06 May 2016

Music and Savagery

Frequently misquoted and almost as frequently mis-attributed, William Congreve’s lines “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak” from his play The Mourning Bride of 1697, is probably the most famous example of attributing powers to music for which there is scant (if any) evidence.  Ever since Congreve (and, indeed, for centuries before) writers have been happy to claim all sorts of special benefits from hearing or from playing music.  Some are true, some understate the case and others, like Congreve, have a grain of truth but in reality go far beyond what is credible.  We see this sort of thing today in those unthinking commentators who suggest that “classical music” and “beauty” are synonymous, and that listening to it is a way of stifling aggression.

There is no doubt in my mind that some music does have the power to soothe a savage breast, and that it can induce a sense of calm and well-being (much as a drop of alcohol on a flight can do).  But, just as with alcohol, too much – or the wrong type - can have entirely the opposite effect.  Does anyone feel calm and unaggressive after Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite?  One orchestral percussion player told me how he and his colleagues used to get so annoyed by the pre-recorded pre-concert injunction in the hall in which they performed to “sit back, relax and enjoy the music” that, when the performance included The Rite of Spring they felt induced to do their bit with excessive savagery.

Music has, undoubtedly, powers over the emotions to those receptive to it (and some tests seem to show that it can also trigger behavioural differences among those who attempt to resist it), and its effects can be observed for a period after the music has ceased to play.  But, at heart, music is a transitory experience for all, and no matter how frequently we revisit it, I remain unconvinced that any emotional or behavioural consequence of exposure to music can be anything other than temporary.

Which is not to say that we should not use music as a tool of peace and good-will; it is unusually well-equipped to have an effect in those areas.  That certainly was the thinking behind last night’s concert in Palmyra, the Syrian city scene of such appalling barbarism and unbelievable inhumanity in recent months when it came under the control of that pagan and sub-human organisation calling itself The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  According to Russia Today, “A Russian symphony orchestra led by Valery Gergiev has given a unique performance in ancient Palmyra, recently liberated from Islamic State militants. The concert was devoted to the victims of extremists, and intends to instil hope that peace can triumph over war and terrorism”.  It went on to quote the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs; “The concert in Palmyra is a highly spiritual response to those who wanted to destroy Syria, split the country along national and religious lines, and deprive it of Christian of principles.”  

That struck me as a lovely idea; to counter the bestiality and brutality of ISIL with the brilliance and beauty of classical music.  And while the animal brutes of ISIL have breasts of such savagery that only total oblivion could ever cure them, the power of music to heal, albeit temporarily, the deep psychological wounds of those directly affected should not be understated.  According to the BBC’s John Simpson, the performance was given by members of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra to an audience mainly comprising Russian and Iraqi soldiers, while Russia Today observed that the music performed was by Bach, Prokofiev and Schchedrin.   

But we live in a world where even the most generous and brave acts are tainted by political scepticism and national posturing. The New York Times interwove its report of the concert with gruesome details of carnage elsewhere in Syria, implying that the concert was inappropriate while war still raged, and even as John Simpson eloquently recounted the event, he also reported a reaction from some European governments and observers that the concert was, far from being a genuine attempt to use music to negate some of the extremes of physical and mental violence experienced in Palmyra, a bid by President Putin of Russia to highlight Russia's military supremacy.   Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent put it in a nutshell: “Moscow will be hoping that images of its classical musicians in Syria will reinforce the message that Russia is a force for good.  But Western officials remain suspicious of Russia's intentions. Moscow has faced accusations that it has not done enough to rein in Syrian government forces. The Russians deny that and accuse America of not using its influence with the Syrian opposition to halt the fighting”.

The BBC website added this suggestive caption to this image;
"Cellist Sergei Roldugin is a close friend of Vladimir Putin"

So what, then, was this concert?  Was it a genuine expression of peace and hope using music as a symbolic representation of the triumph of civilization over barbarism, or a cynical political statement using Russian musicians as symbolic representatives of a military super-power in an aggressive piece of international posturing?

Frankly, whatever the West may think of the Russian government of President Putin, I have nothing but praise for anyone who, like William Congreve over 300 years ago, believes that music can “sooth a savage breast” despite all the evidence to the contrary.

03 May 2016

A French Woman Eclipsed

There is an understandable tendency to view the past through the attitudes and morals of the present.  So it is that, from our standpoint in the 21st century where there is something of a fixation on equality, we look askance when it seems that previous generations were less concerned with gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation than we are.  We feel the need to redress the balance by retrospectively imposing the principles of total equality on people for whom the struggle for individual existence often denied them the luxury of even thinking about other matters.

I first came across this in a musical context when, as part of a team deciding who (and in what level of detail) should be included in a new dictionary of composers.  I argued passionately for Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875-1912) on the basis that his choral trilogy Song of Hiawatha had been, in the years between the two world wars, such a mainstay of the English choral repertory that he warranted at least a half column.  At that stage I had every reason to suspect that the Song of Hiawatha would come back into fashion; its glorious text, its wonderfully compulsive rhythms redolent of native African/American drumming and its brilliant writing for amateur voices seemed to be tailor made for what I anticipated would be a revival of interest in choral singing.  I was wrong; but still find it incredible that so few people ever perform this music today.  However the editor’s rejection of my pro-Coleridge Taylor stance was not based on musical or populist grounds; as he told me, “It is not our place to promote a composer above his worth purely because he was black”.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Family

That came as a shock.  I had no idea he was black – the colour of his skin simply had not crossed my mind – all that interested me was that he had been a composer who wrote catchy and eminently singable music for amateur choirs.  Of course I then went and did my research and discovered, far too late in the day, that his life story itself was so intensely fascinating that he deserved not so much a dictionary as an entire book written about him.  (An interesting post-script is that his daughter, Avril Coleridge Taylor (1903-1998) became a composer, but any modern-day sympathies we may have for her as being both black and female – something she disguised by composing under the pseudonym Peter Riley - were effectively destroyed by a report which appeared in a London newspaper in 1952 which not only described her as “porcelain white” but claimed she supported the apartheid regime in South Africa.)

Today’s perception of equality also, of course, extends to individual sexuality.  Once considered an entirely personal and private matter, we now probe into long-dead composers’ lives pruriently seeking out hints to their sexual preferences.  Any composer who failed to get married often becomes labelled as homosexual even when there is absolutely no evidence to support this (think Ravel).  Indeed, a student once asked me “Was Handel Gay?”.  Coming after a lecture in which The Beggar’s Opera had been mentioned as forcing Handel to move away from opera and into oratorio, I naturally assumed the student was putting forward the fascinating hypothesis that, in a clever piece of marketing, Handel had himself written The Beggar’s Opera using the pseudonym John Gay.  I was appalled when the student pointed out that: “Handel never married, so he was probably gay”.  The assumption that unmarried people are necessarily homosexual was so wildly false that I was at a loss for an answer, but I did splutter that I could not begin to see how the private sexual inclination of a composer could have any bearing on his posthumous reception.

In fact the desire to redress the perceived sins of the past has done nobody any favours.  I can’t help wondering if we hold up different standards when considering the music of Tchaikovsky, Fanny Mendelssohn and Samuel Coleridge Taylor because they would today belong to a generally recognised group who are, in some quarters, segregated against.  Does it really serve their reputations any better to know that they were gay, female and black, and does it fall on us in the 21st century to redress that balance by promoting them beyond the reputation they would have attained had they been married, male and white? 

The question arises because of a wonderful gift I received from my oldest and best friend, Peter Almond.  Some weeks back he phoned up in a lather of excitement, asking me to listen as he placed his phone against a loudspeaker and I heard coming down the line a waft of highly attractive music and the question “I bet you cannot guess what that is?”.  True, I could not.  It was totally unidentifiable.  Peter, whose generosity knows no bounds, duly posted off for me two CDs of the composer’s works and I duly played them.  There were three symphonies and a couple of overtures showing the fluency and mastery of Felix Mendelssohn but, beyond that, giving away no clues other than the fact that here was a very fine composer indeed whose gifts lay particularly in orchestration and in crisp, tuneful and immediately attractive dance movements (notably the wonderfully bustling Scherzo of the 3rd Symphony and the disarmingly elegant Andante of the 2nd Symphony).  The question was, why was this composer so completely unknown to me.

Possibly it is because the composer was a woman.  Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) came from a long line of distinguished artists - “including several women painters”, in the words of Groves Dictionary.  It would be quite wrong to promote Farrenc’s music because she was a woman; the fact is, she was a very good composer indeed and worthy of recognition in her own right.  However, she has not had it, and while it would be easy to blame this on what we retrospectively identify as anti-feminine bias in 19th century society, it is much more complex than that. 

Perhaps the real reason lies more in the fact that Farrenc was French.  So indoctrinated are we by the Germanic dominance of early 19th century music that we tend to assume that between the death of Lully in 1687 and the mature works of Berlioz, nothing of note ever came from the pen of a French composer.  Farrenc was not just a contemporary of Berlioz, but as Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory from 1842 to 1873 was part of the Parisian musical establishment which he so roundly and memorably discredited. And if a woman is Professor of Piano at such a firmly establishment institution as the Paris Conservatory, perhaps there was not so much anti-feminine bias then as we would like to think. 

On top of that, she was totally eclipsed by her contemporaries; composers who have, in their own way, exhibited a level of individuality and originality which transcends mere fluency of invention.  Berlioz is hailed by historians as a pioneer in orchestration, while the piano writing of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, have clearly cast a complete shadow over Farrenc’s output for the instrument (the bulk of her compositional legacy).  The burgeoning operatic genius of Verdi, Wagner and her compatriot Bizet have gone down in a history which must inevitably exclude Farrenc since she wrote no operas.  The symphony was going through the doldrums – indeed in a curiously fallacious statement the musicologist Richard Taruskin declared “No symphonies written between 1850 and 1870 survive in the repertoire” – and her chamber music, which Grove claims to have “established her reputation among critics and cognoscenti”, suffered from being composed at an age when the lure of the piano and the opera house diverted attention away from a genre which had once been a dominant musical force.

So has history ignored Louise Farrenc because she was a woman?  I fear not.  It has ignored her because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Possibly, had she been a man, even the few pieces of hers that have appeared on CD this century would never have seen the light of day.  

02 May 2016

Who Needs Good Music When You Can Have Bad?

Over the weekend I went to a concert.  Nothing unusual about that, of course, nor, sadly, about the fact that the concert was embarrassingly poor with bad arrangements of second-rate music in monumentally mediocre performances.  And, almost inevitably, it got a rapturous response from the capacity audience.  I have to say that, cringing in my seat with acute embarrassment as the performance teetered on the brink of a total collapse I did ask myself why I had given up a satisfying career as a bus driver – where a single act of carelessness can kill dozens - to devote my life to something where multiple acts of carelessness normally receive praise and admiration.

The audience in the concert hall clearly loved every moment of it and applauded with unbridled enthusiasm.  Are my standards too high and my expectations unrealistic, or does the public accept really bad music and music making because they neither expect nor want anything better?

The casual reader should immediately pounce on my assessment of the concert as “bad arrangements of second-rate music in monumentally mediocre performances” and castigate me for assuming my standards are right and other people’s wrong; for implying my taste is good and everyone else’s bad.  Yet while the casual reader should do this, those who think and ponder about such matters must, surely, reach much the same conclusion as mine. 
1.      Bad arrangements.  When the original work is arranged in such a way that it is distorted, that its original character and mood is lost and that the instrumentation causes an aural imbalance and obscures the principal themes and harmonies of the original, then I am absolutely convinced that the arrangement is bad.  The finest players in the world could not produce good results from such bad arrangements.
2.      Second-rate music. The finest music is original, distinctive, compelling, emotionally and/or intellectually stimulating and prompts a desire to hear it again.  Very little music really falls into this category, and while much music can fulfil one or two of these elements, only the first-rate can fulfil three or more.  The music played in this concert was certainly attractive, possibly well worth hearing again, but was neither original nor stimulating and certainly did not offer anything sufficiently compelling for the bulk of the audience to put down their phones and concentrate on what was being played to them.
3.      Monumental mediocrity. When the ensemble went through the motions of tuning, it was obvious that they remained steadfastly out of tune.  Playing a note several times over does not tune an instrument; this is such a basic skill that, to get it wrong, signifies a basic musical mediocrity.  On top of that, frequent places where the ensemble broke down, the players made mistakes and the conductor did nothing to shape, express or mould the music into some coherent whole implies not just individual mediocrity in the players but a level of mediocrity which encompassed the entire performing body.

A free concert on a Sunday afternoon should, possibly, not prompt the same level of expectation as, say, a pricey one on a Friday evening.  Yet the very professional marketing, under the umbrella of a highly-reputable professional musical organisation, had certainly drawn me to the concert on the assumption that it would be, if nothing more, an entertaining hour or so of undemanding but acceptable music making.  On top of that, the programme booklet gave long and lavish biographies of the artists which did everything to promote them as high-ranking professionals.  The conductor, attired curiously for an afternoon free concert in white tie and tails, was keen to promote his academic and musical credentials by pointing to the doctorate he had obtained from an institution in the USA (why are so many American doctorates based on the flimsiest of academic and musical skills?) and had even written brief programme notes which were so incomprehensible (and full of basic factual errors) that one expected he had found an institution offering Doctorates in Musical Obfuscation.  His performances showed no evidence of musical understanding nor interpretative thought, and the fact that he announced the encore as “something beautiful”, when, in fact, it was something utterly dreary and insignificant, indicated a failure to understand the words he used.

While I can justify my statements about the dreadfulness of the concert, I have to accept that, on all the evidence, I was in a minority of almost one. (True, the lady beside me complained after the second inconsequential piece that she was hoping for something more substantial – but when a longer piece did turn up, she promptly fell asleep; although I confess to having kept my own eyes firmly shut for fear of giving visible manifestation for the inner horror I was feeling at such a musical travesty.) 

Should I accept that my expectations and standards are out of line with the mass of the music-going public?  Yes, I should and I do.  But I must fight to preserve the few remaining shreds of musical credibility in the face of such widespread apathy towards excellence, and the general satisfaction with the second and third rate in an art form which, virtually by definition, should elevate us way beyond the first-rate.

There was a time when music was unknown and inaccessible to the vast mass of the population.  If you were exposed to music at all, it was because you were a member of an elite for whom music was an enriching adjunct to daily life.  You demanded the very best in your life, and music was part of it.  Then along came the gramophone and suddenly music was available to all.  With the mobile device music has not just become available to all, but considered as basic a human activity as breathing, eating and going to the toilet. 

And just as we have ruined our atmosphere, our dietary intake and our physical environment through treating air, food and waste products carelessly, so we are ruining music by taking it for granted.  By accepting the mediocre and the mundane when we should be striving to care for the excellent and exceptional, I see music going the same way as the environment.  While people care about airborne pollution, deforestation, chemicals in agriculture and landfill sites, how many people really care about music?  

29 April 2016

Critical Abusers

There is one member of the lunatic fringe who, whenever I review a particular ensemble, sends abusive, incoherent and frequently libellous emails.  I gather this ranting member of the illiteracy also sends abusive emails to my colleagues whenever they review the same ensemble.  The strange thing is, this idiot hurls abuse not because we are in any way critical of the performances, but because we praise them.  Whenever I say a nice thing about them, I am told I do not know anything, am a deaf imbecile and, because my name is not Chinese, belong to a sub-species of humanity whose race and ethnicity by default render me incapable of serious musical judgement.  I am told to “Go Home” and not “Impose my ignorance on Singaporeans”, to “Jump under a moving train” and to undertake all manner of sexual activities with all manner of inanimate objects. 

Far from being offended, however, I am thrilled when reviews and criticism prompt a reaction, hostile or otherwise.  It is good to know that, even among the loonies of this world, music matters sufficiently to warrant the effort taken to hurl racist, libellous and vicious abuse at those who comment on it.  How sad the world would be if nobody cared, and allowed critics to say whatever they like without risk of censure.  I could, personally, live without the extreme racist abuse, but otherwise I urge my dopey detractor to keep it up; I wish more people would respond, although a measured response with considered opinions is always preferable to the contradictory ramblings of the seemingly mentally unstable.

Responding to critics is, however, a surprisingly rare activity; and I cannot recall anyone previously berating me for being complimentary to a performer.  We critics put ourselves in the front line by voicing personal opinions in public, and while we try to justify them, we do not hope (nor wish) to force others to adopt our stance.  Our aim is to get the conversation going; if you talk about something, then it begins to interest and concern you in a more positive way than if you just let it pass over tour head.  Sadly, it seems to me, the level of conversation when it comes to music is limited to the abusive one-worders of anonymous YouTube and Twitter subscribers; the considered thoughts of a professional critic seem, if anything, to intimidate readers into silence.  So long live my Singaporean abuser; at least there is one person who seems to care, even if they have yet to identify in themselves quite what it is they care about.

I have, like all my colleagues, had plenty of interesting feedback over the years, some of it abusive but as often as not stimulating and genuinely thought-provoking, and I have entered into protracted correspondence with some, leading to a deep re-evaluation of opinions on both sides of the correspondence.  But I’ve also had a good crop of really silly ones.

There was the famous organist who, after having released somewhere in the region of 12 CDs in as many months featuring as many composers and musical styles, objected to this comment I made: “With such a heavy recording schedule and such an extensive repertory, you would have thought XXXX might by now be in danger of treating the recording process as something routine”. I did go on to say that this was a danger said organist had, against all the odds, managed to avoid.  Unfortunately, the first sentence so enraged him that, before reading on, he fired off a letter to me in which he said that, when he read my words, he seriously contemplated suicide.  That, to me, was an outrageous and unacceptable thing to write; but I’m afraid my response was equally outrageous and unacceptable; “It’s good to know my words could have had one positive outcome for the world of music”.

Then there was the well-known composer and arranger who, having read my review of his latest publication in which I suggested it was all written to a formula with no originality, wrote the following to my editor: “I do not know who this Marc Rochester is and have never heard of him before. So why do you continue to allow him to write in your magazine?  I have been reading his reviews for the past few years and feel he is incapable of telling good music from bad”.  My kind editor wrote back (copying to me); “You seem to know a lot about someone of whom you claim never to have heard, and I can assure you, and as his last review so eloquently proves, Marc Rochester is unusually adept at telling good music from bad”.

I prompted a flurry of letters with one of my early reviews for the Western Mail when I was sent to Swansea to review a performance by the jazz drummer Buddy Rich.  Complaining that the sound system gave so much prominence to Rich that it was impossible to recognise the musical context of what he was playing, I got streams of complaints from Buddy Rich fans (not all of whom appeared to have been at the concert) about “not knowing what I was talking about” and about “not understanding what Buddy was trying to do”.  I also got a charming note from Buddy Rich himself to the effect that I showed really understanding of what it was he had been trying to do and complaining about the sound engineers who seemed to be working to their own agenda.

Perhaps the best thing to happen to critics is to find their words recycled in promoting good artists.  When a comment I had made in the pages of the International Record Review (of fond and sad memory) about a young singer’s début album appeared on a sticker for her subsequent release, I don’t know who was more excited, me or my editor who felt it had given credibility to a magazine which always had to struggle to get its voice heard.

Of course, there is always the issue of your own words being sent back to haunt you.  A damning piece of criticism I wrote about an opera production I saw in Cardiff many years ago included the sentence “Only if the alternative would be to watch paint dry over three hours, this production of La Boheme would be, marginally, the most stimulating”.   When I was in Birmingham some months later I walked past a theatre only to see a poster for the same production there in which my name appeared beside the promotional quote “most stimulating”.

26 April 2016

The Diploma Recital - How Not to Do It

With the best part of 20 years’ experience in examining diploma recitals, I have long since learnt that just about any competent student can muddle through the notes of their chosen programme sufficiently well to pass.  Of course, it does depend so much on programme choice; and the diploma recitals which fail do so usually because the programme has not been well chosen.

The most obvious problem is the temptation to choose pieces which set out to meet some imagined (and totally non-existent) agenda set by the examiners.  Why students (or, as often as not, their teachers) feel that the same selection criteria exist in a professional diploma recital as in a grade 1 exam defies all logic.  There may, once, have been a time when a “balanced” or “varied” programme meant, exclusively, music written at different periods of musical history, but that certainly is no longer the case in real life.  By diploma time, a student should have sufficient experience to know in which areas of the repertory are their particular strengths and weaknesses, and to plan a programme which comprises the former and avoids the latter.  A student who does not know this, is clearly far from ready to tackle a diploma, no matter how fast or loud they can play.

A second programme-choice-malfunction, if you like, is to choose pieces which are already well known.  The obvious reason for failure here is that by the time the actual recital comes along, the student is so tired of the pieces, regards them with such familiarity, that they go through the motions and fail to realise that a half-decent examiner can sniff out a routine delivery from an inspired one before even the first note has been played.  Any recital should be, in part, a voyage of discovery not just for the audience but for the performer; for only then can the performer communicate that sense of wonder and awe which makes for a really satisfying performance.

And the third common error is simply choosing pieces which are not liked but are regarded as worthy; “I hate Beethoven’s late Sonatas, but they look good on the programme, so I’ll include one”.  Nothing communicates itself more than dislike, and no performer can hide a sense of disconnect from a piece, no matter how well they handle its technicalities.

But perhaps even more important than merely passing the test in a diploma recital is to make it memorable and distinctive, so that the examiners do not just award higher grades and distinctions, but go away with a name stored in the memory for future reference.  In many cases examiners have a life outside examining and can offer opportunities to performers whose work they have admired.
It is in this area that most damage is done by the culture of playing notes rather than delivering a performance.  I’ve sat through no end of good playing of well-chosen repertory and come away unimpressed.  Sometimes it’s a stage manner which repels, sometimes it’s the dress, but most often it’s a simple failure to understand the totality of the occasion.  Grim programme notes which sound like Grade 5 theory papers or read suspiciously like the half-baked ramblings of a Wikipedia contributor (something all too often revealed by the inclusion of comments on aspects of the work which are not actually played in the recital performance) are still, horribly, the norm; yet these are the one thing that the examiner will take away from the performance to revisit at a later time.

I often wonder how students prepare for their diploma recitals beyond practising on their instrument. Do they video record themselves giving a public recital, do they invite disinterested parties to comment (anonymously) on their YouTube posting, do they practice deportment and facial expressions in front of a mirror, do they ask friends and family to suggest how they might look better?  I have strong doubts in many cases that any of these are done.  Yet how else is a young performer expected to learn how to put on a show in public?  I have watched young boys in full evening dress make themselves look silly by clearly feeling totally out of their element in inappropriate recital dress.  I have watched teenage girls at a crucial moment become horribly conscious that their shoulder-less, strapless gown is not offering them the support it normally does at a party.  I have watched young and old people of both sexes wander on to stage completely confused by what message they wish to send out – and ending up sending a message of uncertainty and unease.
Sweaty handkerchiefs and cloths used to wipe the hands look awful if they are just carried on and off with as much care as the violin, horn or clarinet (and so do plastic bottles of water, especially when the sucked loudly during the performance), while a lovely dress covering the body is often spoiled by horrible shoes covering the feet.  On a personal note, exposed armpits are a major problem for me – I know some conservatories ban them from recitals – but if they have to be there, then a shave or a wax is really a pre-requisite, and if there is a tendency to sweat, it is immediately visible by the watery reflection in stage lights.

The walk on to stage or into the room, the bow (which must be given, even if nobody is applauding – you have to acknowledge the effort made by your audience even if it is just one miserable old examiner), the posture between movements or during introductions and bars’ rests, the smile or the frown, the look of agony or the look of ecstasy, they all have their place in a performance (which is often judged subconsciously as much on its visual as its aural appeal).  All these have to be practised and practised again until they become second nature.  If it looks right and natural, then you have the examiners on your side before you play a single note; if it doesn’t then you have an uphill struggle ahead if you to win the examiners over. 

Has your recital been properly timed?  Do not “borrow” timings from somebody else’s performance and never dig a grave for yourself by being so exact that the chances of your timing being correct are nil (how can a live performance always take 23 minutes and 42 seconds?).  Have you thought about how you should differentiate between the end of a movement and the end of a piece and the end of the recital?  Have you thought how you should prepare to play the first note once you are out there on stage?

All these elements are what makes the diploma recital so drastically different from the graded examination; yet still students seem to think they are just an extension of the same thing.  No wonder so many get disappointed when their results do not match their expectations.

Carmen in Concert

(An abridged version of this review appeared in The Straits Times, Singapore, on Monday 25th April 2016)

As modern-day Carmens go, Christine Rice is one of the best.  Singing the title role in this concert version of Bizet’s famous opera, she was not just vocally compelling but conveyed through facial inflexions and body language a potent image of Carmen’s alluring, captivating and sensuous femininity.  Casting Andrea Care as her troublesome and jealous lover, Don Jose, was a master-stroke.  A gloriously expressive tenor, he too conveyed so much character through the voice that the limitations of performing opera on the concert platform were effectively swept aside.

In fact there was such tangible chemistry between Care’s Jose and Rice’s Carmen that one wondered why she was ever even tempted by Shen Yang’s Escamillo.  Not so much vocally uneven as downright lumpy, he had a few projection issues.  More significantly, from his act two entry, striding cheerfully down a side aisle of the auditorium in a shabby suit and waving to friends in the audience as if he were an audience member returning late after one too many at the interval bar, he seemed uneasy in the role of a triumphant matador and lover. 

Not so Li Jing Jing.  If anything her obvious self-possession and assertiveness sat strangely on the role of Micaela, a character usually associated with weakness and timidity.  But she sang so enticingly that, for once, Micaela came across as a credible rival to Carmen for Jose’s affections.  Li’s vast biography in the programme book – longer than any of the others in the programme book with the exception of, strangely, that of the chorusmaster of one of the choirs taking part - implied a struggling for recognition (the old adage sprang to mind: “the longer the biography, the less it has to say”), yet this gorgeous voice has real star quality.

The adult chorus, made up of the Singapore Symphony Chorus and NAFA Chamber Choir, was very good indeed, if a little weak in the lower voices, while the Children’s Choir was simply outstanding.  They stole the first act with their march through the auditorium and on to the stage, their absolute perfection of tone and pitch, their tightness of ensemble and their authentic French diction. 

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra does not usually do opera, and it showed.  Despite conductor Lan Shui's demonstrative direction - projected on to a big screen at the back of the auditorium so everyone on the packed stage could see it – they lacked the flexibility to bend to the singers, and it often seemed that orchestra and voices were on different wavelengths. Nevertheless a symphony orchestra playing an operatic score does produce a very different result than an opera house orchestra doing the same thing, and this was no exception; a lot of inner detail was revealed which even those of us who profess to know Carmen inside out would have found refreshingly revealing. 

There was a narration given by Joseph Lee which, drawn from the original play rather than the opera libretto, purported to come from Don Jose's meditation from his prison cell awaiting his execution.  And this proved to be far less of a distraction than it might at first sight have appeared, for Lee had mastered the art of blending in to his musical background, and it certainly added illumination for those unacquainted with the opera.

Illumination of the electric variety constituted the principal element of staging for, while the concert hall platform was devoid of props (apart from Lee's chair) and looked every inch a concert hall platform, it was lit from above by a variety of subtle shades which were unusually effective because director David Edwards had the entire performing body (except Carmen, Don Jose and Lan Shui) in white, so that the whole stage seemed to absorb the subtly shifting colours.  It worked well enough to lift the performance out of being a mere concert-hall performance and into the realms of a dramatic production.

20 April 2016

The end of the line for the Graded Music Examination?

Having just completed a university course which covered the issue of music education in Singapore, I was surprised by the amount of hostility and opposition the students showed to the concept of graded music examinations.  Considering Singapore is one of the growth areas for the exam boards and that virtually every Singaporean has had some connection, albeit peripherally, with graded music exams, I was expecting at least a general acceptance that, even if they had some evil about them, graded music examinations were seen as a necessary evil.  Not a bit of it.  Perhaps three out of 80 students registered a measure of support, but by far and away the majority view was that they were positively detrimental to music.

More than one student was willing to stand up and recount how being “forced” to do graded exams had led them away from a love of music, how the pressure to do exams had stifled their interest in music, and, most seriously, how the extended period spent learning examination repertory had prevented them broadening their own musical horizons by learning other pieces.

We know that a majority of piano (and it is mostly piano) teachers in Singapore work on the exam syllabus as a complete teaching curriculum, and regard the exam as such a fundamental in music training that all efforts are focused solely on the exam and achieving a distinction mark in it.  However, quite how damaging that has been to Singapore’s musical environment has not seriously been considered.  Yet here were students, many still having piano lessons, who could show that those of them with a love of music, of jazz, of improvisation, of experimentation , of ensemble playing, even of accompanying were being denied a musical education because of this wholly false elevation of the graded exam into a measure of total musical ability.

As an examiner of many years’ standing and one who has, at various times, argued passionately about the benefits of graded music exams while recognizing the dangers they pose, I was not prepared for quite such uniform opposition to them from students themselves.  Students, it should be said, who are every bit as signed up to the Singaporean concept of exam culture as anyone, but who recognize the failings of the graded examination system within the context both of other academic examinations and of the musical health of the nation.

The problem is, of course, largely down to teachers and parents.  The latter, mostly from a background where music is alien, can only understand progress through physical evidence such as examination reports and results.  Unable to identify skill and ability over paper qualifications, these parents naturally press teachers to elevate the exam above and beyond its role as a yardstick of progress.  Since parents are the teachers’ paymasters, it is equally natural for the teachers to accede to their demands.

But the teachers must take the lion’s share of the blame if graded music examinations are, as seems likely, being discredited by their extensive misuse.  If a teacher is a professional, the parents must be persuaded to accept the professional’s opinion.  The trouble is, too many piano teachers are not, psychologically speaking, professional.  They neither understand nor practice their art in a professional manner, even if they earn their income from it and devote their lives to it.  The teacher who has neither the courage nor the conviction to show professionalism in the face of parental pressure, has no moral right to offer guidance to a pupil.  The recurrent theme from the students has been that the teachers were too exam-orientated; and whether the teachers really were that or were simply doing the bidding of their paymasters does not come into the equation.

They are familiar stories, especially (but not exclusively) in Singapore: The student who obtains distinction at grade 8 but who knows nothing about music, playing the piano or communicating to listeners.  The student who, after a decade of intensive study, knows just two dozen pieces of music.  The student who does not know what improvisation is, has never heard of most major composers, thinks of Bach merely as the composer of a Prelude and Fugue or Beethoven as the composer of a Sonata or two.  All of these are symptomatic of having passed through the graded music examination system and come out with a paper chain of distinctions.

There is nothing inherently wrong with graded music exams, but there is everything wrong with the way they are perceived.  And as perception in Singapore is a much stronger currency than truth, perhaps the time has come for a new generation of teachers to abandon graded music examinations altogether.  If the nation is to grow musically, it has to eradicate the cancerous spread of the graded musical examination, otherwise it will forever see music as a competitive sport rather than an artistically enriching experience.

It is a very sad fact that too many musical organizations offering higher education musical courses, competitions or even teaching/performing jobs expect of their applicants some evidence of achievement in graded music examinations.  Clearly, there is a need to persuade them away from this policy; in many respects, such certificates are worth less than the paper on which they are printed.  But while it seems self-evident that some kind of certification is needed to demonstrate a musician’s worth, we should ask whether that really is the case.  Ask any German, French or American musician about graded music examinations, and they will have no idea what you are talking about; yet these countries are as musically distinguished (possibly more so) than those who place the Graded Music Examination system at the heart of their educational plan.  

There is a growing groundswell among music students in Singapore that the graded music examination system is not just inappropriate but detrimental to the musical environment here.  When I asked them to suggest an alternative, it is interesting that they seemed to feel that no alternative was necessary, that the graded examination far from filling a hole in the educational environment, simply added an extra and unnecessary layer to it.