14 January 2019

Concert Times


Secreted away on the top floor of Singapore’s Victoria Concert Hall is a visual exhibition – I would say an audio-visual one, but someone has vandalised the audio devices – which presents a skeletal but informative outline of the building’s history as a concert hall, theatre and public meeting place.  It is well worth seeking out, especially for those who regularly visit the place and never think of looking beyond the auditoria and toilet facilities.  Having turned up too early for Saturday evening’s concert and finding the doors barred, I took the opportunity to revisit some of the exhibits and was struck by a faded newspaper page from the 1930s which noted that concerts given by the Singapore Musical Society had brought the starting time forward – from 9.55pm to 9.45pm (I think – I know it was sometime well after 9pm!).  As the concert I was too early to attend was due to start at 7.30pm, this set me wondering about changes to concert-going habits in Singapore.

For the past five years I have been heavily involved in a major research project into the role of western (classical) music in Singapore society and in the history of its practitioners and performance venues.  That research has amassed a huge body of data gathered by students interviewing concert-goers at every kind of concert and in every venue imaginable.  To date, I have material from 1092 individuals, covering such things as dress code, musical quality, performance expectations, audience behaviour and programme choices.  I have tried not to tie the hands of those students who collect this data by giving them specific goals; instead I have sent them out with a general request to find out what Singapore audiences like and dislike about attending classical concerts.  

Without wishing to pre-empt the research findings, which I expect to publish in the next two or three years, one issue which is hardly ever raised by audience members is the starting time of concerts.  It seems that Singaporeans are happy with the current near-standard start time of 7.30pm.  When one of Singapore’s newer orchestras, re:Sound, declared that they were going to “break with tradition” and begin their concerts at 8.15pm, some comments were made, but it’s too early yet to find any quantifiable resistance to this later start-time.  In any case, Singapore concerts notoriously start later than advertised and audiences seem to make a point of arriving even later.

The Thailand Philharmonic starts its evening concerts at 7pm, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s concerts usually start at 8pm, while the Malaysian Philharmonic begins its main stage concerts at 8.30pm (in its very early stages, part of my job was to run down to the bar in the shopping complex outside the hall to warn them to remain open beyond their usual 10pm closing time on those weekdays when concerts were held; and the fact that they did has kept them securely in business for the last 20 years).

What dictates the ideal concert start time and why does it vary from country to country?  The answer is simple; local lifestyles.  The 7.00pm start time for the Bangkok orchestra is necessitated by the problems of getting around the city after dark, while the 8.30pm start in Kuala Lumpur was decided upon to avoid any potential clash with Muslim prayer times.  7.30pm seems to suit Singaporeans, who finish work usually around 6.30pm. and like to catch the concert before going on to eat or heading off home.  But while nobody in our research registered any strong feeling about the 7.30pm concert start time, many showed a distinct preference for knowing in advance concert ending times.

When I wrote the programme notes I made a point of putting in the most accurate timing for each individual work I could find, based on previous performances by the conductor or messages coming out of rehearsals.  But this only told people who were already at the concert, and only now are the powers-that-be putting out estimates of concert ending times in advance for potential ticket purchasers.  Our research has shown that this is something Singapore concert-goers would dearly appreciate; yet it seems beyond the wit of anyone to get it right.  Most announcements about concert length are grotesquely inaccurate - the idiocy of looking at the CD tracklist and assuming it works in a live concert is still very much the way many concert-organisers in Singapore guess timings.

The ultimate failure of this came on Saturday’s concert.  Billed as lasting 60 minutes, it actually lasted 100 – and did not even have an interval.  Quite how such a monumental miscalculation over timing was made defies belief.  After all, this was new concert series, modelled on the “Swire Denim” series in Hong Kong, where evening concerts offer unusual repertory but encased tightly within a 60 minute time frame.  Those who might have been tempted to attend in the knowledge that they would still be able to catch a movie or an extended dinner after the concert, will know better next time. 

Back in the 1930s people worked later, dined longer, and ended their evening with the concert.  We live in a different age, and the idea of grabbing a bite to eat both before and after the concert is the norm; as is the idea that the concert comes at the beginning of the evening, not at its climax.  It is time we appreciated this change in lifestyle amongst Singaporeans and looked to a more precise and reliable way of letting them know, not when the concert begins, but when it ends.

I reviewed Saturday’s concert for the Straits Times.  A sub-editor didn’t like my piece as it “didn’t say enough about the music”; I would argue that my job is to review the performance not the repertory, but changes were made to the published piece (not all by me).  Here’s the original;

 


 

Reich in 60 Minutes

Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Brad Lubman (conductor)

Victoria Concert Hall

Saturday (12 January)

Marc Rochester

 

 
The first of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s new Red Balloon concert series did not quite go according to plan. Billed as programmes of unusual repertory contained within an hour’s concert, instead of the promised 60 minutes of Reich, we had 40 minutes of his music and around another 40 of music by Bela Bartok.

 

Add to that the concert’s late start and two extended on-stage commentaries given to drown out the clutter of major stage reorganisations, and we had a concert which lasted as long a full-length evening concert.

 

A part of the plan which did survive was that of lifting the SSO up and above its familiar territory of late-19th/early-20th century repertory.  The music of Steve Reich may be about the most accessible there is by a contemporary composer, and it has already attracted an enthusiastic following in Singapore in the wake of recent visits by high-profile Reich-performing ensembles.  The Great Man himself came here a while back and performed before a packed and adulatory Esplanade audience.

 

But Reich’s music is not a frequent feature of the SSO repertory, and we might have hoped that Brad Lubman, who has regularly collaborated with Reich, could have inspired the musicians to find something in this music other than sheer hard labour.

 

Pulse, apparently receiving its Singapore premiere, carried on relentlessly above a pounding bass guitar – incongruously played by a bald-headed guy in white tie and tails – but lacked any variety of tone or colour, while the famous City Lights, cleverly intermingling sampled sounds from the New York streets with orchestral effects, never fails to amaze, but managed, here, to sound remarkably ordinary despite Lubman’s obvious involvement in the music.  What emerged most powerfully from these performances was a sense of such intense concentration from the players that one expected to see smoke billowing from their ears.

 

There was plenty of musical smoke wafting around, but that was part of the weird, almost spooky soundworld of Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.  The sole reason for its incongruous inclusion in this concert appeared to be that it was written the same year that Reich was born.  But it was a good choice in that it gave the SSO the opportunity to play something more firmly in their comfort-zone.

 

From the desiccated, eerie viola theme which opens the work to the raucous razzmatazz of the finale, the orchestra was clearly in its element.  The gentlemen of the percussion section delivered their parts with the flair, dynamism and brilliance we have come to expect of them, while Shane Thio was a rock-solid presence on the piano.  Whether or not Aya Sakou was equally adept must remain a mystery – from my vantage point in the balcony, her celesta was totally inaudible.

 

Only one person seemed uneasy with all this musical fun; Maestro Lubman.  His rigid, sharply-focused beat gave the work a certain militaristic character, but marched right past all the many moments of musical magic with barely a sideways glance.

03 December 2018

Best and Worst in One Day


 
It’s that time of year again when those of us involved in writing and reviewing get asked by our various editors to make lists of the best and worst of 2018.  By an astonishing coincidence, two concerts I attended on Sunday could easily have made it into both lists – one was really poor, the other really good – but my lists have already been submitted to the various magazines, newspapers, online portals and broadcasting outlets with which I am associated, so both have managed, this year at least, to slip through the net. 

Shlomo Mintz- Worst of 2018
Kees Bakels - Best of 2018
As a matter of interest, while you will have to wait for the various publication dates to see what did make it to my best and worst lists, I can confide that the very worst concert I heard in Singapore during 2018 was one I did not review, while the very best I did review but, since the Straits Times only asks me to suggest my worst concert (I am apparently seen as the bad guy in local reviewing circles), I haven’t had a chance to include it.  So, without in any way anticipating what will appear in print, my worst Singapore concert of the year was Shlomo Mintz attempting – by means of numerous stumbles, a breakdown and a complete sense of disconnection with both audience and music – to fumble his way through The Complete Sonatas of Eugène Ysaÿe in January, while my best was Kees Bakels transforming the Singapore Symphony Orchestra into something remarkably good and polished in his November concert, which presented the orchestra in a wholly different (and entirely complimentary) light.   
Back to the two concerts on Sunday.  I was reviewing the 8th Singapore Lieder Festival for the Straits Times, and since that review will give my considered opinion of the two concerts, I confine myself to commenting here that while they studiously avoided singing much true lieder concentrating instead on weird and wonderful songs from all sorts of composers and all of which were more in the way of instrumental ensemble pieces, they really seemed to have bitten off more than they could chew.  Every singer studiously followed their scores (mostly never even bothering to look up at their audience) and got their notes mostly right, but few of the performances went any further than that.  In short, this was a concert of play-throughs rather than committed, intelligent performances.
 
But then, in the pouring rain and howling wind, I rushed over to St Andrew’s Cathedral where the Cathedral Choir of the Risen Christ (whose normal domain is the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd) were presenting their Advent concert subtitled “The Joys of Christmas”.  As I stood in the queue outside (having not had the chance to get a ticket in advance nor find an umbrella) quickly getting wetter and wetter, I found myself hoping I that it was all worth it.
It was.

St Andrew’s Cathedral is an odd place, like a scaled-down English cathedral but seemingly embarrassed by its English connections; so they paint the inside a lurid blue and try to obscure its monuments to past worshippers whose names speak horribly of an England long gone, with copious TV screens and other 21st century electronic wizardry.  But it has a warmth and charm which was enhanced last night by some exquisite lighting and the fact that it was packed to the rafters with an eagerly anticipatory, if communally dripping, audience.

Choir Director Peter Low knows a thing or two about how to get through to a Singapore audience, and even his lengthy interval speech had everyone eating out of the palm of his hand.  But what really reached out to the audience was the superb music-making he inspired from a choir which was both very large and vary varied in age.  That age range was most vividly revealed at the very start when, as the choir itself processed rhythmically up the aisle (out of the corner of my eye, it looked awfully like goose-stepping in slow motion) seven tiny little girls, each a little older than the one before, sung a verse each of Joys Seven. The youngest singer was, I gather, just four, yet as with all of them, she sang perfectly in tune, enunciated her words flawlessly, and confidently maintained eye-contact with the entire audience – eat your hearts out lieder singers at VCH! – she also sung Stille Nacht in perfect German.  In a perfect bit of choreographed timing, the processing choir reached their positions at the head of the nave just as the carol reached the seventh joy.
The spell had been cast and was never once broken as we flowed seamlessly through the “Joy of Building a Nativity Tableau”, with beautifully delivered readings merging into impeccably sung carols.  Musically the highlight for me was unquestionably a deeply moving and highly polished performance of Poulenc’s Quem Vidistis, but everything was sung with such perfection, such musical authority and such genuine sense of understanding, that it was as much a feast of superlative choral singing as it was a moving celebration of this most evocative moments in the church’s year.

The second half of the concert was made up of a total of 33 carols in almost as many languages, from all over the world.  If our lieder singers in the earlier concert had had difficulty sounding idiomatically French, there were no such issues with these singers, who switched between Ukrainian, Spanish, Finnish, Polish, Swahili, Xhosa, Italian, Portuguese…without turning a hair and always sounding utterly idiomatic.  Add to that some wonderfully colourful costumes, some vivacious dances (which set the audience alight) and, above all, superbly accomplished choreography, and you have one of the very best concerts I have heard this year and unquestionably, the very best vocal concert by local singers Singapore has seen in 2018.
If you don’t believe me, there is a second chance to experience this wonderful event when it is repeated at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd next Sunday (9th December).  I gather it’s pretty well sold out, but even if it’s pouring with rain, it is worth the queue outside in the hope of getting a ticket.

28 November 2018

More Lovely Hymns!


This is subtitled “Favourite Hymns”, but the issue of what is a favourite and what is not is entirely subjective. Many of us have our favourite hymns and will bemoan their absence from this CD; even now I can see the “customer reviews” flooding the online sellers’ portals listing all the hymns that the individual writers of such things feel ought to have been included. Such an activity is utterly specious; in an hour’s programme you cannot hope to do anything but very lightly scrape the surface of a vast and almost bottomless resource.

As it is, Richard Pinel and the choirs of Jesus College Cambridge have come up with a well-varied programme combining some stirring words and some fine tunes, ranging from the 16th to the 21st centuries. But not everything is beyond reproach, the inclusion of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony sung to words which sound more like a nature trail than a hymn, simply emphasises what a lousy hymn tune this makes, and it certainly seems odd to have that splendid tune by Cyril Taylor, “Abbots Leigh”, sung to unfamiliar Marian words from the 20th century writer G B Timms. I’m not sure that, wonderful though the tune is (“Cuddesdon” by William H. Ferguson), Christopher Idle’s precis of the Gloria (“Glory in the Highest”) will be widely known even to the most ardent hymn singing communities, and I certainly had never before heard “How Shall we Sing Salvation’s Song” nor the tune to which it is sung here (“Llangarron” by David Manners); my loss, both are absolutely magnificent and have instantly found a place in my personal pantheon of favourites. Other more established personal favourites are here (“For the Fruits of his Creation” sung to Francis Jackson’s splendid tune “East Acklam”) and “All my hope on God is founded” (sung to Herbert Howells’ excellent “Michael”, although sadly not with the composer’s own spine-tingling final verse re-harmonisation and descant but with a much less impressive one by John Rutter. And with “Eventide” (“Abide with me”), “St Anne” (“O God our Help in Ages Past”), “Crimond” (“The Lord’s my Shepherd”), “St Clement” (“The Day Thou Gavest”), “Nicea” (“Holy, Holy, Holy”), “Petra” (“Rock of Ages”), “Monk’s Gate” (“He Who Would Valiant Be”) and “Rockingham” (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”), there are undoubtedly a great many universal favourites here.

What is important though, is not so much the choice of hymns as the fact that the entire disc is devoted to hymns, that the hymns are sung robustly and with great attention to detail, and that they are delivered in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner with firm organ accompaniments featuring judicious use of re-harmonised and descanted last verses. Where some interpretative licence is taken to vary the choral sound, it is done with great taste. Perhaps the delivery of the canon for “Tallis’s Canon” (“Glory to thee, my God”) is a trifle too obvious, but I particularly love the innocent-voiced trebles, Theo Amies and Tobias Fitzgerald, who perfectly convey the essential simplicity of Gibbons’ “Song 46” and the introspective character of the text “Drop, drop slow tears”. I also find George Raikes’ baritone solo (against a hummed chorus) in the fourth verse of “Abide with me” most effective. There are two choirs associated with Jesus College – the men and boys Chapel Choir and the mixed voice College choir – and it is impressive how unified the tone is, the bigger College Choir singing with such supreme sensitivity in Crimond that this somewhat over-stretched Scottish tune is delivered with real distinction.

I have long argued that hymnody has been one of the greatest contributions to the literature of music from English composers, and it is high time it was more widely celebrated, now that hymn singing itself seems to be a dying art in English churches (and has long since died a death elsewhere in the English-speaking world). All praise and glory, then, to Ricard Pinel and his gloriously full-voiced Jesus College choristers, not to mention his two instinctive and sensitive organist scholars, Jordan Wong and Dewi Rees, for creating this magnificent disc of fine hymn tunes, stirring words and outstanding music making. I hope it helps preserve a uniquely British musical genre and to increase awareness of it among those for whom hymn-singing has never been seen as a legitimate musical activity nor an entirely credible sacred one.


Contents
John Goss (1800-1880) - Praise my soul the King of Heaven [2:56]
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) - Glory to thee, my God [2:53]
Attr. William Croft (1678-1727) - O God our help in ages past [2:48]
Richard Redhead (1820-1901) - Rock of ages, cleft for me [2:38]
Maurice Bevan (1921-2006) - There’s a wideness in God’s mercy [3:19]
Clement Scholefield (1839-1904) - The day thou gavest [3:26]
John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876) - Holy, holy, holy [3:18]
William Ferguson (1874-1950) - Glory in the highest [2:14]
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - Joyful, joyful we adore thee [2:14]
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) - All my hope on God is founded [3;29]
Francis Jackson (b.1917) - For the fruits of his creation [2:28]
Trad. Arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams - He who would valiant be [2:09]
Edward Miller (1731-1807) - When I survey the wondrous cross [3:38]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - My song is love unknown [ 4:45]
Cyril Taylor (1907-1991) - Sing we of the blessed Mother [4:39]
Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) - Drop, drop slow tears [1:21]
Jessie Irvine (1836-1887) - The Lord’s my shepherd [3:02]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Come down, O love divine [3:35]
David Manners (b.1975) - How shall we sing salvation’s song? [2:42]
William Henry Monk (1823-1889) - Abide with me [4:33]
John Barnard (b.1948) - Christ triumphant, ever reigning [4:00]

26 November 2018

Encourage Coughing in Concerts


“Mummy, why is everybody coughing?”

The entire audience seemed to have been gripped by a bout of uncontrollable coughing after the slow movement of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, and it was then that I heard the young voice pipe up from the row seated behind me.

In the time-honoured way of parents faced with a child’s question to which the answer is either not known or too complicated to give, I heard Mummy say “shhh”, and with that the Symphony continued.  But it was a good question and one which deserves an answer; even if the child who posed it will not only have forgotten the question but will never in a Month of Sundays read this blog.

There are two reasons why audiences cough so profusely, and neither has anything to do with smoking, weather, air-conditioning, dust or simple ill-health. 

The first is simply that it is the perfectly natural release of air after the suspension of normal breathing which affects everyone who finds themselves entranced by something very special.  Without being aware of it, we tend to suspend normal breathing practices when listening to a quiet and moving piece of music such as the slow movement from the “New World” Symphony.  When we find ourselves entranced by such music we become terrified of breaking the spell by making any sort of noise.  Since our own breathing seems unconscionably loud to us when our ears are straining to catch every nuance of the music,  we simply hold our breaths.  And as soon as the spell is broken, and the music fades away, such is our relaxation, that we expel the held in air in a burst which, as often as not, catches in the throat which we then clear by coughing.  And few things are quite so contagious as coughing, so when others around us cough, we start to do the same as if in sympathy.  I teach my own students that when they are performing, an outbreak of coughing after a particularly moving section is, far from a distraction, a priceless indicator of approval.  I tell them that their aim should be to inspire uncontrollable coughing from the entire audience – that way they show that they have managed to get the musical message across effectively.

The second reason is rather more complicated and stems back to the change in audience attitudes which came about in the early 20th century around the same time as the gramophone record became the universal medium by which music was disseminated.  Applause was no longer used as an indicator of general approval but as a badge of respectability; Richard Strauss was one of the first to note this change in behaviour and to object to it.  We don’t applaud music because we like the performance, we applaud it because it shows that we understand it.  How else can you explain why audiences no longer applaud spontaneously but only at pre-determined moments in a concert when, perhaps (as at the end of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony), it would seem wholly inappropriate?

You see it at the Proms in London, you see it at the Esplanade in Singapore, you see it wherever audiences like to show off their collective musical knowledge and create that very obvious barrier between the experienced concert-goer and the shame-faced newbie.  Spontaneous applause between movements of a multi-movement work is so often quickly suppressed by a barrage of “ssshhs” or a forest of glowering eyes turned in the direction of the nearest applauder, that few have the courage to continue no matter how inspiring the performance has been.  I read critics getting into a lather over what they, in their total ignorance, perceive as “misplaced applause”, and I see music students, scores on laps and knowing looks in their eyes, turn with ersatz-horror on those who have committed the ultimate solecism of showing appreciation for a fine performance while it is still in progress.  The golden rule seems to be, Don’t Show Appreciation, Show Knowledge!

Few of the great works in musical history were ever intended to be heard in silence.  The first performance of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony was notable for the rapturous applause which greeted every movement.  We read of how public attending rehearsals interrupted movements with their applause.  All of this thrilled Dvořák.  What would he have thought had he attended the concert where a Singaporean audience sat in apparent utter disinterest as his music was playing, only to burst into applause long after all his good ideas had been worked dry? 

Music intended to engender a response from an audience has a certain feel to it that positively encourages some audience reaction when the work is still in mid-flow. Indoctrinated by the ignorant “know-it-all’s” who castigate spontaneous applause, audiences have to find other means of registering their approval; and nothing is more effective than the clearing of the throat, or a sustained bout of coughing.  Trombonist Kevin Thompson has pointed out to me in the past the obvious contradiction between a beautiful musical moment and a few hundred people slamming their hands together in a violent, percussive manner, so perhaps coughing is a more effective and appropriate means of showing appreciation.  However, the Concert Etiquette Police are getting wise to this, and now insist on pre-concert announcements which tell people to smother their coughs with handkerchiefs.  Indeed, so ingrained is this anti-appreciation mentality amongst Singaporean concert audiences that the pre-concert announcements which give this message are more roundly and robustly applauded than the entry of the concert-master or conductor.  In Singapore we have become a society where enjoying a concert seems bad manners.

So to answer our young questioner.  People are coughing because they like the music.  Singaporeans and others should throw out those cough sweets and those Fishermen’s Friends, the unwrapping of which has so often disturbed concert-goers, and cough away to your heart’s content before that, too, gets banned.  It’s about the only way we have left of letting the musicians on stage know that we appreciate them and the music they are playing for us.

Straits Times Review - Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra wrote to "correct" errors in a review of mine concerning their concert last Thursday.  Having been away over the weekend, I have only just returned home and accessed the review I sent to the Straits Times at 23.22 on Thursday night.  Here it is; it does not seem to be the same piece the SSO was complaining about!


Dvorak Cello Concerto

Ng Pei-Sian (cello), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Pavel Baleff (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday (22 November)

Marc Rochester

 
The Singapore Symphony Orchestra chose to celebrate St Cecilia’s Day (the patron saint of music) with an all-Dvorak programme.  Dvorak himself, a profoundly religious man, would doubtless have been touched by this, even if it the significance of the date seemed to have passed the SSO by.

None-the-less, there was a tangible sense of celebration and festivity about the hall, reinforced by a boisterous and excitable, if somewhat unkempt, performance of the Carnival Overture.  Possibly taken too fast for the orchestra to keep itself perfectly in step, it nevertheless provided a pleasingly rowdy opener for the capacity crowd.

 So many people at a Thursday night SSO concert might have been down to a celebration of St Cecilia, a love for Dvorak’s music or even the anticipation of a Black Friday shopping bonanza.  But probably it was the evening’s soloist who was the irresistible draw to Singaporean music lovers.

The SSO’s own star cellist, Ng Pei-Sian was clearly both inspired and deeply moved by the reception he got both from his orchestral colleagues and his large fan-base in the hall.  The result was a performance of the Cello Concerto which was seething with passion and boiling with emotional turbulence.  Ng gave it his all, rapturously bursting in with his first solo entry, caressing the gorgeous theme of the central movement like an intense lover, and joining in with gusto the dances of the finale before his moment of deep introspection which reduced him to tears, and got the audience exploding with admiration.

 It was probably just as well that Bulgarian conductor Pavel Baleff did not try to tame things or put the orchestra under any kind of restraining leash.  This was above all an emotionally-charged performance which overflowed with so much expressiveness that the rough edges were effectively smothered.
 

Throughout the concert, Baleff’s speeds veered rather disconcertingly from extreme to extreme.  But if nothing else, he inspired the SSO to throw off  their inhibitions to the extent that, at times, they rather left him behind as they rushed off chasing their next big moment.  This relatively hands-off approach from the conductor turned the performance of the ubiquitous New World Symphony from the potential such a popular work has for sounding routine (after all, the SSO give it an almost annual work-out) into something which had an edge-of-the-seat sense of adventure.

 Dvorak wrote the Symphony in New York and was inspired by the sights and sounds of America, all of which were  quite novel and strange to him.  It was this sense of awe-struck amazement that Baleff brought to the Symphony and, indeed, to this entire concert. Saint Cecilia might not have approved of such earthy pleasures, but everybody in the audience most certainly did.

21 November 2018

Boys and Girls Come Out to Sing


I was brought up in the English tradition of all-male church and cathedral choirs. I began around the age of six as a treble (memorably singing the solo of “Brother James’ Air” at my sister’s wedding in London – which coincidentally took place the same day as Singapore achieved its independence from Malaysia), went on to become a tenor and finally an alto cathedral lay-clerk.  I also served as a church organist, an organ scholar, a cathedral sub-organist and finally secured my own positon as Organist and Master of the Choristers at a British cathedral.  All this time, all I had ever known within the context of church and cathedral were choirs of men and boys, sometimes just boys, sometimes just men, but always exclusively male.

Which is not to say that I led a monkish existence completely removed from the presence of singing women.  I sung with a mixed group called the Cardiff Palestrina Choir which regularly performed a cappella church music of the Renaissance (once famously doing the ITV Christmas Day television broadcast at which a cameraman confessed to me that he had not wanted the assignment since he had thought we were all going to be Palestinians – Palestrina/Palestine, an easy mistake to make). I also conducted a number of choral societies - in Cardiff, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno and Aylesbury - where women rather seriously outnumbered the men.  I was well acquainted with female singers socially – one of my early university girlfriends was an opera singer - and had no issues with the idea of women and singing.  It was just that I distrusted the idea of girls in a church/cathedral choir.

That church and cathedral choirs are now mixed-sex is an inevitable consequence of EU gender equality legislation which bans the gender exclusive practices of the past, no matter how successful they had been.  In Europe (and elsewhere) it is no longer legal for churches and cathedrals to stipulate male only voices in their choirs, and from the enthusiastic uptake of places in choirs by girls, it is clear that this legislation has had the desired effect. 

However, when I look long and hard at my feelings about mixed choirs in the choir stalls, I realise that it is not merely prejudice (although that does play a very big part).  There are some purely musical issues which create my sense of unease.  The most serious is the worry for the future.  I went from treble to tenor, to alto.  Friends went from treble to bass.  In short, with a preponderance of female voices in choirs, might we be looking to a day when there are no tenors or basses to support them?  It is a sad fact that where boys and girls are mixed in a church choir, it is the boys who eventually succumb and fade away, and I wonder whether boys would so willingly head towards developing their mature voices when they have not had the long exposure to the discipline of singing gained in cathedral choir stalls.  EU laws cannot, despite the best efforts of EU law-makers, force women to develop the necessary physical attributes which would allow their voices in maturity to reach down to the C below the bass clef (or anywhere near).  The flow of former church and cathedral choristers into the ranks of Oxford and Cambridge Choral Scholars, the rigorous musical training of being a cathedral chorister might produce only top voices in our opera houses.  Am I looking at a low-voice Armageddon or merely using an imagined crisis to obscure my very real prejudice?

Less open to question – if ripe for debate and argument – is my sense that there is a fundamental difference between unbroken boys’ voices and those of girls.  Over the past few weeks I have been trawling through the regular crop of Christmas CDs; recordings released for the Christmas market by school, chapel, college, church, university, cathedral choirs usually containing the same things but largely intended for distribution amongst families and friends, for whom critical assessment is alien in the face of social loyalty.  Since many of those recordings have been released into the general market, it has been my lot to listen to them with a more objective ear, and while I never cease to admire the range and scope of choirs tackling the same old Christmas favourites, and their unceasing ability to find anew the magic in timeless carols, this year brought me face to face with the stark realities of single sex and mixed choirs.

Boys’ and Girls’ only choirs (they get round EU legislation by having one of each under a single banner) make very different sounds.  Boys certainly have a richer vocabulary of tone and expressive nuances, but this can lead to rough edges and inconsistencies with (a common failing) top notes forced in an almost hooting manner.  In comparison, girls sing with an amazing purity of tone and security of pitch, but lack the timbral depth or the expressive range, and often produce a sound which is so well blended and manicured that it comes across almost as bland.

Ironically, some of the best new Christmas discs have been with mixed boys/girls choirs, where the girls tend to moderate the boys’ excesses, while the boys add colour and depth to the girls’ monochrome sound.

This was reinforced to me when I attended a live performance last night of a choir from Lyon, Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc.  This was a mixed group of girls and boys who produced a very strong and confident sound, and at their best produced some fine music-making.  They were hampered by some pretty dreadful arrangements – Schubert’s Ave Maria delivered in the minor key and Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei turned into a soft-core jazz number in which Barber’s contribution was a couple of notes heard in an obbligato oboe descant eloquently played by Singaporean Quek Jun Rui.  There was also a version of my all-time favourite Welsh melody, Suo-Gan, which was so dreary as to seem quite boring (and what language the children were singing in defied recognition; it certainly was neither Welsh nor French – could it have been Breton??).  But what fascinated me was the effect of a deliberate juxtaposition of boys and girls voices in a choir where, clearly, enthusiasm was rather more strong than musical or technical finesse.

Once or twice a boy’s voice would squawk out harshly at the top, but was quickly covered by a rich tone in which the girls clearly kept the focus on pitch and ensemble while the boys added the colour and expression.  It was interesting to read that nobody remains in the choir beyond the age of 14, and since boys have to drop out of choirs when their voices break while girls can go on and on for ever, this is important in preventing the choir becoming dominated by the girls.  It all worked enormously well and was clearly far better than had this been a choir of boys or a choir of girls;

It may well be that my prejudices are slipping, but I’m coming round to the view that mixed voice children’s choirs can be rather better than single sex ones, provided the choir’s director has the ability to achieve the perfect balance with neither sex having dominance either numerically or in longevity.

19 November 2018

Pianists from China, Choirs from Britain, Conductors from Holland

It could often be said to be the result of one particularly inspirational teacher, or even a single figure who becomes an inspiration to others; the latter certainly explains the immense profusion of young Chinese learning the piano, inspired by the example of Lang Lang.  The fact is, though, that certain nationalities have a disproportionate representation at international level in certain musical disciplines.  When the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra was set up, with a totally clean sheet and the pick of the best from all over the world, it seemed that the brass was dominated by North Americans (which is still very much the case with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra).  Perhaps it was geographical location and regional connections which meant most of the woodwind section were Australians.  But other factors saw many string players coming from Russia and Eastern Europe, notably Hungary.

Whatever the reason, Great Britain produces the very finest choirs and orchestras in the world (I accept no dispute over the choirs - I am right! - and those who query my statement about orchestras I can only counter with sets of initials - BBCSO, LSO, LPO), France has historically produced the greatest organists in the world, and the USA reigns supreme in the field of jazz singers. We could look back into history and identify Austria as producing a disproportionate number of great composers and Italy a disproportionate number of great opera singers.  And for over a century, some of the finest conductors in the world have come from The Netherlands.


Eduard van Beinum
Willem Mengelberg
















Eduard van Beinum, Willem Mengelberg, Bernard Haitink, Edo de Waart and Frans Brüggen will be known to all, while very much a rising star on the scene is another Dutchman, Jaap van Zweden, whose work with the Hong Kong Philharmonic has shown him to be a true star, even if (according to my colleagues) he has yet really to make his mark with the New York Philharmonic.  And there's another. 
I well recall an occasion in early 1997 when I was in for a lunchtime meeting in the old Petronas HQ at Dayabumi in Kuala Lumpur.  Ian Smallbone, who was then heading up a small office of IMG Artists working with Petronas to set up the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, greeted me excitedly; "We've got our conductor!" he beamed, but refused to tell me more until we were at lunch.  This was a great celebration since not only was the choice of conductor pivotal to the success of this new orchestra, but they had been searching high and low for the right man.  I could barely contain my own excitement, but when Ian blurted out the name at lunch - Kees Bakels - my reaction was, who? I had even forgotten the name by the time I got home, and had to phone the office to get them to remind me. 

Well, the rest is history, and while the name of Kees Bakels may still not command the respectful recognition of thousands of music lovers worldwide, in my book, and in the books of many who witnessed the miracle he performed with the Malaysian Philharmonic, Bakels is every bit as fine (I would say finer) than any of his more famous compatriots.  I cannot speak of Mengelberg or van Beinum, whom I only heard on record (and a recording is no reliable indicator of the ability of a musician on a live stage) but Bakels for me gives Haitink more than a run for his money , we can't compare him with the more specialist Brüggen, but give me a Bakels performance over a de Waart or a van Zweden anyday.

And my opinion is not merely based on the incredible work he did in Malaysia, but on hearing Bakels with other orchestras, notably in the UK at Bournemouth and Leeds and, just last week, in Singapore with the usually frayed Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  Here's my Straits Times review.


 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
More than a dozen years have passed since Dutchman Kees Bakels left the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra which he founded in 1998 and took, against all the odds, to the very peak of international excellence.  So it was good to welcome him back to South East Asia.  The big question was, could he work his magic on the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
The answer was a resounding yes.
Rossini’s Overture to Cinderella opened this programme of Familiar Favourites – none of which seemed at all familiar to many in the audience.  Nobody does a Rossini crescendo quite like Kees Bakels.  He starts it on his knees, hardly moving his upper body, and then draws himself up to his full height opening his arms wide as he does so.  The response from the SSO was spell-binding.
But that was only the tiniest of tasters.  The true magic came with the second half. 
Familiar tunes from Tchaikovsky’s ballet score, Sleeping Beauty, occasionally pop up in concert programmes, but here we had all of the Prologue as well as a great chunk of the first act - as Bakels told the audience after their enthusiastic applause had interrupted the performance after one brilliantly measured climax, they could have had acts two and three as well, only he had left them back home.
 With fluttering hand gestures which you would never find in any tutor on conducting, and often not using his hands at all, merely directing the orchestra with a shimmy of the hips or a raised eyebrow, Bakels conjured up playing from the SSO which almost defied belief.  Exhibiting a precision and clarity of detail, and producing a meatiness of string tone one did not think possible from this orchestra, they gave a performance as scintillating and exhilarating as it was joyous and foot-tapping.  Here was a brilliant demonstration of a master conductor at work and an orchestra raising its game beyond all expectations.
 Between these ravishing displays of orchestral brilliance, came an equally impressive display of violin virtuosity. 
 Richard Lin’s biography tells us that he has been busily amassing "a startling collection of top prizes at major international competitions".  And it showed in a performance of the Korngold Violin Concerto which seemed more concerned with judge-impressing technical prowess than interpretative insight or real musical  involvement.  Unquestionably Lin possesses unbridled virtuosity, but it was left to Bakels and the SSO to create the richly romantic atmosphere which lies at the heart of Korngold’s Concerto.
Managing to avoid making the work sound like the hotchpotch of Hollywood movie themes of the 1930s and 40s which it really is, Bakels pushed it all along purposefully, letting the big tunes soar and never allowing emotional self-indulgence to get in the way of Lin’s glittering, crowd-pleasing virtuosity.