20 March 2019

The Mozart Defect

 It used to be said that of no historical figure, other than Jesus Christ, had more words been written than Richard Wagner.  If that was ever true (which I somehow doubt), I’m sure it can’t be true today.  In the field of music alone, words devoted to Mozart seem long since to have outweighed words devoted to any other figure.  My own bookshelves are buckling under the weight of tomes devoted to Mozart.  And not necessarily books about music. I have one detailing all his female conquests, one giving in graphic detail suggestions as to the causes of his death, one devoted to the reasons behind his frequent use of foul language and his obsession with bodily functions, one illustrating his progress through the levels of Freemasonry, I even have a novel, picked up in the bookshop in Dallas Airport (where I remember being stranded for several hours) which has nothing whatsoever to do with Mozart other than the fact that the fictional protagonist is a former SAS operative hired to investigate the death of an opera singer’s brother (“A breathless pursuit which will enthral fans of Dan Browne, Sam Bourne and Ludlum’s Bourne series” – of which I am most certainly not).  There are books which tell you how to apply Mozart to your new-born (and yet-to-be-born) child, how to increase your brain-power through Mozart, and while I have yet to encounter a book telling you how a little carefully applied Mozart can heal the sick and raise the dead, or a recollection that he walked on water, there must be one out there somewhere.

Perhaps the most notorious writing on Mozart dates from 1993 when F H Rauscher and others published The Mozart Effect which claimed that, after listening to Mozart's Sonata for two pianos (K448) for 10 minutes, normal subjects showed significantly increased spatial reasoning skills.  This instantly led to a new industry of those ascribing amazing powers to Mozart and his music. Writing in the Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine, J S Jenkins suggested that an even “more impressive indication of a Mozart effect is to be seen in epilepsy. In 23 of 29 patients with focal discharges or bursts of generalized spike and wave complexes who listened to the Mozart piano sonata K448 there was a significant decrease in epileptiform activity as shown by the electroencephalogram (EEG)19. Some individual patients showed especially striking improvement. In one male, unconscious with status epilepticus, ictal patterns were present 62% of the time, whereas during exposure to Mozart's music this value fell to 21%. In two other patients with status epilepticus continuous bilateral spike and wave complexes were recorded 90-100% of the time before the music, suddenly falling to about 50% 5 minutes after the music began. The fact that improvement took place even in a comatose patient demonstrates again that appreciation of the music is not a necessary feature of the Mozart effect”.  In other words, you don’t even have to listen to Mozart’s music for it to do you good.  

Of course, in the case of Rauscher’s experiments, the effect lasted barely 15 minutes, while Jenkins ends his report by observing that, “the results are not specific to Mozart's compositions but the exact musical criteria required have not been completely defined”, but the impression given is that Mozart has powers other composers have not. 

In my case, the jury’s out.  No attempt was made in my daughter’s pre-natal existence to force-feed her, trapped in the womb, with Mozart, but living in a household where frequent, loud parties involving orchestral musicians took place, she must clearly have been unwittingly exposed to everything from Bach to Reich with plenty of Mozart thrown into the mix.  If it had a lasting effect on her, it has been to head her off into the direction of, first, One Direction and latterly BTS.  Mozart has no effect on her whatsoever.  Yet, astonishingly, she does well at school, shows above average intelligence, is pretty and popular (my wife has started fending off the boys with a maternal determination I remember only too well from my youth, when it was directed against me) and appears to be mentally well-adjusted.  She is living proof that you can succeed as a child without the influence of Mozart. Yet I do not totally repudiate all the claims about the Mozart effect, and if nothing else, I am conscious that in certain graffiti-strewn, beggar-encrusted, urine-scented underpasses in Northern England, the playing of Mozart’s music through loud-speakers has driven away the vandals, drug-addicts and knife-wielding youths.  So it does have some effect on those unwittingly exposed to it.

All pretty harmless, you may think, and if there is a chance that Mozart might have a beneficial effect on individuals as well as on society as a whole, then why not give it a go. But as with all these things which are supposed to do you good (think Atkins’ Diet, which killed off an acquaintance of mine and caused me one of my few visits to hospital) it has serious side effects which are easily overlooked in the mad chase after the supposed beneficial effects. 

Mozart, so the common wisdom has it, was a Child Prodigy.  It’s not quite as simple as that.  Yes, his musical father pushed him mercilessly to pursue the only activity Mozart’s father really knew about, and through intense early lessons, the young Wolfie did show an above average musical ability at an early age.  He certainly did not have the natural infantile prodigious musical talent of, say, Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns or Samuel Wesley, all of whom showed far more early musical talent with far less force-feeding from a pushy parent than Mozart, but he was doing musical things before his 10th birthday which to most of us seem extraordinary. 

We forget, of course, that Mozart was destined by virtue of his birth to be a musician, his education was focused totally on music, and the concept of general schooling and preparedness for life which is the norm in 21st century society, was unheard of in the 18th century.  So, in the context of the day, Mozart was bound to develop musically long before his modern-day counterparts; on top of which, the attention span of today's 5-6 year-olds stretches to 15 minutes; in Mozart's day, with less distractions to contend with, the 5-6 year-old seemed equipped with a somewhat longer attention span (although that is an assumption not supported by any facts I can find).  Yet some modern-day parents, especially from Chinese backgrounds, are so keen that their off-spring should excel in one particular area of human endeavour as soon as possible in order to secure their (the parents’, that is) financial security in old age, that they see in Mozart a useful role model.  Here was a kid who, with much encouragement from his parent, was able to support said parent in later life.  Sadly, for so many Chinese parents, the story of Mozart begins and ends with the Child Prodigy bit, and the debts, poverty and deprivation bit gets missed out of the popular narrative; that’s the bit the Westerners focus on, as they love to hear of those who fall from grace.

So, knowing only that Mozart’s musical talent flourished at an early age as a result of strong parental encouragement, and that Mozart went on to become world famous (world-famous equals highly-paid in this narrative), parents look for the slightest chink of musical aptitude in their new-born offspring and, once glimpsed, exploit it for all its worth.  Private music schools pop up like dandelions along the verges of English country-lanes, buying into the Mozart myth by calling themselves “Little Mozarts”, “Amadeus Academy”, and the like, or hawking themselves on the idea that prodigious talent needs nurturing (the Singapore Government, no less, talks about “nurturing young talents”, as if it is a responsibility of government to force its children to go down the Mozart path).  The end result is a culture where it is felt music must be force-fed to any under-five who can stick a sticky finger on a keyboard and gurgle at the noise it makes.  Crowds of kids with about as much music in their brains as meat in a burger gather on a regular basis in these schools and are pushed beyond all reason to reveal their prodigious talents by passing, at incredibly young ages, those artificial steps to greatness which Mozart, sadly, was never able to experience; the graded music exams and the recital diplomas.  “My daughter did her grade 8 when she was 14”, “MY daughter did hers at 13”, “MY DAUGTHER did hers at 12, and has just done her ATCL”, “Well MY DAUGHTERS both passed their grade 8 at 8, their ATCLS at 9 and are doing their FTCLs at 10”.  I just know that, had the ABRSM been around in Leopold Mozart’s time, he would have boasted that “My Wolfie done his grade 8 when he was 6, and as an encore played the first book of Bach’s 48 Preludes with his feet, standing on his head”.

So the legend grows, and what was an inevitable consequence of being a talented son of a musician in the 18th century, has become an ideal to which so many parents aspire on the behalf of their children.  But they need to know the rest of the story.  Yes, debt, poverty and deprivation are one of the consequences of following the Mozart path, but so too is social and personal failings.  Mozart may have been a musical genius, but he was also a thoroughly awful person; unable to manage his affairs, dishonest, unhygienic and with a number of personal traits which, by today’s standards, would put him on the periphery of legality.

When I was young, my Saturday evenings were much brightened by a couple of talented entertainers whose television shows were unmissable.  There was Rolf Harris, whose infectious high spirits and brilliant method of painting – in which, over huge canvasses, he would paint live on TV something which, only with the very last stroke of the brush, revealed itself – made his shows unmissable, while Jimmy Savile, sitting in his luxurious leather chair and smoking his vast cigars, made the dreams of children come true before our very eyes.  There was the child who wanted to spend a day with the Prime Minister – Jim fixed it for her – and the one who wanted to drive a formula 1 car – Jim fixed it for him too. Every Saturday the tears would flow as yet another child’s life was unforgettably and very publicly enhanced by Jimmy’s intervention.  But we can’t talk of these things now.  Rolf Harris was accused of child sex, sent to prison, and is today regarded as a near-monster the very mention of whose name strikes terror into the hearts of all right-thinking people.  And as for Jimmy Savile, recognised today as probably the greatest sex predator of the modern age, were I to post this on Facebook, it would instantly be taken down as celebrating a man whose bad deeds shook civilized society to its core.  (This is the same morally-degenerate Facebook which, even today, still happily gives the oxygen of publicity to that deranged maniac who ran amok with his guns in Christchurch in a woefully misguided desire to achieve the kind of international publicity his mediocre existence up to that time had denied him.)

Nobody suggests that Mozart ran amok with any kind of weapon (although you could find Islamophobia in Così fan tutte if you looked closely enough), but there are suggestions that he indulged in sexual activities which in today’s society would make him a pariah, and which, had he lived in an age where his talent was exposed weekly to millions through the medium of television, he too, like Harris and Saville, would now be a name banned from public utterance.  But because he lived a long time ago and we choose to ignore his faults by focusing on his good points, he is still seen as a role model.

Mozart’s legacy has provided millions with real comfort and joy in the centuries since his death, but in his day that talent was recognised by only a very few.  Most people recognised him as a selfish, weak and disreputable individual.  We must not make the mistake of judging Mozart as we judge those talented people of our day who balance their talent for spreading happiness with one for spreading misery, but neither should we elevate him to godlike status when he was in life so deeply flawed.  If parents want their children to emulate Mozart, they are in effect, sentencing them to a life of social dishonour, misery and shame.  Let your children enjoy music for what it is, not for what it might bring in the way of fame and fortune, as fame and fortune all too often also bring shame and disgrace.

14 March 2019

April in Singapore

This is by way of an experiment.

There is no one-stop shop for classical music events in Singapore and while friends of performers know all about what their particular associates are up to, for those of us who (like me) have no friends or who come from outside Singapore and have no idea where to go for comprehensive information, I'm going to put up my list of events in their "raw" form.  I compile this list somewhere around the middle of each preceding month based on information available to me, and make my concert-going choices based on it.  Let's see if others find this useful - if you do, please let me know and I'll keep it up.  And if I've missed anything out, let me know and I'll add it.

For your information, SSO = Singapore Symphony Orchestra, SCO = Singapore Chinese Orchestra, SOTA = School of the Arts, SCH = Singapore Conference Hall, VCH = Victoria Concert Hall, ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall, YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall, GAC = Goodwin Arts Centre, OH = Orchestra Hall and RS = Recital Studio.

Monday, 1 April 2019 12.30pm VCH "No Orchestra? No Problem" VCH Organ Series Martin Setchell (org)
Wednesday, 3 April 2019 7.30pm VCH "Springing" YST Graduating performers          
Friday, 5 April 2019 7.30pm ESP "Video Games Classics" SSO Eimear Noone (cond) 
Saturday, 6 April 2019 7.30pm ESP RS "Much A-dur About Nothing" Lee Shi Mei (vln) and Lim Yan (pno)   
Saturday, 6 April 2019 8.00pm tba "Vexilla Regis" Capella Martialis               
Sunday, 7 April 2019 5.00pm VCH "The Complete Sibelius Symphonies (1)" The Philharmonic Orchestra             
Sunday, 7 April 2019 7.45pm GAC "All About Love" The Mad Scene               
Sunday, 7 April 2019 8.00pm tba "Vexilla Regis" Capella Martialis               
Tuesday, 9 April 2019 7.30pm ESP "Intersections" YST Orchestra Jason Lai (cond)             
Friday. 12 April 2019 7.30pm ESP "Dark Majesty, Wild Excellence" SSO
Saturday, 13 April 2019 7.30pm ESP RS "Music Romantic and Modern", Kenneth Hamilton (pno)            
Thursday, 18 April 2019 6.00pm YST OH "Visiting Artist Series" Kevin Thompson and Chris Moyse Brass Duo Recital              
Thursday, 18 April 2019 7.30pm YST "Masters of American Opera" Cantiamo            
Thursday, 18 April 2019 7.30pm ESP "Song of the Nightingale "SSO Choo Huey (cond)
Saturday, 20 April 2019 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 5 hour-long viola recitals
Sunday, 21 April 2019 5.00pm SOTA "Old Worlds for New" Braddell Heights SO & Joy Chorale
Monday, 22 April 2019 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 6 hour-long cello and bass recitals
Tuesday, 23 April 2019, 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals"  2 hour-long piano recitals
Tuesday, 23 April 2019, 4.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 2 hour-long voice recitals
Tuesday, 23 April 2019, 7.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 2 hour-long percussion recitals
Wednesday, 24 April 2019, 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 2 hour-long piano recitals
Wednesday, 24 April 2019, 4.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 4 hour-long violin recitals
Thursday, 25 April 2019, 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 3 hour-long violin recitals
Thursday, 25 April 2019, 6.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 3 hour-long brass recitals        
Friday, 26 April 2019 7.30pm VCH "Music of the Spheres" Aurora Orchestra Pekka Kuusisto (vln), Nicholas Collon (cond)
Saturday, 27 April 2019 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 2 hour-long violin recitals
Saturday, 27 April 2019 4.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 4 hour-long piano recitals         
Saturday, 27 April 2019 7.30pm ESP "A Scottish Journey" SSO
Saturday, 27 April 2019 8.00pm SCH  "Homecoming" SCO
Sunday, 28 April 2019 (my 65th birthday - so music concerts are all cancelled today!!!)
Monday, 29 April 2019 1.00pm YST  "Senior Recitals" 6 hour-long woodwind recitals
Tuesday, 30 April 2019 2.00pm YST "Senior Recitals"  2 hour-long oboe recitals
Tuesday, 30 April 2019, 5.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 4 hour-long French horn recitals

08 March 2019

Concert Promotion Singapore Style

The Sixteen's Singapore debut subjected to a press blackout

It usually works like this.  When an artist or concert promoter puts on a concert, they make early contact with critics to ensure that someone will attend and report in a public arena on the event.  The artist or concert promoter usually hopes for a positive review which can then be used in future marketing materials, but opening the doors to critics – even inviting one and offering them free seating – does not absolve the critics of their responsibility to provide fair, impartial and honest assessments, nor ensure that the artist or concert promoter will receive unequivocally positive feedback.  It is a gamble, but one most are keen to take, since the mere fact that the performance is reviewed imbues it with both professional legitimacy and helps raise the performing profile of the artist.  A review also has that wider reach, going far beyond those who attended or even were interested in the performance, to provide a thermometer for the musical health of a venue and its location.  In short, even a bad review is a winner, since it both keeps the artist’s name in the public eye long after the actual event and lets the wider world know of the musical climate in a particular place. 

In Singapore it works rather differently.  Artists rarely make direct contact with critics, and when they do it is usually on the basis of a perceived personal friendship which is erroneously assumed to ensure a kind and sympathetic review; in my case such artists have all too frequently quickly learnt the error of this approach, and only a few really outstanding concert promoters and artists now get in touch with me directly, knowing that I will be fair and honest rather than kind and sympathetic.  Instead artists and concert promoters rely almost wholly on word-of-mouth to keep their activities in the public eye.  Most concerts now are shared only by means of social media, which has the advantages of being free and effortless, but the big disadvantage of being accessible only to those who already know what is going on.  I suppose, since Singapore is so tiny, that is an understandable practice; there is an assumption that everyone in Singaporean music circles knows each other, so there is no need to open the eyes of a wider public.  That was driven home to me a couple of years ago when I accidentally stumbled across a concert in a studio off Orchard Road, went in, and found myself in a select group of barely a dozen enthusiasts.  The concert organiser opened the proceedings by saying that it was “unusual” to find “our usual audience” so big!  I felt unwelcome and slid away as quickly as I could after the concert ended.

Too many musical events in Singapore are run as private parties, and when, along with a couple of colleagues, I tried to start up a concert listings site, we quickly found strong opposition to it from those who did not want their concert activities to be publicized.  For the outsider, trying to find out what is going on and when in Singapore is impossible.  Private ticketing companies promote only the events for which they have been contracted to sell tickets, while many of the educational and amateur groups who stage concerts seem only to decide to do them at the last minute.  NAFA regularly invites me to concerts the day before they take place, and just this week I have been told of two concerts this weekend, which had only been planned a week ago.  I even had an invitation to one from the artist, unaware that less than a week’s notice for a concert was far too little for me to make space in an always crowded diary. 

But, you may think, at least we have a couple of big public, world-class concert venues.  They, surely, know how to put on and promote their concerts.  In the case of the Victoria Concert Hall, that is certainly true.  Being run by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, it handles its publicity professionally, it does all it can to promote its events to the public and it is welcoming to critics to whom it customarily offers support irrespective of the occasional brickbats we throw at tit.

Sadly, the same is not the case with the other major Singapore concert hall, the Esplanade.  When it opened in 2002, it sent out invitations to critics around the world (I was invited as a representative of a London-based newspaper for whom I was then writing) and made sure its opening festival was made known to the wider world.  It has never, so far as I am aware, ever invited international critics again, and is now positively anti-critic, effectively banning us from concerts it promotes. 

In Singapore, we critics band together once a month and go over the concerts we have heard about in the coming month. We then argue about which ones deserve a review and argue even more energetically on who will cover which concert.  Then we contact the national newspaper (the Straits Times) and try to “sell” these to the relevant editor.  She invariably pares them down to a bare minimum, and we then go about obtaining tickets and informing the relevant organisers that we will be there in an official critical facility.  I managed to bag the review of The Sixteen last night, and was duly thrilled, since I have reviewed in a whole range of international publications and on radio The Sixteen ever since they were first created, and was eager to be the person who reviewed their Singapore premiere performance. 

For those who don’t know, The Sixteen is the finest chamber choir in the world today, its director, Harry Christophers, one of the most unassuming and talented of all choral directors, and his singers include the very best voices on the British vocal circuit.  I may have heard them, live and recorded, hundreds of times, and the programme they presented in Singapore I have heard and reviewed elsewhere before.  But last night was still a major event in Singapore’s musical calendar and warranted all the publicity and media attention it could get. The Esplanade was the promoter and handled the publicity for the concert.  They never invited a critic, and I found out about the concert from The Sixteen themselves.

In the past, when I have been assigned to review a concert promoted by the Esplanade, I have found it difficult to get them to agree.  I have resorted previously to buying my own ticket and turning up incognito.  But as a single ticket-buyer, it is virtually impossible to select a seat of your choice using the SISTIC ticketing company which has exclusive rights to selling tickets for Esplanade events, and as all of us who are regular attendees at the Esplanade know, there are seats which are aural blind-spots.  When I have found myself in one of these, I have commented adversely on the hall’s acoustics, which in turn has led to much anger from the Esplanade management.  So now I am careful always to let them know that I intend to turn up and review a concert, and they provide me with a ticket in a prime aural location. Even then, it doesn't always work; last time, I turned up and they had no ticket for me, and refused me entry until the performers’ agent intervened and gave me one of their complimentary tickets. (I also got a glass of champagne or two in the interval from them, so that made it all worthwhile!)

For The Sixteen, however, the Esplanade was having none of it, and after telling them that I intended to attend to review the performance, they contacted the Straits Times and demanded that they would only allow me to review the concert if the paper also ran a feature on the event.  No newspaper editor will ever allow anyone to dictate what goes into the paper, and so the Straits Times quite rightly refused.  The Sixteen, therefore made its Singapore debut to a press blackout, and Singapore’s musical credibility has consequently been compromised. 

Is it not time that the powers-that-be who run the Esplanade came clean and confessed that they are not interested in classical music, or indeed, in promoting any artistic activities other than the plethora of free, amateur shows put on in public areas in the hope of attracting large crowds to spend their money in the various retail and food outlets within the complex?

16 February 2019

Trotter, Victoria, Bach and Raffles

To jaded old pros, like myself, going to an organ recital has long since lost its allure.  The prospect of hearing a player (whom we’ve usually heard before), playing music (which we already know) on an organ (the sound of which is familiar to us) is not in itself what keeps us going along time after time.  What attracts us is the unique juxtaposition of all three.  We are fascinated to hear what music (and why) such-and-such an organist has chosen to include in the programme, how it’s going to sound on the organ and what the organist does to the music and to the organ which make both sound different.

English organist Thomas Trotter is one of the really big names on the circuit, and his style of playing is deeply familiar from his innumerable live recitals, his large number of recordings and his many broadcast appearances.  A recital by Thomas Trotter is not going to spring any surprises; he’s not one to turn up in skin-tight white jeans and a tee-shirt playing Eminem transcriptions, nor is he going to administer to his audience an undiluted diet of Buxtehude chorale preludes in the belief that several hours of extreme monotony is somehow time well spent.  (There are organists on the circuit who frequently do both, much to the detriment of the organ’s public reputation.)  A Trotter recital is a guarantee of excellent playing, superb mastery of the instrument’s resources, and an interesting and listener-friendly collection of varied repertory which will include some Bach, almost certainly some big Victorian town-hall showpiece, probably some Liszt and without doubt, some transcriptions from the orchestral repertory.  We know we will admire his technique, enjoy his easily-communicative virtuosity and revel in his unpretentious musicianship, and most of all feel comfortable that his “common touch” will make for a pleasant hour-and-a-half’s listening.

Trotter was in Singapore last night for only the second time.  His previous visit was to open the Esplanade Klais organ in 2002 – a recital which in terms of pure sonic sumptuousness has not been equalled, and certainly has not been bettered, in the intervening 17 years.  Sadly, this recital promised no such sonic sumptuousness, for he was not playing on the wonderful and disgracefully under-used Esplanade organ, but on its older, smaller, and much less sumptuous, sister organ in the Victoria Concert Hall.  Built by Klais in the 1980s, this horrid and ugly little thing dates back to a period when shrill and piercing were considered preferable to mellow and soothing.  The hall’s rebuild and acoustic re-modelling in 2014 did it no favours, and the final nail in its coffin came when someone decided to suspend a dozen or so Perspex screens over the stage.  The jury is still out on these so far as the audience is concerned at orchestral concerts (and with their highly reflective surfaces, they provide a disturbing visual distraction by mirroring, upside down, everything that is going on on stage), but there is no question that their arrival signalled the final departure of any vestiges of acoustic breadth to alleviate the hard-edged, nasty sound of the organ.  Listening to it in the hall is not so much like receiving a punch in the face, as experiencing that sensation you have standing near the back of a Singapore bus; being blasted by an inescapable barrage of heat and feeling grubby from the perceived exposure to oil-fired fumes. (And I speak as a tireless admirer of Singapore buses.)

Trotter’s programme seemed to be planned with the Esplanade in mind, and I was not alone in wondering how big, aural spectaculars such as Liszt’s BACH Prelude & Fugue and Edwin Lemare’s classic transcription of Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March No.1 could possibly succeed on the Victoria Hall organ with its single-minded devotion to looking and sounding like people in the 1980s imagined the organs of Buxtehude’s time to look and sound.  But Trotter is not one of the world’s greatest and most communicative organists for nothing, and what he can’t do with an organ simply isn’t worth knowing. 

Perhaps he resorted a little too often to the full organ sound – with big pieces on a small organ, that is inevitable – but he managed to alleviate the fundamentally offensive quality of what organists describe as the “pleno” (basically, pulling out all the stops to make the loudest noise) by the ingenious device of surrounding each pleno with a little bit of space.  This not only took the strain off our ears, but more importantly, it prevented an inevitable consequence of wind-powered pipe organs (a problem those who play their electronic cousins do not have and do not even think about);  when you play lots of notes together with all the pipes sounding (and it is worth pointing out to the uninitiated that a single key depressed on the organ can send wind up several dozen pipes simultaneously, some of which are well over five metres in length) you use up a great deal of wind, and smaller organs (and quite a few large ones too) simply don’t have that much wind in reserve.  The result is a marked drop in pitch.  This happened time and time again when Trotter trotted out the pleno, but by his judicious use of pauses and small breaks in the flow, he was able to avoid that horrible moment when the drop in pitch is cruelly laid bare as intonation is restored to normal service.  It was little tricks like that, which are the hallmarks of a truly fine organist, which helped make the Victoria Hall organ sound quite acceptable.

I must have heard the Victoria Hall organ dozens of times (I even played it myself on a couple of occasions, when it was in the pre-rebuilt hall) and never, in all those performances, have I ever heard it sound so nice as it did here.  It’s still an ugly little instrument, but under Trotter’s infinitely caring ministrations, it revealed surprising delights. Trotter clearly felt that the soft flute stops of the organ were its biggest charmers, and he used them frequently to very great effect – even highlighting them in his encore, the inevitable Humoresque (Toccatina) by Pietro Yon, a composer known for just two works; the standard encore piece which all organists have up their sleeves, and a Christmas song which Pavarotti invariably used as his encore piece (Gesu Bambino).

As for the programme itself, it did come up with one novelty for me in the shape of a transcription for organ solo of J C Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto Op.1 No.6.  Using the flutes and playing with delightfully crisp and nimble fingerwork, Trotter opened my eyes to something I don’t think I had ever heard before – and something which I would very much hope to hear again.  For me, this was very much the musical highlight of his programme. 

The programme ostensibly celebrated the bi-centenary of modern Singapore’s founding and its absorption into the British Empire.  But drawing on his vast repertory, Trotter, opened the recital with a collection of party-pieces which had nothing to do with 1819, Singapore, or, indeed, the British Empire.  Their unifying factor was Bach, but not quite as you might expect. 

He began with a piece which was by Bach, if not intended by Bach to be heard as we heard it here.  Bach wrote all three bits of the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue (BWV564) at different times and for different purposes, and it seems they were only ever brought together as a unified work sometime in the early 19th century.  I’m not sure the Toccata, with its flamboyant manual flourishes, extended pedal solos and complete lack of real invention, can be held up as an example of Bach at his greatest, but the enchanting Adagio and its gloriously tongue-twisting Fugue add substance to the frivolity of the Toccata.  As an opener, it provided the perfect vehicle to showcase Trotter’s immaculate fingerwork and his crystal clear articulation – you could, indeed, hear every single note, and you could hear that every single note was not just correctly played, but perfectly placed.  Some of the echo effects in the Toccata did not quite work, but they served their purpose in taking some of the pressure off our ears in an otherwise very forthright and sustained outburst of loud organ tone.

Deliberately modelled on Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, Alberto Ginastera’s Toccata, Villancico and Fugue on BACH (Op.18) dates from 1947 and is often trotted out by organists because, like similar pieces by Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich, it is the only organ work by a notable 20th century composer.  I’m not sure it has many other selling points, although in his charming spoken introductions to the programme, Trotter did suggest that we listen out for a moment which was his particular favourite in the piece (and, yes, it highlighted the soft flutes).  The mere fact that he had told us to listen out for this, helped most of the audience get through what was really a rather unattractive if (for organists) interesting piece of music. 

It was lucky for us that Trotter did offer fluently delivered and easily-grasped spoken introductions, for the printed programme notes offered nothing of interest and were embarrassing by their peddling of basic errors and misinformation. Few other organists, however, could have got away with telling his audience that “they were in for a treat” when describing the way he was to play his next work.  But even the most ardent Liszt-iophile would hardly say that their God-like Hero was at his best in the Prelude & Fugue on BACH, with its obsessive, manic reiterations of the four-note figure which, in German notation, spells out the letters B-A-C-H.  It’s certainly a popular organ piece, because it makes lots of noise and goes very fast.  Trotter did not disappoint in either regard, and his virtuosity, as well as the incredible clarity of sound, meant that we did, indeed, hear, as promised, “every single note”. 

If the first half of the programme had celebrated Bach in various guises, the second did, at least, manage a peripheral nod towards 1819 and Sir Stamford Raffles; no music from 1819, but two pieces incorporating a tune familiar throughout the British Empire.  “God Save the King” was first written to be played after performances at two London theatres in September 1745 following the catastrophic defeat of King George’s troops under Sir John Cope at the Battle of Prestonpans.  When J C Bach arrived in England just 17 years later, “God Save The King” had still not been elevated to the status of official national anthem, so he didn’t think twice about using it as the theme for a set of variations in his Harpsichord Concerto, but by the latter half of the 19th century it was not just the National Anthem of Great Britain but of the whole Empire, and had been re-worded to accommodate the fact that Quest Victoria was on the throne as Empress.  The connection between Empress Victoria and Victoria Hall in Empress Place was too strong to be missed, so Trotter gave us a suitably empirical account of W T Best’s classic Introduction, Variations and Finale On "God Save the Queen”. 

He ended his programme with transcriptions of works by composers who were born in England at the height of the British Empire – although none actually dated back as far as 1819 and neither, so far as we know, ever set foot in Singapore.  Holst was represented by Trotter’s own transcription of “Jupiter” from The Planets.  Holst’s orchestral version (which, interestingly, was not the original – he conceived it for two pianos) is a dazzling kaleidoscope of aural effects and ever-changing colours.  Here, surely, was something which would defeat even Trotter’s unrivalled skill at handling recalcitrant organs.  Not a bit of it.  Whilst he spent much of his time darting his hands over to the stops to pull them out and push them in, and stamping with his feet on combination pedals (pedals which add extra stops when you can’t reach them by hand, which are situated above the pedals which produce the notes and beside the pedals which create a crescendo and diminuendo effect) he did have to bring in the services of his page-turner to pull and push a few stops as well as stamp on a couple of combination pedals when his own hands and feet were otherwise occupied.  Having someone to do this is a last-resort (a bit like a pianist asking someone to operate the pedals for them) but on the Victoria Hall organ it’s a necessity since the design of the instrument is such as to render it virtually unplayable by a single person.  But the page-turner did a marvellous job – as unobtrusive visually and aurally as it was possible to be, never missing his cue, and standing out of the way so that visibility from the auditorium was never impeded.  And the result was well worth it – I simply did not imagine the Victoria Hall Klais had it in it to make such a splendid variety of sounds.

Ending with a couple of Elgar transcriptions, there was a welcome sense of release and celebration, which is not to say that they weren’t both brilliantly played and magnificently brought across on the organ.  But by that time we had all become so accustomed to Trotter’s effortless virtuosity and easy communication, that we neither noticed the breath-taking virtuosity nor the limitations of the organ, and simply revelled in superlative music-making.  That was an organ recital well worth going to, even for us jaded old pros.


14 February 2019

Classical CD sales up

This report appeared in this month's issue of Gramophone magazine
I read this with huge interest, not least because I have been convinced over the past few months that there are more classical CDs coming through and that other forms of listening are not necessarily retaining their allure.  What makes me even more excited is the fact that I have reviewed two of the five Top-Sellers listed. 

13 February 2019

Collaboration or Separation?

“When”, an American colleague whispered to me during a student recital, “did soloists stop standing in the crook of the piano?”  He went on to ask me whether it was the way things were done in Europe because, “It sure isn’t the way we do things in the States”!

I had no answer.  The practice of standing with your back to your accompanist is one that has seeped into collaborative music-making without my ever really noticing it before, but my colleague is quite right.  Sometime in the past few years the standard practice of an instrumental or vocal soloist standing in such a way as not only to have almost physical contact with the piano, but also obvious visual contact with the pianist, has gone out of the window.  And I can’t remember when it happened.  It might be a geographical thing – I really can’t recall where the soloists were placed in the few recitals I’ve attended recently outside south east Asia - I must make a point of seeing if it is widespread or merely a regional aberration.

What's that woman in black doing behind me?
At today’s recital three instrumental soloists – two of them violinists and one of them a cellist – placed themselves centre stage with their backs to the pianist and as far as possible (without it looking totally ridiculous) from the piano.  Rather than present themselves as an integral part of a duo, they stood out front with neither physical nor visual relationship with their collaborator.

I look back to some of the great recitals I’ve attended which are still fresh in my memory.  I recall a few stunning vocal recitals in which the singer not only stood in the crook of the piano, but sung with a hand - sometimes even a whole arm – embracing the edge of the piano and often focusing their visual attention as much with the pianist as with the audience.  I recall cellists sitting at 45 degrees to the audience so that the pianist was well within their range of vision, and I recall violinists, oboists, flautists and clarinettists often quite mobile on their feet, but keeping within that invisible area defined by imaginary lines drawn from the top of the keyboard to cross at 90 degrees one drawn along from the longest part of the piano case.  That interaction not only with the pianist but with the piano itself was often a major feature in making these historic recitals so enticing and enriching.
Physical and Visual collaboration

So why has the habit grown whereby the soloist not only physically distances themselves from the piano, but positions themselves so that they are, in effect, standing with their back to their musical partner.  How come back to back has taken the place of eye contact in what should be a collaborative relationship?

I can think of three possible reasons.  Firstly, they rehearse at home not with a live pianist but with a machine; and they do not think to adjust when the machine is replaced by a living, breathing human being (which is what collaborative pianists generally are).  Secondly, they are so focussed on their own instrument that they do not even notice the presence of a second one.  And thirdly (and here I feel I may be getting closer to the truth), they are so indoctrinated in their lessons towards competitions, that they believe an audience is only interested in watching and listening to them.  In a competition, the accompanist merely serves as a regulating backdrop to throw the spotlight on the competitor; the solo performer (who thinks of themselves as exactly that) sees no reason to involve the pianist when the focus of the adjudicator is 100% on them.

I can see you - you're all around me
Whatever the reason, now that it has been drawn to my attention I find it deeply disturbing.  Sadly, the third of our instrumental solos in today’s recital came after my colleague’s observation, and I was struck how often ensemble between pianist and soloist – both excellent players in their own right – fell short of perfection.  How can the pianist be there when the violinist ends a particularly flamboyant passage of display, if there is no visual contact?  To see the violinist, the pianist would have had to turn so far round on the stool that the hands would have been forced out of position. 

Diploma examiners were always instructed to take the accompanist into consideration when assessing recital diplomas.  We were told to comment on attire and stagecraft, and if there was no visual contact between the two, then criticism should be made and marks deducted.  Do we no longer worry about such matters?  Have we become so focussed on individual achievement that we have lost sight of the collaborative effort which is, in most cases, what the music was originally intended to provoke?

Whatever the reason, and why ever it’s done, I don’t think it is a good thing for the future of music, and I hope that we might soon revert to the logical and visually attractive habit of seeing musicians work in collaboration rather than in divorced isolation.


12 February 2019

Dysonian Ethics

My good friend Peter Almond was so smitten by a recording he had come across of George Dyson’s Choral Symphony that he sent me not one, but two copies (thanks to Amazon, whose respect for the environment is equalled only by their respect for the tax laws in the various territories in which it operates, and who sent me two copies in two different and extravagant packages which travelled separately from an address less than 10 kms from my home in Scotland to Singapore).  I almost joined Peter in my admiration of the Dyson Symphony, but found it a little uneven with many passages of sublime beauty and power countered by one or two rather weak and insipid gestures where, one suspects, a need to set the text overcame the seam of musical invention. 

But then you can’t register any surprise at that, since the work was written as a graduation exercise at Oxford University in 1917 and was never intended either for performance or publication.  Indeed, it was a Dyson enthusiast, preparing a biography of the composer, who unearthed the manuscript in the Bodleian Library and, seemingly dribbling at the mouth with excitement, prepared it for posthumous publication.

Should he have done so?  Is it fair to put up to public scrutiny a work which, it would seem, was merely prepared as an academic exercise and never expected to be used to assess the quality of a composer’s work over half-a-century after his death? Dyson went on to become a significant figure in British choral music, and in my days as a choral conductor I frequently programmed his music, knowing that choirs would love singing it and audiences would enjoy hearing it.  I reckoned he was one of the great unsung heroes of British music who, along with Stanford, Parry and Bax, deserved then, and deserves even moreso today, recognition on the international front.  But does that mean that every single note he ever committed to paper is worth preserving and, if necessary, unearthing?

Surely there is no such thing as a composer who has written something and not regretted it?  How often do we hear of composers substantially revising works for publication after having heard them in performance?  Yet Dyson’s Choral Symphony was neither performed nor published, and so the composer never had the luxury of revising it and putting it into a state whereby he would feel it could be passed down to posterity to his professional advantage.  From my point of view, the world is better for having Dyson’s Choral Symphony in the public domain, especially given this outstanding recorded performance from David Hill, the Bach Choir, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  But while I am prepared to overlook the obvious weaknesses in the score, presumably resulting from the extreme inexperience of the composer as well as from his inability to have heard it performed live, others are not.  I read reviews from those who do highlight its weaknesses and use them as a stick to beat Dyson’s reputation into the ground. Andrew Mellor in Gramophone writes of its “dullness and impressionability” and its “parochial rum-ti-tum”, and the danger is that those to whom the name George Dyson is an unknown quantity will read this and assume Dyson is a third rate composer.  Mellor is not wrong; it is just that he is forced into a position where some may read his justifiable criticism of an immature work as an ultimate assessment of an entire compositional output.   

So we have an ethical issue here, which extends to much of the repertory musicians now regard as their own property.  Mahler’s 10th Symphony (indeed, we could also suggest the Ninth), Mozart’s Requiem, symphonies by Bruckner, Elgar, Schubert, concertos by Bach, the list goes on and on.  All these would be lost to us if we insisted on performing works which existed only in a format which the composer decided was finished and complete.  There is a strong case for taking unfinished works by established composers and getting some scholarly authority to turn them into performance-ready artwork.  But should we do that with the juvenilia of a composer whose maturity produced well-rounded works by which the world can more fairly assess him?  I think most student composers would be horrified to imagine that exercises submitted to their professors might one day be wheeled out by over-enthusiastic researchers intent on laying bare their every musical utterance to the world at large.  Is it right to make an exception of Dyson just because his music has recently run out of copyright protection?

That said, I would strongly urge anyone to listen Dyson’s Choral Symphony.  I’d far rather you called me a hypocrite, than missed out on the opportunity to hear a wonderful, if not perfectly-formed, musical work.