06 August 2018

One from the Tudor Archives

A good friend urged me to seek out and listen to the group called Stile Antico and even bought me one of their CDs to convince me!  I was duly impressed and when, in 2013, the sadly-defunct International Record Review sent me a new release from them for review, I was happy to share my friend's enthusiasm for them.  The original review popped up the other day and I felt it was probably worth resurrecting; the disc is still available:

Tudor church music is so embedded in the repertoire of choirs of all shapes and sizes that it is hard to believe that it has not been there for centuries. The fact is the sacred music of Byrd, Gibbons, Tallis et al appeared in practical performing editions only in the 1920s and even then took a while to establish itself. It was a project financed by the Carnegie UK Trust, which, as Matthew O’Donovan points out in his booklet notes, ‘was to transform the musical life of the whole nation’. Between 1922 and 1929 Carnegie funded Tudor Church Music, which over ten volumes published for the first time many of the great Tudor masterpieces which have become so familiar to us today. That there was an appetite for this music in those inter-war years is evidenced by the fact that within eight years of its publication, Byrd’s Ave verum corpus had sold staggering 16,629 copies; that it remains as popular today is evidenced by the fact that one UK online retailer lists no fewer than 46 currently available recordings of the work from performers who range from church choirs, through most of the major English cathedral and collegiate choirs to specialist singing groups from across Europe and the US.
Here is a forty-seventh disc to add to that list and it is unquestionably one of the best.

Stile Antico, a relatively new player on the block, formed in 2001 , has already established itself as a leading group in the Early Music vocal arena, and this is only the latest in a long line of extremely impressive discs released on the Harmonia Mundi label. Its collective (conductorless) approach pays particular dividends in this repertoire where the music depends on an instinctive reaction from the individual singers rather than a sense of order created by a firm hand on the tiller. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Gibbons’s O clap your hands, where the sprightly rhythms here have an appropriately percussive edge while the occasional false relations have a spine-tingling spiciness brought about by clashes which feel as if they happen by accident rather than design. Clarity of texture, driving tempos and superb diction are all there, but what is more vivid is the glorious freshness and vitality of this singing.

This is a disc which might have done well under such a title as ‘The Golden Age’s Greatest Hits’ (thank goodness Harmonia Mundi did not go down that road), for everything here is hugely familiar to just about anyone who has dipped a toe however tentatively — into the realms of English church music. Byrd’s great Mass for five voices is here, effectively diluted by being interspersed with various other pieces (highlighting the emphasis on the music rather than the texts), and alongside it are some of the best-loved motets of them all. It makes for an ideal single-volume compendium of Tudor church music.

The term ‘Tudor’ is perhaps a little misleading since the pieces here span a period of some 120 years stretching into the Jacobean period. But whether the music is early (the earliest piece is Taverner’s O splendor gloriae, with its transparent textures and extensive use of imitation) or late (the exquisite Almighty and everlasting God, a standard for many English parish churches during the latter half of the twentieth century) Stile Antico presents it with a glorious and compelling freshness. The result is not merely a wholly justified celebration of the foresightedness of the early editors of Tudor Church Music (who, interestingly, did not include the one name most of us associate with the revival of Tudor church music at the time: R. R. Terry was dismissed from the editorial board before the first volume was produced) but also a powerful reappraisal of repertoire which has become so popular we now almost take it for granted.

Add to this excellent singing, a splendid recording made in St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London and a beautifully produced booklet, and we have a release which in its own way is quite as wonderful as the original Carnegie-funded editions.

02 August 2018

Did Choirs Exist Before the Internet?

The BBC is to blame for my arriving at work this morning a little late.  Just as I was about to leave home, on came a news item about a choir in Brisbane which meets in a pub.  I was interested in the story, of course, and particularly by the fact that the BBC devoted so much air time to it today, bearing in mind issues such as the violent aftermath of the Zimbabwe elections, ructions in the British Labour Party, the running out of funds by an English council, a Mexican airliner crash and the clearing up after an Indonesian earthquake, all hot news topics which could easily have occupied a whole half-hour’s news slot.  Interested as I was, and fascinated by the visuals accompanying the report (which seemed to be largely drawn from a private publicity video), I found myself wondering why it was appearing on the world news today.  Why was it newsworthy?

Choirs have been meeting in pubs for centuries.  Virtually every English cathedral has a pub next door to which the choirmen retreat before and after - and sometimes during - practices and performances.  I ran a Welsh male voice choir which, after each weekly short rehearsal in a dreary school hall, repaired to the pub where practice continued until closing time.  (The first commercial recording in which I was involved as an organist was of another Welsh male choir which, after several fruitless studio sessions, was told to go to the pub next door and practice there, only coming back when they were in full voice – which worked a treat!)  I used to sing in a community choir which met in the local pub, and I’ve never sung with any group of carol singers which hasn’t followed the centuries’ old tradition of ending their sessions in a pub or two.  Everyone in the business knows that singing, that most intimate and personal of musical activities, is best carried out in a comfortable environment and with inner restraints relaxed by alcohol and atmosphere.  What more obvious place to rehearse (and perform) than in a local pub?

My question was answered only near the end of the BBC report when the person doing the voice-over pointed out that the pub choir in Australia had become “a social media sensation”.  Ah!  Social Media!  The only reality many of today’s citizens of the world recognise!

It has long troubled me that the internet and, in particular, social media is seen as the sole legitimiser of existence.  Unless we photograph our food, our pets, our children and ourselves in every conceivable situation and at every moment of our existence, and then share that to an impersonal mass of “friends” via social media, our very existence has no legitimacy.  When I scroll down my Facebook page – which I do with rather disturbing frequency – I promise myself that I will do something more productive the moment I encounter the first photo of a cute cat, dopey dog, boisterous baby or foul food.  I never do simply because that is usually about the second (if not the first) item I find.  People I have never met, never heard of or who have never shown the slightest interest in me, regale me with endless pictures of their hideous kids, their ghastly pets, their obnoxious dietary fads, and of course selfies, often adorned with cartoon-like frames reinforcing my notion that they do not exist in real life at all. 

But I chose to sign up to Facebook (after all, why should I be alone in denying the Russians, the Americans, and every Middle-East terrorist organisation access to my bank account, my passwords and every last detail of my personal life, friends, family, address and occupation?).  Part of the reason I do so is a prurient fascination in the mundane lives and dreary interests of mediocre people who I would never rub shoulders with in real life.  In short, social media, for me, represents an entertainment and a diversion from my own reality.  What troubles me is that so many see it not as a diversion, but as reality itself.  Too many foolishly use it as the forum for expressing deeply held views of some personal import.  Because of the nature of social media, these deeply held views are invariably ridiculed and diminished by others who feel empowered to comment because they have been given equal access to ideas and notions even though they lie way beyond their comprehension.

Thus it is that, despite the fact that choirs have been meeting, rehearsing and practising in pubs for centuries, it only becomes reality when it is posted on social media and attracts “followers” (ie. bored people with nothing better to do with their lives).  Working as an editor for a Hong Kong musical organisation, I encounter many young and enthusiastic people who, keen to learn, nevertheless find the boundaries of their learning defined by what is available on the internet.  Frequently, when I write something original about a composer or a piece of music, I am asked; “How do you know that?  I don’t see it on the internet”; the inference being that if it’s not on the internet, it doesn’t exist.  A former Malaysian student doing some research on nerves in music performance asked me for some guidance as to suitable materials.  I pointed him in the direction of an excellent book written by one of my former tutors at Cardiff sometime in the 1970s.  I gave him the details, but was told I had to be wrong as the book didn’t exist.  “It does”, I told him, and “I have a copy on my shelf at home”.  “You can’t”, he retorted, “There’s no mention of it on Amazon or any of the other sites I checked”.  Preparing reading lists for my own students, I continually find uniquely valuable published resources which are not available on the internet other than in plagiarised extracts included on free-to-access sites.  If I refer to a site for which payment is required, students routinely refuse to access it, arguing that they can find all they need (as if they know) on Wikipedia and other freely available sites.

At a meeting the other day, one academic suggested that he saw a time when libraries would no longer exist as physical resources; “Young people can find with a few key strokes more material online and more quickly than we ever have been able to through books and CDs”.  I chose not to suggest that the material they thus found might not be of equal value and quality, instinctively knowing that I would be accused of being a dinosaur, of living in the past, of holding on to obsolete and old-fashioned notions in the face of unstoppable technological advances.

Yes, I am a dinosaur.  I do prefer physical books and physical CDs (even LPs and 78s!), and I continue to subscribe to a number of print journals which mostly end up in the recycle bin.  But I also spend most of my waking hours online, researching, reading and learning.  We live in an age when we have wonderful opportunities presented to us by the sheer amount of information available to us from a plethora of sources, and by our ease of access to it.  But we cannot process so much as individuals and need to develop skills of selectivity; not simply dismiss old technologies and unthinkingly accept social media and online resources as the sole repositories of legitimacy.

Like the BBC report, if we do that, we lose that vast wealth of accumulated knowledge which remains in the memories of so many, yet has never quite found its way on to an online resource.  We run the risk of allowing future generations to believe that nothing in music existed before the internet.

31 July 2018

Thinking Out Of The Musical Box

I have just finished reviewing a hugely enjoyable disc of Dohnányi’s chamber music vivaciously played by the Nash Ensemble and splendidly recorded (as ever) by Hyperion.  In due course my review will appear on the pages of MusicWeb International.

But I mention it here because of something I read in the booklet notes commissioned for the release by Veronika Kusz, a specialist in Dohnányi’s music who teaches at the Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest.  As with the very best CD booklet notes and essays, this one not only illuminates the music and makes you want to listen to it, but it also introduces ideas and makes statements which encourage the reader to think more deeply and consider issues from a new perspective.

The most contentious thing that Dr Kusz writes is actually a quotation from a source she describes as “Dohnányi expert James A Grymes”.  He came up with the outrageous description of Dohnányi as “a forgotten hero of the Holocaust”.  We are all guilty of making exaggerated statements in support of those we perceive to be lost causes, but this one takes the biscuit and is, for me, so ridiculous as almost to warrant blind dismissal.  (The quote is taken from Gryme’s blog post "Dohnanyi and the Hungarian Holocaust”, and we all know how unreliable blog posts are!)

Hero of the Holocaust?
Kusz uses the Grymes quote to support her own claim that “the name of Ernö Dohnányi…almost disappeared completely a couple of decades after his death”, and that the prime reason for this was “a result of the political situation in his home country”.  This may be correct from a Hungarian perspective, but most certainly not from a British one.  The West tended to have a lot of sympathy with the Hungarians; while the Russians, it was felt, had brought their own terrible regime on themselves, the poor Hungarians had been ruthlessly overrun by an ideology to which they did not, by and large, subscribe.  We were certainly more open to Hungarian music, and so far as I recall, Hungary and Hungarian artists were more accessible to us.  We certainly knew of Dohnányi, his recordings circulated widely, and, if nothing else, his Variations on a Nursery Theme vied with Rachmaninov 2 as the most popular piano concerto of the 20th century.  In fact, when I was growing up in London in the 1960s and 70s, the name of Ernö Dohnányi was more often to be found in record collections than that of Dmitri Shostakovich.

What really had me thinking deeply, however, was the secondary reason Kusz identified as the cause for Dohnányi’s obscurity in the late 20th century.  “Dohnányi’s musical style”, she writes, “was considered obsolete and anachronistic by audiences of his day”. 

It is very true that in the latter half of the 20th century, an age musically infused with the Second Viennese School and its aftermath, with the avant-gardists and the electro-acoustic experimenters, and with (to use my favourite phrase coined from elsewhere) “the cult of the unlistenable”, the self-appointed musical intelligentsia declared that anything which showed allegiance to the established conventions of harmony, melody, instrumentation or structure, or, worse still, was enjoyed by the masses rather than an elite minority, was bad.  Music critics came under pressure to celebrate this love of the obscure and inaccessible and to dismiss the conventional and accessible, university music departments pushed their students to test the limits of musical experimentation without regard to commercial or public acceptance, and music publishers spewed out reams of wholly unplayable and even more wholly unlistenable music.  What hope was there, in that environment, for a composer whose music was tuneful, expressive, harmonically driven and recognisably part of the great river of tradition stretching back over the centuries?

The 20th century was also an age in music education where everyone believed as an inalienable truth that music fell into clearly defined musical periods.  If music was written between 1600 and 1750 we called it “Baroque” and judged it according to its proximity to a set of rules and regulations we ourselves imposed on it.  As a result composers such as Purcell, Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Handel were regarded as lesser to the great Johann Sebastian Bach because their music did not conform to his style (he was held up as the exemplar of “Baroque”).  Similarly, the so-called “Classical” era was defined around the music of Haydn and Mozart, leaving no room for other composers to be regarded; yet this was one of the most productive periods of musical creation in the history of Western Music.  Similarly, anything written during the 20th century had to conform to the ideals established first by Stravinsky and later by a whole range of composers each of whom had in common a desire to go beyond the bounds of expressive utterance which had dominated music in the 19th century.  Thus when a Sergei Rachmaninov, a Richard Strauss or an Ernö Dohnányi came along, their music was instantly dismissed as “irrelevant”, a sterile throwback to a long dead age.  Our 20th century fad for placing music in categories denied us access to some of the great creation of our time, simply because it did not meet the artificial criteria loudly proclaimed by those who convinced us they were our musical and intellectual betters.

Fortunately, in most right-thinking musicians and music educators of the 21st century, such pointless labellings and stylistic boxes are an anachronism; not for nothing is one of the most annoying, irritating and platitudinous idioms of or time “thinking out of the box”.  In the 20th century, we spent all our time thinking inside the box – the thing being we constructed our own boxes to suit our own ends - and that was to music’s great detriment.

We now live in an age when we accept anything musically on its own terms.  We can say that John Stanley was as great a composer as J S Bach, even though he never wrote such good Fugues or indulged in such contrapuntal labyrinths.  We can proclaim J M Kraus the equal to W A Mozart, even though his name was not Mozart.  John Field gets elevated on his own terms, not just as an appendix to Chopin. And we can celebrate the genius of Ernö Dohnányi, even though his music is accessible, tuneful and utterly enchanting. 

30 July 2018

Can We Teach Improvisation ?

When Trinity introduced Improvisation into its examination syllabus, many of us rejoiced.  Much as the exam boards protest that they offer a syllabus rather than a curriculum, in reality we all know that most teachers around the world teach to the exam syllabus and no further; if it’s not in the syllabus, their thinking goes, there’s no reason to teach it.  So when improvisation appeared on the syllabus, many teachers felt obliged to teach it.  And that has to be a good thing.

Unfortunately, as with so much else that Trinity did at the time, improvisation was introduced to the exam syllabus with such crashing ineptitude that over the first few years at least, any beneficial effects were largely obscured by administrative idiocy.

For a start, no clear guidance was offered to teachers.  More seriously, so verbose and confusing were the instructions given to examiners that you could read into them whatever you wanted to read into them; if I remember rightly the phrase “appropriate length” cropped up!  The result was that most examiners took their own approach to improvisation as the yardstick and assessed what was presented to them in the exam room accordingly.   

The take-up by candidates was small and, perhaps inevitably, largely by those who already were gifted and experienced in the art of improvisation.  So for many of us examiners, our first experiences of improvisation in the exam room were wholly positive.  I remember a brilliant pianist in South Africa and a fabulous saxophonist in the USA whose improvisations were so fluent and accomplished that it seemed almost superfluous to add a comment to the full marks I gave.  Yet when I mentioned one to a colleague, I was told that she would have marked the candidate down because clearly the improvisation had gone on too long (I had let it run for the best part of 20 minutes!). 

At teachers’ meetings I was asked time and time again to offer advice.  “How”, I was asked, “do we teach improvisation?  What books do we need?”  Even more concerning was a question asked with rather disturbing regularity; “What exactly is improvisation?”  Eventually, of course, various books and tutors on the subject did crop up, but with a very unwholesome result.  Whatever stimulus you gave the student – the choice was a rhythmic pattern or a row of notes upon which they expanded and elaborated, or a row of chords above which they improvised a melody line (a gift to singers, although never once did I have a singer improvising in an exam) – they roundly ignored and presented their prepared “improvisation” in a key, to a time signature and with a melodic outline which bore no relation whatsoever to the stimulus.  I routinely failed these until a circular from Head Office told us not to; it suggested that since we could not know whether the student was improvising or not (unless, as some did, they had the written out copy with them) we had to let it pass, merely commenting that the relationship with the stimulus was unclear!

Last year Trinity completely revamped its Improvisation making it far more coherent for teachers and far easier to assess for examiners.  But in so doing, I wonder whether it has become too prescriptive, taking away the art and concentrating on the science – clearly defined chordal progressions, pre-ordained metres, repetitive rhythmic patterns.  In short, does it stifle creativity in its endeavour to be accessible?  Talking with former examiner colleagues, I get the picture that improvisation in the exam is now more in the manner of a prepared and rehearsed exercise.

As an organist, improvisation is a daily fact of life – as it is to jazz players – and the one thing that you quickly learn is that you cannot be too prescriptive.  So much depends on context and setting.  You improvise at a funeral in a very different way than you improvise in a bar.  At weddings, as the bride hovers around the west door having countless photographs taken and veils re-aligned, you cannot start on any kind of inevitable harmonic sequence when, at any moment, that light might flash and you have to launch into B flat major for the Bridal Chorus (please tell me brides never have that anymore!).  While the money is being collected (sorry, “offerings being made”) do you remind them that the organ find could do with a bit extra by making the instrument sound odd, or do you soothe them into a complacency which prompts more generous giving?  If you approach the improvisation with a pre-ordained set of harmonies, a strong melodic design or a coherent rhythmic pattern, will you be able to jump out of it at a moment’s notice and pass on to the next thing seamlessly.

When I was in Sydney for three months a couple of years back I regularly went to the spectacular St Mary’s Cathedral – my apartment was looking on to it, so it was but a short walk for me – not driven by profound religious observations, but by sheer admiration for the then assistant organist’s glorious improvisations.  He could go from a plainchant to a Victorian hymn, from a Haydn Mass to a Taize chant or from a children’s carol to a soft-porn “worship song” without dropping a beat.  Music flowed with such fluency and charm that I felt closer to Heaven then than I have ever done before or since.  I did once go to congratulate him after the service, but others were there including some appalling Poms who asked “What was that music you played during the collection?” and refused to believe he had simply made it up on the spot – I felt that nothing I said could have offered greater praise to a brilliant improviser.

We are blessed in the organ world with a lot of brilliant improvisers and a lot more, like me, who are barely adequate.  But we never did improvisation in our exams and many of us never studied it until we were already very well versed in its intricacies and simply wanted to increase our improvisatory vocabulary.  Which begs the question, is there any real value in teaching improvisation to young students?  Is it not something which comes with either experience or natural talent, and needs only to be guided rather than taught from scratch?  In which case, for all its good intentions, was the Trinity idea misguided?

27 July 2018

How Fake News Grows

Much to my surprise, I find myself at the centre of a tiny flurry of fake news.  While I have found it hugely entertaining and rather amusing, I have also been made aware of how pernicious it can be and how it can spiral out of control with unforeseen and unexpected implications.  I might be accused of a persecution complex or, more realistically, undue egotism, but by sharing the experience I vainly hope that those who sit idly at their computers happily typing whatever they want and then thoughtlessly posting it to the outer world, might realise that it can backfire terribly.

It began with a review.  A fairly innocuous one, I have to say, published in the Straits Times of Singapore and concerning a performance by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  As ever, I would have expected some involved to disagree, some to agree, and most to let it pass unnoticed over their heads.  I might have expected the conductor to take issue with my comments on his interpretation or some of the brass players to accuse me of an excess of superlatives on their playing, but not a single comment reached my ears from any of the performers or those directly concerned with the concert.  Reading the review again, I am struck by its generally positive and, at times, excessively enthusiastic tenor, not least in my unstinting praise of the combined choral forces of three different choirs in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.  I certainly stick by every single word I wrote and every single word that the edited Straits Times version presented to the newspaper-buying public (I never saw what they posted on the online version, but I assume it was more-or-less the same as the print one).

Within 24 hours of the review’s publication, however, an acquaintance forwarded to me a comment which had appeared on Twitter (I’m not a Twitterer – it strikes me as a wholly ridiculous concept aimed at the illiterate and those with limited attention spans, and Donald Trump’s excessive use of it only proves my point).  Editing out the weird linguistic abbreviations and incoherent abuse, the gist of it was that I was guilty of reviewing a concert I had not attended.

Shortly afterwards, a more extended comment appeared on Facebook (again sent to me by an avid Facebookista) which hurled invective at me for rubbishing the Singapore International Choral Festival in my review of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  Literally minutes later, my editor at the Straits Times passed on to me for comment a virtually identical letter to the Facebook post, but purporting to come from a wholly different person. 

It was obvious that an orchestrated campaign of misinformation was underway, suggesting that I had not attended the Singapore International Choral Festival but had criticised it in my review.  Neither is true.  The Singapore International Choral Festival ran for several days, and, at the invitation of one of the overseas choirs participating, I had attended several sessions as well as the final concert and prize-giving (which took place the day after the Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert).  I had fully intended to write an enthusiastic piece about it on this blog – I had very much enjoyed everything I heard and had been hugely impressed by many of the choirs.  I will not be doing that now!

I was able to tell my editor that the letter they had received was promulgating a totally false story.  I suggested that it had been prompted by the fact that I had praised generously the choirs taking part in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert, which probably rankled with those organising the Singapore International Choral Festival, who probably felt that the Straits Times had not given them the publicity they craved.  On top of that, after the personal abuse and invective thrown at me, the letters sent rehearsed in some detail the timetable and ideals of the Festival, leading to the obvious conclusion that they were merely writing in in order to gain some free publicity.

As a great supporter of choral singing, I had in my original review felt that it might be nice to mention the then ongoing choral festival as a way of underlining the world-standard quality of the home-grown combined choirs performing with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  Thus I had written; “In another part of Singapore this weekend, an International Choral Festival was taking place, but I doubt if any of those choirs exhibited the discipline, richness of tone and sheer professionalism of this 95-strong body of singers”.  I think that’s a great way of killing two birds with one stone – emphasising the outstanding quality of local singers brought in for a one-off concert, and pointing out Singapore’s vibrant choral scene to those many Straits Times readers who do not live or work in Singapore (the paper is available freely to all passengers on Singapore Airlines) – and were I to write the review again, I would use EXACTLY those same words in EXACTLY that context.

It was this comment which was seized upon by the fake news people who, determined to promote their agenda as the truth and all others as false, went on with the online campaign, now that the print media had closed the door to them.

Abusive posts have appeared, fake news-sites have pushed the issue as if it is significant, and people who have never met me, heard of me or have ever even been interested in what I do, now feel empowered to hurl personal abuse at me for the ultimate incompetence of reviewing a concert I did not attend (while I did not review a festival which I did attend!). Someone even found an online profile of me dating from the 1990s to show how unqualified I was to review the Singapore International Choral Festival (which I did not!).  I was accused of dismissing every choir outside Singapore as second rate, of being rude to foreign choirs visiting Singapore and of ignorantly claiming that every choir participating in the Singapore International Choral Festival was second-rate and that its adjudicating panel was stuffed with musical ignoramuses.  In short, within days of an innocuous review praising three Singapore choirs, I was being accused of being both vehemently anti-Singapore and aggressive pro-Singapore, of being ignorantly anti-choir and blindly pro-choir, and of possessing extreme ignorance and showing calculated rudeness.  I’d like to think none of those accusations has even a scintilla of truth about them.

With any orchestrated online campaign against something, eventually a counter orchestration will arise, and, true enough, recent posts have appeared rubbishing those who rubbish me.  Both sets of rubbishers are guilty of peddling fake news, for one comment made suggested that the real reason behind the abuse hurled at my original review was that the person orchestrating it had a particular axe to grind and was using my review as the whetstone.

And here we have the real danger of fake news.  A real person was named, the name being the same as the name on the letter sent to my editor at Straits Times.  This person has some official connection with the Singapore International Choral Festival and is also fairly well known in Singapore choral circles.  Whether or not they were the orchestrator of the campaign, or even the true originator of the letter sent to Straits Times, I have no way of knowing  - I imagine most online abuse hides behind false names and aliases – but the damage is done.  It has been said that this person was rejected as conductor of one or more of the combined Singapore choirs brought in for the Polovtsian Dances and by abusing the choirs in that performance, they were attempting to undermine the successful candidate as music director.

So, from a single ill-conceived and iller-considered Tweet to a flurry of online abuse on a plethora of platforms, the abuse has moved on from me and turned back on to my apparent abusers.  What gets lost in all this squalid and puerile name-calling is the one basic fact that the combined choirs of the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Singapore Symphony Youth Choir and Singapore Symphony Children’s Choirs are fabulous and that the Singapore International Choral Festival was a brilliant display of excellent choral singing. 

I hope this blog post goes a little way to restore some kind of sanity and remind us that we should all be working in concert for the good of music.

21 July 2018

Concert Behaviour - Embracing Change

Last weekend my critic colleagues in London were much exercised by the issue of the audience applauding between the movements of Holst's Planets at the First Night of the Proms.  I can't see what the fuss was all about; Holst never intended his Planets as a single, continuous work - indeed, at its first performance it was not even presented in its entirety - and there is no artistic reason why the audience should not regard each individual piece as a stand-alone concert work, and respond accordingly. 

On a wider level, I have no issues at all with audiences applauding between movements or at breaks in a work.  I wouldn’t mind were audiences to revert to the 19th century habit of stopping a performance mid-way to express their admiration for a particular moment (as César Franck famously did when sitting in the audience of a performance of his own Symphony in D minor) or, as in opera, a particular feat from a singer. 

What is the value of applause if it is not spontaneous? The regimented and polite clapping at a pre-ordained point some time after the end of a work seems entirely false and without purpose.   I know, however, that there are those who disagree with me on this point, and I certainly once considered the complete musical entity as sacrosanct.  Ageing and understanding have brought about not just increasing tolerance but a fundamental shift in my perception of the purpose of a live concert.

Singapore audiences have long been cowed into submissive silence by the concert police who "sh" loudly and stare daggers in the direction of whichever poor soul has deigned to show approval of a performance when they themselves have not.  Annoyingly, even performers have taken it upon themselves to stifle applause and thereby shame the audience into silence.  At last night’s Singapore Symphony Orchestra season-opener, for example, after a singularly lovely bit of saxophone playing from Daniel Gelok in "The Old Castle" from Pictures at an Exhibition, some in the audience (led, it must be said, by some of the orchestra themselves) broke into spontaneous applause to register their approval at what was undoubtedly a wondrous musical moment.  Conductor Lan Shui was having none of it, and effectively stifled their joy by launching precipitously into the next (unrelated) section of Ravel's orchestration of the piece.

I noticed a few in the audience shaking their heads with dismay that other audience members had shown such ignorance as to register their approval of a lovely bit of saxophone playing.  The issue is certainly a divisive one, and I accept that there are some who like their concerts delivered in absolute silence while others prefer to enjoy the atmosphere of sharing a musical treat (or otherwise) with others, even if those others do not always behave as we would wish them to.

My tolerance, however, is sorely tested by a growing and immensely irritating practice prevalent in Singapore concerts not from the audience, but by concert hall management.  Auditorium stewards have been instructed, it would seem, to stop photography by members of the audience at any cost. 

At the slightest hint that a camera or mobile phone is being pointed in the general direction of the stage, eagle-eyed stewards rush down the aisles, clamber over seats, make noisy protests and generally disrupt the concert in a way no humble photographer or applauder ever does.   Those unfortunate enough to be seated near to where a steward is stationed will know that they are continually scanning the audience for signs of photographic intent, and often radio to their colleagues giving the location of a potential miscreant. 

I’ve given up ever expecting to enjoy a concert at Victoria Concert Hall because of the aggressive anti-photography campaign which takes precedence over the music.  But last night at the Esplanade it was downright embarrassing.  A children's choir was on stage and proud parents keen to preserve the moment in the family archives, found themselves shamed and embarrassed by highly visible remonstrations from stewards.  Worse still was the closing concert of last month’s Singapore Performers’ Festival when, with dozens of children appearing on stage to present the fruits of their hard-earned labours (and the results of their parents’ financial sacrifices), cameras and phones were primed, only to be forced down again by over-zealous stewards.  A friend had one steward actually interrupting a performance to ask him to tell someone along the row to put their phone away. 

It is certainly hugely annoying when some selfish oaf starts clicking away during a concert; but satisfying one's own desires with no regard for others seems to be part of the Singaporean DNA, so we should not be surprised when it happens.  And the concert hall authorities themselves positively encourage concert-goers to leave their phones switched on during concerts.  So they can hardly complain when those phones’ camera and messaging functions are employed. 

What is so wrong about taking photographs of musicians in action?  After all, a concert is as much a visual as an aural experience, and in presenting themselves on stage, musicians are implicitly accepting that they are the centre of attraction, with all that that entails.  Flash photography can be distracting, but does a simple non-flash photograph really need to be stamped out by such vigorous and aggressive stewarding?  If it is that important that photographs are not taken, then it is a simple matter to ban photo-taking equipment at the door of the hall; after all, in Singapore (as in London) concert-goers have to go through a security screening during which such equipment could be identified and confiscated.  I’d far rather have someone taking a photo beside me, than have a steward rushing up and down the aisle signalling frantically to all and sundry.  And I’d far rather have someone applauding enthusiastically when I don’t than feel obliged to join in the applause at the end when nothing on stage has warranted it.

Applause, photographs…issues which reflect a fundamental change in what concerts are all about, and a change which many are loathe to accept.  There was a time when we needed to listen to music in silence and without interruption.  But things have changed.  If we want silence around us and no distraction, we have recourse to music in whatever environment we wish, thanks to recording technologies.  A live concert is no longer the only venue for accessing music.  The function of concerts has changed.  Now concerts are social occasions, where we share the experience of music with others.  As with soccer matches or cinema presentations, we have to accept that in sharing socially, we open ourselves up to exposure to behaviours we ourselves would not do, but to which we cannot object since there are no doubt aspects of our own behaviour which irritate others.

Let’s stop trying to impose our particular ethics on concert audiences, and accept that if others are drawn into hear the music, they should be allowed to do so on their own terms.  Most of us professionals and dedicated music lovers have the opportunity to access the music we want where we want it and how we want it; we should not deny the pleasure to others who, perhaps, are less well versed in the traditions of concert etiquette than us.

24 June 2018

Why Play Piano

It has been my privilege and unmitigated pleasure to spend the week at the Singapore Music Teachers’ Association biennial Performers’ Festival.  As a seasoned adjudicator at music festivals, I can say that this one is special.  It’s so pleasing to adjudicate when there is no sense of competition involved and no requirement to quantify numerically the quality of individual performances.  Instead, each performer plays whatever they want and the adjudicators comment on it.  That’s like real life!!  And while there is a sense of healthy competition within each individual (“I am determined to do this better than I have before”), because there is neither ranking nor graded assessment, there is none of the partisanship and hostility which so often brings an uncomfortable edge to competitive music festivals.  Long may this Singapore idea continue, and far may its tentacles spread.

In the piano field, which was my area, we heard a total of 411 performances, with performers ranging in age from around four or five to 20 (I’m guessing – quite rightly, adjudicators are not told the ages of those performing to avoid a temptation to adjust  standards according to age expectations).  We heard performances ranging from tiny, basic single-line melodies picked out by a couple of fingers to core Sonata repertory from Beethoven, Chopin and Scriabin, music drawn from the great canon of western piano literature to new music by Indonesian composers based on traditional music from their homeland.  If for nothing else, this was a glorious feast of music and music-making, and a wonderful testament to the enthusiasm, dedication and commitment of local piano teachers, their students and, of course, the support of the parents, most of whom seemed to be in attendance to support and hear their offspring in musical action.

As always there were issues of repertory choice.  Probably not a session passed when some small child played one of the great virtuoso showpieces of the repertory, often revealing phenomenal technical fluency.  Yet the maturity needed to reveal the artistic, emotional and, above all, psychological aspects of the music and elevate it from mere technical display to fully rounded interpretation, is inevitably denied most children.  To compensate for this inability to extract art from the music, they too often over-emphasised their technical proficiency by playing the music too fast.  I lost count of the number of times I commented on excessive speed, sometimes suggesting that just because you could play the piece that fast, did not mean you should play the piece that fast.  I worried at those who had failed to grasp the real meaning of terms like allegro. ABRSM Grade 5 might tell you it means “fast”, but it doesn’t; it means a whole world of things, and until the student can understand the implications of the terms, rather than know their superficial translation, they are destined never to present credible musical performances.  It was disturbing how many times we heard, say, Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu rather than, say, a Mozart slow movement or a Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue, let alone repertory which was not drawn either from the core recital repertory or the graded examination books.  If I have one message to send out to teachers it is, fantastic as you all are, do you spend enough time expanding your students’ repertory? 

As ever with this kind of event, for all the obvious enjoyment performers and audience experience, I find myself wondering why we do it.  Yes, it is a glorious showcase of the vibrancy and health of the Singaporean music climate, and it provides a wonderful opportunity to young performers to experience that unique thing which is the fundamental purpose of learning an instrument.  A lot of people (especially adult learners) derive their pleasure from playing in private at home, but even they are missing out on the incredible frisson which uniquely comes from performing to an appreciative audience.  Yet, as these young players performed to appreciative audiences and encouraging adjudicators, I could not help wondering why so many bother to go through the agonies of learning to play a musical instrument in the first place.

There were a few whose performances were so good that one can imagine them pursuing successful careers in music; to put it in Singaporean terms, several of them have the potential to make a lot of money out of their skill.  For the vast majority, however, a music career does not beckon, either because they do not have the technical skill nor the intellectual strength, or, more likely, because they simply see music as a pastime and hobby, to be enjoyed simply on an occasional basis.  So why do so many of us encourage our children to learn a musical instrument?

One point which was raised at the panel discussion sessions which followed the days of performances, was that music was something which enhanced life by emphasising beauty and humanity.  It struck me then that those two terms are mutually incompatible.  We only need to look at what happens daily in our world – bombs at election rallies in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, institutional racism in approaches to immigrants on mainland Europe and the USA, random murders by officials in Venezuela and The Philippines, aggressive polarisation over Brexit in the UK, spite, anger and righteous indignation over political corruption in Malaysia, religious conflict in Syria, Israel and Palestine; the list goes on – to realise that beauty and humanity are not the same.

For me, we diminish the value of music and our involvement in it if we only see it as offering beauty and spiritual enrichment in our lives.  And while we want to protect our children from the harshness of humanity in its uglier manifestations, to do so is wrong.  We need to prepare them for the evils of this world, we need to equip them to handle nastiness, and to cope with the hostility. This is where music should come it.  Therapeutically, music can be seen as a means of channelling emotions; not just positive ones like beauty, love and happiness, but, more importantly, negative ones like anger, spite and hatred. 

Musicians are humans, subject to all the emotions the human race knows.  Yet, through music, most musicians can channel their own negative emotions into positive creativity.  Do not tell me Bach was not angry when he wrote the Kyrie from the B Minor Mass (read what was happening in his life at the time, and you will know he was), do not tell me that Shostakovich had no nasty thoughts when he wrote his “Leningrad” Symphony, or that Prokofiev was not bitter when he wrote “Montagues and Capulets” in the Romeo and Juliet score.  For every time music is “beautiful”, I can find a dozen times where music is ugly, vicious and aggressive.  And so it should be.  If music reflects humanity, it reflects the totality of humanity, not just edited highlights;   it’s not the photo-shopped image of an elderly lady shorn of wrinkles, sagging skin and grey hair, but the close up, unretouched reflection of a warts-and-all individual, both ugly and beautiful.

Music, too, should be ugly as well as beautiful, angry as well as calm, disturbing as well as soothing.  Only then can we fully appreciate what its true benefits are to us.  As musicians, by channelling our negative emotions into music, we dilute their socially destructive properties and convert them into aesthetically enriching ones.

What these young people are really doing by learning musical instruments and playing them in public, is learning how to contain their feelings and emotions and how to respond to the emotional influence of others, and how to confine this to an area where they cause no harm and become a positive influence over their fellow men.  That is why we perform in public and why we should encourage young people to play an instrument even if they have neither the ability nor the ambition to pursue a musical career.