18 January 2017

Off-Message Missionaries

How well do orchestras know their audience?  Having worked in the backrooms of several orchestras, I know there is a huge deal of effort put into attracting new audiences and devising innovative programming to lure in those who might seem repelled by the notion of sitting in a concert hall quietly listening to music surrounded by others who are quick to draw attention to individual solecisms of their neighbours.

Guides are issued, often in kiddie-language with cartoon-style illustrations, to tell you what to expect and how to behave, with much explanation of what to wear and when to applaud.  Such things are good and help to illuminate what, from the outside, appears to be a very elitist and secretive activity.  Orchestras try all sorts of things to widen their audience base; non-traditional programming, movie-soundtrack evenings in appropriate costume, entertaining events, performances in informal settings, dress-down concerts and concerts featuring actors and comedians.  There’s even a whole industry out there of actor/musicians who devise portable concerts which they sell to orchestras under the banner of attracting new and (invariably) younger audiences.

And, to a certain extent, it works with new and younger audiences coming to these special concerts.  I have yet to be convinced, however, that those new and younger audiences translate into regular attendance at mainstream concerts, but that’s another issue.

But in all this striving to find new audiences, how many orchestras really think about their existing ones?  Audiences are loyal and it takes a lot to drive them away;  whether they face up to the fact or not, too many orchestras take this for granted, pour their energies into widening the audience profile while exercising minimal thought on retaining existing audiences. 

The issue comes to mind following a request for clarification from my sister, who lives in a city which does not have its own professional orchestra but plays host several times each year to a regional one which does the rounds with classic programmes taken from their season programmes put on at their perfuming home several hundred miles away.  My sister has long since retired from her teaching post and, along with a coterie of friends, is a loyal supporter when the orchestra visits.  They relish the opportunity to enjoy a professional concert close to home and, since all of them have some connection with music (at the very least, they learnt the piano as children) they understand all the niceties that go with concert attending and which makes the experience, for those in the know, all the more enjoyable.

Recently, my sister tells me, they have noticed that when the orchestra visits, they do not bring a conductor.  Instead the leading violinist starts the performance off and then plays along with the rest of them.  Matters came to a head at the orchestra’s last visit when the solo pianist (in Beethoven’s “Emperor”) occasionally got up from the piano to conduct the orchestra.  “Are we being cheated?”, asks my sister, suggesting that because the orchestra is just visiting, they might be saving money by cutting down on the number of musicians sent and cutting out the star conductor?

I am happy to write back to my sister that, no, far from treating you with contempt, the orchestra is actually showing you respect by bringing to your city a style of performance which is considered correct amongst the cognoscenti. In the interests of historical accuracy, orchestral music pre-Beethoven is now usually performed by smaller-sized ensembles without a conductor, while it is becoming increasingly accepted practice to perform Beethoven (and other 18th century) keyboard concertos without a conductor and directed from the keyboard by the soloist.  Hopefully, she and her friends will appreciate that the orchestra is not treating them as second-class audiences and will continue their loyal support.

My sister’s concern, however, must be shared by others.  It is a potentially sore point in the UK.  The practice of a professional orchestra regularly going out from its home-base to perform in provincial cities as part of an outreach programme, can seem as if they are some kind of Cultural Missionaries, taking orchestral music out to the yokels in the sticks and implying a lower level of cultural receptivity amongst those in the provinces.  Orchestras have to be very sensitive to this.  I know with orchestras with which I have been associated, that tours to the provinces so often take programmes deemed as “populist” simply because it is believed that provincial audiences will not have the sophisticated tastes of those in the metropolis; but, perhaps, there is more validity in this argument in south east Asia where Western Classical music is less deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness of the general population.

Had I not been around to answer my sister’s query, I wonder whether, the next time the professional orchestra paid its visit to her neck of the woods without a conductor, she and her friends might have decided they had enough of being short-changed, and decided to choose theatre over concert.  And that makes me wonder how many other loyal supporters of orchestral concerts have been put off by a wholly unintended but genuinely perceived slight?

Orchestras will point to the efforts they make to keep in touch with their regular audience base.  Questionnaires get sent round (and hardly ever returned), occasional market-surveys are conducted by co-opted students whose presence during concert intervals is annoying when you are more concerned with catching up on old friends or getting served at the bar, and every concert programme gives you contact details offering you the opportunity to voice your concerns to some nameless person who will send a stock reply and leave it at that.  Pre-concert talks are not the way to go – especially when so many of the presenters are inexperienced as audience members themselves and often out of touch with what an audience really wants to know – and programme notes often concentrate on technicalities which seem irrelevant to the majority of an audience, who are just there to enjoy the sound of orchestral music.  Audiences just want to go to a concert and hear music; they do not want to fill in forms, answer questions, attend lectures or go through the tiresome business of post-mortem analysis; none of these attempts at two-way communication will ever succeed.

The mature, the retired, the elderly; they constitute the bulk of most orchestras’ loyal audience.  They have the time and the income at their disposal to be loyal.  They have the understanding and experience to appreciate the music.  They have the patience and tolerance not to be offended by the continual barrage of publicity orchestras put out aimed at the young.  None of us is young for long, but all of us get to be mature, retired and old, and often seem to spend the greater part of our lives in that state.  Orchestras should not forget this. 

How often does the leader, the soloist or the conductor come on to the stage before a concert and actually tell the audience why they are doing something, why they are playing this piece or why they are performing it in this way?  Very rarely in my experience.  Yet that simple gesture could ensure the continued loyalty of an audience who have long since become accustomed to the notion that they are largely overlooked by the people they pay to support.

17 January 2017

Pop or Classical - Where does beauty lie?

“Music is Emotion.  I think most of us can agree with that”.  So begins an article reporting on research into “Music-Evoked Sadness”.  The original research was published in 2014 by Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch of the Department of Educational Sciences and Psychology of the Freie Universität of Berlin.  (You can read their paper here Music and Sadness).  I find this a fascinating topic and one I might be tempted to return to in some detail at another time.  But what pulled me up short was the opening of the article which directed me to the original research paper.  That article was by Lian Xiao Ling from Sydney, who was, to be fair, seeking to address parents’ fears about their children’s’ listening habits; “If your teenage child is constantly listening to emo songs or minor key symphonies, you may not have an immediate cause to worry”. 

Lian also declared that “whether you’re listening to classical or pop, music is created to share an emotion”, and with part of that statement I have to take issue.  Certainly pop music is.  Its whole function is to engender and share an emotion.  That is why it is so phenomenally and universally popular – all humanity experiences emotions and this common factor means that all of us are receptive to the content of pop music; it speaks, as they say, our language.

But classical music is not, and if one ever wanted to put into simplistic terms what differentiates classical and pop music, one could do a lot worse than say that the latter focuses purely on the emotion while the former focuses primarily on the intellect.  All humanity possesses an intellect, but this varies widely from person to person, being the product of a complex range of elements including culture, environment, education, heritage and so on, all of which are unique to the individual.  For that reason, while we might all have as common experience the emotions represented in a piece of pop music, our response to  a piece of classical music in infinitely more individual and complex. 

I have often argued that while any piece of music triggers an emotional response in the listener, in the world of classical music, that emotional response varies widely, because triggering an emotional response in the listener was not the original intention of the music’s creator.  For that reason, no two people really hear a single piece of classical music the same way.  I have heard different people respond to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings as “indescribably sad”, “deeply moving”, “gorgeous”, “ecstatic” and “boring”, all emotional responses, but none, it would seem, intended by Barber himself who, when he wrote it, was simply exercising his skills in the technical aspects of writing for a string quartet.  These responses may differ widely and they may not be what the composer intended, but they are legitimate responses all the same, indicating that, once in the public arena, a composer no longer has control over how his music is perceived.

We perceive music according to our own emotional state, and if Barber’s music can prompt both tears and yawns, that implies fault with neither composer nor listener, but underlines the fact that classical music is NOT emotion, but it can trigger an emotional response in those who hear it.

We frequently hear it said that Bach’s music is “beautiful”.  Yes, to my way of thinking a lot of it is (and a lot of it is not).  Yet, once we make this statement as if it were inalienable fact, we are obliged to accuse those who hear the same piece of Bach and describe it as “dull”, as not recognising beauty. And that simply reveals our own failure to appreciate what Bach’s music really is.  The perception of beauty is an emotional response, and while I find my own wife and daughter to be the two most beautiful people in the world, I accept (admittedly grudgingly) that others may disagree, pointing to their own (to my way of thinking) hideous wives and grotesque daughters as finer examples of beauty.  On top of that, the beauty I identify in my wife and daughter is derived as much from my individual knowledge of their inner beings as from their superficial appearance.  Certain people are beautiful to our eyes, but on closer acquaintance, we realise they are ugly to our intellects; and that, perhaps, is a parallel for our difference of approach to pop and to classical music.

Dealing only in emotion, there is no need for pop music to involve itself in more complex issues; those will largely muddy the water and compromise the music’s original intention.  But because classical music does not deal in emotion – an emotional element is peripheral rather than central – our response is a reflection of our perceptions of those other elements.  Put it simply, if classical music for you is emotion, you are missing its whole purpose.
Music and Sadness

21 November 2016

A Soprano to Watch

It is not often that a critic gets to hear a performer who has all the potential to achieve greatness on the world stage.  I have come across three, all of whom, by a curious coincidence, have been singers.  In one case I was wrong - although that particular singer went on to achieve eminence in a rather different field - while the second lived up to every word of praise I offered, and has gone on to exceed all expectations I had.  Let's see what happens to the third, for I only heard her on Friday evening.  This is what I wrote for my Straits Times review.
Singapore Lyric Opera’s annual Gala Concert was noteworthy this year for the presence of Singaporean soprano Felicia Teo Kaixin.
Her easy and effortless delivery, her beautifully controlled projection, her sumptuous voice and her arresting characterisations mark her out as something very special.  Instantly captivating in her opening duet from The Magic Flute, and attracting the biggest cheer of the night for her spectacular Je Veux Vivre from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, Teo has the potential for true operatic greatness. 

Tenor Jeremy Koh is, like Teo, a product of the SLO-Leow Siak Fah Young Artists Programme.  His voice seems less naturally inclined towards opera, and it felt as if he was nearing his limits in Quanto e bella from L’elisir d’amore.  But his is nevertheless a fine, clear voice, and always absolutely pitch-perfect.
Sharing the stage with these two relative newcomers were more established soloists.  William Lim’s usual avuncular manner seemed to have deserted him, and while he was an ideal partner to Teo in the Mozart duet, and sung a solo from I Pagliacci with great warmth, he looked and sounded stiff.
Chinese soprano Wang Bing Bing was far from stiff.  Hers is a big, booming voice – with the doors open and the wind in the right direction, it could probably reach some of the outlying islands - but a forceful voice is not everything (whether you are an opera singer or an American President-elect), and Wang’s delivery was often so extreme that it overwhelmed niceties of pitch and rhythm.

In her duet with Teo - Belle Nuit from the Tales of Hoffmann – Anna Koor’s mezzo-soprano had a brittle edge, but she brought a pleasing warmth and expressiveness to the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana.
Rather than the Esplanade’s own organ, the SLO Orchestra used a nasty electronic thing to lend holiness to the Easter Hymn, and it was probably this machine’s irritating top register which caused the chorus some tuning problems.  Otherwise, they were beyond reproach.  Augmented by two other choirs – Evokx and the Singapore University of Technology & Design – the SLO Chorus was absolutely fabulous.  Their performance of the Triumphal March from Aida, aided and abetted by some electrifying trumpet playing from the SLO Orchestra, was about as exciting as music can get.

The SLO Orchestra, for their part, was on cracking form throughout.  In no small measure this was due to Jason Lai who was making his debut with them.  He worked his way through the inevitable collection of short operatic extracts, giving it all a tremendous feeling of coherence. 
Perhaps Lai’s greatest achievement was in keeping a tight rein on the exuberant SLO Children’s Chorus, even when they seemed about to escape the confines of his direction in the enchanting Evening Hymn from Hansel and Gretel. Totally yet unobtrusively in control, he inspired strong and focused performances from every single performer – child and adult -  in this noteworthy gala concert.

19 November 2016

The Classical Elements

All too rarely do we get the chance to quiz artists about their motives behind making recordings for commercial release.  That’s a pity, for not only do many artists think long and deeply about what they want to record and why they want to record it, but as the people who buy and listen to these recordings, we find these insights deeply helpful to our understanding of the performances we experience.

As it happened,  I attended a discussion last month on the place of recording in today’s musical world, and as Albert Tiu was on the panel, someone in the audience was able to ask him directly, why he had chosen to record this album of diverse piano pieces, most of which are already well represented in the catalogues.

Tiu is an artist who does think deeply about what he records and why, and he gave a detailed explanation of the thinking behind this programme, why he had devised it as four thematic sections – Earth, Air, Water and Fire – and why he had chosen the specific pieces to go into each thematic group.  It was a fascinating insight into how an artist devises a programme, but it also revealed how an interpretation of an old favourite is often adjusted to suit a new context without any loss of integrity.

We have on this disc music by Liszt, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Scriabin and Ravel which you could find with little effort on any number of piano discs.  But juxtaposed as they are, and especially spiced up with less common repertory from the likes of Godowsky, Berio, Messiaen and Griffes, they take on a wholly new dimension.  (By a tantalising coincidence, the programme also includes Ibert’s Le vent dans la ruines which he wrote in response to his wartime work as a stretcher-bearer on the Somme, the centenary of which we are currently marking.)

It is intriguing how, for example, the journey from Debussy to Berio, or from Berio to Mompou, is far less awkward than we might at first think.  Berio’s reflective Wasserklavier merges almost imperceptibly into Mompou’s El Iago which, in turn, moves fluidly into the world of Liszt and his Le jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este. This is an intelligently devised programme, with thematic cohesion, but it is also an intelligently played programme with interpretative insight which is very strongly flavoured by the external elements of the programme.

I first heard much of this programme live when Tiu played it in 2012 at an exhibition of French Impressionist paintings held at the National Museum of Singapore, and on that occasion one was struck by the musical relationship with the visual images.  Those visual images are absent here, and somehow the music takes on an even more potent quality, not so much summoning up visual images as creating whole worlds of imagery which go far beyond the concept of Impressionism and into the realms of psychological perception.

I am a little surprised by Tiu’s very masculine, assertive reading of Debussy’s Le vent dans la plaine – not, for him, the airy, elusive quality of Debussy the so-called Impressionist, but more a composer who sees the wind as something which does not merely pass by, but creates very distinct, almost destructive, physical effects on the landscape it passes across.  And this kind of strong, assertive performance means that the move into the rather more hard-nosed harmonic environment of Charles Griffes’ The Night Winds is fluently achieved, and serves to enhance the underlying message that the wind is something every bit as physical as it is atmospheric.

Taken individually, each performance is technically assured and interpretatively perceptive, but taken as a whole, this programme is elevated by what some might see as the external concept of the Four Elements.  It is for this reason - that even established pieces can be viewed in a totally different light according to the context in which we hear them  - that we do have so many recordings of the same music.  And thank goodness for that.  Albert Tiu’s intelligent and artistically-driven performances certainly shed new light on this music, and also give us performances which stand comparison with the very best in any context.

17 November 2016

Malaysia's Musical Complexities

Few countries have as complex a musical heritage as Malaysia. 

The indigenous people (sometimes described as orang asli) comprise at least 30 linguistic and cultural groups each with their own distinct music.  

For centuries immigrants from South Asia and China have settled there and brought their own music.  And as both South Asia and China themselves comprise innumerable cultural groups, each with their own language and music, the culture they have injected into the fabric of modern Malaysia is every bit as varied as what was originally there. 

The majority population – the Malays – also have their own language, culture and music, much of which is drawn from their ethnic roots in Java and other parts of what is now largely called Indonesia.

To add complication to this already over-flowing cultural melting pot, the so-called bumiputra (literally “sons of the earth”), are not in the main the orang asli but the Malays, and centuries ago they inherited from Arab traders the Islamic religion which, in the particular interpretation of Islam which is followed by a majority in Malaysia, specifically forbids music and singing.

It does not end there.  European presence, dating back at least 600 years, has embedded into Malaysian society an awareness of western classical music.  For most of the past 100 years or so, that presence was limited to piano lessons, graded exams, occasional visiting musicians, and one or two – generally abysmal – orchestras and choirs centred on Chinese-majority towns such as Penang and Kuching.  That all changed in 1998 when the then Prime Minister and the President of the National Oil Company (Petronas) decided the time had come for Malaysia to have its own professional western-style symphony orchestra and concert hall.  The problem was, there was nobody in Malaysia experienced enough to play in it, so its initial membership was almost wholly foreign.  That was all right until the oil price crashed a decade later and, with petrol prices soaring at the pumps, the general population started to question why Petronas was spending money on foreigners indulging in an activity to which their religion forbade them access. A weak and half-hearted management acceded to popular calls for change, and what was once the greatest orchestra in Asia was reduced to a simpering shadow of its former self still capable, I gather, of putting on splendid performances, but living and working in an atmosphere of unease and uncertainty.

This over-simplified history may be interesting, but the main reason for rehearsing it here is to put into context something which is already pretty remarkable; given the complex musical heritage of Malaysia and the very chequered history of western music in particular, it is nothing short of miraculous.  A CD of new music by four Malaysian Women Composers.

Five Little Pieces for Piano by Jessica Cho may have been inspired by György Kurtág, but the harmonic language owes an inescapable debt to Messiaen.  These are tiny but perfectly formed, and I have a particular penchant for the invigorating third.  The performance here is powerfully committed, but it draws attention to one of the weaknesses of this CD - some of the recordings do not stand up to close scrutiny.  Here, for example, the piano is so woefully out of tune that I found myself wondering whether it might not have been a half-hearted attempt at a prepared piano.

The other Cho work on the disc is, at 11’48, the longest on the disc.  Hypnagogic II for chamber orchestra might have one of those obscure titles which so many contemporary composers feel gives their music “cutting edge” credibility, but Cho’s piece is far more interesting than its title.  Again the Messiaen influence is obvious, not least in the evocative clarinet solo around 3’30 (a composer recently suggested to me that it was impossible to write a clarinet solo today without referring to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time), but the strong, over-arching structure of the work and the intricate detail woven into its fabric has a character all of its own. We can detect Malaysian elements, but the language and appeal is truly global.

The performance of this work highlights the really significant weakness with this CD.  We are never told who the performers are.  I see from the website www.malaysiancomposers.com (there are no notes with the CD itself) that this was originally written for the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.  They were an excellent group under their founding conductor, Kevin Field, but this is clearly a piece which would have challenged the most accomplished of orchestras.  I would love to know if this is indeed the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra playing, and if so, when it was recorded; this is clearly a very distinguished performance of very distinguished music. 

Adeline Wong is the most established of these four composers.  She is also represented on this disc by two works.  Chermin is a score she wrote for a Malaysian horror film in 2007, and a short trio of excerpts are included here.  Its film roots are immediately apparent from the haunting vocal opening, with superimposed electronic effects, and the even more evocative rebab – a traditional Malay instrument – all mixed up to paint aural pictures rather than have a clear musical thread.  But in the very easy way Wong juxtaposes these very diffuse elements of Malaysia’s musical heritage, she shows the hand of a highly accomplished composer. 

This is vividly portrayed in her astounding piece for string quartet which, rightly, lends its title to the disc, Interweaves.  Superbly and idiomatically written for the quartet, this is nevertheless a very original and exciting work which, while Wong suggests it was inspired by the Islamic call to prayer, transcends any sense of ersatz-Malaysian/Islamic-ism to offer an inventive and rewarding musical experience which repays repeated listening.  Again the failure of the CD to identify the players is a serious flaw; for this is no amateur string quartet, but obviously a very highly accomplished group of players whose technical ability and obvious commitment to Wong’s score elevates them above the norm and into the realms of outstanding musicians.  Who are they?

During my time teaching at Middlesex University I encountered Isabella Pek.  She had been working as a commercial arranger and composer for the Malaysian broadcaster, RTM, and was at Middlesex to try and move on from simply writing jingles and theme music to expressing herself fully through composition.  I spent many happy and fruitful hours discussing music with her, and felt that here was a composer with genuine integrity and a burning desire to absorb every cultural influence in order to expand her own personal vocabulary.  Where Jambatan Tamparuli fits into her output chronologically, I do not know.  At times it has some of the naivety of the commercial music she was writing before her Middlesex studies, but at others it has the stamp of advanced musical thought which can only have come from the influences she picked up, especially under the guidance of Middlesex’s own iconic composition teacher, Peter Fribbens.  Pek achieves something special here.  It is immediately accessible music, full of attractive sound-effects (there’s some rather blatant bird song effects superimposed onto temple gongs and ethnic flutes at the start) but as it progresses, moving through the syrupy chords of a Ramlee-style movie score and a jazz-infused wind solo, it becomes ever more musically interesting.  It has an easy-going, laid-back feel (some may equate that with the kampong life of the bumiputra) and shows its Malaysian influences clearly, but successfully integrates them into a most coherent and attractive whole.  I wonder who the performers were and when the piece was written.  This CD does leave a lot of questions unanswered.

Jyotsna Prakash wears her Indian heritage so openly that, at times, her Sukhi sounds more like a piece intended to accompany a traditional religious ritual than an entirely original composition.  Possibly, because it is so potently reflective of a specific ethnic culture, from the outside it seems to lack the clarity of structure and logic of musical argument which makes the other works on this disc so absorbing.  It was inspired by a dance, and to a certain extent it is music which needs that visual element to succeed; it is a little like seeing just half of a picture and being left with no clear idea what the other half looks like.  What I hear I find attractive, but also rather elusive, luxuriating a little too languidly in the sound of the instruments and not apparently heading anywhere special.

So here we have a CD of six very distinct works, each confidently written by composers whose self-assurance and musical maturity is clear.  It would be wonderful if this CD could somehow reach the ears of those in the business of producing CDs for the international market, for these four composers could stand proud alongside  the very best in contemporary music;  their musical language transcends the complexities of their musical heritage. They do not need to exploit their gender or their nationality; these composers are clearly very comfortable in their own musical skins.
I think you can get the CD from this site - www.malaysiancomposers.com - and if you can't it makes for some interesting reading all the same

13 November 2016

A Choral Shock

It was a week of shocks, and rather nasty ones at that.  The biggest shock of them all was, of course, the Trump victory in the US.  That rather eclipsed the awful shock of the desperately tragic tram crash in London, which killed seven commuters innocently going about the daily business of getting to work.  And while it seems old news, it is still shocking to see and hear of some of the latest atrocities from Syria and the Middle East.  There were a couple of deeply upsetting professional shocks, and then on Friday afternoon I heard something which shocked me to the core.    

Towards the end of a discussion on music in Singapore, one young man told me how, at school, he had been forced to undertake a “compulsory choir audition”. He resented music for a long time after that.  I was so shocked at the concept of compulsory choir auditions that I never thought to pursue the matter any further, but I gather such things are not entirely unheard of in Singapore schools.

Perhaps I am wrong in finding the concept of compulsory choral auditions for non music pupils repulsive, for there is no doubt that choral singing in schools in Singapore is not only very widespread but also very good. 

Not Donald Trump but a far less shocking
character - Herodorus of Megara
Good, that is, on the basis that the choirs win competitions both at home and overseas. 
There, again, I am perhaps revealing my own prejudice when I criticise choirs for regarding competition above musical performance. 
Let’s not forget that, while I may find the notion of a “Choir Olympics” distasteful, the Ancient Greeks, who did, after all, discover music, incorporated musical competitions in their Olympic Games.  Herodorus of Megara won the trumpet playing contest in 10 consecutive Olympiads between 328 and 292 BC.

Whether any members of the Graduate Singers started their choral singing lives under the duress of compulsory audition, I do not know.  What I do know is that now they sing beautifully, make a lovely, smooth and polished sound and are elegant performers on stage. 
They gave a performance on Saturday evening, and while they displayed the strong characteristics of the American Barbershop which seems to have infected choral singing in recent years – arrangements which focus on close, consonant harmony and on making pleasing sounds, appearing on stage immaculately coiffured and in carefully manicured, uniformly tailored dress, and treating the stage as a place to utilize rather than one from which they can project their music-making – there was also a sense that this is a choir for whom the music matters.  Their concert had plenty of the entertainment factor which seems to attract audiences for this kind of choral show, but it also had musical credibility.

The Graduate Singers - Immaculate in dress and tone
The programme comprised the usual bland arrangements which seem to derive all their ideas from what I label “the Eric Whitacre Book of Nice Chords for Choirs”, but there were one or two things here which really stood out as being original and distinctive.  In preparation for a Japanese tour, the programme had a distinct Japanese feel, and it began with Sakura by Toru Takemitsu, a distinguished 20th century composer whose static, atmospheric music had far more depth to it than most latter-day choral pieces, even if the choir, dotted around the stage like so many fallen leaves, seemed to hold it all at arms’ length. 
The other work which really stood out for me was Zechariah Goh’s Reminiscences of Hainan which certainly had a great deal of originality and real quality at the start, even if the piece ultimately took refuge in smoochy, harmless chords designed more to make a nice sound than sustain a musical argument.  The Graduate Singers performed Goh’s work exquisitely. 

If conductor Adyll Hardy has one weakness, it is the usual choral director’s problem of getting the sound rich and beautiful and forgetting the intonation; often the choir just lost its tuning on some of the multi-part chords, taking the edge off the ultimate effect.  Any orchestral conductor worth their salt would devote time to tuning single chords to prevent this, but in the world of choral singing sound seems to matter more than niceties of pitch.

Another area where the Graduate Singers let themselves down was, ironically, in the matter of dress.  If they do feel the need to move around the stage (and Hardy mercifully kept this down to a minimum), they need to think about shoes.  Hard leather soles sound like Dutch clogs on the wooden stage of the SOTA concert hall, and the lingering effect of a shimmering eight-part chord was undermined by the clod-hopping din of a choir moving from one place to another while a M.C. tried to drown the noise out with her connecting announcements. The Graduate Singers would have done well to take a lesson from the Japanese Cultural Society Choir who shared the stage.  A vision in scarlet cloaks, they floated on and off stage as if in felt slippers – you hardly heard them move. 
I loved particularly the imaginative visual projections above the stage which cleverly filled in pictures as each song progressed.  Such things are occasionally done in concerts, but I’ve never seen them done so effectively and intelligently before. 

Very sadly, a further shock awaited me in the guise of an unwelcome phone call in the interval, and I had to miss the concert’s second half.  I was genuinely upset that I could not hear the remainder of what had turned out to be a really lovely concert and a musically rewarding display of fine choral singing.  This came as one of the week's few genuinely pleasant shocks.

08 November 2016

Anonymous Frank Martin

A poster has appeared in the lobby of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  There are always plenty of posters during term-time advertising concerts in the coming week reflecting the extraordinarily active musical life which exists here.  But this poster is a little different from the others.

In the normal course of events posters adopt the corporate design of YST-organised events – it used to be bland white, but since a rebranding exercise last month, they are now a most distinguished black and orange - but around this stage of the semester, a crop of more colourful and varied posters appears as students promote their own end-of-semester recitals.  This latest poster is one of those and the student has obviously done a good job in creating an eye-catching poster.  The only trouble is, the poster does not tell us who the student is.  What is the name of the performer whose recital we are being urged to attend?  It may be female – the picture is female, although for all we know that could be a stock image taken from a flute website – but there is no other clue as to who will be playing.

But our anonymous student has done something in her (or his) poster which ensures I shall move heaven and earth to be at the recital.   She (or he) has told us what she (or he) is going to play.  The prime function of a performer is to interpret and communicate a musical work to an audience, and we do need to know what that musical work is before we commit ourselves to attending the performance itself.  So here’s a poster which, by listing the works, has ensured an audience of at least one.

(You do not necessarily need a poster to bring in an audience.  Australian cellist Oliver Scott did a lunchtime recital yesterday in the graveyard slot which is labelled “Sound Bites” and traditionally welcomes an audience of three old men, myself included.  Oliver’s audience staggeringly went into double figures.  He confessed that he had gone out into the university and pressed his friends to attend.  Well done Oliver!  You not only got yourself a sizeable audience, but an appreciable one as well following your excellent interpretation of the Brahms Second Sonata!)

I first became involved in Singapore’s music scene in the mid-1980s.  A few years before that I had submitted my doctoral thesis on the concertante works of Frank Martin.  This followed on from my Master’s thesis on Martin’s oratorio Golgotha, and this post-graduate obsession with a little known Swiss composer of the 20th century had been prompted by my tutor who had, when I was accepted to do post-graduate study, advised me to choose a subject about which nobody knew anything and which would have an anniversary coming up shortly after completing my work.  The former idea was that, since nobody knew more about the subject than me, I could sail through the post-thesis viva voce comfortable in the knowledge that none of my inquisitors could challenge me on its contents.  The latter was to ensure that I was well placed to get something published in the usual upsurge of interest which accompanies any anniversary.

Having, as an undergraduate, attended a concert in the Royal Festival Hall where Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante for piano, harpsichord, harp and double string orchestra had been performed, and having liked the work so much that I had gone and bought an LP of it, I noticed, as I was thinking over my tutor’s words, that his centenary was to fall in 1990 – about a decade after I intended to submit my thesis, and allowing me plenty of time to get the books and record sleeves written.  In the event, Martin remains virtually unknown and his centenary passed almost without notice.  I did receive a request from MacMillan’s to re-write my PhD thesis as the basis of a book on Martin, but I turned the offer down: having spent seven years of my life on a composer whose music I admired but felt I had studied to exhaustion and beyond, I had no wish to commit myself to a further period going back over the same old ground but this time with even more words.  The only commercial benefit I got from my thesis was a request some years later from Hyperion to write the notes for a CD recording of Martin’s Mass; luckily the CD turned out to be a prize-winner and my notes earned several accolades which brought me no money but a lot of personal pride.

In all that time I have never heard a note of Martin’s music performed in Singapore.  So to see his Ballade for flute programmed at this anonymous recital was a real thrill.  Martin wrote a series of Ballades for various solo instruments and orchestra/piano; in fact after Chopin, who invented the genre, Martin is the most prolific composer of instrumental ballades.

The ballades were considered extensively in my doctoral thesis, and I worked exhaustively on Martin’s use of the minor third interval in them, which I opined represented his deep religious faith and signified the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion in his compositional ethos.  As with all academic writing, I look back on it now with horror, appalled at the dry, technical writing which studies the detail of the score and makes no attempt to scratch under the artistic and emotional message of the music.  Were I afforded the chance to write my PhD thesis again, or, better still, get a renewed offer from MacMillan’s, I would devote many thousand words to what the ballads behind the Ballades really were.  They tell a story – Martin was a great wordsmith who believed in the power of music to express literary ideas – but what that story is, I have never bothered to find out.  Perhaps our anonymous flautist has done this and will provide revelatory interpretations of the work.  Whatever she (or he) does, it will be a revelation to hear, at long last, Martin’s music in Singapore.