23 August 2016

Death by Music

One of the weirdest things I was taught when I started French horn lessons was that I had to give the instrument a weekly bath.  At the age of 12, a weekly bath was something I regarded as a chore in my own life; having to do the same for my French horn seemed the ultimate in idiocy.  But, keen as I was to learn, and anxious as I was to impress my teacher, I duly filled the bath every Saturday afternoon with lukewarm water, stuck my horn in it and let it soak.  I’m glad I did: I’m still alive to tell the tale.

The real value of the weekly horn bath was only driven home today when a news item on the BBC told of a man who died following inhaling the build-up of fungus from the inside of his unwashed bagpipes (  www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-37152871 ). A keen bagpiper in the UK has died at the age of 61 and investigations revealed that he had developed a fatal infection from the mould and fungus collected over the years in his instrument. 

Every brass player knows the problem.  Water (condensation rather than dribble) collects inside the instrument, causing an uncontrollable clicking sound, and needs to be released by means of a valve or through simply pouring it out of the end of a piece of pipe or of the instrument itself.  In the days when music exams were done in private houses, it was common for the householders to insist on “no brass” in order to protect their carpets from wet deposits from brass instruments.  Others would ostentatiously put old sheets or newspapers on the floor and instruct the hapless brass player to “empty your spit on that”.  One socialist householder, seeing me arrive with a copy of the Daily Telegraph under my arm, got his own back on my choice of right-wing reading material by insisting I place it on the floor whenever brass players came into the room.  I’ve even heard of brass students told not to empty their instruments in the exam: with disastrous consequences.

Emptying and cleaning the inside of wind instruments is now shown to be not just musically essential but medically so as well.  We are well aware of the problems of Repetitive Strain Injury in violinists and cellists, and Alexander technique specialists spend hours working on musicians’ posture in an attempt to prevent long-term injuries, but never before has anything associated with a musical instrument been shown to have potentially fatal consequences.

The French conductor Lully was the first recorded examples of a musician killed by performing his instrument (he stabbed himself in his foot whilst conducing a performance of a Te Deum on 8th January 1687).  Let’s hope that our unnamed bagpiper will be the last.  Lovely as music-making is, it really should not be a matter of life and death.

16 August 2016

Wet, Warm and Pleasantly Windy

Pavlo Beznosiuk has been in Singapore for a few days.  For those unacquainted with his eminence, he is one of the leading figures in the British Early Music brigade, specialising in the music of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  His recordings with the Avison Ensemble, released on the Linn label, have been among the most consistently impressive recordings of this area of the repertory in recent times, and it was hoped he could bring some of his magic to Singapore.
On Thursday he ran a masterclass for conservatory students focusing on playing early music on modern instruments.  I would have dearly loved to have been there, but another commitment found me on the other side of town at the same time.  However Beznosiuk put his ideas into practice over the next three days, presented a series of concerts with various members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
The alliterative title of this series of concerts was Wind, Water & Waves, but while the first and last of those only occasionally washed into the programme – notably in one of Vivaldi’s Tempesta di mare concertos and in Locke’s incidental music for The Tempest – the programme cleverly featured water in a huge variety of guises.  From two sets of Water Music (Handel and Telemann), Vivaldi’s Overture to “The River Seine Rejoicing” (La Senna Festeggiante), Telemann’s musical celebration of Hamburg’s Alster Lake and his extraordinary concerto nicknamed “the Frog” (Frogs do, after all, mate in water, I believe).
Possibly flowing over three consecutive evenings flooded out Singaporean tolerance levels a bit much, and the tide of attendance ebbed very low – especially on the Friday.  On top of that, a cursory skim through the programmes might have created the impression that there really was not much to choose between the concerts.
In the event these three performances could hardly have been more different.  This was not down to the music nor even Beznosiuk’s wonderfully calm and laid-back approach – although he did become increasingly loquacious over the three days – but to the changes of personnel in the higher orchestral strings.
The winds and double basses always seemed to be loving every moment of it.  On Friday, in particular, the wind were up on stage well before the concert began (presumably to keep their instruments at the freezing temperatures the authorities feel is right for the Victoria Concert Hall – it is a fact which few Singapore students believe, but Asian concert halls are considerably colder than Asian ones) and were clearly looking forward to working with Beznosiuk. 
Their happy demeanour was in stark contrast to that of many of the string players, who came in with Beznosiuk at the start of the concert.  Full praise to double bass Jacek Mirucki who, throughout the first half of the concert was clearly having an absolute ball, entering in to the fun of the music with alacrity.  His second half colleague, Guennadi Mouzyka was similarly cheerful and obviously only too happy to be there. Not so the others who turned up grim-faced and sour, looking as if they begrudged every second spent on stage, and sounding utterly waterlogged.  Rebel’s enormously entertaining ballet describing Les élémens came across as soggy and damp, while Telemann’s “Die Relinge” only tickled the funny bone because of Beznosiuk’s wryly sardonic interventions.
Saturday’s team was a wholly different crew.  Perhaps fired by news of aquatic Gold from Rio, they threw themselves into the programme with relish, dedicating it to the gold medal-winner himself.  (An Olympic gold medal, deferral of national service, a million dollars and an SSO concert dedication – can things get any better for Joseph Schooling?) 
Highlight of this concert was the fascinating Concerto for Four Violins by the largely forgotten Italian composer Giuseppe Valentini.  Beznosiuk inspired Team SSO - Karen Tan, Margit Saur and Chikako Sasaki – to produce some scintillatingly agile playing, while the four violinists goaded themselves into ever greater feats of technical bravado, much like great Olympians spurring each other on to ever greater feats of physical endeavour.
Enough of the Olympics.  Now to Sunday’s concert.
The orchestra was the largest and visibly happiest of the three concerts. Beznosiuk himself was having a ball, taking time out to talk informally to the audience and even inserting into Vivaldi’s already extraordinary Concerto in D RV562 such an extraordinary cadenza (much of it based on one of Bach’s favourite Vivaldi pieces) that we seemed in danger of being inundated under the deluge of his gushing virtuosity.
Sunday’s programme began with Matthew Locke’s vividly descriptive incidental music to a stage presentation of The Tempest and ended with a rollicking account of movements from the most famous water music of them all - the Water Music suites Handel wrote for the Thames flotilla assembled in 1717 by King George I. 
A series of concerts which had begun as a damp squib ended in cascades of triumphant glory.

27 July 2016

A Singapore Singer to See

Singapore has ambitions to be a musical force in the world.  With no less than three excellent tertiary institutons with exciting music programmes (including a conservatory which is making a reputation way beyond the boundaries of south east Asia), a specialist School of the Arts, a tremendously active concert culture, a handful of performance venues which impress by any standards, and a plethora of professional performers including a national orchestra – the Singapore Symphony – which sounds at times almost world class, it seems to be heading firmly in the right direction.  

There is, though, a very long way for Singapore to go along this journey.  This is painfully obvious from the fact that music in schools is still generally regarded as a competitive activity intended to increase corporate prestige rather than an important element in enriching an individual’s artistic sensitivities - something reinforced by the total obsession Singapore music teachers have with the competitive culture inculcated by the graded music examination system.  There are also some very attractive-looking performance venues which suffer from appalling acoustics, hopelessly inadequate pianos and a downright bad environment for the performing of and listening to music, while the vast majority of performing ensembles in Singapore can be cringe-mockingly poor - as, indeed, can the SSO on occasions - and not seem to be aware of it.  

However, the major barrier to overcome on the path to international credibility as a musical hub is the low expectations of audiences and, all too often, of those charged to lead, direct or observe musical performances.  Audiences can’t be blamed; how can they know the difference between bad, mediocre, good and excellent if nobody guides them properly?  I note a sad lack of the kind of Music Appreciation sessions which can so successfully be used to foster a proper perception of quality.  Pre-concert talks, radio broadcasts focused on music, and educational introductions to music (either live or broadcast) are horrendously inconsistent – I’ve heard some fabulous ones, but rather more which are not just bad but fundamentally misguided – and audiences are so often subjected to the mediocre, that they assume it is the norm.  They have no ambition to experience better, simply because they do not know it exists.

As a critic, I take on a responsibility for trying to prompt audiences to recognise the mediocre, to appreciate the good and to seek out the excellent.  While I often get abuse for it (I still chuckle at the memory of a blog post in which I criticised an audience in another country for rapturously applauding a terrible concert; I was inundated with abusive emails from members of a Singapore youth ensemble who assumed that I was referring to them) I also get some appeals for critical guidance from those Singapore musicians genuinely anxious to improve beyond the standards which are still common currency in Singapore.

So I have to apologise to Singaporean countertenor Chan Wei En who asked me to attend a concert he gave last weekend and offer my opinions.  He was hoping I might be able to offer suggestions for improvement.  I made a few enquires beyond Singapore (he has been studying in the USA) and was told that I really had to hear him; that he was a very promising young countertenor.  So I took a gamble and suggested to the Straits Times that his recital warranted a review in a public arena.  They accepted and, in the event, there were no guidance points I could realistically offer him.  I believe he is probably one of Singapore’s best young singers and one who has the potential to make waves on the world stage.  Having said that, he also performed what for me was the most successful new work by any Singaporean composer that I have heard in recent years. 

I mentioned all this in my Straits Times review. Now read on...

Chan Wei En never did tell us what the “Countertenor’s Conundrum” was, nor why he chose it as the title of his recital. Perhaps the conundrum is this – why does the most unnatural of singing voices sound so natural?  Years of intense and strenuous training have brought Chan to the point where his voice sounds remarkably pure and his vocal delivery looks completely effortless.

Technically there were a couple of tiny flaws revealed in this wide-ranging programme.  Ornaments, always stylistically intended, did not always come across with complete delicacy in “Chi scopre al mio pensiero” from Handel’s  Alcina, and the extraordinarily athletic vocal runs in Gluck’s “Addio a Miei Sospiri” (from Orfeo ed Euridice)  had a slightly hard edge to them.  

But in every other respect, this was singing of the very highest technical calibre, superbly poised and magnificently controlled. Another conundrum is why do countertenors, as a breed, show so much more musical and artistic sensitivity than other voice ranges?  Chan posed that conundrum with a vengeance - this was music-making of the most supremely high quality, intelligent, sensitive and powerfully communicative. 

Arias by Mozart (including a sumptuously affectionate An Chloë) showed immense style and poise, while Poulenc’s set of five Banalités were delivered in impeccable French and with bags of interpretative wit and wisdom.  As he leaned casually on the piano in the old parliament debating chamber (now part of a visually lovely Arts centre) he clearly relished the delicious irony of singing the lines, in the very room where Singapore’s uncompromising laws on tobacco were passed and prime ministerial exhortations on the value of hard labour were uttered, “I don’t want to work – I want to smoke!” 

If any of the current generation of Singaporean singers is to make waves on the international platform, I am convinced Chan Wei En will be the one.  But without in any way denigrating the excellence of his performance, this recital would not have been the huge success it was without the sensitive, intelligent and beautifully crafted accompaniments of Jonathan Shin.  His sense of empathy with both song texts and singer was, in itself, a work of art. 

But there was much more to Jonathan Shin than that. 

His own composition, The Other Merlion and Friends, a setting of five poems by Singapore’s Gwee Li Sui, was probably the most compelling and worthwhile new work from any Singaporean composer in recent years.  He mirrored Gwee’s clever imagery, capturing the essential character of Singapore, with intelligent, original and distinctive music.  This was obviously music of our time, but for all its intellectual challenge it possessed that elusive quality of accessibility.

Naturally enough, Shin tackled the extremely virtuoso piano part with wonderful fluency, while Chan’s delivery of the complex vocal lines was nothing less than brilliant. 

19 July 2016

Critical Contrasts

A comment sent in response to a recent post compares my review of a concert with that of another critic.  It suggests that anyone reading both “would be left clueless as to who to believe. The two reviews are as different as night and day! Indeed, I was wondering if both men even attended the same concert!”

Every single music critic will be familiar with those phrases; they are stock-in-trade of the critics’ critics, people who shy away from voicing original opinions but are eager to take pot-shots at those who do.  (And it is a habit which has become ever more prevalent with the easy retreat into anonymity for those populating the internet and social media platforms.) They reveal a widely-held misunderstanding of the function of published criticism.

But common as such comments are, they still deserve a response, and they demand that the critic takes time to revisit the original piece in the light of that of his colleague.  I am a great fan of the duet critique; where two critics review the same thing independently and then have their reviews published side-by-side.  We do it a lot in the record review arena, but logistics prevent it happening too often in the live music field; which is a shame, for it is enlightening for the public, performers and critics alike.  I have hugely enjoyed reading my colleague’s piece in preparing this response; and you can judge for yourself  by reading mine (“Shakespeare comes to Singapore”) and following this link; http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/a-night-of-chopin-and-shakespeare

Critics fulfil a dual function; that of a reporter, reporting on a specific event, and that of commentator, expressing an informed personal opinion about the event.  Since both of us make it clear we are reporting the same thing and the details in both published pieces are identical, I cannot for a moment accept any hint that anyone could be “clueless as to who to believe”.  We both stated a fact and the facts tallied.  End of story!

But what of that second function? 

Of course the reviews are “as different as night and day”; they were written by two very different people from different backgrounds and with different perceptions of what they hear and see.  To put it at its most basic; I might see a certain car in the street and say, “Look at the red Ferrari with the leopard-skin seat covers.  What a hideous thing.  Why waste money on something so useless and impracticable.  I’d never have one of those in a million years?” The other reviewer might see the same car and say “Wow!  Look at that red Ferrari with the leopard-skin seat covers. What a fantastic thing.  I wish I had enough money to splash out on one of those!  I’d buy one tomorrow!”  We are both identifying the same car and both of us have valid opinions of it. Neither is right or wrong; they are just different (as different, if you like, as “night and day”). At no point could anybody be under the impression that we are looking at different cars; we are simply looking at the same car through different eyes, those eyes flavoured by different backgrounds, experiences, attitudes and cultural perceptions.

What made the old, much lamented, Top Gear so eminently watchable was the fact the three car critics so often had radically opposing views of the same thing.  I don’t recall anyone suggesting that Clarkson, May and Hammond were looking at different cars when they voiced conflicting opinions, or that only one of them could possibly be telling the truth.  So why do people insist on responding so differently to music critics.  We are all in the same business and, while some of us prefer music to cars and vice versa, ultimately, the job of the critic remains the same; to report what exists and to comment on it.

Until such time as people can grasp the notion that music criticism is not a scientific analysis with a simple black and white result but a complex series of informed opinions which can never have an ultimate truth, we will continue to receive the comments that “we must have been attending different concerts”.  We ask all our readers to respect that we as critics are voicing personal opinions, albeit opinions governed by knowledge, understanding and due consideration, and whether or not individual readers happen to agree or disagree with us is of monumental unimportance.

As a footnote, I can see no point of disagreement whatsoever between the two reviews which prompted my correspondent.  I can see that one of us highlighted elements the other ignored, and that the other drew attention to facets of the performance the other one chose to omit, but read together they indicate rather more agreement than is customary in the music critical fraternity.

18 July 2016

Fruitful Musical Battles?

The auguries are not good.  Off the top of my head I cannot think of a single work written to commemorate a great battle which could be regarded as anything like a masterpiece.  Indeed, the only one which comes close in my book is Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes; the fact that virtually nobody reading this blog will have ever heard a live performance of it probably undermines my claim that it is something approaching a masterpiece.  More than that, not only did Bliss fight in the Battle of the Somme and lost his brother during the Frist World War, but Morning Heroes commemorates far more battles than just those that took place during the First World War.

Beethoven’s Wellington Victory is certainly a novelty but by no stretch of the imagination a masterpiece; ditto Tchaikovsky’s 1812.  Shostakovich’s symphonies commemorating various of the battles that underpinned the creation of the Soviet State are possibly not among his best, unless you consider them more social statements than celebrations of warfare.  And while there are tremendous battle scenes in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, these depict imaginary rather than real battles.

(On an aside; why do Russian composers seem so open to inspiration from wars and battles?  Is it because Russians are a particularly aggressive people?  I sat next to Russian violinist Alexander Souptel at a concert last night, and a gentler, more harmless man you would be hard-pressed to find in today’s society; unless, that is, he and his compatriots have one personality for public display and another lurking underneath of an altogether more violent bent.  If you read the regular diatribes sent in to this blog under the guise of “comment” by my Russian readers, virtually all of which have to be removed due to their willingness to utter spiteful, offensive and libellous comments about named people, you would begin to suspect that Russians do have a bitter and twisted inner persona which only comes out in their writings.)

Of course there are several memorable works depicting battles from the Second World War; not least by Eric Coates, Vaughan Williams and William Walton.  But these were film scores that supported powerful visual images rather than standing on their own two musical feet.

What all these musical battles have in common is that they were contemporaneous with the composers’ lives; they wrote with close association to the battles they depicted.  True, Walton did write memorable music to go with the Battle of Agincourt scenes from Olivier’s classic film version of Henry V, but outside the cinema and theatre I can think of no significant musical work commemorating one of the great battles from history.  Where are the great musical masterpieces depicting the battles of Hastings, Trafalgar, Waterloo, Gallipoli, Boyne, Bulge, or commemorating the Iranian Revolution or the Malayan Campaign (my wife is in the heart of Borneo right now researching her book on that – but I fear her musical accompaniment is more Sheila Majid than Peter Sculthorpe)?

One battle which has largely escaped musical notice is the Battle of Stamford Bridge.  Rather overshadowed by the Battle of Hastings, which it preceded by precisely 19 days, this was a battle for control of the British crown in which several thousand Vikings landed on the north east coast of England, invaded Yorkshire, captured York and were finally repelled by King Harold, who had rushed up from the south coast where he had been awaiting the invasion of Normans under William.  The battle took place on 25th September 1066, but Harold had only three days to savour his victory before the Normans landed near Hastings and he had to hurry south  to meet his doom.

To mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the modern-day Stamford Bridge Singers are putting on a concert there which features the world première of a new work – Battle Cantata - by their conductor, Stuart Nettleship.  The choir is locking horns with Viking - or, at least, Norwegian - singers, and the concert combines music drawn from the two cultures which collided so dramatically on that day back in 1066.  The text is a setting of a poem by Laurence Binyon.  He is best remembered for his poem For the Fallen, with its haunting second verse;
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them
While several composers have set this text, with varying degrees of success, and Elgar went on to set several more of Binyon's poems (most notably in his cantata The Spirit of England), he is a poet whose work has not hitherto brought out the best in those who use it as the basis of a musical work.  This, and the fact that good and lasting concert music depicting historic battles has hitherto been in remarkably short supply, should not deter Nettleship, who has always been a composer with a distinctly original way of responding to his musical challenges.  I am inclined to think that if anybody could produce a lasting musical memorial to a long-forgotten battle, he can, and I am trying to move Heaven and Earth to get away to Yorkshire for the event; although I fear I shall be unlucky.

However, anyone who is around that part of the world – now blissfully peaceful – on Sunday 16th October should get their tickets now from https://battle950.eventbrite.co.uk

16 July 2016

James MacMillan - A profile

As promised in a recent, post here is the profile I wrote for Gramophone magazine in 2014 reprinted here to mark the composer's 57th birthday today - Happy Birthday, Sir James!

Having past the half-century mark, MacMillan can be excused his periodic splenetic outbursts as he fends off what he sees as attacks on his native land, his profound Roman Catholic faith and, of course, music, in his Daily Telegraph blog (one outburst against the perceived anti-Englishness of the Scottish National Party prompting a reader to describe MacMillan as “the self righteous, self appointed spokesman for extreme Catholicism in Scotland”).  But if he looks to be moving into the ranks of Grumpy Old Men, as a composer MacMillan’s utter conviction in his firmly-held beliefs only serves to ignite a creative spark which blazes today with as much energy and self-confidence as it did back in 1990 when he first established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the British music scene with the première of The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie at that year’s Proms. 

MacMillan’s own commentary on The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie reveals his abiding interest in the church’s often stormy progress through Scottish history, as well as his desire to tell epic tales through music (it is also evidence of his long-held hatred of both social injustice and religious bigotry); “Between 1560 and 1707 as many as 4,500 Scots perished because their contemporaries thought they were witches. The persecution of witches was a phenomenon known to Catholic and Protestant Europe at this time but the Reformation in Scotland gave an impetus to the attack on ‘witches’ which became a popular and powerful crusade”.  Musically, this dark episode in Scotland’s religious past has inspired something both extraordinarily vivid and deeply moving, which clearly resonated with a non-Scottish audience in 1990 and continues to do so to this day; as the critic for the Daily Telegraph put it, “MacMillan brilliantly demonstrated in Isobel Gowdie that accessibility need not necessarily involve compromise... all its various musical elements - be they Scottish folk tune, Gregorian chant or pure MacMillan - are by no means merely illustrative but emanate from a powerful, all-embracing and unifying emotional impulse”. 

Those “various musical elements” are certainly diverse, and reveal MacMillan to be a true catholic in the full sense of the word - as meaning inclusive and all-embracing.  So confident is he in his own stylistic voice, that while elements which would seem violently contradictory rub up against each other with almost disarming directness, his music comes across not just as coherent, but immediately accessible.   That stylistic self-confidence has not come with age, but was there from the very start .  The Scotsman, reviewing the première this January of Symphonic Study, a work written back in 1981 but which (in his own words) the composer “kind of forgot about”, suggested the young Macmillan had borrowed “mercilessly from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring”.  (The review added, however, that the work also revealed “the mystical harmonic shrouds that, even today, weave a spectral miasma around MacMillan’s centrally binding melodic threads”.)  MacMillan himself acknowledges influences in his music from a great many 20th century composers, singling out those who “have been shaped by religious quests in our time - Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Harvey, Tavener, Pärt, Górecki”.  But he also recognises influences from much further back; “From antiquity I have been taught much by the great contrapuntalists from Palestrina and Victoria to Bach. They inspire modern composers on the need to explore complexity in whatever music is being created”.

Clearly, a deep-seated Catholic faith is at the very core of MacMillan’s writing; his sacred music includes a congregational setting of the Mass (Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman) composed in 2010 for the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain – although MacMillan has since declared that “I have decided to stop writing congregational music for the Catholic Church... there is too much music being created, at the same time as the vast repository of tradition is ignored and willfully forgotten”.  It remains to be seen how true he will be to his word, but he admits that his secular music “can on many occasions be inspired by some reflection on theology or another aspect of religion. This is inevitable, I suppose, for a believer and a Catholic. For example I have now composed two Passion settings; a St John and a St Luke. There are also many purely instrumental works which hover around similar territory - my piano trio Fourteen Little Pictures (based on the Stations of the Cross) and the triptych of orchestral works Triduum (based on the three days before the Resurrection)”. 

However, the most constant musical influence in his writing is drawn from his Scottish heritage; “Along with a number of Scottish composers like Judith Weir, Edward McGuire and others I developed a keen interest in Scottish traditional music. Some of us have absorbed this experience into our own music in different ways. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes sub-conscious. With me, I think it is there in a certain modality that appears from time to time, and a degree of ornamentation that can be traced back to bagpipe music like pibrochd, and other sources. All this has been drawn in to a wider mix, so it is not always immediately observed in all my pieces, but it is certainly there as a subliminal ingredient. It has cropped up a lot in my most recent choral music.” 

Beyond choral music, MacMillan’s latest works give a vivid demonstration of the extraordinary range of this amazingly versatile composer.  January saw the première (in London) of the Viola Concerto, the latest in a series of concertos conceived along traditional lines which so far have included works for piano, violin and oboe.  Last November an organ piece, St Andrews Suite composed for the 600th celebrations of the founding of the University of St Andrews, was premièred in the University’s ancient St Salvator’s Chapel, scene of some of Scotland’s more extreme religious conflicts.  July saw the première in Stuttgart of an orchestral poem, The Death of Oscar, inspired by a monumental Scottish sculpture by Alexander Stoddardt, while in February 2013 his sixth opera, Clemency, based on the Old Testament tale of Abraham and Sarah, was staged in the US after its successful première at the Royal Opera House. And this year MacMillan is also personally promoting musical Scotland abroad when he directs the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on tour in India.  

When the referendum votes have been counted and the sporting medals all been given out, James MacMillan seems set to keep at least one aspect of Scottish life at the forefront of international consciousness.

MacMillan Facts

Born: Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland, July 16, 1959

Education: University of Edinburgh and University of Durham

Teachers:  Kenneth Leighton, John Casken (“I was drawn to Leighton's choral music and to Casken's beautiful sense of orchestral colouring”.)

Self-Confessed Stylistic Territory: “Somewhere between Shostakovich and Messiaen. The former for his determination to keep the symphony alive in modernity, and the latter for his theological explorations in sound”.

Breakthrough Work: Confessions of Isobel Gowdie (Proms Commission 1990)

Most performed work: Veni Veni Emmanuel (over 400 performances)

Recommended Recordings

“Who are these Angels?”  -  Cappella Nova / Alan Tavener; William Taylor (hp) John Kitchen (org); Edinburgh Quartet -  Linn CKD383 (03/12)

·         MacMillan - the Choral Master: Some of his recent sacred choral music, including his Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman and several of the Strathclyde Motets.

“MacMillan Series Volume 1: Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” -  Colin Currie (percussion)/ Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic/James MacMillan – Challenge Classics CC72540 (Awards/12)

·         MacMillan - the Thriller: The composer himself describes this recording of his most popular work as “a great thrill”, while it also features a Scottish musician with whom he has developed a particularly close creative partnership.

The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie & Symphony No.3  -  BBC Philharmonic/James MacMillan – Chandos CHAN10275  

·         MacMillan – the Vivid Orchestrator: A dramatic and colourful recording of the music which brought MacMillan to international attention, alongside his most recent symphony (intriguingly subtitled “Silence”).

Shakespeare Comes to Singapore

Back in April, the world celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.  England, naturally, was awash with events, and on the day itself – April 23rd – BBC Radio 3 devoted an entire day to music programmes from Stratford Upon Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, all with a Shakespeare theme.  Jazz, orchestral concerts, songs and choruses, chamber works, piano recitals, cinematic and theatrical scores; all presented with a Shakespearean connection, obvious or oblique.  Since then, Shakespeare musical events seemed to have died down a bit, so the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s new 2016/7 concert season opening with a “Shakespeare 400” series seems to have come somewhat late in the day. 

A sense of last minute planning has been heightened by programmes with only a peripheral Shakespearean connection, and largely built around a standard-repertory concerto.  I took pains in my concert notes for the first programmes in the series to draw Shakespearean links with all the works or composers performed, but the powers-that-be in the SSO chose to expunge these from the printed programme books; so, as far as the audience was concerned, Shakespeare was confined to a single work in last night’s concert. 

It opened with the wholly un-Shakespearean Vltava from Smetana’s set of tone poems celebrating his native Bohemia.  Possibly this was included to acknowledge the SSO’s visit to Prague this Spring, but if Lan Shui and the SSO had picked up any useful interpretative insights from their very brief sojourn on Czech soil, it was not immediately obvious here – unless it was in the rather murky waters implied by some muddy wind playing at the start, a long way from the clear sparkling streams of Smetana’s imagination.  Generally the wind seemed not yet to have blown away the cobwebs collected during their summer break and it was not until the violins sailed in with a wonderfully expansive account of the main theme, that the performance began to have some kind of objective.  Shui’s approach to this hugely popular score, however, was piecemeal, bumping uneasily from whirlpool to eddy rather than flowing freely over them.  He clearly enjoyed the more turbulent moments, but as a whole this was a performance which lacked both coherence and aural polish.

A big contrast came with the main work of the programme, Chopin’s First Piano Concerto.  It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that this is not a work I hold particularly dear.  I confess to finding its bursts of virtuoso bravura, its tinkling genteelness and its on-the-sleeve sentimentality tiresome.  The fact that it seems to get played to distraction in Asia does nothing to endear itself to me.  However, while my heart dropped as the SSO launched into that sturdy but unprepossessing orchestral introduction, it lifted the moment Yulianna Avdeeva touched the piano keys. 

There was something infinitely attractive about her approach.  Soothing, gentle and undemonstrative, understating the bravura, injecting iron into the genteelness and giving a steely edge to hints of sentimentality, she left much of the headline emotion outside the hall and simply caressed the piano with grace, unpretentious fluency and consummate command.  For once, the Concerto made a bit of musical sense to me, and while I still believe that its length surpasses its musical arguments, I did not find myself wishing – as I usually do - that Chopin could have laid off the continual rehashing of ideas.  In subtle ways Avdeeva was developing and enriching these ideas at each appearance in a way which made satisfying musical sense.  She did not always get the fullest support from Shui, whose fondness for emotional display often jarred against her studied lack of pathos, and there was a moment in the last movement when an innocuous counter-melody from the cellos wore very thin indeed played, as it was, without a hint of variation over and over again.  This was not a performance which focused on sweet sounds and heroic display but began to find something rather more significant within the music.  I would need to hear Ms Avdeeva play it again a few times to be sure, but I think I may be on the path to conversion!

In the first 10 years of its existence, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra performed Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet more often than any other work (Debussy’s La Mer came a long-distant second).  They even played it in its entirety twice, possibly because in their ranks they had a violinist who was a dab hand at the mandolin.  It was always a huge hit with the audience, and I thought audiences the world over loved and adored it.  However, attending last night’s pre-concert talk, I learnt that Singapore audiences barely know the piece and generally regard Prokofiev’s music as “difficult”.  (That said, the talk – which studiously avoided more than passing mention of the works performed in the concert itself – included the strange claims that, like Shostakovich, Prokofiev never left the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution, that he was a 19th century composer, and that “it may come as a surprise, but I believe Prokofiev wrote more lush melodies than Stravinsky”.)

While many Singaporeans in the concert itself may have been struggling with Prokofiev's “difficult” music for Romeo and Juliet, the only difficulty others of us encountered in yesterday’s seven pickings from the first two orchestral suites was that Shui chose to end with “Tybalt’s Death”, albeit in a scintillating, brilliantly executed performance taken at an absolutely cracking pace and effectively blowing away any remaining cobwebs from the orchestra.  What was difficult about this from the listeners’ point of view?  We are used to hearing extracts from the work performed in concert and ending on a more reflective note, and to end with such a violent death scene sent us all out in a somewhat ambiguous frame of mind.  I missed the raw aggressiveness of the opening dissonant crashes of “Montagues and Capulets”, but the striding theme, underpinned by a powerfully driving percussion section, was truly glorious.  And while the more introspective moments of “Madrigal” and “Romeo and Juliet Before Parting” were rather elusive in Shui’s reading, he gave a wonderfully exotic edge to the “Dance of the Antilles Maidens” as well as a real sense of tragedy in “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb”.