchestre à vent au XXème siècle – Femmes Compositeurs, Vol. 5 (Anthology of wind band music 20th Century Women Composers Vol. 5) Cristal Records Amazon
1.15.53 Ida Gotkovsky Concerto Pour Grand Orchestra Et Saxophone 3rd Mvt Orchestre d’Harmonie du Conservatoire de Maastricht Anthologie des musiques originales pour orchestre à vent au XXème siècle – Femmes Compositeurs, Vol. 5 (Anthology of wind band music 20th Century Women Composers Vol. 5) Cristal Records Amazon
1.27.07 Mayerl Marigold Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gary Carpenter Billy Mayerl: Aquarium Suite and other works Marco Polo Presto