21 July 2018

Concert Behaviour - Embracing Change

Last weekend my critic colleagues in London were much exercised by the issue of the audience applauding between the movements of Holst's Planets at the First Night of the Proms.  I can't see what the fuss was all about; Holst never intended his Planets as a single, continuous work - indeed, at its first performance it was not even presented in its entirety - and there is no artistic reason why the audience should not regard each individual piece as a stand-alone concert work, and respond accordingly. 

On a wider level, I have no issues at all with audiences applauding between movements or at breaks in a work.  I wouldn’t mind were audiences to revert to the 19th century habit of stopping a performance mid-way to express their admiration for a particular moment (as César Franck famously did when sitting in the audience of a performance of his own Symphony in D minor) or, as in opera, a particular feat from a singer. 

What is the value of applause if it is not spontaneous? The regimented and polite clapping at a pre-ordained point some time after the end of a work seems entirely false and without purpose.   I know, however, that there are those who disagree with me on this point, and I certainly once considered the complete musical entity as sacrosanct.  Ageing and understanding have brought about not just increasing tolerance but a fundamental shift in my perception of the purpose of a live concert.

Singapore audiences have long been cowed into submissive silence by the concert police who "sh" loudly and stare daggers in the direction of whichever poor soul has deigned to show approval of a performance when they themselves have not.  Annoyingly, even performers have taken it upon themselves to stifle applause and thereby shame the audience into silence.  At last night’s Singapore Symphony Orchestra season-opener, for example, after a singularly lovely bit of saxophone playing from Daniel Gelok in "The Old Castle" from Pictures at an Exhibition, some in the audience (led, it must be said, by some of the orchestra themselves) broke into spontaneous applause to register their approval at what was undoubtedly a wondrous musical moment.  Conductor Lan Shui was having none of it, and effectively stifled their joy by launching precipitously into the next (unrelated) section of Ravel's orchestration of the piece.

I noticed a few in the audience shaking their heads with dismay that other audience members had shown such ignorance as to register their approval of a lovely bit of saxophone playing.  The issue is certainly a divisive one, and I accept that there are some who like their concerts delivered in absolute silence while others prefer to enjoy the atmosphere of sharing a musical treat (or otherwise) with others, even if those others do not always behave as we would wish them to.

My tolerance, however, is sorely tested by a growing and immensely irritating practice prevalent in Singapore concerts not from the audience, but by concert hall management.  Auditorium stewards have been instructed, it would seem, to stop photography by members of the audience at any cost. 

At the slightest hint that a camera or mobile phone is being pointed in the general direction of the stage, eagle-eyed stewards rush down the aisles, clamber over seats, make noisy protests and generally disrupt the concert in a way no humble photographer or applauder ever does.   Those unfortunate enough to be seated near to where a steward is stationed will know that they are continually scanning the audience for signs of photographic intent, and often radio to their colleagues giving the location of a potential miscreant. 

I’ve given up ever expecting to enjoy a concert at Victoria Concert Hall because of the aggressive anti-photography campaign which takes precedence over the music.  But last night at the Esplanade it was downright embarrassing.  A children's choir was on stage and proud parents keen to preserve the moment in the family archives, found themselves shamed and embarrassed by highly visible remonstrations from stewards.  Worse still was the closing concert of last month’s Singapore Performers’ Festival when, with dozens of children appearing on stage to present the fruits of their hard-earned labours (and the results of their parents’ financial sacrifices), cameras and phones were primed, only to be forced down again by over-zealous stewards.  A friend had one steward actually interrupting a performance to ask him to tell someone along the row to put their phone away. 

It is certainly hugely annoying when some selfish oaf starts clicking away during a concert; but satisfying one's own desires with no regard for others seems to be part of the Singaporean DNA, so we should not be surprised when it happens.  And the concert hall authorities themselves positively encourage concert-goers to leave their phones switched on during concerts.  So they can hardly complain when those phones’ camera and messaging functions are employed. 

What is so wrong about taking photographs of musicians in action?  After all, a concert is as much a visual as an aural experience, and in presenting themselves on stage, musicians are implicitly accepting that they are the centre of attraction, with all that that entails.  Flash photography can be distracting, but does a simple non-flash photograph really need to be stamped out by such vigorous and aggressive stewarding?  If it is that important that photographs are not taken, then it is a simple matter to ban photo-taking equipment at the door of the hall; after all, in Singapore (as in London) concert-goers have to go through a security screening during which such equipment could be identified and confiscated.  I’d far rather have someone taking a photo beside me, than have a steward rushing up and down the aisle signalling frantically to all and sundry.  And I’d far rather have someone applauding enthusiastically when I don’t than feel obliged to join in the applause at the end when nothing on stage has warranted it.

Applause, photographs…issues which reflect a fundamental change in what concerts are all about, and a change which many are loathe to accept.  There was a time when we needed to listen to music in silence and without interruption.  But things have changed.  If we want silence around us and no distraction, we have recourse to music in whatever environment we wish, thanks to recording technologies.  A live concert is no longer the only venue for accessing music.  The function of concerts has changed.  Now concerts are social occasions, where we share the experience of music with others.  As with soccer matches or cinema presentations, we have to accept that in sharing socially, we open ourselves up to exposure to behaviours we ourselves would not do, but to which we cannot object since there are no doubt aspects of our own behaviour which irritate others.

Let’s stop trying to impose our particular ethics on concert audiences, and accept that if others are drawn into hear the music, they should be allowed to do so on their own terms.  Most of us professionals and dedicated music lovers have the opportunity to access the music we want where we want it and how we want it; we should not deny the pleasure to others who, perhaps, are less well versed in the traditions of concert etiquette than us.

24 June 2018

Why Play Piano

It has been my privilege and unmitigated pleasure to spend the week at the Singapore Music Teachers’ Association biennial Performers’ Festival.  As a seasoned adjudicator at music festivals, I can say that this one is special.  It’s so pleasing to adjudicate when there is no sense of competition involved and no requirement to quantify numerically the quality of individual performances.  Instead, each performer plays whatever they want and the adjudicators comment on it.  That’s like real life!!  And while there is a sense of healthy competition within each individual (“I am determined to do this better than I have before”), because there is neither ranking nor graded assessment, there is none of the partisanship and hostility which so often brings an uncomfortable edge to competitive music festivals.  Long may this Singapore idea continue, and far may its tentacles spread.

In the piano field, which was my area, we heard a total of 411 performances, with performers ranging in age from around four or five to 20 (I’m guessing – quite rightly, adjudicators are not told the ages of those performing to avoid a temptation to adjust  standards according to age expectations).  We heard performances ranging from tiny, basic single-line melodies picked out by a couple of fingers to core Sonata repertory from Beethoven, Chopin and Scriabin, music drawn from the great canon of western piano literature to new music by Indonesian composers based on traditional music from their homeland.  If for nothing else, this was a glorious feast of music and music-making, and a wonderful testament to the enthusiasm, dedication and commitment of local piano teachers, their students and, of course, the support of the parents, most of whom seemed to be in attendance to support and hear their offspring in musical action.

As always there were issues of repertory choice.  Probably not a session passed when some small child played one of the great virtuoso showpieces of the repertory, often revealing phenomenal technical fluency.  Yet the maturity needed to reveal the artistic, emotional and, above all, psychological aspects of the music and elevate it from mere technical display to fully rounded interpretation, is inevitably denied most children.  To compensate for this inability to extract art from the music, they too often over-emphasised their technical proficiency by playing the music too fast.  I lost count of the number of times I commented on excessive speed, sometimes suggesting that just because you could play the piece that fast, did not mean you should play the piece that fast.  I worried at those who had failed to grasp the real meaning of terms like allegro. ABRSM Grade 5 might tell you it means “fast”, but it doesn’t; it means a whole world of things, and until the student can understand the implications of the terms, rather than know their superficial translation, they are destined never to present credible musical performances.  It was disturbing how many times we heard, say, Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu rather than, say, a Mozart slow movement or a Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue, let alone repertory which was not drawn either from the core recital repertory or the graded examination books.  If I have one message to send out to teachers it is, fantastic as you all are, do you spend enough time expanding your students’ repertory? 

As ever with this kind of event, for all the obvious enjoyment performers and audience experience, I find myself wondering why we do it.  Yes, it is a glorious showcase of the vibrancy and health of the Singaporean music climate, and it provides a wonderful opportunity to young performers to experience that unique thing which is the fundamental purpose of learning an instrument.  A lot of people (especially adult learners) derive their pleasure from playing in private at home, but even they are missing out on the incredible frisson which uniquely comes from performing to an appreciative audience.  Yet, as these young players performed to appreciative audiences and encouraging adjudicators, I could not help wondering why so many bother to go through the agonies of learning to play a musical instrument in the first place.

There were a few whose performances were so good that one can imagine them pursuing successful careers in music; to put it in Singaporean terms, several of them have the potential to make a lot of money out of their skill.  For the vast majority, however, a music career does not beckon, either because they do not have the technical skill nor the intellectual strength, or, more likely, because they simply see music as a pastime and hobby, to be enjoyed simply on an occasional basis.  So why do so many of us encourage our children to learn a musical instrument?

One point which was raised at the panel discussion sessions which followed the days of performances, was that music was something which enhanced life by emphasising beauty and humanity.  It struck me then that those two terms are mutually incompatible.  We only need to look at what happens daily in our world – bombs at election rallies in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, institutional racism in approaches to immigrants on mainland Europe and the USA, random murders by officials in Venezuela and The Philippines, aggressive polarisation over Brexit in the UK, spite, anger and righteous indignation over political corruption in Malaysia, religious conflict in Syria, Israel and Palestine; the list goes on – to realise that beauty and humanity are not the same.

For me, we diminish the value of music and our involvement in it if we only see it as offering beauty and spiritual enrichment in our lives.  And while we want to protect our children from the harshness of humanity in its uglier manifestations, to do so is wrong.  We need to prepare them for the evils of this world, we need to equip them to handle nastiness, and to cope with the hostility. This is where music should come it.  Therapeutically, music can be seen as a means of channelling emotions; not just positive ones like beauty, love and happiness, but, more importantly, negative ones like anger, spite and hatred. 

Musicians are humans, subject to all the emotions the human race knows.  Yet, through music, most musicians can channel their own negative emotions into positive creativity.  Do not tell me Bach was not angry when he wrote the Kyrie from the B Minor Mass (read what was happening in his life at the time, and you will know he was), do not tell me that Shostakovich had no nasty thoughts when he wrote his “Leningrad” Symphony, or that Prokofiev was not bitter when he wrote “Montagues and Capulets” in the Romeo and Juliet score.  For every time music is “beautiful”, I can find a dozen times where music is ugly, vicious and aggressive.  And so it should be.  If music reflects humanity, it reflects the totality of humanity, not just edited highlights;   it’s not the photo-shopped image of an elderly lady shorn of wrinkles, sagging skin and grey hair, but the close up, unretouched reflection of a warts-and-all individual, both ugly and beautiful.

Music, too, should be ugly as well as beautiful, angry as well as calm, disturbing as well as soothing.  Only then can we fully appreciate what its true benefits are to us.  As musicians, by channelling our negative emotions into music, we dilute their socially destructive properties and convert them into aesthetically enriching ones.

What these young people are really doing by learning musical instruments and playing them in public, is learning how to contain their feelings and emotions and how to respond to the emotional influence of others, and how to confine this to an area where they cause no harm and become a positive influence over their fellow men.  That is why we perform in public and why we should encourage young people to play an instrument even if they have neither the ability nor the ambition to pursue a musical career.


23 April 2018

Farewell Bows

Many words have been expended (in this blog, if not elsewhere) on applause, but none on how to respond to applause.  I generally refer to myself as a “professional listener”, which means I usually look at a performance from the audience’s perspective, but I also have a long and not-so-illustrious life away from Singapore as a performer, and have devoted a great deal of time to the study of how performers should most effectively respond to audience applause. 

Applause is, after all, the thing which most performers hope - if not strive - to extract from an audience, so it is disturbing how very few performers really know how to handle it.

(On a side issue, when I asked a group of composers during a question and answer session preceding a concert of their music what they hoped the audience would derive from their music, I was amazed to realise that one of them, at least, appeared never to have given the matter any thought at all.  After much defensive blustering, he did seem to say that he didn’t really care.  I thought the I-Hate-Bloody-Audiences mentality among composers had died out sometime in the 1970s.)

Over the past month I have been making a particular study of the way performers, specifically in Singapore, respond to applause and have noticed a few intriguing trends emerging. 

1.       Choirs.  I first noticed a couple of years ago that certain choirs in Singapore had started orchestrating their end-of-concert bows.  The choral director stands in front of the choir, raises his (or her) hand and then brings it forward in a dramatic sweeping gesture.  With that, the whole choir bows.   Sadly, few have worked out how to get them out of the bowing posture as, with heads lowered, they cannot see the director’s hand reverse the operation.  The result is a military precision forward bow followed by a kind of reverse Mexican wave, as heads slowly re-erect themselves like the heads of so many tortoises emerging from their shells.  This has now become standard procedure.  And I wish it had not.  For it is both silly and inappropriate.  The accepted practice among orchestras is that, if there is a conductor, ONLY the conductor bows.  If there is no conductor, then the players line up and the person in the middle of the line leads a communal, if not militarily precise, bow.  Choirs should follow that practice.  The drilled precision of the mass choral bow exudes insinceriety and looks so rehearsed as to make one wonder whether they would still do it if there were no applause.  The conductor is the representative of the performers on stage, so acknowledges the applause on behalf of them all.  Please, please, please, Singapore choirs – STOP the orchestrated bow and leave it to your conductor to acknowledge applause.  Stand up (if you are not already doing so) to acknowledge applause, but leave it to the conductor to bow.  And remember to smile: the audience likes to think you are grateful that they were there.

2.       Self-Applause.  By standing while the audience applauds, a performer is tacitly acknowledging and thanking them for that applause.  The golden rule is NEVER to applaud when you are on your feet.  The increasing habit of performers joining in the applause intended for them comes from those American TV game shows where contestants are so thick that achieving any coordinated act is a cause for major celebration.  Musicians have evolved higher levels of intellectual and physical coordination, so do not need to applaud themselves when they manage to say “Hi!” without too many slips.  The sight of performers on stage actually applauding themselves is nauseating.  Orchestras who wish to acknowledge a soloist or conductor do so while seated, once they stand they stop applauding.  Choirs need to think what message they are sending out when they appear to applaud themselves.  There are ways of showing that your applause is meant for the conductor/soloist – usually by holding the hands out at arms’ length towards the focus of the applause.

3.       Heart Attack or Wardrobe Malfunction? Many performers acknowledge the audience’s applause by placing their hand over their heart.  This is quite a nice gesture implying humility (is that a valid quality in a performer?), but one fraught with danger if not properly thought through.  I have seen young pianists suddenly clutching their heart at the end of a performance as if some kind of cardiac failure has struck, while the sight of female performers suddenly holding their forearm and hand over the top of their chest makes one wonder whether they have suddenly realised that their tops have been cut too low for a bow not to cause offence (or delight) to those in the front row.  How many performers who do this actually film themselves to see if their gesture is really sending out the message they want.

4.       Page-Turners. It is the responsibility of the performer whose pages are being turned to instruct the page-truer on how to appear on stage.  Is the page turner to stand up and bow, to remain seated and applaud, to come on stage and leave stage with the performers?  Every performer is responsible for their own show, and that includes telling the page-turner precisely what to do.  Too often, page turners are left in the dark as to how they should deal with applause.  For what it’s worth, I send my page-turner out with the music while the pre-concert announcement is being made (or the lights dimmed) so that it is obvious they are not the performer, and I ask them to remain seated while the applause is happening and to leave the stage, with the music, only after the applause has died away.  But this has to be adjusted to suit different venues and occasions.  But briefing the page-turner is vital.

5.       Encores.  Four genuine calls back on to stage is the minimum required to trigger an encore, or at least, some kind of verbal interaction with the audience; and that counts for second and third encores too.  An encore delivered without the requisite number of curtain calls is a sure sign of an ego which is larger than a talent. But my opinion is that any audience which goes away satisfied has been poorly treated; they should always go away wishing they could have heard some more.  That way, you can be assured of repeat bookings and large audiences at return visits.

As I look at the way performers react to applause, I wonder how much time teachers devote to training their students on stage etiquette.  There is no point in appearing on stage, well armed with a phenomenal programme and the technique to deliver it, if you have no idea how to respond to the audience.  Unless, that is, you are a composer where, it would seem, the audience is just a bloody nuisance!
I need at this stage, to take a bow of my own, provided, that is, there is any applause to acknowledge.  This is the last post for a while as I leave Singapore to resume my other life in another country doing other things.  Wheels are in motion for me to be back in a few months, but long and bitter experience of life has taught me never to assume anything will happen until it actually does.  But whether I am away for a few weeks or forever, I thank you for reading and exploring this blog, for responding so eagerly and enthusiastically to its content, and helping me achieve my goal of making us value music so much that we feel it is worth discussing and arguing over.  Thank you.  Dr Marc

20 April 2018

False Encores

This was a magnificent concert.  One of those you felt genuinely glad to have attended. 

The first half featured a single performer on a single instrument playing a single work; Qin Li-Wei performing the Sonata for Solo Cello by Kodaly.  I must have heard this performed live several dozen times by cellists of all shapes and sizes, some famous, some unknown.  Despite that, it’s never been a work for which I have developed any kind of affection, and I have never even bought a recording of it.  Qin’s performance not only changed my whole opinion of the piece, but drew my attention to qualities in it I had never imagined existed.  The hallmark of a great performance is to make the listener not only reassess a work but to change the listener’s life in some way; and by those criteria, this was a great performance.

Qin found in Kodaly’s music a sense of longing, a sense of dreaming, a depth of passion and emotional intensity, as well as a surprisingly strong feeling of space and place which was more than just the obvious injections of folk-culture which you find in almost all Kodaly’s music.  He took us on a journey which was so absorbing it came as a shock when it ended; had we really all been sitting in that hall listening to him for over half an hour?  I marvelled at the technical feats Qin so effortlessly pulled off, and I lapped up his tightly focused, infinitely shaded tone.  But more than anything else I sat utterly absorbed in a world of profound musicality which effectively re-defined for me what a good performance was all about.

The second half featured two performers on two instruments but still just playing a single work.  Qin was joined by pianist Albert Tiu in Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata. 

If the Kodaly is a work which has never previously struck a chord with me, the Rachmaninov is its polar opposite.  From the moment I first heard it – George Isaacs and Martin Jones performing it at one of the Monday evening Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre Chamber concerts in Cardiff in 1973 – it has been one of my most treasured musical acquaintances.  I have been to a performance whenever I have seen one advertised and my personal record collection includes eight different recordings (admittedly three sent for review and one given in part-payment of my having written the CD booklet notes, but four deliberately bought with my own money in order to deepen my personal relationship with a work I adore).  It may not have been the first work by Rachmaninov I ever heard, but it was undoubtedly the one which made me realise that he was both a truly great composer and one with a unique ability to speak directly to me through his music.  One of my proudest boasts is that I met a man who had met Rachmaninov!  The Cello Sonata is like a deep and dear friend, and it would take a greater performance than any I am ever likely to hear to make me in any way fundamentally change my opinion.

So, since Qin and Tiu had no chance of making me change my mind about the work or even look at it from a different perspective, I was happy just to sit back and luxuriate in their playing.  Tiu is an instinctive Rachmaninovian, but even he excelled himself here, showing profound understanding of the almost orchestral detail in the piano part, and revealing such a depth of empathy with Qin that this stood out as an exceptional example of true chamber playing.  For his part, Qin rode the work’s emotional ebbs and flows with a kind of searing purposefulness which had the heart racing and the skin tingling with the sheer intensity of feeling.  The second movement in particular had a wonderfully incisive rhythmic impetus to it which was as thrilling to me as any music can be, and if the ending of the first movement had not quite come off as well as it might, the ending of the second was a brilliant piece of coordinated musicianship;  Rachmaninov’s gloriously robust and throwaway endings are often the highlight of a great performance.  Towards the end of the finale, I did tend to find Qin’s tight vibrato – more a strained wobble than a full-blooded vibrato – inappropriate to the grandness of the music’s character, but there was no question that the majestically celebratory ending was a fabulously executed climax to a brilliant performance.

I was as enthusiastic as anyone in my applause (well, not perhaps as enthusiastic as the legions of admiring groupies who ululate and shriek whenever either Qin or Tiu, or both, appear on stage) and was happy for them to come on and take as many curtain calls as they wanted.  But then, to misquote Frank Sinatra, they went and spoiled it all by doing something stoopid like an encore. 

After any performance I need to savour and digest what I have just heard.  I need to reprocess the performance in my mind to reaffirm my impressions and to relive some of the highs and lows I experienced during that ephemeral thing we call a musical performance.  After a great performance such as this, I need to go home and take the performance with me in my head, often spending much of the night going over little things which at the time, I hardly noticed.  In that way, like a good meal, I feel I am fully digesting it at leisure and extracting every last gram of goodness and benefit from it.  An encore often denies me that pleasure.

Of course there are occasions where a performance has been so wonderful that nobody wants it to end, and an encore is demanded.  This was certainly the case last night, and I had no immediate objection when the two of them reappeared on stage with Tiu’s page-turner grasping a large copy of music.  (The page-turner had decided after the Rachmaninov that she would take a bow as well as the actual performers.  Page-turners can make or break a performance, as any pianist/organist will tell you, so it’s absolutely right that they should be acknowledged by the audience – it just looks really silly when they bow as if they were doing the playing themsleves.) I did have an objection, however, when far from reinforcing the impact of the Rachmaninov by playing something which would keep that atmosphere alive and prolong the moment for us in the audience, they shattered it with a clumsy tango by Piazzolla.  Great admirer of Piazzolla’s music as I am, there is a place and time for everything, and this was the wrong place and the wrong time for a Piazzolla tango.  On top of that, the playing of this seemed pretty haphazard, and went on for the best part of 10 minutes.  It was like a great meal in a fabulous Chinese restaurant ending with a sour Fortune Cookie which then got stuck in the teeth and revisited the taste-buds for the next few hours as tiny crumbs dislodged and were swallowed.

They compounded this misjudgement by immediately coming back on stage complete with page-turner (another bow after the Piazzolla) clutching yet another musical score.  There had not even been time for the audience to decide whether another encore was required – we were still trying to get to grips with the violent gear-change from Rachmaninov to Piazzolla – yet one was obviously going to be imposed on them regardless.   I made a hasty exit in order to get home and root out a recording of the Rachmaninov to see if I could salvage some memories of the wonderful performance I had experienced earlier.

In the early days of public performance, when audiences were allowed to show their appreciation by applauding whenever they felt the performance deserved it, performers knew what the audience did and did not like, and would happily play the more appreciated items again (hence the word, encore, which quite literally means “again”).  We have countless examples of a movement from a symphony or sonata being repeated, sometimes several times, and even of entire works being encored.  The practice of imposing a totally different piece of music on a programme as an “encore” only came about when audiences started to stop showing their appreciation of specific items in the programme itself.  The conceit of sitting in silence through a complete work, especially one which has no connecting thread between the movements other than the coincidence of tonality, has destroyed the value of the encore and undermined the integrity of the performance.

A young performer told me the other day that he did not like it when people “clapped at the wrong time”, since it put him off.  How much more off-putting is it to have something wholly inappropriate tacked on to the end of a carefully devised programme.  Yet, until audiences begin once again to respond genuinely to what they hear when they hear it, performers will never know what the audience would really like to hear encore (again).

19 April 2018

Whither Goest Thou, 21st Century Music?

It was largely by coincidence that all three of the concerts I attended yesterday comprised mainly 21st century music.  Arch-traditionalist and died-in-the-wool conservative as I am, it is thrilling to know that the desire to compose new music is as strong as it has ever been.  Classical music is not a dying or even a diminishing art if the sheer volume of new music being produced is anything to go by.  Only by writing and performing new music will both the craft of composition and the craft of listening be sustained by the obligation continually to refresh and revalidate musical language.

Of course, the passage of history has ensured that the many thousands of unenticing works written in the past have disappeared from the public consciousness, but with the music of our time, there has been no filter of time to weed out the dross, and it is inevitable that much of the new music we hear today will, quite literally, be gone tomorrow. 

Beyond that, though, there is this to consider: Until the beginning of the 20th century and the technologies which allowed mass access to music, there simply was not the huge demand for new music that exists today.  A wholly new genre was evolved to help feed this new appetite – the genre of Pop music – but this has in no way diminished society’s need for Classical music; music crafted by creative minds, interpreted by trained minds and listened to by responsive minds.

But while I should (and do) rejoice that so much new music is being written that it can fill three very different concerts in a single day in just one small city (Singapore), I came away from the experience with a niggling sense of disquiet – verging on consternation - about the future of Classical music as a distinctive artistic genre.

The new music of our time seems to be pulling so far in contrary directions that there seems a very real danger that it will split entirely.  That in itself is not a bad thing; rather like the humble but vital earthworm which, when cut in two by a gardener’s spade, continues its existence as two separate creatures, so splitting classical music into two different genres might actually increase its usefulness to society.  Yet I seem to remember reading somewhere that the earthworm’s much-vaunted self-regeneration was a myth; that while one part did, indeed, continue after the division, the other simply shrivelled and died.  If that’s the case, how does our Classical music analogy hold up?

Yesterday’s concerts revealed a schism between areas of 21st century classical music creation which was so wide as to seem largely irreconcilable and possibly irreversible.  On the one hand there was a celebration of cerebral, music demonstrating technical skill at the expense of widespread appeal, and on the other music which went so far to allure the most unresponsive ears that it seemed to lose all sense of technical substance.  And in the middle, a third area in which music itself was entirely peripheral to the performance.  Individually, all three approaches had a value and achieved their aims successfully – I certainly enjoyed all three – but so different were they that I wonder how long they can continue to rub shoulders under the generic but increasingly dysfunctional label, “Classical Music”.

The first of the three concerts kick-started the “Sounding Now Festival” which promises to showcase composers living and working in south-east Asia. (https://soundingnow.blog/festival-2018/)  Somewhat incongruously, however, this concert opened with what appeared to be a left-over performance from the regular student-led Wednesday noon recitals at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  Hornists Mindy Chang and Alexander Ian Oon, with the gloriously incongruous but brilliant pianist, Nicholas Loh, performed Richard Bissill’s Time and Space. The work dates from 2001, so it did (just) fit into a programme devoted to 21st century music, but musically it was so detached from anything else in the programme it seemed to inhabit a wholly different genre.  As a performance this was not just outstanding, it was almost certainly the very finest performance by any of the student performers in the entire Wednesday series this academic year.  It would have drawn gasps of admiration from any audience, anywhere, and while it received the usual supportive noises from the student audience, it was obvious that even they, usually so pointedly immune from the charms or otherwise of performances presented to them by their peers, found this to be something out of the ordinary.  Bissill’s work was hardly a great masterpiece, but it had a quality which ensured it lingered in the memory long after the performance was over.  It was well-written, technically challenging, emotionally engaging, and attractive both superficially on the ear and more substantively on the intellect.  Of all the 21st century works I heard yesterday, this is the only one which could, conceivably, still be in the repertory 100 years from now. 

The student composers whose works were presented in the concert had the enormous good fortune to have their music performed by an absolutely cracking team of specialist new-music performers from Germany, “hand werk”.  (I do wonder with these groups who tour the world performing only new music, whether they go back to their hotels each evening, sit in comfort in armchairs drinking lager and watching television, or whether they stand naked on their heads on external window-ledges sipping vinegar through tiny straws?)  It is difficult to imagine that these new works could have been more sympathetically and competently presented, and the fact that each work’s distinctive character and latent quality was so clearly conveyed, is down to their stupendous skill as performers and interpreters. 

Each work required substantial stage re-organisation.  Perhaps conservatories should introduce classes on stage management and crewing which are as demanding as those on playing the piano or conducting an orchestra; new music seems to rely so much on stage management, that this aspect often assumes greater importance than the music itself.  To cover these long interruptions to the flow of music, the various student composers took to the stage to talk about their work.  Not every one had completely grasped the techniques of talking into a microphone (in some cases the banging on the end, the breathing into it and the heavy “testing 1-2-3” were as entertaining as the music itself), but all felt it appropriate to outline the circumstances and inspiration behind their compositions.

The world is tumbling into chaos.  The Cold War seems to have reignited. Arab-Israeli and Arab-Arab conflicts are raging with horrendous loss of life.  The Syrians seem determined to kill their own people by whatever means Assad chooses.  Boko Haram continues to kidnap, rape and murder school girls in Nigeria with apparent impunity. The ceasefire in Northern Ireland seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse.  The US and China seem to be heading for conflict.  A belligerent US administration seems intent on stirring up conflict with its neighbours in Mexico and Cuba.  And whatever the result of the Malaysian election, it seems certain, like Brexit in the UK, to tear communities apart in a proxy and (so far) bloodless civil war.  Surely there is enough in our world to give young composers a real focus for their creative outlet, be it anger, sorrow, religious conviction or deliberate indifference; after all, great art has always flourished at times of conflict.  Yet what did these student composers want to express in their music?  

It was almost as if, for them, music was unconnected with society; that music was a means of escapism rather than of confronting and coming to terms with realities.  One composer inhabited an imaginary world of dragons and fictional languages, another the strains and stresses of student life, and another found creative inspiration in the fact that his room at home was “moderately untidy”.  I blame Richard Strauss, who elevated the mundanity of domesticity to the level of creative art and thereby legitimised it for subsequent generations of composers.

There were some very good ideas here, and all of the composers had clearly grasped the essential skills of writing music.  Most of it I found absorbing, if occasionally slightly over-stretching its basic material, but there was one piece which I felt revealed a genuinely creative mind.  However, while its composer, Noah Diggs, had made highly effective use of performers moving, speaking and playing, and had posed arresting philosophical questions in what he had written, we have seen it all before.  He has constructed a persona which revolves around the “what-planet-am-I-on?” concept which, while both entertaining and intriguing, runs the risk of becoming almost a self-parody.  Here’s a potentially brilliant composer in danger of falling into creative sterility by resorting to the easy and familiar rather than continuing to challenge himself as well as his performers and their audience. 

As for the rest, one felt that the techniques of composing were the beginning and the ending of the process.  None of it smiled, none of it invoked anger, none of it induced tears.  Music should not necessarily do that, but it should, at least, resonate in some way with the society in which it was born and a humanity which exists beyond merely exercising the intellect.

The second concert comprised just a single performer, a single musical instrument, and a very large amount of electronic and computer gadgetry; so much, in fact, that the sheer logistics of setting it all up by an over-stretched stage crew delayed the concert’s start by half and hour.  It was billed as a viola recital, but it was in truth nothing of the sort.  It was a bi-media (sound and vision) installation in which the occasional sounds of the viola merged imperceptibly with a richly textured pre-recorded soundscape and a continually moving, largely abstract projected series of images.  This all made for an absorbing 45 minute show.  (So absorbing, in fact, that the handful of audience scattered around the darkened hall seemed intent on preserving it for posterity through the camera apps on their smartphones.  I was particularly taken by the lady in front of me who, determined to capture some sense of the completely dark hall, continually raised her phone to take a picture, only for the flash to come on, and for her quickly to cover the offending light with her hand.  She kept trying, but every time she looked at the phone to see how the last photo had come out, all it showed was a close up of the palm of her hand.)

The musical sounds – often immensely attractive ones – were layered to create an enticing soundscape which was effectively allied to the images so that it all coalesced into a conglomerate whole in which music and projected visuals lost their individual identities.  As an experience it would have been wonderful had not Mervin Wong committed two fateful blunders.  First, he explained that this was in no way a completed or even fully thought-through work, but something “in its very infant phase”.  Why should any audience feel it worth their while to sit through something which is not ready for public consumption?  Far better to describe it as “evolutionary” and imply that it is complete as it stands even if in the future it may change; that might even get us to come back to hear it a second time.  Second, he promised a “compendium of sounds extracted from the viola”.  The viola was often presented as a lyrical instrument, with long, sustained eloquently expressive lines, and once or twice it even did some pizzicato.  But there was no sense that this was exploring the instrument.  Had he told us that it was “utilizing the latent beauty of the viola”, nobody would have been disappointed – for it did precisely that, and to quite hypnotic effect. 

The third concert was a performance by a choral group who reforms itself after each of its bi-annual performances.  This year’s manifestation of the Chamber Choir was one of the best yet, the sound rich and the voices singularly well blended.  There were some very fine choral singers here, and their conductor, Chong Wai Lun, had clearly worked them up to a fine state of readiness over the years.  Despite being dressed in uniform black, it was interesting to note how much bare flesh was exposed.  Various lengths of dresses and skirts only emphasised the fact that the shortest skirts were extremely short indeed, while the tendency of some of the male singers to roll up their sleeves made it look at times like a party of grave-diggers about to pick up their shovels.  Nobody’s sleeves were rolled up tighter than Chong’s, which made it look as if he was more a gardener tending to his flower beds than a man coaxing fine music from his singers.  The gardener analogy is good one, though, and I was thinking at the time what kind of flowers he might have been nurturing with so much dedicated elbow-grease.  I came to the decision that these were tulips; big, bold, beautiful but unsubtle blooms.

That my mind was wandering down aimless garden paths was an inevitable consequence, not of the performance (which was very good) but of the music (which was dire).  The programme chosen offered no scope whatsoever for the choir to do anything other than sing notes in tune and pronounce words.  It was a programme which celebrated the vacuous; and as such was entirely typical of so much choral music written this century.  Choral composers have discovered that certain chords sound quite nice when sung by choirs, and build entire works around the continual repetition of those chords in unrelated juxtaposition.  One work, which stretched itself out for three complete movements, seemed to revolve around the same basic chords but not necessarily presented in the same order.  It was frightening to realise that this completely innocuous, superficial and bland music was inspired by Shakespeare.  What had poor Shakespeare done that our brave new world should have such people in it that they belittle his genius so?

The agonies did not stop there.  A work which told a story about a Chinese magic paint broach did just that, and did it so directly that one wondered why anybody had bothered to add any music to the mix.  What a shame that such fine singers were given such brainless stuff to sing.  It sounded nice – but the minute it was over I could not recall a single thing that had been sung.

What is a 21st century composer to do?  Should music be inaccessible to all except those who appreciate and understanding its technicalities, should it be peripheral to an entertainment which involves other media, or should it be so blatantly accessible to everyone that it loses all vestiges of artistic credibility.  If all three are legitimate paths, then I have little hope.  However, tacked on accidentally as he was, I can’t but think that Richard Bissill has the answer, and music could do a lot worse than follow his lead.

17 April 2018

Keys to Great Composing

Organists need not read this; they know it already.  For others, especially those who claim to be musicians, it should make salutary reading.

Perhaps these monks were admiring the young Mozart's organ playing skills.
One suspects their modern day counterparts would more likely be wondering what the noise
was and why he wasn't doing something more worshipful like playing the guitar or drums
What do Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as well as Telemann, Handel, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and Dvořák have in common, other than being composers whom a majority of music lovers regard as "great"?  They all played the organ.

I would argue that it is no coincidence that most, if not all, of these “great” composers were organists, and in most cases were organists before they were composers.  Living in societies where Christianity was an accepted part of daily life, and the organ having become an entrenched part of Christian worship in both Catholic and Protestant churches, one could suggest that any musician would inevitably gravitate towards the organ, it being the one musical instrument everybody in a single community would have known.  There is certainly a lot of truth in that, and it is certain that in Bach’s, Mozart’s, Haydn’s, Beethoven’s and Schubert’s cases, as well as in many others, their youthful involvement with the organ was brought about by circumstances rather than personal choice.  But even if that is so, it may well have been the very catalyst which set them off on the path to compositional greatness, and that without the organ they would never have produced the bodies of outstanding work they went on to produce.

The church where Schubert was organist - now dubbed the Schubertkirche
A human voice breathes naturally, a violin bow phrases music naturally by virtue of the limitations of its length, a wind instrument is governed by the finite power of a player’s lungs and lips.  All these natural phenomena impose a natural musicality on these instruments.  This needs to be harnessed and adapted, but is still a fact that, at root, there is musicality built into these instruments.  Not so the organ, where the sound has no natural qualities at all; it can be sustained indefinitely, it can be broken at random, it can be an unbroken legato or an unconnected staccato and, perhaps more than anything else, there is no natural variability in the volume or intensity of the sound it produces.  Everything which a singer, violinist or flautist does technically merely improves the natural musicality of their instrument; the organist is obliged to input every single detail to transform the instrument’s unnatural sound into a musical one.

My belief is that the organ is a machine rather than a musical instrument, and that to get it to produce legitimate music, requires a level of trained musicianship no other instrumental discipline requires.  Of course, a vast number of organists do not possess that sort of musicianship and thus so much organ playing and organ music is not just dull, but almost terminally so.  However, the intellectual, artistic and motor skills required in combination to transform that machine which we call an organ into a credible musical instrument are so advanced and demanding that only exceptional people can succeed.  Is it any wonder, then, that these exceptional people have occasionally gone on to become “great” composers?

It is often argued that since most “great” composers (especially those of the so-called “Classical” era), did not write organ music, they did not care for the organ as a serious outlet for their artistic creativity.  However, that flies in the face of every known fact about their involvement with the organ; Mozart even famously described an organ as a “veritable King of instruments”.  The issue lies in the fact that in the Catholic church of the later 18th and early 19th centuries, music was already beginning its decline.  From the Council of Trent to the musically-disastrous Second Vatican Council, music increasingly was devalued by the Catholic Church, and those charged with providing it found little scope for creativity.  Thus it was that virtually all these composers chose not to write instrumental music for the church. (Mozart was a notable exception with his 17 Epistle Sonatas, which are tiny single-movement works which cover the short length of time it took the episcopal procession to move from the sanctuary to that part of the cathedral where the Gospel was read.) Instead, they used the organ to cover those points in the service where non-vocal music was required, and improvised in order to ensure that the music did not overstay its function. 

Improvisation has long been an essential tool in the organist’s armoury, and I would suggest that the obligation to improvise frequently and often at unpredictable lengths builds up a creative and imaginative mind which is unique to organists.  Any organist who has played the organ at a wedding where a bride arrives late will know only too well the feeling of improvising under the shadow of sudden curtailment or extension for interminable minutes.  In the days when the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s Lohengrin was de rigueur among arriving brides, I had trained myself to move from whichever remote key my improvisation was in when the little red light announcing the bride’s arrival at the west door flashed, to B flat major (the opening of the Wagner) in just three chords.  We could do that sort of thing in the late 20th century when rules of harmony were considerably freer than they had been in the 18th and 19th centuries.  What mental processes would have been necessary to organists working in those times in order to shape improvisations without offending ears accustomed to more rigid rules of harmony?  No wonder the organ became a breeding ground for “great” composers.

As if thinking over the implications of tonality, rhythm, and melodic coherence in an improvisation was not demanding enough, the sheer physical properties of an organ require both physical and mental stamina in a way no other musical activity does.  Like a pianist, the organist has to articulate the keys.  Unlike the pianist, the organist also has to articulate – often with almost equal virtuosity – a pedalboard requiring two feet each with three distinct playing parts (heel, toe, side).  Then there are the swell and expression pedals which have to be used to create arterially a level of dynamic shading which must sound perfectly natural; some organs have three, sometimes even more, of these; which have to be operated while the feet are still playing the pedals.  Then there are the stops, the essential knobs and switches which have to be manipulated frequently to create the wide range of tonal colours and effects which, on any other instrument, come naturally, but on the organ need to be artificially activated in order to create a natural-sounding effect.  The skill in choosing and managing these without interrupting the flow of the music is one which taxes many organists so far that they need to call in supernumeraries to undertake this essential aspect of playing the organ.

In short, the mental agility and physical vitality needed to play the organ has no equal in any field of artistic human endeavour.  No wonder organists become “great” composers, and no wonder few “great” composers have ever existed who have not been organists.  So next time some idiot suggests that the organ is beneath contempt (as so many musicians and Christian ministers do) remind them that without the organ, mankind would have been denied the supreme examples of transcendental art which the world recognises as “great” music.


16 April 2018

The Real Sistine Chapel Choir

Having heard a concert last night of music sung in the 16th century by the Sistine Chapel Choir, I felt it appropriate to draw attention to the latest recording from the current Sistine Chapel Choir.  It really is lovely.  Here's my review from MusicWeb Internaitonal (from whom the disc can be purchased). 

To hear music especially written for the Sistine Chapel, much of it by former members of the Sistine Chapel choir, sung by the present-day Sistine Chapel Choir and recorded in the Sistine Chapel is reason enough to celebrate the release of this disc.  That every work on the disc is a true gem, a miniature masterpiece (to quote the booklet notes, “the finest polyphonic works of the Renaissance and Baroque periods”), and that some of it has not been heard before outside the Sistine Chapel is an even more compelling reason to seek this disc out.  And, if further inducement was needed, they have brought in no less a figure than Cecilia Bartoli to be the first female voice ever to be recorded alongside this all-male choir. 

Monseigneur Massimo Palombella, the choir’s director, has been given free rein of the Vatican’s huge musical library, and has clearly relished the opportunity to delve into musicological research not only in finding the music and preparing it for performance, but in philosophising over the ways in which it might have originally been performed.  This has led to some decisions about performance which he puts into practice in this disc, one of which is to place smaller sections of the choir in the gallery to contrast with the main body of the choir recorded standing before the altar.  This, however, is not always evident in a recording which keeps the voices, wherever they are in the chapel, at roughly the same distance from the microphones. On top of that, carpets were laid down for the recording sessions in a bid to dampen the chapel’s voluminous acoustic, and while the resultant sound is warm and immensely comforting, surrounded by a pleasing halo of acoustic space, it also has a muffled quality with detail in the lower voices often obscure.

The programme itself draws on music which is associated with historic Papal celebrations of that period of the church’s year which extends from Advent through Christmas and Epiphany to Candlemas, and ranges from the 12th century (Peronitus) to the 17th (Allegri).  There are three works billed as “World Premiere Recordings” by Dufay, Allegri and Marenzio, as well as several well-known motets, including an atmospheric performance of Victoria’s O magnum mysterium. Those who know Giovanni Allegri only through his famous Lenten setting of the Miserere mei will immediately spot some stylistic differences, but this performance of his Nasceris, alme puer suffers badly from an irritating habit Palombella has of excessive phrase bulging - introducing sudden, short but heavy swelling dynamics - and of pulling up the ends of phrases abruptly (presumably to let the acoustic finish the job off).  Perhaps that tendency is at its most annoying in Palestrina’s Canite tuba in Sion where the continual dynamic surges induce a sensation akin to mal de mer.

Nevertheless Palombella has built a fine choir here which is easily in its element both with the music and the environment (the booklet includes a stunning picture of the choir in rehearsal all but overwhelmed by Michelangelo’s great altar wall fresco of The Last Judgement, and, as if to remind us how church music has changed since the time when these works were written, another photo of them gathered round an electric keyboard).  The performances are well prepared and effectively and confidently delivered.  Quicker passagework is not always secure - there’s a moment of unfortunate scruffiness in the livelier passagework of Nonino’s motet Hodie nobis caelorum Rex – and in places tuning of the lower parts wobbles.  But overall this is a disc which exudes calm and beauty and where technicalities pale into insignificance beside the supreme loveliness of the music and the recorded sound.  My real concern is that it is in danger of becoming swamped by its own beauty.  Try as I might, I find it difficult to identify clear differences between the works being performed; after a while they all merge into a kind of smooth, conglomerate, velvety aural wallpaper which, for all its supreme loveliness, loses its impact simply because the superficial effect is so appealing.

Bartoli’s contribution is to Peronitus’s Beata viscera Mariae Virginis.  It may last less than four minutes of music, but it is four minutes of absolute sublimity.  Bartoli beautifully encapsulates the essence of a text which conveys the joy, wonder and mystery of the Virgin birth.