26 October 2016

Musical Hoaxes

It’s funny how these things go.  Only yesterday morning I was lecturing to my students about National Anthems and drawing their attention to the blatant musical hoax which is the Bosnian-Herzegovinian anthem.  And now, today, a disc for review has arrived which includes another unashamedly bare-faced musical hoax, the setting of the Ave Maria passed off by its real composer, Vladimir Vavilov (1925-1973) as the work of Giulio Caccini (1551-1618).

Musical hoaxes and misattributions are the stuff of musical quizzes.  Who wrote Haydn’s “Toy Symphony”? (answer; Leopold Mozart).  Who wrote Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary? (answer; Jeremiah Clarke).  Who wrote Albinoni’s Adagio? (answer; Remo Giazotto).  But for many people, when they learn that they have been duped by a musical hoax or led to believe that a work is by one composer when, in fact, it is by another, they bristle with resentment and end up ignoring music which, up to that point, they had thoroughly enjoyed

One of the great musical hoaxers was Fritz Kreisler who managed to pull sufficient wool over the eyes of sufficient numbers of gullible music lovers to convince them that his own works were really the products of composers ranging from Couperin to Boccherini by way of one of the Bach family and an otherwise forgotten composer called Gaetano Pugnani.  There are plenty of others, too.  Wikipedia delightfully tells us that Vavilov “routinely ascribed his own works to other composers, usually of the Renaissance or Baroque (occasionally from later eras), usually with total disregard of the appropriate style”.  Yet, despite Wikipedia’s assertion that “his works achieved enormous circulation, and some of them achieved true folk-music status, with several poems set to his melodies”, Grove does not deign to give this Soviet-era forger even a passing mention.

In the case of Kreisler, his hoaxes were designed to give credibility to his own performances.  With Vavilov, there was also an element of self-preservation.  Writing at a time and in a society where Christian music was forbidden, he had no choice but to pass his Ave Maria off as the work of someone else; although that does not justify all the other hoaxes he carried out.  As for Dusan Sestic, who stole the theme music from the 1978 movie Animal House to enter a competition for a new national anthem for Bosnia-Herzegovina, his aim was solely financial; he stood to earn over €15,000 for his efforts.

Others seem to have been exercises to test the gullibility of critics like myself.  In the wake of the spoof Mobile for Tape and Percussion by "Piotr Zak" (actually Hans Keller) I was less willing to accept the minimalist music of Arvo Pärt at first sight, and in a Musical Times review went so far as to suggest his Pari Intervalli was a spoof.  Daniel Hill (Musical Forgeries) has written an extensive dissertation on the subject, which makes for stimulating reading – not least his conclusion that “Let us enjoy the forgeries as music”.  He drew attention to the great hoax of recent years, the discovery of eight apparently lost Haydn piano sonatas by the Australian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda and the renowned Haydn scholar H C Robbins Landon.  “A little old lady who `couldn't be disturbed' had `discovered' the completed versions of the sonatas in her home. She in turn passed them to a relatively unknown flautist, Winfried Michel. Michel became the only link between the source of the documents and the Haydn scholar, Robbins Landon”. Both Robbins Landon and Badura-Skoda were totally convinced, and only when someone thought to analyse the paper, the ink and the actual writing did they realise they had been entirely written in the late 20th century.  As Hill points out, having been regarded as the “musical discovery of the century…once proved to be forgeries, the Sonatas vanished from the public domain”.  Which, of course, begs the question; what matters most, the music or the provenance?  Why should we give less credence to the Ave Maria once we know it is by a 20th century Soviet composer than when we thought it was by a 16th century Italian one?

In these days of Photoshop, digital re-alignment and total belief in the truth of whatever is published on the internet, we cannot really know what is real and what is fake, but perhaps this does not matter?  Surely if we like the music, who wrote it, when it was written and the motives behind its composition should not concern us.  I can understand why the Bosnians want their prize money back from Sestic, but I really cannot understand why fake Haydn is any less enjoyable than real Haydn or why spoof Zak should be regarded as a joke while real Cage is taken so seriously.

25 October 2016

Farts, Phones and Aficionados

One of my Straits Times fellow-reviewers, Mervin Beng, railed against the applause with which the audience greeted the individual movements in a performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony given by the Dresden Philharmonic recently.  Most music aficionados and critics would have done the same and, although I was somewhere in Arabia at the time. I expect that I, too, would have been annoyed at the interruption to the flow of the Symphony created by such applause.

Yet neither Mervin nor myself, nor even the music aficionados in the audience, have any justification for our irritation other than pure selfishness.  Certainly Brahms, and just about every other composer in history, would not have expected his music to be heard in silence.  Richard Strauss famously railed against the silence which greeted the movements of a concerto, while others – Chopin springs immediately to mind – actually wrote into their multi-movement works an explicit acknowledgement that they would not be heard in their entirety in silence.

Whether Brahms wanted his Second Symphony to be heard in silence is open to debate, but the fact is, he knew it would not be.  And I wonder what he would think if he were to come and hear it performed today with each movement met with total silence.  The audience for the Dresden Philharmonic concert was responding as they were intended to do and in the spirit of the music; who are we to criticise that?

Understanding how music was originally received is every bit as relevant to our understanding of it as understanding how it was originally conceived.  It amuses me that so-called period-performance musicians spend so much time tuning their instruments and retuning them between pieces and movements.  When Bach assembled his band in the organ loft at St Thomas’s Leipzig, did he interrupt the service to get every instrument perfectly in tune?  I suggest he did not.  18th century ears were more amenable to imperfections than our 21st century ones – I like to think they were more discerning in being able to extract the musical message from the surrounding sound than ours are today.  We like to have our music delivered to us in “authentic” performances, but we do not like to listen to our music in “authentic” situations.

The London-based Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment is taking steps to address this issue, while, at the same time, hoping to spread its message beyond the 4 million people in Britain who claim to attend classical music concerts in a year.  They have started performing in pubs (follow the link below).  The George Tavern in Whitechapel has become the home of their “Night Shift” performances, in which pub-goers sit, drink, chat and possibly play with their phones while Mozart and Haydn are being performed.  As one of the orchestra’s members commented, “This is how the music was intended to be heard.  Not in silence, but
with a glass in one hand, a friend at the table and a relaxed, informal atmosphere in the room”.  You have to hear Haydn that way to begin to understand what Haydn was all about.

Mentioning this to a colleague, I was told “but in Haydn’s day there were no mobile phones, and the mobile phone is the scourge of concert-going today”.  That’s true, but there were other socially unacceptable audience habits instead.  One of these was a penchant to break wind loudly and aromatically.  Given the straight choice between a bright blue screen and a snatch of electronic sound and a noisy and noisome fart, I’d choose the former any day.  The lovely thing is, in a pub setting you can fart and phone to your heart’s content and not disturb the music.  Whether that is an attraction is not for me to say, but in my experience, we enjoy music most when we are not hide-bound by superimposed conventions and the selfish preferences of critics, no matter how well-intentioned.
OAE at The George Tavern

10 October 2016

The Music Examiners Are On The March

It’s that time of year again. 

In houses the length and breadth of Britain (as well as one or two further afield) suitcases are being packed, books of tests dusted off, instruction papers rooted out, calculators primed, packets of post-it notes, new pens and refills replenished and batteries checked and new ones bought.  Hotel and flight bookings are being confirmed, passports are being retrieved, taxis booked to the airport, train tickets purchased and Satnavs primed.  Yes; the music examiners are on the march!

The period between October and December has traditionally been the busiest for the music examining industry, and while the huge growth in candidate numbers and ancillary services, especially in south and southeast Asia, has substantially increased the examiner’s workload over the year, this period is still the biggie; the time when even the most reluctant examiners, fulfilling their obligation to “offer a minimum of three weeks”, have no choice but to get down and dirty in the examination circus.

I no longer examine for either of the big exam boards and I have to confess I miss it dreadfully.  I used to love that moment, just as summer was ending, when the letter would drop through the door (in later years it became an email) detailing the places and dates of my autumn examining tour.  I never asked to go anywhere nor expressed any sort of preference – indeed rumour had it that if you did, you were guaranteed never to go there – and I was thrilled when the list came, sometimes even having to get out the map to see where, precisely, I would be heading off to in a few months’ time. 

I enjoyed the travelling, even when, at the height of my examining career, I was doing upwards of 20 long-haul flights and checking into anything up to 50 different hotels a year.  I enjoyed that frisson of excitement arriving at a new hotel wondering whether the room would be palatial with spa bath and ocean view, or cramped with resident cockroaches and a view and whiff of the kitchen waste bins.  I enjoyed sending out the preliminary letter to the local representatives telling them that I liked black coffee with no sugar in the morning and white tea with no sugar in the afternoon, that I never ate when examining and that I would be arriving on such and such a day and would be at such and such a hotel to receive my week’s papers.  I enjoyed meeting the stewards and helpers who worked so hard to ensure the examining day went off smoothly.  I loved being able to go back to the hotel after a seven hour day and know that I had nothing left to do until tomorrow.  But most of all I loved hearing the candidates and using the resources of my professional judgement to offer them worthwhile assessments.

An examining day of almost seven hours continual listening and writing is not everybody’s idea of fun, but I found it so,  I relished the chance I had to make a difference, to inspire and to encourage and, sometimes, to point out faults and problems. Direct feedback was rare, but when an accidental meeting with a teacher resulted in a comment like; “I’m so glad you wrote what you did.  I’ve been trying to get my student to do that for months!  She will probably do it now that the examiner has said it too!” I felt that all the agony of listening to nervous, terrified candidates had been worth it.  Occasionally one made mistakes, but I, like all of my colleagues, had just one goal; to give as fair and balanced assessment of whatever performance was thrown at us, and thereby encourage candidates to improve the standard of their music-making.

That, though, is no longer what is wanted.  Professional judgement is viewed with suspicion in an environment where commercial pressures dominate.  The examination fee is not seen as payment for professional service, but as purchase of a commodity.  That commodity is a result which reflects not reality but aspiration.  The examiner can no longer write a carefully-worded report and issue a supporting mark in the knowledge that it will be accepted as a professional’s considered judgement.  Instead, restrained by increasingly conflicting and unrealistic instructions from an office-based administration with a clerical background largely separate from musical or educational experience, the examiner has to write a bland and largely meaningless report in order to forestall any complaint from those who have to be regarded not as teachers or students, but as clients and customers.

Examination boards have become so focused on avoiding complaints that they are in danger of losing their very raison d’être. Already among teachers in south east Asia it is widely believed that if you do not like the result the examiner has issued, you only need to complain and it is almost automatically revised upwards by a London-based administration, terrified in case, in the hugely competitive environment which is now the music examination landscape of the region, they lose to the rival board that client and the potential customers in its circle of influence.

Seen from the outside, music exams are a strange and wholly unnatural phenomenon.  They serve no obvious musical purpose and stand in the way of artistic development.  Lessons have to be adapted to suit the demands of the examination syllabus, rather than the musical and educational needs of the individual student.  When a teacher told me that she was preparing a student for an examination, I asked her why.  “You need to do examinations”, she eventually told me, having found my question remarkably inane. “That’s the only way students can progress”.  How bitterly Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven must be feeling now; had they taken exams as students, what might they not have achieved as musicians?

For many students and teachers, however, exams are a valuable means of gauging progress and achievement.  But what value does it have when you regard the examiner’s report not as an assessment of achievement but as the opening bid in an extended negotiation to obtain the mark the customer wants.  I pity my former colleagues; what pleasure is there in examining when you know your professional judgement is regarded as immaterial?

09 October 2016

Books, Bestsellers and Bars

If a book’s cover includes the phrase “The No.1 International Bestseller”, I put it straight back on the shelf.  How can a book, fresh off the press be a “bestseller” before it has even been on the market a week?  And how is it possible for it to have been translated into a fraction of the languages which would be needed for its popularity to be realistically regarded as “International”?  Obviously, if it has been snapped off the shelves around the world without anyone having had a chance to read or understand its contents, then that implies that its popularity is due to something other than literary merit.  Perhaps it makes a good doorstop.  Perhaps the cover is particularly eye-catching?  Perhaps the author is famous for something other than literary ability?

Of course we all know that “The No.1 International Bestseller” is a statement of aspiration rather than reality, and the fact that virtually every book in every airport departure lounge book stall is “The No.1 International Bestseller” tells us that the slogan is a desperate marketing cry rather than an unequivocal statement of fact.

Marketing people in book publishing never deal in indefinite articles, nor do they have any vocabulary which allows them to indicate any position other than absolute top.  For them “international” means someone has taken a copy of the book across the border from the USA to Canada, and “Bestseller” is synonymous with “available to buy”.

The book publishing industry has dug itself into this hole of meaningless aspirational claims ever since someone hit on the idea of putting a dust-jacket round a book and using that dust-jacket as a marketing tool.  First they put a picture on the front, then they put a synopsis on the back.  They sent out some advance copies (minus the dust-jacket) to critics whose reviews provided quotes which they could then print on the back of the dust-jacket before sending it out to the book-stores.  But this was not enough.  They needed to imply that sales for the book, even before it was openly available for sale, were so huge that they eclipsed just about everything else.  So they started inventing wholly spurious claims for the book in the hope that potential readership was daft enough to believe them. 

With the advent of the paperback, this use of the book’s cover as a marketing tool has become so established that the idea that a book would appear without lavish quotes of praise and unbelievable claims for popularity has become as inconceivable as Donald Trump coming up with a serious and honest thought.

Luckily the world of Classical Music has not gone down that path, and we still promote our new material by providing evidence of previous success.   True, in the world of opera, there are, very occasionally, press previews; but who has ever heard of a solo recital, a chamber concert, a symphony orchestra performance getting a “press preview” so that legitimate quotes about it can be used to entice audiences to the show proper? And a new work is never promoted before its first performance as “The No.1 International Bestseller”; rather its composer is shown to have a track record of usually modest success.  The implication is, of course, that “he did it once, so he may well have done it again”, but in the music business we fight shy of either predicting success or claiming it before it happens.

But how do new composers and musicians manage to get themselves into the public consciousness if they have no proven track record?  Statements of aspiration and claims of outrageous success just do not wash with the market for classical music, so most do everything they can to get a critic to attend an early performance or hear a debut CD. 

Recently, someone wrote to me about the reviews I write for a daily newspaper, telling me that “Nobody reads the rubbish you write.  Classical music criticism is just used by editors to fill space in their paper”.  They have a point, although the number of times I have suggested reviewing a concert only to be told by the editor that “there is no space to run another review” implies that editors of arts pages do not generally have a problem filling space.  But who does read the criticism in a general newspaper?  I doubt whether many people do, and that does not worry me one iota, for one of its prime purposes is to provide publicity material for musicians.  They need these legitimate and impartial opinions about their music and their performance if they are to survive in this hugely competitive environment.

I used to make a point of reviewing every student performance I could attend and posting that review on a blog.  The purpose was not only to offer a third-party assessment of their performance (students tend to focus their performances on meeting the demands of their own teachers and rarely hear disinterested opinions from their audience) but also to provide some serviceable quotes for them to put on publicity materials aimed at enticing future audiences to their work.  I stopped only because none of the students took advantage of this, preferring the world to think that the limits of their musical horizons were participating in competitions and master-classes and collecting a string of “mentors” as long as their arm.  I still wonder why they should imagine that this is more important than showing that they have experience in performing to an audience; but that’s how they present themselves in their biographies, so they have to live with the consequences.

But those with a more realistic outlook understand the value of getting some critical commentary as soon as possible.  I recently enjoyed a very pleasant evening with the American composer Nick Omiccioli, moving from bar to bar sampling a mixture of whisky, wine and beer (as well as some particularly spicy Indian food).  Nick is new to Singapore and his music unheard by just about everyone here.  How is he to make an impression, to get his name circulated amongst the Asian audiences? 

One of his works is being performed at a concert at the Esplanade Recital Studio on 10th November (which will also mark the inaugural performance of a yet another new - or, to be precise, newly renamed - Singapore orchestra, OpusNovus).  “You will come, I hope?” Nick asked. “Maybe write a review??”  And I will go.  And I will write a review.  I might like his music or I might hate it, or I might be totally indifferent to it.  I will review what I hear as fairly as I can, and it may be that Nick will never speak to me again let alone ply me with whisky, wine, beer or vindaloo.  But at least he will have some quote which he can use to promote his music in Singapore in future, so that attending a performance of it will not be quite the act of faith that going to the one on 10th November will be.

And if he becomes “The No.1 International Best composer”, I will, in my tiny way, have helped him along that path, but neither he nor I will have had the presumption to anticipate it before anyone here has heard a note of his music.

06 October 2016

Choral Ennui

Image result for Gjeilo

Something awful has happened to choral music over the past quarter of a century or so.  It has lost its musical interest and become a vehicle for self-indulgent aural luxury.  A whole generation of 30-something composers have latched on to this desire among choirs to make a nice noise and little else.  Here we have the consolidated outpourings of one of their leading lights, the Norwegian Ola Gjeilo.

If this is beginning to read like the ranting of cynical ex-choral director, then simply play this CD and try to differentiate between the tracks.  What is sacred, what is secular?  What is happy, what is sad? Which piece depicts the praise of God, which is a reflection on individual loneliness?  Even more difficult to decipher, which is sung by Voces8 and which is sung by Tenebrae? It all sounds the same, irrespective of which of these two excellent choirs is doing the singing, who is doing the conducting, and what is added to the sonic mix by way of instrumental backing.  Decca have not helped their case any by superimposing on to All Hallows’ Church in Hampstead a resonance of such echoing proportions that it all coalesces into a kind of warm, conglomerate fug.

Much of Gjeilo’s music sounds like out-takes from soundtracks to recent movies.  Lord of the Rings is the front-runner in the sound-alike stakes, but there’s a bit of Titanic there as well, not least in the folksy guitar-infused The Lake Isle (do we take it there’s an iceberg lurking somewhere in this mist-enshrouded body of shimmering water?).

Don’t get me wrong.  This is lovely singing, and the tracks in their own way are often very beautiful.  In a word, it is nice.  Those who hanker after a bit of something soothing to put on in the background while they light their scented candles and pour out the mulled carrot juice should snap this disc up; it could not be a better atmosphere-maker to an environment of induced calm.  And nobody is going to complain that it is in any way intellectually challenging or musically demanding.

Voces8 and Tenebrae need no introduction.  They are both extremely fine choral groups whose effortless and beautifully modulated tone is the perfect sound for Gjeilo’s slowly flowing, shimmering sonic meanderings.  I wonder, however, how even they can be so dispassionate in articulating the “hosannas” of the 2004 setting of the Sanctus.  When we read in Gjeilo’s notes that the work was conceived on a “cheap Keyboard I borrowed while living in London” we realise the problem; he did not want to disturb the neighbours, so kept the sound as musically wall-paperish as he could.  And continuing the theme of musical wall-paper, in his own piano introduction to “The Crossing”, Gjeilo proves that he can dribble over the keyboard as dreamily as any Richard Clayderman clone.

And that is the real issue with this disc.  It exudes a rich, sumptuous, all-embracing sound, but that sound has nothing to do with the texts or the character of the texts.  Words, it seems, are coincidental to the delivery of a warming sonic experience.

Accepting this, one can enjoy this appallingly-short-measure CD simply at face value and move on to something more musically stimulating once the brain has had its 47 minutes of stasis.

[This review has been published on the MusicWeb International website.  IF you want to hear it - you can buy the disc from that site]

04 October 2016

Long-Playing Nostalgia

John McCarthy gave a talk the other day on nostalgia.  He is in a good position to speak dispassionately on the topic since, when he looks back, he must always remember those dreadful five years he spent as a hostage of a Jihadist group in Lebanon; if anyone has an excuse to avoid nostalgia, it is McCarthy. He pointed out that nostalgia was once considered a sickness (those with a knowledge of Greek classics – or access to Google – will recognise in the word’s suffix the Greek word for pain) and he spoke of a Russian general who had ordered any of his men suffering from nostalgia to be buried alive.

(How different things are in Russia today.  Those who suffer from nostalgia for the autocratic days of the Soviet Union are elevated to President.) 

Vladimir Putin and John McCarthy aside, most of us today welcome nostalgia as that warm inner feeling when we look back, nearly always through a heavily selective memory, on those moments of our existence which, in comparison with current reality, seem positively Elysian.  And as we grow older, so nostalgia exerts an ever more appealing lure in our bid to escape from the present and wallow in the past.

Such nostalgia was in the air yesterday evening when I attended a talk given by Natalie Ng on the Long Playing Record.  At least, that’s what the talk was supposed to be about.  It was intended to introduce the new archive of LPs which has come into the possession of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and to investigate LP recordings of 18th century music.  However, there had been a breakdown of communications somewhere along the line and not only did Ms Ng never scratch the surface (pardon the pun) of an LP, but her talk barely impinged on 18th century music.  She did promise to compare early recorded performances of Beethoven’s Fifth, but even this was peripheral to a talk which was basically a fascinating overview of the history of recorded live performances.

Singapore is largely out of step with the rest of the world in having so completely dismissed commercial recordings in favour of pirated downloads, and while Ms Ng was quite right to say that CD shops have ceased to exist here, the industry, certainly so far as classical music is concerned, is far from dead, even if it is just a shadow of what it once was.  Demand for top quality recordings of first-rate performances is still there; it just doesn’t exist in Singapore.

So her talk was essentially flavoured by nostalgia. Looking back to the days when people cared enough not only to go out and buy recordings, but to go through the physical effort of actually playing them.  She drew attention to the facts that; 200 years ago, you had to go out of your house to find music, and had to concentrate exclusively on listening to the music you found out there; that 100 years ago you had to go through the effort of putting the 78 on the turntable, winding it up and placing the needle on the record; and 50 years ago taking the LP out of its sleeve and actually standing by the record player in order to select the track you wanted to hear.  The cassette tape with its headphones had taken music out of the public arena and transformed it into a solitary experience, while the CD, she told us, was the first time listeners had been able to “create their own playlists” from the comfort of their chairs, through the use of remote controls.

For the students present, this was obviously something of an eye-opener.  Part of a generation in which music is ubiquitous, free and personal, the idea that people would have had to make physical and financial sacrifices in the pursuit of music was clearly something they had not all previously considered.  Ms Ng’s concise and unbiased approach meant that she stated the facts without allowing nostalgia to intrude.

But nostalgia does intrude for me, and while I am happy to accept that my personal nostalgia is usually nothing more than a sickness, on this occasion I think it indicates something rather more fundamental to society in general.

The implication (not stated by Ms Ng but clearly picked up by some of her audience) is that since the advent of commercial recording of classical music in the early 20th century, technological advances have improved our musical environment.  Now we have unlimited access to whatever music we want to hear, when we want and wherever we want.  We can cut out the boring bits of a Mahler symphony and repeated ad infinitum the bits of a Rachmaninov concerto we particularly like.  We can distort a composer’s creation for our own personal gratification and we can impose on others our musical tastes by publishing our “playlists” or playing our music so loudly that it seeps into the consciousness of others.  We can use music as an escapism, locking ourselves into our own world behind our earphones, and as an accompaniment to mundane existence by having it on in the background as we perform our daily chores.  But is this an improvement?

We have reached musical saturation point.  It is impossible to go through any part of any day without conscious or unconscious exposure to music.  What has taken composers and musicians a lifetime to create, we dismiss as background noise to our own existence.  We demean the act of creation and debase the skill of performance.  Quality is secondary to quantity, the value of the creative process is devalued by economy of access.  Even in yesterday’s talk, voices were raised to question why anyone would pay for a recording when they could download one for free. 

It will come to a sticky end, and I predict it is not far off.  At some point we are simply going to take music so much for granted that it will slip out of our reach.  If this absolute saturation of music is the price we have to pay for renewing our acquaintance with music as a rare and privileged art accessible only to those who make the physical and financial effort to engage with it, then it is a price worth paying for replacing nostalgia with reality.

03 October 2016

Musical Oil over Korea's Troubled Waters

Art music thrives in Korea.  The trouble is, you have to go there to realise it. 

There are Korean musicians in most of the major orchestras of the world, Koreans pop up at all the major music competitions, there are a few Korean stars on the international circuit (violinist Kyung-Wha Chung  and soprano Sumi Jo to name just two), and there is at least one major international composer (Unsuk Chin).  The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra under its Korean conductor, Myung-whun Chung has created a presence on the international stage through recordings and occasional tours (as well as, rather less happily recently, through some much-publicised scandal - NY Times article), but otherwise Korea seems pretty much self-contained musically. 

And that’s not good in a world where classical music needs to broach international borders if it is not just to develop and expand, but to survive.

So I welcome the recent creation of an organisation calling itself “La Mer et L’Île” whose policy is “to promote classical music, visual arts and sciences to outside as well as inside of Korea”.  What a wonderful idea to promote a land through music and the arts; especially where that land is one which is high in international consciousness through its much less savoury associations with cross-border hostilities.  Not that the organisation is totally committed to ignoring political hostilities with South Korea’s neighbours; the group’s French title evokes the remote and rugged volcanic outcrop of Dokdo Island, which is at the centre of a long-running territorial dispute between Korea and Japan.

La Mer et L’Île embarks this year on its first international concert tour, travelling to Singapore, Sydney and Hong Kong.  The first of those international trips featured just seven performing musicians who combined European repertory with new Korean works.  This is a splendid concept revealing, as it does, not just original Korean music, but Korean musicians standing proudly alongside their international counterparts.

The five “western” instrument players - pianist Quentin Kim, violinists Yeonwoo Choi, Jun-Young Park, violist Erwan Richard (a Frenchman who has been resident in Korea since 2007) and cellist David James Kim (whose background and training has been in Germany) - may not be the most polished piano quintet around, but their spirited and eager performance of the Dvořák A major Quintet was like a breath of fresh air.  Some intonation issues between the violins, a distinctly soloistic quality from the viola (excusable in the Dvořák but nevertheless hinting at a certain lack of integration within the ensemble), a few grumbling notes from the cello and some rather muffled detail in the piano, took the shine off the actual playing, but the energy (not least in a finale which was taken at an absolutely breakneck speed) and robustness of the interpretation superbly underscored the music’s folksy qualities; which is, to judge from the very amiable introductions with which David James Kim had peppered the recital, what the group was aiming for.

The Dvořák filled the second half of the concert, while first had begun with the string quartet alone giving an endearing account of one of Mozart’s so-called “Salzburg Symphonies” (no.3).  Here was a sense of tight and familiar ensemble which well conveyed the charm and innocence of Mozart’s very youthful writing.  The first half ended with a potentially bizarre arrangement of the “Habanera” from Carmen for piano quintet and mezzo-soprano.  What transformed this from the bizarre to the deeply impressive was Bohae Kim who, a dominating presence in bright green, used the intimate environment of a stage-less recital room, to stroll amongst the audience, goading them into responding by making eyes and provocative gestures at them, and milking their applause for all she was worth; even to the extent of coming back out to take another round of applause long after the houselights had gone up and the audience members started to file out for the interval.  It was great visual entertainment – not least the way the string players interacted with her – but it was also a powerfully musical performance.  Ms Kim, possibly singing under her full strength to meet the intimacy of the room, nevertheless brought every ounce of an operatic mezzo’s skill to play to make this, vocally, a most compelling performance.

The remainder of the first half was given over the Korean works, and here I was reminded of a comment made by an adjudicator colleague who had suggested that, impressive though Koreans were in competitions, they played safe and never liked to take risks.  To hear these three new Korean works – Dokdo, Two Ears by Myung-Whun Choi, Morning of the Ocean by Jonghee Kang and Fantasy-Variations on an Olden Air by the pianist, Quentin Kim, all three composers in their early 40s – you would have thought the neuroses of the 20th century had never impinged on Korean composers.  No hint in any of these works of the experimental, challenging and, as often as not, pointedly non-traditional which obsessed the Americans and Europeans in their striving to create something new and distinctive.  Choi’s sounded like Debussy and Ravel with a touch of Chilli Sauce, while Kang’s threw a fair sprinkling of raw cili padi into some distinctly Brahmsian ideas.  For his part, Kim was happy to bask in the world of Schumann as he set about his comfortable set of variations for piano trio.

Comfortable and safe as these works were, they were none-the-less rewarding and deeply satisfying, offering the audience a welcome sense of the vaguely familiar within unquestionably distinctive voices. 

Perhaps the only one which did not really work was Kang’s trio for violin, cello and Haegum, a traditional Korean instrument much like a mellower version of an erhu.  SeungHee Lee was the Haegum player, and much as she worked to integrate with the western instruments, the disparity of tone was just too disturbing.  When Lee emerged at the end of the concert to offer an encore with cello and piano in an arrangement of a Korean folk song, things worked much better.  Whoever had made the arrangement understood the issue, and while the piano was delicate in its harmonic support, the cello created an almost harp like background for the distinctive and often forceful voice of the Haegum.

Sydney (15th October at the Conservatorium) and Hong Kong (27th November at the APA) are in for a treat.