11 March 2020

The Function of the Cassette

Image result for cassette

80,404 cassette tapes were bought in the UK last year last year, the highest annual figure since 2004.  That seems quite a lot for a medium which has, by all accounts, long outlived its usefulness.  Cars with inbuilt cassette decks are now only to be found in the ranks of vintage vehicles, and you need to find a yard selling house-clearance items to find a machine on which you can play cassettes at home. By common consensus, the cassette tape was, for all its once ubiquitous convincing, a pretty dreadful means of listening to music.  It was impossible to access individual tracks, the sound was masked by a loud and persistent hiss (a kind of mechanical tinnitus) and after a few playings, the tape invariably got stuck in the machine and had to be pulled out by hand, which unravelled the tape from the spool on to which it was physically impossible to rewind it, and knots of cassette tape became a standard feature of hedgerows where they were thrown, in desperation, from car windows.  I remember just one such occasion being a core part of the storyline to an Inspector Morse episode in the 1980s.

The British Phonographic Industry (they were the people who came up with the 80,404 figure), point out that cassettes still only accounted for 0.1% “of all music consumed in 2019” (presumably that excludes broadcast and live performances), and that it paled into insignificance compared with 4.3 million vinyl LPs and 23.5 million CDs. 

What intrigues me is why people would buy cassettes.  The BPI has its own thoughts on the matter; “Experts put the revival down to a combination of people who bought them in their youth, and a novelty for younger music fans”.  But I have a different view, and one which was prompted by a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 last evening called “New Weird Britain”.  In it John Doran searched out the underground, experimental music scene in the UK.  And weird it most certainly is.  Here are just a few observations from a concert Doran attended while recording the programme: “A man with a mouthguard in a balaclava dribbles into a bag of shopping”, “A film showing bright pink bottoms sitting on Victoria sponge cakes is projected”, “I don’t want to look pretty when I perform, I want to look a bit weird and ugly, like a yellow custard alien”.  While this is unashamedly (and, it has to be said, purposefully) weird, it masks a very serious issue, which Doran explains at the very start; “There’s a new wave of musicians who don’t care about the 80s or 90s…because they are making something completely new out of the remnants”.  In other words, this is not nostalgia, but a genuine attempt to move on from the past.  And, for all my classical inclinations, I found far more to enjoy in the music I heard in this programme than in any of the commercialised pop of our time or the sterile experiments in unattractive sound by academic-based composers keen to show off their ability to confuse and obfuscate. 

But where do cassette tapes fit into all this?

Towards the end of the programme, Doran interviewed a young man who had set up a recording studio called the Greater Lanarkshire Research Council (GLARC) which offered free recording facilities to experimental music groups and released the recordings as cassettes.  As he explained, “it is economically a very sound choice. They are extremely cheap to produce.  We looked into doing vinyl but you usually have to do a run of 300 or 400, and it costs around 1500, whereas with tapes you’re looking at 1 per tape”.  Simple economics have led to the cassette becoming an iconic symbol of experimental music and, as the man from GLARC put it, “you can be more experimental with a tape”.  On top of that, because of their cheapness, you can play around with their physical appearance without worrying too much about any detrimental effect it might have on the sound.  The cassette, in effect, becomes a physical more than an aural representation of the performance; as Doran put it, “Selling cassettes after a gig is like a Masonic handshake”.

This ability to convey a genre which clearly goes beyond sound seems to me to be at least a significant driver of the increase in cassette tape sales rather than any desire for nostalgia or novelty.  And perhaps we are now coming to an age where the medium of carriage for music is dependent on the musical genre.  If the cassette has become the medium which defines experimental music, and vinyl that which defies rock music, perhaps the time has come for the classical world to claim back ownership of the CD.  One thing every performer has in common is a desire to get their music out into the world and, to do that, while you can certainly use online streaming and downloads, there is also the desire – in fact the need – to have some physical manifestation of one’s existence.  As I have frequently reminded students, about to embark on their careers and solo performers, giving an audience a link to a YouTube video has none of the long-lasting benefits of selling them a CD.  What the CD brings to classical music which makes it the ideal carrier, is its highly detailed sound, shorn of the atmospherics inbuilt to vinyl and cassette, and the provision of a booklet which, at some length, can introduce the performer, the instrument and the music.  We could be learning from the experimental music people, and making the CD our own, unique medium and not dismissing it as cumbersome, outdated technology.

08 March 2020

Romeo and Juliet in Singapore

It was never a specific part of my loose and amazingly wide-ranging job description with the Petronas Philharmonic Hall in Kuala Lumpur, but I was the assiduous archivist.  I know the Malaysian Philharmonic librarians kept their own records, but I noted every single piece of music played in the hall, not just by the MPO but by visiting orchestras and artists, as well as the encores they played.  Funnily enough, when I left and offered this huge database to the management, they told me to destroy it. Whether or not I did remains my little secret, but I do not need to check it to know that in the first 10 years of the hall’s existence, the most frequently performed music was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, it was almost always played in part rather than whole: orchestral suites prepared by the composer as well as by visiting and resident conductors, isolated movements performed by one or two pianos, an organist devising her own arrangements of extracts and, most memorably, a pair of mandolins playing, what for my money, is the most magical moment in the complete score.  The MPO even did it complete on one famous and unforgettable occasion.

But whether whole or in part, the music of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet has become phenomenally popular with both performers and audiences.  There are many possible reasons for this, but my own passion for the work – beyond my admiration for the brilliance of Prokofiev’s invention and scoring – is based on its absolutely infectious qualities.  (When it comes to infection, COVID-19 has nothing on Romeo and Juliet killing far less people, per head  – the death rate in R&J works out around 14% as opposed to the 1.4% of COVID-19 as suggested by researchers at the University of Hong Kong.)  But while four people end up dead on stage, it’s not as a result of the musical virus.  That virus infects everyone who comes near the music, and manifests itself in uncontrollable foot tapping and an urge, even amongst fat slobs with gippy knees (like myself), to start dancing.  My 12-year-old daughter, generally immune to the delights of classical music, claims Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet to be her most favourite piece of music, and it was to satisfy her love for the music and her insatiable obsession with dancing, that I arranged for her to go the matinee performance of the Singapore Dance Theatre’s current production of Romeo and Juliet which is on at the Esplanade Theatre until Sunday night.  As it happened, my daughter could not attend so I went alone. 

Matinee performances are not really my scene, and I found myself surrounded by hordes of schoolgirls in their early teens doing what all Singaporean schoolgirls in their early teens do by natural instinct; continually texting each other on their phones and working through their mathematics homework, seemingly oblivious to the action on stage.  But the minute the performance started, I was utterly and completely engrossed, and even the continual chatter of the Greek gentleman behind me translating everything as it happened to his young daughter (although quite what there is to translate in a ballet is all Greek to me) did not for a moment detract from what was, in the true meaning of the word, a mesmerising performance.

As an avid ballet-goer and an even avid-er Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet camp-follower, I suffer that terrible problem of having my own favourite productions by which I subconsciously measure all others.  The auguries were not good for this one.  The lavish and information-packed programme book (what a shame the excellent, if sometimes contentious, words in it were unattributed) warned that Choo-San Goh’s production was very different from the others, in that it “is noted for his invention of a character, danced by a woman, representing Fate”.  I was apprehensive; in my 60s and with dozens of R&J’s under my extensive belt, changes of this magnitude do not sit easily, and I had never seen this particular production before.  Yet from the moment this figure, encased in a grey body-glove, whirred on to stage, I was completely won over.  So powerful a symbol was she that, on each appearance, sliding effortlessly across the stage at speed en pointe, my heart dropped. Not for any other reason than this dramatic presence symbolised the inescapable, unavoidable tragic consequences of the story.  Perhaps the brilliance of the dancer – on Saturday it was performed by Kwok Min Yi – was what made the figure of Fate so fabulous, but as a choreographer’s vision, it was truly inspired.

The dancing from the entire cast was superb.  Juliet (Akira Nakahama) and Romeo (Etienne Ferrère) exuded huge and utterly credible characters even in their extraordinarily long-drawn-out deaths, the former a model of grace and fluency, the latter a powerful and sincere presence on stage.  The Nurse (Samantha Kim) was brilliant, as was Friar Laurence (Yann Ek), the latter immensely impressive as he realised his fatal error in handing the potion to Juliet, and his desperate attempt to get her off stage before she espied the corpse of her lover.  Other memorable performances came from Lord and Lady Capulet (Mohamed Noor Sarman and Elaine Heng), especially in the remarkable ballroom dance, and from Tybalt (Reece Hudson), whose physical representation of extreme anger was nothing short of marvellous.

Perhaps, however, if there was a fault in the choreography, it was in a tendency to overuse certain technical devices.  Tybalt’s anger was dramatic first time around, but second time it rather lost its impact, and if poor Juliet was bent double at the back in a lift one more time, I suspect she will have permanent curvature of the spine.  But the choreography also had some dazzlingly brilliant moments.  The three Montagues’ “Masks” dance in the first act was truly breathtaking, as were their various subsequent appearances, and the sword fights were vivid and genuinely edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Every time I attend a performance where an accompanying orchestra is conducted by Joshua Tan, I become even more impressed with his instinctive ability to respond to what is going on on stage.  His timing was effortless yet perfect, his pacing ideal and his command unwavering yet unobtrusive. It’s probably unfair to gauge the quality of the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra from a Saturday afternoon matinee performance; suffice it to say that among the many great strengths they exhibited in this performance, intonation and precision of attack were not among them.  But I can only heap oodles of praise on the trumpet section which, throughout, was nothing short of magnificent.

The staging, lighting and entire production worked seamlessly and flawlessly – a great tribute not just to Janek Schergen, set-designer Peter Cazalet (whose costumes were fabulous) and lighting supremo Suven Chan, but to the whole backstage team – and the only serious downside was an ingratiatingly-voiced announcer who  irritatingly ran over a whole list of sponsors and glibly interrupted our applause by promoting other shows and encouraging us to spend lots of money.  My daughter missed a real treat, but, hordes of teenage schoolgirls and Greek fathers notwithstanding, I had one of the most magical times I can remember for a very long year.

17 February 2020

Has Music Stolen Our Emotions?

“Shall I tell you why people like us need fine art and good music?”  I caught an old 1990s TV series set in a judges’ chambers, and while my real intention was to veg out (chillax, is how David Cameron put it) in front of some mindless entertainment, one of the characters uttering those words to a new young female appointee puzzled by the apparent lack of concern judges showed for the consequences of their decisions, brought me back to reality with a jerk.  “It’s because we have lost the ability to feel.  We need other people’s feelings and passions to fill that hole in our own souls”.

Far be it from me ever to elevate the words of a jobbing TV script writer, charged with providing fodder for a series of hour-long episodes primarily concerned with giving exposure to a couple of once hugely popular actors in order to boost the channel’s viewing figures, into deep and considered thought, but this struck me as being – consciously or otherwise – remarkably perceptive.  And it offered a credible solution to a conundrum that has puzzled me for years; why has music suddenly become so ubiquitous, and why has it now become such a permanent feature of our daily lives that we seem almost to have taken it for granted?

Today, if you ask anyone to describe a piece of music, they will not tell you what they hear but offer their emotional response to it.  Music has become “beautiful”, “awesome”, “lovely”, “moving”, “passionate”, “angry”, “vicious”, “terrible”; words which indicate an emotional state rather than a physical one.  When Victor Hugo wrote in the mid-19th century, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”, he was implying that music could express those deep, innermost sensations in us which we call our emotions, and for which we cannot find words to articulate.  There is no similar quote about music from previous centuries and, indeed, the linkage of music with emotion seems to have come only with Beethoven.

When people declare that Bach’s music is “beautiful”, they may be speaking the truth in the context of our own time, but I would argue that for Bach, beauty and music were wholly separate entities.  He wrote his music in praise of God and not as a kind of self-serving, stand-alone aural monument to be regarded solely on its own terms.  I suspect he would be horrified if he knew his offerings in praise of his God have now become a conduit through which he himself has been elevated to near God-like status.  We may find humour and wit in Vivaldi and Haydn, and love and happiness in that of Telemann and Mozart, but does that mean that this was why they wrote their music and what they expected their listeners to perceive in it?  If so, where are the rest of the gamut of human emotions?  Where is the anger, the spite, the viciousness, the desperation and the depression?  Yes, we can dig deep and, with a lot of imagination, find these other human emotions in their music, but the very fact that they are buried so deep, indicates that the channelling of their own human emotions was not their prime purpose in composing what they did.  We may find it difficult to believe that there was an age where emotions were so suppressed as to be virtually non-existent, or to understand a people who had neither the desire nor the ability to express, in any form, the inner feelings we now believe to be the very raison d'être of music.

It seems that no composer before Beethoven saw music as a means of expressing emotion as we now understand it.  Perhaps we have replaced a once blind obedience in the omnipresence of God with a blind belief in our right to voice and express our own sexuality, personality, beliefs and emotions, and thereby can no longer understand how society existed without these rights of self-expression.  Certainly the French Revolution started a train of consciousness which travelled far beyond the mere overthrowing of aristocratic rulers and a liberation, politically and economically, of mankind.  The freedom we now enjoy to express our innermost thoughts in a public arena and have them treated with respect is surely one of those unforeseen consequences.  Wherever the roots of it may lie, since the beginning of the 19th century, music has become a channel for emotions in a way it never was before.

Even that, though, does not explain the extraordinary ubiquitousness of music today.  Once the preserve of the gods and the god-like, the rulers and the religious, it is now the very fodder of daily life in all strata of society.  We have music force-fed to us in stores, taxis, station concourses, aircraft, we have it seeping out of the ears of our fellow citizens and we sell the latest technology on the strength of its ability to store ever greater numbers of musical pieces.  And that it is what puzzles me.  I know (or I think I know) why and how emotion first came into music, but I do not know why everyone and everywhere seems to use music as they use the air we breathe and the environment in which we live.  And seeing the destruction we wreak on our air and our environment, the consequence of having taken it for granted for so long, I can only see music suffering the same fate; as we destroy our physical environment, surely we are similarly destroying our aural one.  If we could recognise why we need music all around us, we might begin to find some way of saving it; otherwise, music is surely doomed.

And this is where our fictional judges’ chamber comes in.  Judges’ emotions may well have been blunted by continual exposure to the emotional wreckage they see before them in their courts.  I have no way of knowing the truth of this, the only high court judge I ever knew being an elderly Sri Lankan who used to tell me, with some glee, about the people he had sentenced to death and the appalling crimes they had committed (or not, as he also seemed unafraid to admit).  But I do know that the vast mass of our population is continually exposed to the greatest horrors life and imagination has to offer on a daily basis through our personal screens and cinema.  We see and hear so much that presents humanity in an extreme way, that in comparison we find our own experiences mundane and sense that our emotions lack the sharp-edges of those we witness on these various visual media.

Away from the screens and the cinemas, the reality of our lives seems dull and uneventful, we do not seem to experience the emotional highs and lows we see happening in front of our eyes electronically on a daily basis.  In short, our emotions have been blunted; we do not seem to experience the same passion, pleasure, joy, anger, terror or love of those who appear on our screens, so we feel bereft.  This is where music comes in.  It can personalise those emotional excesses and become our own channels for expressing a level of emotional consciousness we do not ourselves feel.  In short, it has become a substitute for genuine human feeling.

14 February 2020

The Nonsense Composers Write

This week I seem to have been upsetting composers, but that is neither surprising nor even unusual; composers should be fiercely possessive of their art and leap to its defence in the face of any negative criticism real or implied.  However, the offence has been caused not by my words about their music, but by my words about their words.  In short, I have come across that familiar situation where a composer has tried to explain or justify his music and has, so far as I am concerned, failed dismally.

I better be careful not to name names, but on Thursday a letter reached me from a Russian composer now resident in Switzerland whose music I had encountered for the first time when I reviewed a newly-issued CD of his recent works.  I have to say I was bowled over and loved every second.  My overwhelming impression, however (and I certainly did not intend this as a negative criticism) was that it was rooted in the sound world and musical idioms of the late 19th/early 20th century.  I commented that if Rachmaninov had been castigated in his life time for seeming to be backward looking, how would those narrow-minded critics react to music written in 2015 which inhabited a sound world which would have been familiar to listeners a century ago.  My point was that we have, critically moved on, and we now assess a work on its own merits, not on any misguided belief that music written today should sound difficult for the sake of sounding difficult. 

Here is what the composer wrote to me in response to that;
“You write that my Fourth Symphony ‘belongs firmly to the late 19th century sound world’ and ‘seems almost more backward-facing than Rachmaninov’.  But you are wrong!  The music has many characteristics that can only be heard in works from the twentieth century”, and he goes on to suggest that his music owes much to Verklärte Nacht, Gurre-Lieder, “early Berg and early Webern”.  I’m not sure that allying your music to the pre-serial days of the so-called Second Viennese School composers at the dawn of the last century is a convincing way of telling me that this music of the 21st century is NOT backward-looking.   On top of that, on the basis that the work is titled Symphony no.4 in G minor I observed that it was “firmly rooted in tonality”.  Yet the composer objects to this too; “the polytonal and atonal segments…you seem unable to hear”.  Whether I heard them or not does not alter the composer’s clear statement of tonality in the title.  If he wanted it to be seen as “polytonal and atonal”, why did he unequivocally state that it was in G minor?

In short, here is a composer who writes wonderful music, but would do well to keep his thoughts to himself when it comes to words; I am now not sure whether he really understands that the musical world has moved on since 1914.

The day before I received this letter, I had been taken out to dinner by another composer who told me that a third composer, a premiere of whose I had attended and reviewed earlier in the week, was baying for my blood.  One of that composer’s acolytes (I assume) has since written an anonymous message to me suggesting that my future existence on earth is by no means guaranteed.  It seems the fact that I was not ecstatic about the new work did not cause so much offence as the fact that I appeared to assume it was something it was not.  From the title of the work, as well as from the composer’s own fulsome programme notes oozing with lyrical prose and evocative imagery, I suggested in my review that the sound of the music did not live up to the expectations.  Frankly, there was just about nothing in the composer’s description of his music which related to what the music actually sounded like, and while I accept that everything he suggested was there in the composing process, it had been so enveloped within a desire to emphasise the technique of writing music, that to the casual listener, the description and the reality were two very different things.  “What was he expecting?”, is a phrase which the composer apparently uttered after having read my review. 
I am happy to answer him.  If you tell us that the piece evokes images of a rustic scene, that it incorporates a couple of famous folk melodies, and that the music represents a very picturesque image, then that is what I expect to hear.  The fact that what I got was a lot of random sounds, a chaotic assemblage of musical and extra-musical effects and an incoherent progression from great volume to near silence, means that, whether I liked what I heard or not, it certainly did not live up to the false expectations set up in the composer’s own words.  How much better this would have been if we could have assessed the work on its own merits, unencumbered by preconceptions set in progress by the composer’s pre-performance words. 

In both these cases, the composers have written music which may or may not have great merit and which I may or may not have enjoyed on its own terms, but have undermined that by trying to verbalise their intentions.  Whatever happened to the old dictum of composers; once the music is in the public domain, you no longer have any control over it?

I raised this very point with my composer dining-companion and found that this was by no means an accepted dictum among today’s composers.  Surely, I was told, the composer knows better than anyone else what the music is all about.  Yes, that is true at the creative stage, but once it is in the hands of the performers and the ears of the listeners, it takes on a life of its own.  E T A Hoffmann told us that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was all about fate; Beethoven told us that it was all about the singing of birds.  Most of us accept Hoffmann’s interpretation and dismiss Beethoven’s.  And were we to accept Beethoven at his word, and accept no other interpretation of that famous four note motiv, I am not sure the Fifth Symphony would have gone on to achieve such immense popularity.  Composers have to learn to let go and let us interpret and respond to their music on our own personal terms.  They have given us the raw material to which we attach our own personal and emotional baggage; many might suggest that this is the very purpose of music today.

“We should dispense with programme notes altogether”, my dining companion suggested.  The answer to that is a resounding NO.  We need programme notes to guide us through the music, to point us in a suggested direction of listening (and thereby unravelling what can sometimes be a confusing array of sounds) and to give some context to what we hear, but possibly the composer is the last person who should do that being, as they are, too close to their own creation  - the same concept as used to prevent close relatives from testifying against each other in a court of law.  (Programme notes also exist to provide a tangible and physical souvenir of the occasion.  When the music has stopped sounding in our ears, the programme notes can help it continue sounding in our memories.)  There is an art to all this while avoiding the danger of setting up false expectations in the listener’s mind; and it’s an art few composers seem to possess.  By all means tell us why you wrote it, when you wrote and what your dog was doing while you were writing it, but please don’t tell us how to listen to it.  Our ears are not the same as yours, and we need to approach your music on our own terms and in our own way.

Back in the early 1970s I was the editor of the programme book for the Cardiff Festival of 20th Century Music.  As publication day dawned I had still not received any word about a new commission from a certain well-known German-born Jewish American naturalised composer.  I wrote to him time and time again, asking for some basic information so that I could mould it into a coherent programme note, but he insisted he was going to write his own note for publication.  He was, he reminded me, famous as a communicator and he felt he knew his music better than anyone else and could describe it more precisely.  On the very morning the copy was due to go off to the printers, his note arrived.  I remember it vividly; “This work may be long or short, loud or soft, it has rhythm and melody and is scored for piano, violin and possibly some other instruments”.  Such perceptive writing from a composer puts the carefully-chosen words of the professional programme-note writer to shame!

13 February 2020

Such Orchestras As...

It began with Viagra.  Then came a sheath of medications of dubious value, to be followed by miracle cures for my excessive weight, hair loss and failing eye-sight.  Next, a Nigerian gentleman with extraordinarily generous philanthropic tendencies who only needed me to furnish him with a small sum to cover administrative costs before he would transfer vast sums  into my bank account (full details of which he urged me to pass on to him).  Then came the offers of free petrol for a year, gift vouchers for stores of which, if I had heard of any of them, I would never have ventured inside and, latest of all, free membership of casinos and assorted gaming dens.  Luckily my email Spam filter has long since worked out how to discard these, and I only know of their continued existence when I periodically check the Junk Mailbox to make sure a genuine offer of fulsomely paid employment has not passed me by.

I suppose I could set my Spam filters to add to the huge pile of junk they, I presume, divert from my daily inbox, any material which includes the egregious phrase “such orchestras as…”.  But, despite an earnest desire never to see this phrase again, I have no choice.  It is an inevitable consequence of the life I lead.

For reasons which defy my meagre intelligence, artist agencies assign to the most junior office clerk or unpaid intern the task of writing promotional biographies of artists.  The agencies assume, I imagine, that it is the one area of their work that can most easily be interrupted in mid-course by the need to make the tea, refill the water cooler or replenish the towels in the washroom.  But how wrong they are.  If major artists knew just how despicable they come across in the descriptions their agents send out, they would surely jump ship and take control of their own musical destiny.  If they knew, for example, that there are people like me who immediately assume that the quality and ability of an artist is in inverse proportion to the amount of “mesmerizing renditions”, “garnering accolades” and “recognised worldwide for insightful performances” on their biographies, they surely would realise that their agents, far from extolling their virtues, are turning them into laughing stocks.

If I read any biography that contains the words Mesmerising, Rendition or Garnering, I scream.  When I read that someone has performed with “such orchestras as…” I jump out of the window – luckily I inhabit the ground floor and the windows are too small to accommodate my bulk – but you get the point.

Take this.  “Wong Noat  [not his real name] has performed with such orchestras as The Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and others”.  Now I ask you, what orchestras ARE like the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic?   It can hardly mean; “He has performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Braddell Heights Symphony and the Sarawak State Symphony”.  Somehow it doesn’t quite have the same impact.

In its heyday, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra used to look down its collective nose at any of its players who slummed it on an occasional basis for a modest fee with the Singapore Symphony.  To lump these two together as being alike shows such a fundamental lack of knowledge that even to make the suggestion is to indicate utter musical ignorance.  And if it’s true of two neighbouring Asian orchestras, think how true it is of every other orchestra.  An orchestra, especially a good one, is a unique animal, with its own distinct character and its own distinct personality.  To say they are alike is to reveal a complete lack of musical consciousness.  So when an artist is said to have played with “such orchestras as…” you can be pretty sure that whoever wrote that comment has never heard the orchestra in question.

But here’s another thing.  Those “such orchestras as…” are invariably the famous ones.  I don’t recall reading “he has performed with such orchestras as the Thailand Philharmonic”; no criticism of the TPO – a pretty good bunch of players all things considered.  Neither have I ever seen an artist who has performed with “such orchestras as the Hong Kong Philharmonic” – an orchestra of considerable musical quality.  No, orchestras seem only to be able to be compared with those in Berlin, Vienna, Chicago, Cleveland or Philadelphia.  Could it be that, by selecting the great orchestras of the world and suggesting that our artist has played with similar groups, one is trying to hide the fact that our artist spends most of his time playing with the third and fourth rate bands and once, probably by accident, ended up on a platform alongside the Big Boys from Berlin?

Orchestras in Asia rarely get a look in.  At best, we can read “he has played with all the major orchestras in Asia” (hmmm? ALL of them?  And does that mean he has never played with any of the minor ones?).  And nobody, but nobody, ever seems to have played a note with an African orchestra.  Yet, the orchestras of Natal, Cape Town and Pretoria have, in their time, been a pretty impressive bunch.

No, I’m afraid the phrase “such orchestras as…” combines musical snobbery of the worst kind with musical ignorance in the extreme.  As one whose job it is to edit artist biographies for inclusion in concert programmes, I have long ago given up rephrasing this detestable utterance.  If an artist agency can’t be bothered to tell us precisely which orchestras the artist has played with, then I can’t be bothered to read about it and this barely illuminating line from the biography gets consigned, along with all those mesmerised renditions, garnered accolades and worldwide recognitions for insightful performances, to such places as the rubbish bin.

[this post first appeared in 2013 and is reprinted by request]

12 February 2020

Missing Suzuki's Bach

The risk that someone in Singapore might succumb to COVID-19 (so far quite a few seem to have
been infected but nobody in Singapore has died) has left the state in virtual lockdown.  And while most musical events are going ahead as planned, those associated with the National University of Singapore have almost wholly been cancelled.  That means next Friday’s visit of Masaaki Suzuki to continue his Bach Cantata odyssey with the Conservatory orchestra and singers is off.  What a pity.

All I can recommend by way of recompense is to listen to his recordings of Bach cantatas with his own Bach Collegium Japan; which, COVID-19 or not, never fails to soothe frayed ends and calm the beating heart.  Walking into the office this morning I picked one at random off the shelf and as I sat luxuriating in sublime music and excellent music making, I wondered where the disc itself had come from.  I could not remember buying it and assumed I had been sent it for review.  Paging through the archives, I eventually found the review I had written back in 2014 for the now very sadly defunct International Record Review.  The prime reason why IRR went to the wall was despite a fiercely loyal readership, there simply was not the money to keep the print run going once its founder and chief financier had died.  It had never had an online presence, its readership clearly preferred the physicality of a print magazine, so without the funds to keep the physical magazine alive, it had nowhere to go but down the drain.  And with it went a huge archive of informed, intelligent and often extremely well written reviews.  A hugely knowledgeable and extremely literate editor ensured quality was always an absolute priority, and going back over the reviews I wrote for it I am conscious of always having had to look over my shoulder to make sure I did not get an editorial rebuke.  What a shame all that has been lost.
I do not think there is an online IRR archive for anyone to mine, so as I listen to this delightful disc I read with a certain pleasure my own review of it published exactly five years ago this month.

Lavishly colourful orchestral effects, vivid and often extremely witty word-painting, robust humour – almost of the student prank variety – and powerful dramatic gestures may not be the kind of things usually associated with the music of Bach, but in their leisurely trawl through all his cantatas, Collegium Japan have landed two rarely-heard ones in which these elements are very much in evidence.  Both were written for two specific members of Leipzig University and both may well have been commissioned by the university students; indeed Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten was written to a libretto by a student.  (The other, Zerreisset, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft, is one of the first pieces in which Bach collaborated with the poet known as Picander who was later to create the very different texts of the great Passions.) 

The first academic to be honoured by Bach in these cantatas was August Friedrich Müller, 40-year-old teacher of law and philosophy.  He was, by all accounts, extremely popular with his students, and to mark his name day on 3rd August 1725, Bach set a Picander text based on an episode from Virgil’s Aeneid in which the winds have been imprisoned by Aeolus until the summer is over and they can be released with their full force on the world.  Klaus Hofmann’s entertaining booklet notes draw a connection between this summer-based story and the date of the cantata’s performance, suggesting it may have been given out of doors in an evening entertainment.  Certainly this boisterous (there is no other word for it) performance has that unrestrained and straining-at-the-leash feel we might expect from an open-air event. 

An orchestra substantially expanded by the addition of three trumpets, two horns, oboe d’amore and timpani – Hofmann sees in this evidence of some very wealthy backers to the performance and it is certainly the widest variety of instrumental colours Bach ever employed in a single cantata – gives Bach a wonderful opportunity to depict the winds clamouring over each other in a bid for freedom.  Possibly it all becomes a little too rowdy and unrestrained in the opening chorus, where loose intonation and rough-edged voicing of the brass jar a little on the ears, but with the second movement things become much more controlled as the winds are magisterially restrained by the awesome presence of a stony-voiced Roderick Williams.  He sounds every inch the mighty King Aeolus, but more than once a mischievous impishness creeps in to his superb portrayal of this powerful being; his laughter in the delightful aria “Wie will ich lustig lichen” brings to mind none other than the late lamented British comedian Jimmy Edwards. 

In almost startling contrast comes the graceful and restrained Wolfram Lattke as a gently floating, occasionally fluttering Zephyrus pleading to the king on behalf of all the winds.  His aria “Frische Schatten, meine Freude” is a model of not just vocal restraint but also supreme elegance in orchestral support, the gently wafting individual instrumental lines – including viola d’amore and viola da gamba - lovingly balanced by the gently guiding hand of Masaaki Suzuki.

The second academic celebrated in this pair of cantatas is the youthful (he was just 28 at the time) Gottlieb Kortte, who had just been appointed Professor Extraordinarius.  He delivered his inaugural address (from memory since he had forgotten to bring his text with him) on 11th December 1726, and to mark the occasion Bach composed his Cantata No.207.  The music - especially in the opening chorus – draws heavily on the first “Brandenburg” Concerto, but the libretto was written especially for the occasion, and presents four allegorical characters which Bach apportions to the solo voices. 

Happiness is a soprano; and it is hard to imagine a more joyous voice than that of Joanne Lunn as she skips happily around the crisp tones of Honour (the bass of Roderick Williams) in their duet “Denn soll mein Lorbeer schützend decken”. Gratitude is an alto, who is one of the two voices given an entire recitative and aria to themselves.  Here, the alto is Robin Blaze who blends in with perfect ease to the delightful mixture of a pair of flowing flutes and jabbing strings (representing the soft chipping away at marble to create a lasting memorial to the popular professor) in “Atzet dieses Angedenken”.  The other solo voice is that of Diligence, represented by the tenor (Wolfram Lattke).

These are unusually colourful and vivid performances, even by the standards so far set by Masaaki Suzuki’s Collegium Japan, and both singers and orchestra get their teeth happily into some of Bach’s most joyous and gutsy music.  The recording is clean and unrestrained, and once again heaps of praise have to go for the wonderfully enlightening booklet notes.

10 February 2020

Stifling the (Bassoonist's) Argument

Picture the scene.  Two elderly music reviewers - one of them dozing in a post-lunch stupor, the other muttering to himself about the vagaries of a Singapore public obsessively buying up toilet rolls and noodles in case the Coronavirus suddenly mutates to cause bouts of diarrhoea and extreme hunger -  sit on a bench inside the air-conditioned lobby of Victoria Concert Hall awaiting an interesting afternoon concert of Chinese orchestral music in which both have a professional interest.  Suddenly a young lady known to both as an eager up-and-coming bassoonist on the local circuit comes up to us with a cheery greeting.  Disturbed from our respective reveries, neither of us is in the best of moods when she proclaims that she read my review and wanted to respond, but wasn't sure whether she dared.

It took a bit of deeper digging to discover she was referring to a review I had published in the Straits Times earlier in the week about Singapore's new Concordia String Quartet.  "I wasn't there", she told us, "But I felt very strongly about it".  Quite what her feelings were neither of us had the courtesy to enquire, both of us suggesting that if she wasn't there, possibly she would have had nothing worthwhile to say. We left it at that.

In retrospect, I felt we were both rude and I have since had a big pang of guilt.  Surely a review is not intended for those that were there or heard the concert, but for a wider audience to increase awareness of a city's musical environment or to trigger discussion on musical matters.  I must confess that, even as I penned my review, I had hoped someone who was not there might have been interested enough to ask a question or post a comment; yet here I was scoffing at precisely the kind of response I was wanting.

So I apologise wholeheartedly and unreservedly to our our bassoonist friend, and urge her to put up her views in public whenever she feels like it; the views of every performing musician or serious music lover are always relevant, be they positive or negative,

The problem is, the anonymity of the internet leads to those who normally live mundane and pointless lives, who would jump on a chair at the sight of a cockroach or turn the other way if they saw a disabled person in need of help, suddenly feel empowered to become offensive, abusive and super-critical of those whose bravery in speaking out they envy.  Thus serious musicians, politicians, writers, critics and even health care workers all come in for horrible abuse simply because those who abuse them have neither the skill nor the intelligence to emulate the work they do.  Amazingly, I even get death threats for having suggested that so-and-so was not able to walk on water or raise the dead (musically speaking).  People who would not know a treble clef from a treble whisky frequently castigate me for not knowing what I am talking about or for grinding some kind of personal axe.  For that reason anonymous comments are usually erased from the blog - although one or two do fall through the net, especially if they trigger interesting discussions online.  But I welcome all and every considered comment from someone with the courage and brains to put their name where their typing fingers are.

So why should critics not only accept but take seriously comments from those who were not at the performances they reviewed?  The simple answer is that a review, while reporting on what happened historically, also offers an opinion about the wider issues in music.  You did not have to be at the Concordia String Quartet concert to take the point from my review about the legitimacy of externally created string quartets or the wisdom of national ones; and if I can spark a discussion around those two points (and many of the others subliminally referred to in my review), I am happy.

It seems that the age of polite, informed discussion from radically opposing standpoints has died in music; how I long for someone to argue against me without being offensive, or to support my argument without being sycophantic.  Hopefully despite my face-to-face rudeness, Ms Bassoon can buck the trend and add her worthwhile voice to the discussion.