17 April 2019

Adult Learners, Tigers and Goats

A presentation by a colleague on approaches to teaching the piano to children was quite an eye-opener.  Although I spent the best part of 20 years working as a private piano teacher, I never taught really young children (or “kids” as they are called in Singapore – I always thought a kid was the young of a goat, so perhaps that explains why the song Chan Mali Chan is so popular in Singapore.  But I digress.).  My speciality then and now (I still have a few private pupils scattered around the globe) is in guiding the niceties of interpretation and musical insight in more advanced level students.  I suppose the youngest pupil I ever had was aged 12, so to hear about teaching approaches to younger ages than that was fascinating.  I have nothing but admiration for those who can somehow impart the knowledge of piano tuition to those who can barely walk and talk – which seems to be common practice here in Singapore as well as in Hong Kong and China.

One of the more memorable comments my colleague came up with was in response to a question about children lacking the life experience to cope with the full emotional range of music.  She suggested that sometimes imagination was a form of experience, and sometimes imagination served the purpose better than real-life experience.  I liked that idea, and realised how appropriate it was for young children.

But as the presentation continued with fascinating examples of how young children had been encouraged to express music through movement and how the principal focus in all teaching was to make it “fun”, my mind began to wander.  It had not been advertised specifically as being a presentation about teaching piano to children, but that is what everyone expected.  In Singapore society “teaching music” means teaching the piano, and teaching the piano is something which is almost exclusively done before one reaches puberty. 

I am currently working on an article for an educational magazine in which I address the idea that “music” is such a wide-ranging term that, in education, we need to use it with extreme care.  After all, both the kid learning the piano and the teenager being taught how to lay down song tracks in a recording studio are being taught music, even if they are mutually incompatible.  So it concerns me deeply that teachers so freely use music as a synonym for piano.

Even more so, it concerns me that we assume “music” is best taught when the student is young.  There are elements in music which can only be taught to those of more mature years, and even the laying down of a technical foundation for pianists is not something which should be the sole preserve of the under-fives.  And as my mind wandered even further, I suddenly realised that, while in most societies of my experience, adults – even the very old – are encouraged to learn a musical instrument, that is not the case in Singapore, Hong Kong or China.  Piano lessons here are the preserve of the young and represent an alien culture to most over-30s.

In my examining life, I examined in some places where adults formed a majority of the candidature – notably in the West Indies and parts of India – and the exam boards have done much to encourage the adult market by introducing such things as performance certificates.  I have been to conferences in the UK which have concentrated on the techniques of teaching adult beginners, and I can look back over my past students and realise that a majority of them has been adult.  Indeed, one of my first ever students was a lady of 65 who passed her Grade 3 after a couple of years work; and the achievement for her was more glorious than that for the 6-year-old kid and Tiger Mum whose real satisfaction was getting past Grade 3 a year before anyone else in the class.

True, if you start learning the piano at 65 you are unlikely to become the next Lang Lang; but, to be brutally frank, if you start learning the piano at 5, it’s still extremely unlikely that you will be the next Lang Lang – as my colleague pointed out, many of those who start young see success in graded exams as an opportunity to quit and move on to things other than playing the piano.  But the therapeutic, psychological and all-round mental health benefits of learning a musical instrument at an older age equal, if not outweigh, the physical, emotional and competitive values of learning it as a child.  Yet so skewed is the Singapore/Hong Kong/China mentality to piano lessons as a childhood thing, that few adults or teachers even contemplate it.

Musical activities for older people here tend to look towards communal things like choral singing and orchestras, but the experience from other countries shows that there are huge benefits for the individual in taking up the piano (or other instrument) in later life.  Perhaps if this idea could be implanted into Singaporeans, we might find our musical climate a little healthier.  After all, we are only young for a short time in our lives – we are old for ages!  If you have given up the piano after grade 8 at 14, you are looking at a bleak musical future; if you take it up when you are 55, you are looking at a wonderfully fulfilling retirement.

16 April 2019

Forgotten Madness

On 30th April our 3rd year student, Lee Hui, is going to present a paper on the issue of mental health and music.  Called "Does Music Make Us Mad?", she takes as her focal point the issue of Schumann's mental decline.

It has been my extreme privilege (along with my revered colleague Prof Craig de Wilde), to guide Lee Hui through her Musicology module and I am hugely looking forward to her presentation.  I hope lots of people turn up as it is not only a fascinating subject, but one which she has shown immense sympathy towards.

By a strange twist of odd coincidence, I accidentally came over a blog post from 2015 which, in my own personal madness, I had forgotten I had ever written.  It seems rather nicely to set the scene!


Surviving the Ashes

The superstitious will be having a field day.  A fire broke out in Paris’s St Sulpice Church four weeks ago, another one broke out last Saturday (the eve of Palm Sunday) in New York's Cathedral of St John the Divine, and yesterday saw Notre Dame in Paris go up in flames.  All this is happening in the church’s season of Lent when Christians remember Christ’s period in the wilderness with a sustained period of prayer and reflection.  So what does all this ecclesiastical burning tell us?  That churches are an abomination in the sight of the Lord, that Christians are misguided in their beliefs, that God is reminding the world of the existence and value of churches, or merely that today’s workmen are prone to carelessness with their oxy-acetylene torches?

News of each fire reached me, not through my addiction to 24-hour news services from trusted organisations, but via my subscription to an organists’ group on Facebook.  I’m not one to check Facebook very often (once a day is excessive for me), but a sustained period of “pings” on my phone woke me up at night as each organist-member wanted to get in with his or her expression of sorrow and regret.  It amuses me that the first question raised in the case of each fire has not been “were there any casualties?”, but “has the organ suffered any damage?”.  That’s not to say me and my fellow organists are heartless; merely that for us, the organ is a living, breathing animate object.  Like other - ostensibly “normal” -  people who post endless pictures of cats, dogs and babies along with grotesquely mawkish comments for their friends to share, we do the same with pipe organs.  I’d like to think our comments are more elevated, but in truth, they’re not.  We love our pipe organs, just as others, inexplicably, love their cats, dogs and babies.

And among all organists, there can be very, very few who do not love the sound of the wonderful instrument in Notre Dame, which has now been utterly destroyed and lost to us forever.  It was the organ at which Louis Vierne died while giving an organ recital, and on which Pierre Cochereau effectively re-defined the art of improvisation.  Hearing it live pouring out its soul in the vast, dark recesses of Notre Dame was an experience I could and will never forget, and to realise I will never experience it again is very much akin to losing a dear friend. 

But as with all deaths, the legacy of memories ensures that death does not mean an end, but a beginning of new kind of relationship in which only the best aspects survive.  Since Notre Dame was such a magnificent instrument, it was frequently recorded, and between church fires, I was privileged to be sent for review what must be now the last ever recording of the instrument; Olivier Latry’s “Bach to the Future” on La Dolce Vita (LDV69).  That review is slated to appear in June’s copy of Gramophone magazine, so I will not reprint it here.  Suffice to say, that it was heading towards one of my all-time favourite organ recordings before the emotional fillip afforded by yesterday’s fire.  It won’t be leaving my CD player now for a good few weeks – unless, of course, the CD player itself overheats and the inevitable ensues.  Luckily CD players are replaceable, as are organ CDs, which means that the irreplaceable lost in the Paris inferno, can live on long after the ashes have been swept up and the rebuilding completed.

In the spirit of love and bonding which follows such a catastrophe, I offer up some pictures which other people than I will enjoy, as well as one for my organist friends with whom I share a deep sorrow and a recommendation that, if they have not already got it, Olivier Latry’s spectacular all-Bach recital from Notre Dame – “Bach to the Future” – is just released on the La Dolce Vita label and needs to be snapped up with all haste.


15 April 2019

Examining in Brunei

An assassination attempt was made on me in 1997.  Attending the annual luncheon of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in London, I was pulled aside by the CEO who introduced me to a man from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  I was informed that they had “credible evidence” that an attempt would be made on my life during my forthcoming examining tour to India.  I was advised to “think about it” and, if I withdrew from the tour, the Board would understand, although they were anxious to increase their presence in India and this tour was a key part of that strategy. 

It seemed from the threatening letters received that a man with a grudge against the English and their colonial activities in India (a grudge with which I am not unsympathetic especially in this centenary year of the terrible Amritsar Massacre for which the English have, disgracefully, yet to offer a full apology) saw me as a “soft” but legitimate target on the basis that I represented a “Royal” organisation (the Royal name has gone now that the official name has changed to ABRSM).  Since the Indian Nationalist would-be-assassin’s anti-English correspondence was conducted exclusively in English, I rather felt it was a hoax and chose to continue with the tour.

Meetings in the Board’s then headquarters in Bedford Square followed, during which I was given updates on the efforts being made at the Indian end to identify the would-be-assassin, and various diplomatic people and Scotland Yard operatives gave me instructions designed to ensure, as best as possible, my own personal safety.  On arrival in Bangalore, the Board’s representative thrust a bundle of papers in my hand, told me that she wished “to God you hadn’t come” and sent me off to my hotel; we never met again. 
I was assigned a huge Sikh driver/bodyguard who accompanied me throughout the tour, but the intelligence was that the assassination would be carried out in the hill station of Ootacamund, so it was there that the full force of the Indian army and police service took over.  An entire wing of the Holiday Inn was emptied of guests and filled with armed guards and me.  And I was transported to and from the examination centre in a convoy surrounded by armed guards, who were so twitchy I suspected that I was more likely to be shot by one of them than any crazed anti-English Indian nationalist.

On my third day there, news reached me that a car had been stopped a short distance from the hotel and a heavily armed man arrested.  I lived to examine another day (or, to be precise, another 20 years).  The Board refused to prosecute the would-be-assassin, and instructed me not to do so either for fear of undermining confidence in their burgeoning Indian operation.  As an interesting postlude to all this, a decade later I found myself once more in Ootacamund, this time examining for Trinity, and was told that one of my candidates was the daughter of the would-be-assassin. 

The point of all this autobiographical preamble is to point out that, as with any international occupation, there are dangers which those of us who undertake such work recognise and accept.  Sometimes the British Government intervenes and specifically instructs exam boards not to allow its people to travel to certain places, and insurance companies occasionally make certain overseas tours impossible.  Rarely it goes wrong – as in a visit to Sierra Leone when I arrived just in time to catch a military coup, or when a plane-load of colleagues landed up in Kuwait at the same time as invading Iraqis – but we all know the dangers and live with them.  For an examiner, the importance of giving a keen young musician the chance to prove themselves is incentive enough to undergo a whole array of real risks.

So it is a matter of the most extreme concern to me, and to all my former colleagues, that one of the examination boards has cancelled exams in a loyal territory, not because of any risks, but because of pure social and commercial pressures.

When the Sultan of Brunei announced that he was going to impose full Sharia law, the world was outraged.  My feeling is that Sharia Law is primitive, medieval, inhumane and barbaric, but that’s because my cultural heritage ingrains in me a belief in the supremacy of tolerance, justice and common humanity.  It certainly is not for me to criticise a culture simply because it differs from my own, although I am totally at liberty to express my personal feelings, should I so wish, by refusing to visit Brunei or any of its overseas assets.  That, though, would be driven by my own conscience, not by pressure from others.

Trinity College examiners are not allowed the luxury of personal consciences on this matter, however.  Trinity College London has withdrawn its examinations from Brunei at very short notice this year on the grounds that examiners might feel under threat by the exigencies of Sharia Law.  Perhaps the examiners’ profile has changed since my day, and Trinity examiners are now more prone to indulging in public acts of homosexuality, adultery and theft (the issues which have most exercised the collective objections of those in the West), but somehow I doubt it.  Which means that, without any justification from the British Government or their insurers, Trinity have decided to oppose a purely internal Bruneian concern by withdrawing their services.

Candidates, having spent months and weeks preparing, have now had all their hard work negated because of some ridiculously narrow-minded, culturally intolerant and politically-correct imbecile in the Trinity headquarters.  Presumably pressure came from big customers in the UK who, probably unable to identify the Sultanate of Brunei on a map, think that it is peopled by darker skinned English-like people whose natural human rights are being denied them by a despotic government.

22 years ago I felt the commitment we as examiners owed to young musicians was worth putting my life on the line for; it seems that Trinity is more concerned in looking good in the eyes of the cossetted western campaigners than in fulfilling its moral duty to young students. This astonishingly weak action by Trinity College London will surely get everyone who lives in any territory where standards of English governance are not the norm, to ask whether there is any value at all in preparing candidates for Trinity music exams when a bit of public pressure from disinterested sources can lead to those exams being cancelled at a moment's notice.

11 April 2019

Singapore Classical Concerts May 2019

Here is the most current list of classical music events in Singapore during May.  Please let me know if anything's missing.

ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall
ESP RS = Esplanade Recital Studio
VCH = Victoria Concert Hall
YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
SBG = Singapore Botanical Gardens
SSO = Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Friday, 3 May 2019 7.30pm ESP Red Balloon series  Rhythms, Rites and Renewals SSO
Friday, 3 May 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Bence Szepsi (clarinet) 
Saturday, 4 May 2019 6.00pm SBG Songs at Twilight New Opera Singapore
Saturday, 4 May 2019 7.30pm YST Nobuko Imai in concert Nobuko Imai (viola/Albert Tiu (piano)
Saturday, 4 May 2019 7.30pm ESP Improvisations Adam Gyorgy (pno), Bence Szepsi (clar)
Saturday, 4 May 2019 8.00pm tba Very Venetian Vivaldi string concerti Cappella Martialis
Sunday, 5 May 2019 8.00pm tba Very Venetian Vivaldi string concerti Cappella Martialis
Friday, 10 May 2019 7.30pm ESP Missa Solemnis SSO Masaaki Suzuki (cond)
Friday, 10 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Oriental Strings Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra Gabriel Lee (violin)
Saturday, 11 May 2019 8.00pm ESP RS French Operas - Ecstatic Moments 
Sunday, 12 May 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Enchanting Evening 6 The Chamber Musicians
Friday, 17 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Death and the Maiden SSO Chamber Series Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 18 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Temptation of the Saintly Plot SSO Chamber Series Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Sunday, 19 May 2019 4.00pm VCH Brass Ensemble of the SSO SSO Chamber Series Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Sunday, 19 May 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Bolling Suite for Jazz Ensmeble re:mx
Monday, 20 May 2019 12.30pm VCH If with All your Hearts VCH Organ Series Evelyn Ang (sop), Joshua Chang (ten), Phoon Yu (org)
Saturday, 25 May 2019 7.30pm VCH How Far I'll Go SLO CHildren's Choir
Saturday, 25 May 2019 7.30pm SOTA Songs of Love and Despair T'ang Quartet
Sunday, 26 May 2019 4.00pm VCH Song Bridges Singapore Symphony Youth Choir Wong Lai Fong (cond)
Thursday, 30 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Singapore International Piano Festival Sa Chen (piano)
Friday, 31 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Singapore International Piano Festival Ronan O'Hora (piano) ) 

09 April 2019

Sibelius Symphonies Concert Review

Having clearly whetted some appetites (and got someone in Baltimore on the warpath over some questionable content in the concert's programme), I give here the original version of my concert review, published in today's Straits Times.

They completed their run of the complete Beethoven symphonies a few months back, so Lim Yau and the Philharmonic Orchestra have now turned to Sibelius and a year-long series performing all seven of his symphonies.

 There is some sense in following Beethoven with Sibelius - even if you miss out such significant 19th century symphonists as Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky - since Beethoven’s and Sibelius’s Firsts were, respectively, the first and the last major symphonic premieres of the 19th century.

 Lim, however, chose not to start this Sibelius cycle with the First, but launched straight into the Third Symphony.  A sensible choice, since the Third is Sibelius’s most accessible symphony, brim full with great tunes and glorious moments.  In the first two movements the Philharmonic Orchestra were producing some fabulous playing, and Lim was inspiring them to impressive heights of excellence.

 It was neither entirely the orchestra’s nor Lim’s fault that the third movement often seemed rather shambolic.  You get the impression that Sibelius got a bit bored after producing such wonders earlier in the symphony, and it ended decidedly lamely.

 Never mind, high ranking professional orchestras and top-flight conductors have come to grief over Sibelius symphonies, so it was to their eternal credit that these Singapore musicians not only produced very creditable performances but showed some glimpses of a real affinity with the music. 

Every section of an orchestra is projected in a Sibelius symphony, and strengths and weaknesses are cruelly exposed.  The Philharmonic Orchestra were certainly producing some top-class playing here, but in the First Symphony, which followed the interval, a couple of weaknesses were revealed.  A little more time spent tuning the wind on stage would not have gone amiss, as things were very ugly for a moment in the second movement, while a serious shortage of cellos was the one obvious indication of an orchestra which does not play in public with any real frequency.  Given the lovely collective violin and viola sound and a disarmingly powerful double bass one, a couple more cellos at least would have given a wonderful richness to the string sound.

 Lim’s direction had the great benefit of purpose and fluency, and where things wobbled, he kept them on the straight and narrow, and where things shone, he did not hesitate to give extra lustre through an expansive approach to dynamics.  Great big climaxes and intimate little passage of self-reflection brought the symphony vividly to life. 

Symphonies 2 and 4 will be in the next instalment of this series, and while you will have to wait for October for that, the wait will certainly be well worthwhile.

08 April 2019

Music and Politics

Sibelius - Not a Political Man?
Sunday saw the first in a series of concerts by the amateur Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore presenting all seven Sibelius symphonies.  It was impressive – but if you want to know what I really thought about the concert you will need to look at my review in tomorrow’s Straits Times.  A beautifully produced programme booklet included a fascinating essay on the Finnish symphony, but brought me up short with an astonishing statement; “Like most artists, Sibelius was not a political man”.

Was I reading that correctly?  Was there a misprint and the word “not” added by some inebriated editor?  I am still convinced the person who could pen such a perceptive essay on Finland and the Finnish symphony (forget the really irritating habit of presenting history in the present tense) could not possibly have committed such a blunder.  But let us, for a moment, suspend logic and imagine, incredible as it may seem, that the writer meant what she said.

I am not the world authority on Sibelius – not by a long Finnish mile – so I defer to the wisdom of Veijo Murtom√§ki who, in 2015, published an essay entitled The Responsibility of an Artist. “Sibelius and his fellow artists – such as painters Axel Gallen(-Kallela) and Eero J√§rnefelt, author Juhani Aho, poet Eino Leino and many others – had a classical education, and their readiness to fight for Finland’s independence stemmed from the spirit in which the Classical heroes of Antiquity defended their poleis. Finnish artists were patriotically active especially during what are known in Finnish history as the ‘years of oppression’ (1899–1905, 1908–1917).  Between 1898 and 1920 Sibelius wrote some two dozen pieces in which he addressed the nation either directly or through allegory, expressing the common sorrow and hope under the difficult political circumstances that all Finns felt. This had the result of making Sibelius a symbol of the awakening of Finland”.  That, surely, makes him a political man?

But what of other “artists”?  I shall let the painters, the sculptors, the poets, the authors, the film-makers and theatre directors, the rock bands and the installation artists fend for themselves.  My interest is in classical music and musicians.  Was there ever a more political man than Beethoven, often held up as a champion of democratic ideals and the enfranchisement of the common man?  Haydn’s fascination with English politics (and that was before Brexit) is well documented, as is Mozart’s intrigues with the political life of 18th century Europe.  Bach found himself caught up in the political situation of his time, and Handel was not the only artist to get so involved in politics that he put his whole career on the line; his abrupt departure from Hanover to London can best be explained by his secret role as an emissary (aka spy) for his employer’s political ambitions with regard to the British throne.  Others who were professionally involved in political activities included Domenico Scarlatti (who came from a family with strong political associations in their native Sicily), John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and Josquin Desprez.  What was Sir Arnold Bax if not a leading political figure and activist on both sides of the Irish Sea?  What was Michael Tippett if not a passionate advocate for left-leaning politics?  Whenever I met Malcolm Williamson he was always sporting a very large badge proclaiming his membership of the Communist Party, and when, as a student, I campaigned for a Welsh language television channel, I was aware of the active support of both Alun Hoddinott and William Mathias.  Did not Wagner get himself wrapped up in the political demonstrations of 1848?  Was not Schumann deeply affected by them as well?  How about Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, whose opposition to the politics in their native Russia saw them flee into exile, while Shostakovich and Kabalevsky became politically pawns in the new world of Soviet Communism?  And talking of political pawns, we cannot overlook Richard Strauss.  Carl Orff’s posthumous reputation suffers largely because of his right-wing political affiliations, but somehow Puccini has escaped the censure of the left-wing despite a letter he wrote in 1922 in praise of Mussolini – “I hope he will prove to be the man we need”.  Boulez once described his politics as “very Leninistic”, and even the apparently innocuous Mendelssohn wrote “art and life are not two different things”. Whenever a Conservative Party politician utters some nonsense about music education, you can be sure Sir Simon Rattle will be quick to jump on to the airwaves and enter into a passionate political debate with them, followed by a host of other passionate political artists.  My difficulty is finding a classical musician who is NOT a “political man”.

And while the gender-specific originated from the female author of the essay, I am happy to open it up to female artists.  Was not Dame Ethel Smyth a leading figure in the suffragette movement?  Facebook friends Roxana Panufnik and Judith Bingham are never short of opinions on major political issues. 

Not to be involved in or, at the very least, passionately interested in politics is, to my way of thinking, and abrogation of artistic obligations.  You cannot regard music as an isolationist art form; it is a product of society and reflects society.  As an old Latin teacher from my school will no doubt be quick to point out, the word politics originates from a Greek term which translates as “affairs of the city”.  (If I’ve got that wrong, the fault will lie with own my old Latin teacher who has long since died; his colleague, still alive and kicking on Facebook, is not to blame!) So, in its broadest sense, we can take politics to mean “the activities involved in running a state”.  And since we all have a vested interest in that, and since it is the job of artists to reflect and illuminate the society in which they live and work, it follows that it is not so much incumbent on the artist to be politically aware as an absolute obligation.

I worry that music students often show little interest in politics.  Perhaps in Singapore, where politics is outwardly bland to the point of tedium, there might just be some excuse for that.  But we no longer live in an isolationist world, and surely everyone is affected by political events in Libya, Rwanda, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, China, New Zealand, the USA and Europe (mentioning just the countries covered in today’s world new headlines)?  I would go so far as to say that unless you become political men and women, you will never become true artists.  Sibelius was most certainly a “political man” – that’s why we still listen to his symphonies 100 years on and in a country almost 10,000 kms distant.