26 March 2017

Gardening With Telemann

This year we will be marking the 250th anniversary of the death of one of the most prolific and astonishingly productive composers of all time.  He was born in Magdeburg on 14th March 1681, died in Hamburg on 25th June 1767, and was almost certainly the most famous and widely respected composer in North Germany at the time.  On top of that he was perhaps the most innovative and adventurous composer until John Cage came along and pipped him to the top position in originality and experimentation.  The trouble is, for all his astonishing creativity, his high regard amongst his peers and contemporaries, and his shocking originality, too many today regard his music as being under the shadow of another, whose output was significantly smaller, whose scope was negligible in comparison, and whose music was so conservative and backward looking that we regard him as the end of an era, rather than the originator of a new one.

The anniversary is that of Georg Philipp Telemann who, since the Bach revival of the 19th century, has been put on to the back burner – a minimally interesting figure somewhere in the periphery of Johann Sebastian Bach’s perceived all-consuming greatness.

The trouble with the Classical Canon – where certain 19th century German music philosophers decided to create a list of the “Great” composers – is that it elevates some at the expense of others, and often elevates them far above their true worth.  Of Bach’s 1200 or so works, how many does the music-loving public really know and use as the basis for their belief that he was “great”?  Yes, the St Matthew Passion, the B Minor Mass and the six “Brandenburg” Concertos are unquestionable pillars in Western art, but can anybody say the same of the plethora of organ chorale preludes which by far and away exceed in numerical terms everything else in Bach’s output?  I would suggest, for example, that BWV731 and BWV679 count among the most dreary and uninventive of all organ pieces; and if you claim to be a Bach fanatic yet don’t know them, perhaps that is indicative of their lack of quality.  Even BWV565 is a pretty dreadful piece of writing which most composition teachers would dismiss as feeble; even though it is becoming increasingly accepted that this is not a Bach original. Yet the elevation of Bach to the Classical Canon signed the death warrant for Telemann’s place in posterity, consigning him to the dustbin of “second-raters”; composer’s whose music cannot bear comparison with that of the God like geniuses of the Canon.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but only slightly.  Ask most music lovers and students about Telemann and they will as likely as not think “boring”, “dull”, “unimaginative” or, at best, “worthy”.  And the trouble is, that attitude of second-rate has informed an awful lot of Telemann performances by those who see him as an interesting figure on the periphery of Bach’s life rather than a major figure in his own right.


The tide, though, might be changing.  And if it is going to change, then 2017 would seem an ideal time for it to happen.  Already this year I have been stunned by a number of recordings which scratch the surface of Telemann’s huge originality.  Perhaps the best example comes in a disc described as comprising Telemann’s works for “Chalumeaux and Salterio”, but which includes a revelatory Sonatine für Hackbrett.  This is not quite a genuine Telemann work – it’s a re-working of the Violin work listed as TWV41:A2 – but it is based on Telemann’s own professed fascination with the hammered dulcimer, or cimbalom, which Wolfgang Brunner informs us in his fascinating booklet notes, was an instrument Telemann encountered during his time in the court orchestra at Eisenach and with which he seemed totally captivated.  Sadly, while this disc offers a fascinating insight into an area of Telemann not previously exploited on disc, the recording is not all it might be, and I would be hard put to recommend this to those for whom music matters more than the novelty of instrumental colours.

Not so an absolutely tremendous disc of Telemann’s music for recorder and chalumeaux from Il Giardino Armonico.  Telemann, was, according to Brunner, “a passionate gardener”, so it seems strongly apt that a group calling itself “the Harmonic Gardeners” should offer such compelling insights into his music.  I reviewed the disc for MusicWeb International, from whom the CD can be obtained.  Sadly, however, you cannot get the vinyl which the record label (Alpha) launched with much fanfare and submitted for review, jumping on to the current revival of interest in vinyl.  Despite the fact that the record was only released earlier this year, when, on my recommendation, my good friend Peter Almond sent off for a vinyl copy (he’s a mad-keen vinyl person), he was told that it was no longer available.  One wonders what a record company thinks it’s doing withdrawing a potential best-seller weeks after releasing it.  Unless, of course, it was all just one big publicity stunt?  I wrote to Alpha Classics to ask what was their reason for withdrawing the vinyl product.  Inevitably, they could not be bothered to reply; why worry about illegal downloads and cut-price streaming when the record companies themselves seem determined to kill their business?
Nevertheless don’t let that put you off buying the CD – it’s absolutely fabulous.  Here’s my MWI review:

 

There are likely to be quite a few discs appearing this year marking the 250th anniversary of the death of Georg Philipp Telemann, but I doubt whether any will be better than this and precious few will even begin to equal it in sheer enjoyment value. In a word, this is outstanding. It will more than likely to turn a few heads in the direction of Telemann; still one of the most under-rated composers of the High German Baroque.

Il Giardino Armonico have been around for over 30 years and in that time have amassed a remarkable discography, as consistent in its quality as in the freshness and vitality they bring to the music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Their recordings have been issued on Teldec and Decca, and they have recently moved to Alpha, who are also releasing their recordings on vinyl. Working only from the CD version, I can say the recording itself is pretty special, the sound vibrant and full of detail; Stephen Greenbank reviewing the 2-LP release found the sound there every bit as enticing as I do with this single CD. It even has that “wow” factor; when the recorder breaks into the Menuet of the Suite, its electrifying scales fair take the breath away!

Founder member and Director of Il Giardino Armonico for most of the past 30 years has been Giovanni Antonini, and he takes centre stage here with his astonishing ability not just to direct perceptive and vitally incisive performances, but to multi-instrumentalise. He even gets his brief moment alone with his flute, in a haunting solo Prélude from Hotteterre. But this is a brief taster put in at the very start of the CD as it were to lay a false trail; Telemann’s music is far more vivid, vital and vivacious and a world away from the solemn sobriety of Hotteterre. With the stately tread of the Ouverture from the Suite in A minor we are led into what must be Telemann’s most frequently performed work. Familiarity most certainly does not breed contempt here, for I defy anyone not to be absolutely enchanted by the freshness and tantalising elegance Il Giardino Armonico bring the performance. The real icing on the cake, however, is Antonini himself who is not only a superb virtuoso player and an immensely capable musician, but someone who brings huge amounts of colour, variety and sheer élan to his playing. Articulation is crisp and richly varied, while his ornamentation confidently negotiates that fine line between tasteful and flamboyant.

The C major Concerto is another frequently heard Telemann classic, and here again we have a matchless performance in which the bright, clear and open sound of C major provides Antonini with the opportunity to exhibit the beautifully bright and pure top register of his recorder, not least in the bubbling Minuet. Impeccable in their accompanying role, Il Giardino Armonico bring out a wealth of intricate textural detail to add great depth to Antonini’s graceful presence, even if around 2:30 of the Andante movement he seems to cram in rather too many ornaments for comfort in this evenly-paced account.

 The more intimate G minor “Concerto di Camera” is very much a showpiece for the flute, and with the accompaniment of just a pair of violins and continuo, Antonini has the opportunity to indulge in a few more interpretative flights of fancy, all of which exhibit a firm grasp of style mixed with a wonderful fluency of invention, alleviating the somewhat routine sequences of the opening movement.

The real oddity on the disc is the Sonata for two chalumeaux in which Antonini, playing the tenor, is joined by Tindaro Capuano on the alto. The sound is strangely rustic - it’s almost as if we had stumbled across a Tyrolean street band, but one with impeccable technical and musical credentials – and there is something indescribably endearing about these two mid-pitched instruments bubbling away merrily enveloped within the string ensemble. They sound like two love-birds in a bush, and with the recording completely expunging any action noise or other mechanical distractions, we have a sound equally buoyant and arresting. You would have to be a particularly hard-hearted soul to resist the captivating charms of this fabulous CD.

06 March 2017

The Problem with New Music


Why do musicians feel the need to apologise about presenting modern music?  In Singapore, where there is clearly an appetite for the music of our time and where mostly young audiences should not be hung up on the prejudices and pallid tastes of the past, it has become embarrassingly common for those putting on such concerts to envelop them within an almost fawning aura of apology and excuse.

Last night, for example, I attended a concert as part of the Esplanade’s excellent Spectrum series.  This is a series of concerts featuring music written within the last 100 years which, at the moment, is exploring minimalism – a musical genre which, perhaps more than any other of recent times, deliberately sets out to be accessible.  Last night’s concert was no exception, and even went further by including some not-really-minimalist pieces by iconic Singaporean composers.  The concert had an almost capacity audience. 

Yet the conductor devoted half of the time to flabbily apologising for the fact that the concert was made up of modern music, earnestly invoking the audience to open their ears to new ideas, not to feel intimidated or put off by “new” music, and to put aside their prejudices about all modern music being ugly and tuneless.  He even tried to show how much fun it could be by getting the audience to be involved in experiments as an appetiser to music by Arvo Pärt (82 this year) and John Tavener (who died over three years ago) – hardly men whose music can now be considered to be at the cutting edge of outrageous innovation.

Why?  Did he seriously believe that the audience had stumbled into the hall by mistake?  That they had bought their tickets believing that they were in for an evening of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven? 

I am sure he did not, but it has become endemic amongst those who perform and present the music of our time to pre-suppose that audiences are unwilling to accept it.  And on what grounds do they base that assumption?  On the evidence of audiences in the West who, having been subjected to the musical experiments and the Cult of the Unlistenable promoted by a group of composers who, in the 1950s and 1960s, set out deliberately to challenge and alienate in the wake of the Second World War, used to look on anything labelled as “modern” with the deepest of suspicion.  Even today, western audiences (which are demographically considerably older than Asian ones) have an ingrained suspicion of the music of the mid-20th century, even if they have no such hang-ups on the music of the early 21st. 

So why does a Singaporean audience (or a Malaysian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai or Indonesian one, for that matter) feel the need to ape their western counterparts?  The answer is, they do not, but those who put on concerts do; perhaps because of some poor experience during their studies overseas (which is a good reason why overseas study is not necessarily an entirely beneficial thing) or perhaps because they have heard second or third hand about audience reactions in London, New York and Paris to concerts of modern music put on in the 1970s.

Far from feeling alienated by the music created in our time and born of the society in which we live, we should appreciate it as far more accessible than that of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, whose lives and the societies in which they lived are so alien to our own existence that we cannot begin to comprehend what they were trying to convey in their music.  In fact, so horribly ignorant are many modern-day musicians of musical history, that their complete failure to comprehend the music of the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries results in performances which reveal a complete disregard for its original context and purpose.  Music students in south east Asia have learnt what meagre crumbs of historical knowledge they possess from equally ignorant teachers who, because the ABRSM and other examination boards do not include history in their syllabuses, feel that it is irrelevant.

Sadly it is not, and we live in an age where unthinking interpretations of old music are seen as preferable to considered and intelligent performances of modern music, simply because nobody understands what music is all about.  It does not help that modern music is so often put into a ghetto; performed in isolation of the repertory which forms its very foundations, and usually delivered in an unconventional way in a misguided attempt to detach it from familiar musical expectations.

We need to turn our way of presenting modern music around.  It is the music of earlier generations which needs to be prefaced by an apology and explanation – for all its familiarity, very few are really competent to interpret it properly.  As for the music of our time, it speaks so directly and immediately to audiences, that to try and explain it is, at best patronising and at worst, seriously alienating.

02 March 2017

Hong Kong's Revolving Ring



From the very opening moments it is clear that this is going to be a particularly fine Walküre.  The Hong Kong Philharmonic may have had a chequered past on disc (as well as in the flesh, it has to be said) but it has landed firmly on its feet with their current Wagner project and, under their musical director, Jaap van Zweden, they easily pass muster as one of the more instinctive Wagner orchestras of our time.  This is not just very good playing, it is outstanding.  It has a wonderful breadth of sound – superbly recorded in these live sessions taken from concert performances in the somewhat difficult acoustic environment of Hong Kong’s iconic wedge-shaped Cultural Centre – and Zweden masterfully manipulates the balance so that we have a gloriously rich and robust sound across the entire orchestral spectrum.  Brass is smooth and polished, never uncomfortably dominant, strings have a tremendously incisive cutting edge, especially in their lower registers, while the woodwind and percussion give it all a sense of great richness. 

Jaap van Zweden’s decision to perform Wagner’s complete Ring cycle in Hong Kong – the first time it has ever been done there and the first time ever by a Chinese orchestra – left many marvelling at his faith in an orchestra not in any way versed in the intricacies of such music, let alone in involving themselves in serious opera.  The four parts are being presented in instalments over a four-year period as concert performances.  Das Rheingold opened the proceedings in 2015, with Siegfried being done there this month and Götterdämmerung early in 2018.  Each of the four parts of the cycle is being recorded by Naxos who, let us not forget, is also based in Hong Kong. 

If Das Rheingold was good, Die Walküre is exceptional.  Much of that is down to the orchestral playing which never flags for a moment and produces a truly spectacular conclusion to Act 1 and a wonderfully exhilarating “Ride of the Valkyries” in Act 3.  Zweden’s sense of dramatic timing and overall pacing drives it all along with a growing feeling of inevitability.  His climaxes are reserved but skilfully managed, and the moments of real musical drama (as with the Wotan’s rage as he pursues the errant Brünnhilde in Act 3) are vividly conveyed.  As for the cast, Zweden has collected a particularly good team around him which may not all be at the very top of their game, but none of whom could be identified as a weak spot.

No reservations about Stuart Skelton as a gloriously robust, virile and assertive Siegmund, nor Heidi Melton’s delicious Sieglinde.  Matthias Goerne’s Wotan is uneven, often richly expressive and suitably commanding, especially in his Act 2 command to Brünnhilde to ensure Siegmund’s victory over Hunding, but occasionally he lacks the authority to be convincing, notably in his confrontation with Fricka, who, imperiously sung by Michelle DeYoung, is very much in vocal command here.  I am uncomfortable with Petra Lang’s almost screeching swoops as she sets out to do Wotan’s bidding in Act 2.  It sometimes seem that her recent switch from mezzo to soprano has left some of the control wanting as she moves from one part of the voice to another.  However, as with Falk Struckmann’s Hunding, the characters are vividly portrayed even if the voices have inconsistencies.  Particular praise must go to the group of Valkyries who sing with a remarkable sense of unity and vocal balance.  Between them they produce some of the most enchanting singing on the disc.

Any Wagner production is the result of a successful bringing together of many diverse strands, not all of which may, in isolation, withstand the closest scrutiny.  By extremely good fortune, what we have here is a Wagner production which has brought together some very impressive performers and created a singularly outstanding whole.  This Hong Kong production is turning out to be a Ring of exceptional quality.

 (This review appeared on MusicWeb International, from whom the CD set can be purchased)

27 February 2017

Distinction Secrets


“Some Believe That to Get Distinction You Need To Be Special.  We Believe That To Get Distinction You Need To Know The SECRETS!”

I came across that (or something very close to it) pasted to a window of a small private music studio tucked away in an ill-lit corridor in some forgotten shopping mall over in the east side of Singapore.  Having just spent a couple of interesting hours in the company of some ABRSM examiners who had just arrived to undertake their extended examining tours, it got me thinking.  Are there SECRETS to getting a Distinction?

With 40 years as a graded music examiner for the two principal boards (ABRSM and Trinity) I have frequently been asked that question.  Are there exam techniques (ie. special tricks) which, if the candidates employs them, the examiner will automatically award Distinction?

Certainly I have had plenty of those tricks tried on me.  In Malaysia on no less than four occasion I was unsubtly offered inducements to look favourably on a certain teacher’s students.  Many of us examiners have found ourselves put into a very difficult position by having been offered what seems like genuine hospitality from people overseas only to realise, far too late in the day, that this innocent social intercourse is in fact intended to put pressure on the examiners; I never forget one particular occasion in Hong Kong where three of us, very seasoned examiners, were asked to comment on a singer in a restaurant, to which we had been invited as guests of the proprietor.  A few days later one of us (not me, thankfully) reported that the same singer we had politely praised, appeared in the examination room as a candidate. 

The trouble with examiners coming from the UK (as the vast majority of them do) to examine in other parts of the world, is that they do not understand the different business ethics, where inducements are considered perfectly normal, and where pressure to gain Distinction is way beyond anything they have experienced back home.  I cannot speak for others, but inducements never achieved the desired result with me.  As I often reported, when informing the various Boards of these situations, I accepted all inducements to avoid causing offence, and promptly ignored them all.

So what other secrets might help a candidate achieve Distinction?

Firstly, there is the choice of examiner.  Try as the Boards might to achieve a wholly artificial uniformity amongst their examiners (if no two people ever listen to music the same way, why should examiners be expected to do so?), there is no doubt that some examiners are more prone to handing out Distinctions than others.  I knew of one examiner who suggested (and not entirely flippantly), that if the candidate had taken the effort to prepare for the exam, they deserved high marks.  Some examiners are more generous when confronted by a younger candidate at a high grade (and Trinity commit the ultimate sin by letting their examiners know the ages of each candidate); I remember arguing at length with another seasoned examiner who told me how she had awarded the highest mark she ever had at a grade 6 “because this sweet little child was just FIVE YEARS OLD!”  And there is a widespread belief in some societies that women examiners are more harsh than their male counterparts, and that young examiners are meaner markers than older ones.  I was once involved in sifting through entry forms which included a box marked “special requests”, and was surprised how many put as their special request “Elderly White Male Examiner please!”

But, unless there is some secret way of determining who the examiner is going to be (and I do not believe there is), then this is a purely chance element over which the teacher has no control.

Perhaps a secret over which the teacher/candidate has a little more control is in the choice of repertory.  If the composer of a piece is also the examiner (something which seemed to happen a lot in my days with the ABRSM), teachers felt that, by choosing their piece, the student stood a better chance of gaining a Distinction.  Similarly, much effort would be made to find out who the examiner was (something which the ABRSM used to hold as a state secret, but which Trinity never did, often announcing the examiner and giving the examiner’s full biography, weeks before the exams) in order to find out what their personal likes and dislikes were.  An examiner who declared an interest in the music of Chopin would often find candidates playing Chopin to him, while another examiner who had written about the “error” of using a pedal in Bach, would find all the Bach works presented to him in the examination room delivered senza pedale.  I’m not sure, however, that this ever worked; examiners are much too preoccupied with their administrative tasks in the examination room to recognise the efforts made to entice a higher mark through choice of music or style of performance.

Deep post-exam analysis by teachers is often carried out as a means of trying to identify a pattern.  “All the examiners seem to ask for F sharp major in contrary motion at Grade 5.  Examiners never ask for C major in Grade 7” and so on.  But while some examiners do have their own private list of scales and exercises to ask, there is no central directive on this, and the technical work asked in the exam is entirely random, within the parameters of the syllabus.

So if choice of examiner, choice of repertory or section of technical work has no effect on the result, what does?  Increasingly, the technique of an appeal seems to be a teacher’s weapon of choice.  There was a time with the ABRSM (in the days of the inimitable Pam Harewood) when any complaint from a teacher was met with a stern, curt and dismissive reply.  Candidates and teachers are now seen as “customers” who need to be induced to retain brand loyalty in an evermore competitive market, so an appeal is almost automatically met with an official assumption of the examiner’s error, and customer satisfaction is assured by an upward revision of the mark.

However, beyond wondering what secrets there were in obtaining a Distinction, the notice I read also made me wonder why there was considered a need to obtain a Distinction in the first place.  If we accept (as we should) that a graded music exam is no indicator of musical ability – just an indicator of an ability to perform specific skills – what value is there in a Distinction?  Passing an exam, is, surely, enough, and with that the student can get on with the serious business of studying music rather than exam technique.

Unfortunately, within south-east Asian society where there is a widespread inability to recognise musical ability, the ability to recognise paper qualifications is endemic.  We all have stories of great musicians shunned because they have not got a paper qualification.  Singapore’s Ministry of Education or National Arts Council would never entertain any application from the likes of Bach, Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven because they have no paper qualifications to show for their endeavours.  Rather like the academic who publishes reams and reams of pointless and incomprehensible gibberish simply because tenure in post demands an active record of publication, the sterile attainment of qualifications undermines the whole raison d’etre of their existence.

In that culture, Distinction does matter, and every trick known to mankind (and few besides) is brought into play in an attempt to guarantee Distinction.

But, in truth, there are no secrets to it.  With assiduous practice and hard work, any student should pass.  A student who actually enjoys their music-making and is not too stifled by the constraints of an examination might well get Merit.  But for a Distinction, only two things seem to help.  Being exceptionally skilled as a technician – with agile fingers and a pin-point level of accuracy – or having a natural musical instinct which shines through even when confronted by the horribly constraining environment of an examination. 

If it was left to me, I’d give up the chase for a Distinction, be happy with a Pass, and then go on and enjoy my music.  But for too many, music has nothing to do with enjoyment, and everything to do with hard work, misery and artistic sterility.  It’s not the fault of the examination boards that they stifle musical enjoyment; rather, it’s the fault of those who believe that the sole purpose of a musical examination is to get a Distinction.

20 February 2017

A Mainstream Concert With Attitude


Under a blazing sun and in the wilting mid-afternoon heat I made my way to a non-descript glass building, more a short corridor, stuck on a glorified traffic island in the middle of town.  With traffic surrounding it and a metro station underneath - its exits surfacing at either end of the building - this may seem an odd venue for a Sunday afternoon tryst. 

I do, perhaps, paint rather a gloomier picture than the reality deserves; this traffic island is, like so much else in Singapore, lush and green, and the carefully manicured lawns and neatly spaced rows of trees cleverly blot out the sound and smell of traffic and busy comings and goings of underground rail travellers, while the building itself is usually used as a kind of pop-up art gallery enticing the culturally-starved commuter to while away a few minutes during a break in the daily grind.  This was, however, a Sunday.  There were no commuters and there were no paintings on view.

So what was going on inside, carefully screened from any passers-by by means of comprehensive window blinds?  Why were I, and a handful of other individuals, all making our separate ways there for a 4pm assignation?  There were no posters, no notices, and no indication that this was anything other than a private, closed-door gathering.

It had all the indications of some kind of subversive meeting, and those who took the trouble to peer inside through a gap in the blinds would have seen a dozen or so people all sitting staring at banks of computer screens and associated electronic paraphernalia.  Was this a covert meeting of subversive agents who had hacked into the computers of government or who had placed secret surveillance equipment in the residencies of the President and of the Prime Minister?  It certainly gave off that impression. 

In fact, it was a concert. 

Why is it that concerts of contemporary music are so keen to pass themselves off as detached from the mainstream of culture and to surround themselves with an aura of mystery which effectively shuts out any but the select view who are “in the know”?  Are they imitating the profusion of underground and subversive arts groups which underpinned the cultural and social revolutions of the 60s? Do they think that by hiding themselves away and speaking only to the initiated, they are somehow demonstrating themselves to be at the cutting edge of revolutionary art?

Certainly nothing at this Sunday afternoon concert was in any way revolutionary.  It was, in fact, a mainstream concert in all but attitude, and one which not only deserved a bigger audience than it was aiming for, but appeared to get one too.  As yet more people sidled in the door, a hurried attempt was made to find more seats, and coffee cups, bags, masses of wires and computer accessories and empty boxes were hurriedly moved on to the floor to allow a wooden bench to brought into service.  In the end, our number probably was not far off 20, and there were even a few hanging around outside who might have been lured in had it not been veiled in so much pointless secrecy.

And what did we hear?  Half a dozen new works, some of which were very good, some of which were all right, and some of which, I readily confess, lay way beyond my comprehension.

The best were undoubtedly Peter Edwards’s Ssoonro receiving its first performance, and Per Magnus Lindborg’s Búgó Resonances which has been around long enough (it was premièred in 2002) to become something of a mainstream repertory work.  Singapore’s ubiquitous Keyboard-Player-Of-Infinite-Talents, Shane Thio, gave a strongly individualistic account of the Lindborg, and if the mute glissandi did not quite come off as intended, the fault lay in the piano rather than the pianist. 

Peter Edwards’s work had the huge benefit of bassoonist-extraordinaire Christoph Wichert to undertake the things with his bassoon Edwards asked, and he did so with a fluency and ease which belied the extraordinary nature of what those things were.  Scored for bassoon and electronics (the latter managed by Wichert by means of a foot pedal) this was a highly accomplished new work which effectively matched strange effects from the bassoon with the electronically created sounds to produce an intriguing duet where the two merged into one more often than I would have thought possible.  In his introductory talk, Edwards explained how he had checked with Wichert to ensure the bassoon techniques he wrote were entirely playable by any competent bassoonist on any bassoon, and this desire to create a work which can, like the Lindborg, survive beyond its first performance and its original first performers, is something not every contemporary composer shares.  Well-crafted in terms of structure, it had a fine sense of ebb and flow, and was just the right length to sustain and support its ideas without ever overplaying its hand.

Which is not something Jiradej Setabundhu was able to do with his new work, also scored for bassoon and electronics.  Here Wichert chased a graphic score around, the score visible via computer screen to the assembled watchers and listeners, and while it was an arresting idea which worked extraordinarily well in places, it went on too long and the novelty quickly palled.  Entitled Fire it seemed to represent the bassoon’s attempts to stamp out small bursts of flame as they leapt up unexpectedly from all corners, but one rather wished Wichert had, in the end, put the bassoon down and simply unplugged the computer.

Piano Peals by Joyce Koh Bee Tuan was, as the title suggests, a bell-like exposition of some ideas on the piano accompanied by electronics, and as such it was effective.  Again Thio was a suitably convincing deliverer of the musical ideas.  It just never went anywhere or developed any of its ideas.  It was so tempting to look again at the way Edwards had crafted his work so that it had logic and shape to define the sounds and compare this to the somewhat aimless meanderings of Koh’s piece.

We were told that one work billed as being a “Singapore Première” by Tan Tuan Hao, was not going to be performed “for technical reasons”; code, I assume, either for it not having been finished or for having proven itself to be unplayable. 

So, instead, we had two hearings of Rama, billed as a “World Première”, by Liew Kongmeng, one at the start of the programme and the other at the end.  In neither performance did it work for me.  Liew had written for a quartet of fine musicians - Thio and Wichert were joined by flautist Roberto Alvarez and violist Janice Tsai – and he instructed them to improvise freely against the computerised sounds he was manipulating.  That in itself seemed a pretty pointless exercise to me, and it did not help that, on the first performance, Liew stopped the players in mid-improvisation to tell them he had not been ready, and they had to start it all again; add to this one of the audience calling out to Liew and giving him instructions about how to proceed, and you have something which goes beyond informality and borders on the incompetence.

Had this been all the work was about, I might have enjoyed the effect of four excellent musicians dreamily improvising away to a schedule of noises from the computer.  But this was not what the piece was all about.  Liew had instructed the audience to take out their phones and access a website, the address of which he put up for all to see.  (Said website had about the most complicated address imaginable, comprising random numbers and symbols.) He then told them that at this website there would be some buttons with which they could alter an image which was presented on a computer screen in front of the audience. 

Now, I have to confess to having lost the plot at this stage.  I routinely turn off my phone when I attend a concert, and to fire it up not only takes time but causes noises to emerge; so I chose not to.  On top of that, my phone’s battery life is not infinite, and with a further appointment that evening, I decided I needed to preserve the battery in case of later necessity and not waste it playing online games with others in the room.  So I am in no position to judge the effectiveness of this aspect of the performance.  But from where I was sitting it seemed that the image (a blob) responded without any obvious association to the music or from what the phone-merchants were tapping into their devices – more than one of the audience was seen shrugging shoulders as a repeated jab at the button yielded no affect at all to the blob on the screen (and in any case after the false start Liew had forgotten to put the image back up on the screen).

I am excited and enticed by multi-media (or at least, duo-media) presentations provided the media are complementary.  This just seemed as if the audience was being given an online game to play while the music sounded, and if there was a connection, I am afraid it passed me by.

That issue aside, I am enormously glad I made my way to this secret location and indulged in this subversive bit of cultural elitism.  I only wish these composers were more happy to share their work with the wider world and not feel that they need to try it out in semi-private conditions first of all; this was generally much better than that.

15 February 2017

Page Turning Technologies


If this is a sign of things to come, I, for one, am all for it, but there are implications which we are in danger of overlooking.

Yesterday I attended a recital given by the Stradivari Quartet.  They performed two of Schumann’s quartet’s and Janáček’s Intimate Letters. I reviewed it for the Straits Times so if you are at all interested in my thoughts on their playing and programme, you can read it on their website.  What my review does not mention was the matter which struck me most forcibly about their visual presentation.

The first violin, Wang Xiaoming, appeared to be playing from a large number of photocopied sheets stuck together in a kind of concertina fashion which needed considerable reorganisation between movements.  Nothing wrong in that at all; he can add his bowings and articulation markings without spoiling his original copy and this allows him the flexibility to change subtleties in performance according to the venue.  I could not really see from where I was sitting (and it didn’t help that in the row in front was a particularly badly-behaved young boy), but I think he only used the one music stand – although I would not have been surprised had he used two.

The second violin, Sebastian Bohren, played from a standard copy placed squarely on the music stand before him.  He had prepared his page turns and between movements took the opportunity to check that all the necessary corners were turned up so they were within easy reach once the playing was underway.

The cellist, Maja Weber, had an iPad on her music stand, and periodically stabbed at it and delivered a dramatic swipe to move the page along. So dramatic and aggressive were some of her swipes, that I wondered how she had trained herself not to push through several pages at once, but it all seemed to work well.  Between movements she adjusted the placing of the iPad on the stand in that habit all musicians have in performance: you know the kind of thing which has pianists needlessly adjusting the stool between movements, singers clearing their throats between songs in case there might be an un-realised blockage, and orchestral players moving their music slightly to the left or right on the stand, all for no reason other than to expend a bit of pent-up nervous energy.

The viola player, Lech Antonio Uszynski, played from a tiny tablet – possibly an iPad Mini – which he never once touched during the performance.  Presumably he turned the pages by means of a foot pedal.  This meant that he concentrated solely on the viola and when he was not playing or when there were breaks between movements, he sat patiently while all the others in their various ways re-adjusted their music.

The issue of turning pages is a major concern.  Pianists who use music often have to contend with page-turners who are never quite sure when to turn, and there is a sense that concentration is divided between playing the music and ensuring the page-turner is there and ready to turn at the right moment.  Solo instrumentalists who need to use music – especially in new works – often have to spread it out across several stands to prevent the need for a page-turn, and I have even seen violinists use a page-turner out of necessity.  For organists it is a particularly serious issue.  Organists generally use music in performance both because it is the tradition, but more particularly because, with both hands and both feet fully occupied not only in playing notes but in managing stops, pistons, combination pedals, swell pedals, toe pistons and the like, there is far more which needs to be committed to memory than just the basic notes.  On top of that, no two organs are in any way the same, and unless the organist only ever plays on the same organ, the music is necessary to keep the mind focussed when in an alien environment when stops, pistons, even numbers of keyboards, touch and resultant sound is so different from that to which they may have become accustomed. 

That organists do not need to have the music is evidenced from the growing numbers of concert organists who play from memory, but these are still the exception and most of us still rely on the music being there to keep us, musically, on the straight and narrow. For us, the problems are many: Which side does the page-tuner stand – it varies from organ to organ and even from piece to piece? Is the page-turner going to obstruct the sight of and access to the stops, located right where the page-turner’s armpit is usually poised (and several page turners either need to use under-arm deodorant or need to find a less offensive one)?  And is the page turner’s leg to get in the way when there is a pedal or piston set over to the extreme edge of the pedalboard? 

Players have come up with a range of solutions.  Dame Gillian Weir used to paste miniature copies of the music on a large sheet of hardboard, which negated the need for a page-turner but which hastened the need for a strong pair of magnifying spectacles.  Others have spent many tiresome hours pasting hand-written staves and cutting out various bars from pages to make the page-turns possible by the player, while others abandon the whole idea of being in control of the organ, and simply play the notes while finding some mug of a page-turner who is willing to do everything else.  I once turned for a Korean lady organist who expected me to pull out and push in the stops, operate the thumb and toe pistons and control the central swell pedal. 

(I cannot resist the story about Gillian Weir and the Hoddinott Organ Concerto.  At one points this instructs the organist to hold a large cluster with both hands and feet, and marks it with a crescendo.  Not wishing to offend the composer at the work’s première by disobeying his clear direction, she asked the page-turner to stand behind her and operate the swell pedal by pushing up a broomstick between her legs.  This was in Llandaff Cathedral where the audience does not see the organ console: I fear it would not have been a wise move in full public view, it could so easily have been misconstrued.)

So technology, if it can obviate some of these problems, is to be heartily welcomed.  I have heard of, although not seen, organs where the music stand is in fact a large computer screen.  You can scan the music into the computer and it will appear on the screen.  Moreover, the technology allows it to roll on over each page without any human intervention.  I have even seen music stands with built in screens on which the music can be read.  There is the technology which allows the music to move along with the speed of the performance, and jump back where necessary with repeats and da capos.  So the days of swiping iPad screens in performance are numbered, certainly.  But are the days of music hard copies on stands also numbered?

Not necessarily, for, as the Stradivari showed, there are implications. 

Forgetting, for a moment, the slightly distracting image of four players with four different kinds of music laid out before them (after all, this is a period if transition, so we cannot expect everything to be perfect every time), Uszynski unwittingly revealed the problem.  What to do between movements?

When musicians fiddle with their music, we know the performance is not over – they are clearly preparing for the next bit.  Ridiculously, in this concert, the programme notes did not delineate the movements of the works, which meant the audience had no idea what to expect.  So it was that, while Wang and Bohren made it clear that, when they were not playing, they were preparing to move by the simple act of rearranging their copies, Weber and Uszynski had no such means of communicating this to the audience.  Weber did her little trick, but Uszynski simply sat there patiently looking at the others.  If all four were using the iPad Mini system, what would we have made of the bits between movements?

As a diploma examiner, I often commented on the failings of candidates to gauge the distance between movements; the common problem with young players is they rush between movements without sufficient space to allow the brain to change gear from one tonality or musical mood to another.  Sometimes the gap between movements is dictated purely by the ease with which the page is turned – and I note players who get their page-turners to turn between movements often miss the essential spacing of movements; for my part I always insisted on turning my own pages between movements as it helped both me and the audience appreciate the change of mood within a single work.

The implication of this new technology is that those who object to applause between movements (and I am not one of them) will have much more cause to be offended in the future.  When we see four members of string quartet sitting silently doing nothing, we will inevitably want to fill that silence with applause, while those players who have traditionally spaced movements by the speed with which they re-adjust their copies, will find no need to break between movements at all, and we will get a spate of merged musical tonalities and moods which will in its own way disrupt the flow of the music.

So roll on the new technology, but roll on the understanding that it does not always solve every problem without creating a few of its own.

12 February 2017

A Performing Has-Been


Sitting in on an open rehearsal conducted by Charles Dutoit I was next to my friend and Straits Times reviewing colleague, Chang Tou Liang.  For two uninterrupted hours we watched the tireless maestro barely break into a sweat over Stravinsky’s Firebird – not bad for an octogenarian; Dutoit was 80 last October.  The student orchestra certainly was starting to show signs of exhaustion, and a lot of others in the auditorium found it all too much and beat hasty (and not always silent) retreats.  Tou Liang and I stayed through to the end.  For my part, I was keen to see if maestro would offer any insight into a work he has worked with longer than I have lived.  I was disappointed in this, although it was fascinating to see him work so hard at matters of rhythm and subdivision of beats, often slowing the music down to a point which revealed as much about the genius of Stravinsky’s writing as it did about the shaky technical foundations of some of the orchestral players.  Why Tou Liang sat it out was clear when the maestro finally walked off stage; as he went Tou Liang leapt up from his seat and, dragging with him a remarkably heavy carrier bag, made for the back-stage area.  A colleague, watching him hurry away, commented that “There goes Tou Liang with all his Dutoit CDs hoping to get them all autographed”.

I won’t say I do not understand the fascination with autograph collecting; it’s just that I don’t indulge in it myself.  I did once, in my extreme youth (when Dutoit was a mere stripling in his 30s), and as I think back to that time, an image of a red autograph book springs to mind.  Its pages edged in gold and the padded red cover embossed with the word “autographs” in cursive script.  Several of its pages had been filled; I recall autographs from Eric Williams who had written a book called The Wooden Horse about his escape from a Prisoner-of-War camp during the Second World War, from Vivian Fuchs who had trekked overland to the South Pole, from the great naturalist and son of another Antarctic explorer, Sir Peter Scott, and a singer called Cliff Richard as well as members of his then backing-band, The Shadows.  There was also an elaborate autograph from a French painter called Paul Paris; it was only many years later that I learnt that this artistically-attired, incomprehensibly accented and goatee-bearded man was, in fact, my own father in disguise.  Perhaps that revelation stopped my autograph hunting career (don’t blame yourself, Dad, I had abandoned autographs long before you confessed to your subterfuge), but certainly it had died a death and the autograph book was consigned to some south London landfill long before I took up an interest in music, so the only autographs of great musicians I have ever possessed come from letters, exam reports and, in the case of Malcolm Arnold, on the bottom of a cheque which I cashed as soon as I received it. 

But for Tou Liang it is something of an obsession, and when I saw him at the bus stop after the rehearsal and enquired whether he had been successful in foraging for Dutoit autographs, he told me that he had.  “Dutoit is very good about that sort of thing and is happy to sign”, and he went on to tell me that usually when catching artists after shows and presenting swathes of their CDs for signing, he struck lucky.  In fact the only one who has refused to sign for him is Martha Argerich. (If you read this blog, Martha, as I’m sure you do on a regular basis, please be kind enough to send Tou Liang your autograph; it’ll make a lovely man very happy!) He also tells the story of how Peter Donohoe refused to sign until shamed into doing so by something that Tou Liang had written; and since then has showered Tou Liang with autographs.

As the bus came and Tou Liang prepared to clamber aboard, I reminded him that he had never ever asked me to sign my own CDs, at which he stood back in shock: “I didn’t realise you had made any”, was his parting shot as the no. 96 set off towards Clementi. (For non-Singaporeans, I kid you not; there is a suburb of Singapore called Clementi and named after a former British colonial officer who was a distant relative of the composer.)

As I remained alone at the bus stop (the 151 to Hougang seems to attract far fewer customers than the 96 to Clementi) I pondered on the fickleness of fame.  I have had my 15 minutes, according to Andy Warhol, and it has faded out of memory with a rapidity matched only by the powerful Mercedes motor driving the Citaro bus on route 96.  There was a time when people recognised me in the street (well a few did, at least) and even came over to ask whether or not I was the man who played the organ.  Not now.  A performing career which lasted the best part of 40 years seems to have been completely expunged from the collective memory and I am left, a solitary figure at a bus stop, with my memories and a bunch of students who think all I am is some boring old fart who shows an unhealthy interest in the past and in the sex lives of long-dead composers.

There is a more tangible memory to hold on to, even as the passing of years sees my own recollections of a performing past fade away.  In my time I made some dozen LP recordings, as accompanist, conductor or soloist, and while my own copies lie somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean or in some dockside scrapyard (I assume) in a rusting shipping container, at least one of my LPs was transferred to CD and can still be rooted out from the various online stores which seem to have access to unlimited sources of old and forgotten material. 

Released as an LP in 1983 on the Priory label, it came out at the wrong time; the CD format emerged on the commercial market that same year and this sounded the death-knell for LPs.  Added to this was the fact that the organ, when we recorded it one frantic Sunday in February, wasn’t working properly.  At one point I had the organ builder Peter Collins sitting behind the console pushing up keys which stuck down as soon I pressed them, while the St David’s Hall janitors were on a strict overtime regime and towards the end of the session kept coming into the hall and tapping their watches in a pointed manner.  The prospects for this recording were decidedly inauspicious.


 

 
Yet, perhaps because of its magnificent cover photograph (see above), the recording proved to be something of a survivor.  In 1989 Priory reissued my performance of York Bowen’s Fantasia from that LP on their compilation CD “A European Organ Tour (PRCD903), and it stayed in the catalogues a long time; largely, it has to be said, because it came at the time of a revival of interest into York Bowen’s music.  And then, in 2004, they embarked on a series called “Priory LP Archive Series” which delved into their huge and valuable back-catalogues and reissued some of the more enticing tracks in a CD format.  The second volume of this series featured my recordings of Christopher Steel’s Suite Changing Moods and William Mathias’s Variations on a Hymn Tune (a performance of which I am inordinately proud, not least because the composer himself told me how much he liked it), and it seems this CD is still available.  There’s even a copy in the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory library, but with my name missing from the online catalogue which means that my glorious past as a star organist is almost totally obliterated from the view of modern-day students.

When people do recall that I was once a performer, they often ask me why I stopped.  Well the true answer is that a vicious-tongued SSO trombonist so offended me during rehearsals for the Saint-Saëns Symphony back in 2009 that I swore then that I had had enough of trying to convince people that the organ was a legitimate musical instrument and that organists were every bit as good musicians as were trombonists.  It seemed better then to live off memories than live with continual disappointments, and so it has proved to be. 


However, it would be nice if someone, just once, turned up CD in hand and asked for my autograph; it would be fun to turn them away à la Argerich, but even nicer to show generosity au Dutoit.


(Your chance to get my autograph and, maybe, even hear me perform one last time, comes on Tuesday 21st March when, celebrating J S Bach's 332nd birthday and attempting to lay the ghosts of the past, I once again venture into the thorny territory of "The Organ - Is It A Legitimate Musical Instrument?" one of the Forum Lectures at 5.30pm in the Stephen Baxter Recital Room at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.)