02 February 2016

Music Competitions by the Thousand

Whether any other artistic activity has as many competitions as music I very much doubt.  There are, quite literally, thousands of them.  Competitions for pianists, violinists, singers, organists, harmonica players, whistlers, drummers, rock bands, orchestras, string quartets, composers…if you play or sing, conduct or teach, research or write, there’s a competition for you.  There are competitions for babies, children (usually demoted to “Kids” to signify a classlessness which music endeavours to believe it promotes), teenagers, young adults, middle aged adults, senior citizens, amateurs, professionals, the blind, the deaf, the limbless…the list just goes on and on.  And there are music competitions in any city, town or village in just about any country on any continent.  (If there was a kazoo competition for legless Emperor Penguins of post-egg-bearing vintage, I would not be surprised.)  In short, the most rabid musical competitors can have their thirst slaked at any time, in any field and at any place.

Poets, novelists, biographers, sculptors, water-colourists, oil-painters, acrylic-on-canvas designers, graffiti-merchants, classic actors, comedy actors, bit-part actors, bad actors, one-legged deaf mute mime artists, they all have a competition or two in their specific fields, but none has as many on offer as musicians.  And still the list grows.  A nation can’t call itself a nation if it doesn’t have a “National Music Competition” or two to its name; a musician can’t call him- or her-self a musician unless they have participated in at least a half-dozen competitions in as many countries.

There is a World Federation of International Music Competitions based in Switzerland (as is FIFA, but the connection ends there).  They claim to represent 120 of “the world’s leading music competitions”.  Wikipedia lists 220 “Classical Music Competitions” which excludes all those thousands of school level, county level, regional contests as well as the dozens of Eisteddfodau and similar competitions which are primarily, but not exclusively, devoted to music.

 For some years I was a member of a panel of adjudicators based in the UK who were called on to adjudicate at music competitions the length and breadth of the country.  In my 15 years with them, I adjudicated at over 120 different competitions.  My name remains on some list of international adjudicators, it seems, for barely a month goes by without my being invited to judge at some competition or other, and in the last two years I have adjudicated at competitions in Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, India and South Africa.  In previous years  have adjudicated at music competitions in Sierra Leone, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, not countries one might immediately identify as being hot on musical activity.  And I have colleagues and friends who do much more of this sort of thing, to the extent they almost seem to make a living out of it.

What is it about music which encourages this profusion of competitions?  The answer, for me, is simple.  I have not the slightest idea. 

I recognize that an awful lot of people derive an awful lot of pleasure from them, and the fact that they are (usually) held in public and the competitors perform before an audience is certainly a big draw in an activity where public performance is at its very core.  But is that the main reason why so many crave music competitions?

The music world is, of course, highly competitive.  Composers have to compete to get their music heard, conductors have to compete to get on the podium, orchestral players have to compete to get a seat in the orchestra, singers have to compete to get a booking be it with a band,  choir or opera company, pianists have to compete to get a Concerto slot with an orchestra.  But is that any different from any other of the arts?  All art involves creation and execution, and once both have been done, the work is, in every sense of the word, finished, and one has to compete again for the next job.  I fail to see why music is so very different.

The Oxford Companion to Music opens its entry on “Music Competitions” with the phrase, “The urge to compete is basic to human nature and musicians are no exception. Reports of music contests go back to ancient times”.  It mentions the famous competition in Die Meistersinger but includes the astonishing claim that “the modern form developed in the late 18th century in Great Britain”.   Is that true?  Are the British responsible for music competitions?  If so, why did nobody think to patent the idea?  Surely the royalties on that idea would have cleared the national debt and put enough in the government’s coffers to weather the most stormy period of fiscal stagnation.

Wherever and whoever started it, music competitions have become such a fact of life that we rarely question their value.  Yes, we point to famous “losers” who actually won (Bryn Terfel famously lost out on First Place in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989 – and that did him no harm) while the adjudicator of last week’s Concerto Competition finals in Singapore mentioned that in one competition at which he had recently adjudicated, he knew that the first place winner would never make it as a professional yet the second place person had all the promise of a glittering career in front of him.  Every adjudicator has a similar story; obliged by an accident of the occasion to give first place to a performer whom one instinctively knows is inferior to those placed lower down in the rankings.
So, given the fragile reliability of competition outcomes, what is the value of music competitions at all?
Well, you only need to pick up a concert programme to realize that they do provide very useful publicity for an artist.  An organ recital I attended yesterday by an organist of whom I had never heard (and I think I am more likely to have heard of organist than most) included the claim that he was “winner of the 20th Grand Prix de Chartres”; and despite having never heard of him or of the Grand Prix de Chartres, I was nevertheless impressed and my expectations for his playing were duly raised.  Even famous performers cannot escape the lure of competition success in their biographies: Stephen Hough, who surely needs no competition victory to reinforce perceptions of his pianist prowess, still boasts in his biography that he took “First Prize at the 1983 Naumburg Competition”.  I frequently come across artist biographies that boast of “Second”, even “Third” place in competitions; such is the cachet of taking part.

The trouble is, that for a great many musicians, music is seen more as a competitive sport than an artistic endeavour, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in South East Asia where every opportunity is taken by pushy parents, determined teachers and egotistical youngsters to compete in an art form where competition should be incidental rather than an end in itself.  Generations of young players have their musical futures thwarted by an ingrained belief that the only worthwhile musical activity is a competitive one.  Gone is the pleasure of playing quietly at home: what’s the point when there is nobody with whom to compete?


I am a firm supporter of competitions as being a valuable means of getting exposure, of drawing in an audience who might not usually be attracted by the more esoteric notions of emotional and spiritual enrichment, and of giving performers the opportunity to play to an audience.  I am vehement opponent of competitions which have at their heart the notion that only one person ever comes out a winner.  In music competitions, the winner is hardly ever the person who gets first prize.

31 January 2016

A Congregation of Concertos

Three different concertos with three different soloists in a single concert is not something you experience every day - usually a single soloist embedded in a concert of other things is enough for those who relish the prospect of a single artist battling against the massed forces of a symphony orchestra.  Such a congregation of concertos doesn’t happen very often, and when it does it signifies something very special.  In this case, it was billed as the “Grand Finals” of the Concerto Competition held at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore.

To have passed through the rigours of the preliminary rounds and heats, given the extraordinary amount of solo talent amongst conservatory students, was no mean achievement, and it was well said that, simply being on stage and performing in the Grand Final was indication in itself of all three soloists being a winner.  The rules of competitions are such that an adjudicator is obliged to select a winner, and one was duly selected, but so far as the audience was concerned, the simple pleasure of hearing and seeing so much incredible musical talent was what the evening was all about.  And, as many said to me before the concert, the programme itself was enticing enough to draw in people for whom the idea of a musical completion is anathema (and my next blog post will look a little into that phenomenon). 

The three works were from three composers who were contemporaries of each other, yet whose music is stylistically poles apart.  I was profoundly impressed by how all three of the soloists had thoroughly immersed themselves in the stylistic world of these composers and come out with performances which were convincingly idiomatic.



The most compelling performance, from an interpretative point of view, was that of the Ukrainian violinist Korniev Oleksandr who produced an account of the Sibelius Concerto of rare perceptiveness.  He showed an innate understanding of the work and of the composer’s unique idiom, but more than that he seemed to reveal a level of insight which few, even at the very height of their professional careers, ever achieve. It had that icy bleakness which characterises so much of the music, and, through tiny, subtle touches, revealed a performer for whom the concerto was not so much a vehicle to express his – unquestionably magnificent – technique, but to reveal his deep musical personality.  There was a sense that he associated himself with the very essence of the work; which may, to an extent, have counted against him in that, with a performance so polished and accomplished, one felt that he had nothing more to say.

It was an inspired choice that Singaporean pianist Mervyn Lee made in electing to play Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto.  This was a concerto written for a 19-year-old, and its youthful vigour and high spirits were so fully attuned with Lee’s own 17-year-old psyche, that, as with Oleksandr and Sibelius, it seemed to fit him like a glove.  Lee also made the most impressive visual display on stage.  By wearing a scarlet Chinese tunic he at once showed himself as a performer willing to stand out from the crowd (which is what any concerto soloist must do).  This was certainly a dazzling display of pianistic virtuosity, but more than that, it was an exciting and thrilling delivery of a work which clearly suited the teenage Lee’s entire approach.  His interaction with the orchestra as well as his profound understanding of the work’s character, shone through every bar.  Which, again, may have counted a little against him.  When a young soloist shows such empathy with a work written for a young soloist, there is a slight question hanging over those who hear it; would he do as well in the more mature repertory? 

Singaporean mezzo-soprano Jade Tan Shi Yu faced an uphill struggle from the outset.  There is very limited repertory available for a mezzo-soprano to present in a concerto setting, and in selecting Elgar’s Sea Pictures she was not only moving into musical (and literary) territory to which I suspect she is not instinctively drawn, but she was performing something originally written for the contralto.  This was voice much more popular (and common) in Elgar’s time than it is today. (I wonder whether the social stigma given to smoking may not have something to do with this; the few true contraltos I have ever known have all smoked like chimneys; as have the true basses I’ve worked with – that’s another voice which has fallen out of fashion.) As a result, Tan’s voice lacked the resonance in the lower register which would have afforded her the range of expression and colour Elgar sought.  Yet in compensating for that, she showed a spectacular grasp of the idiom and a hugely intelligent approach to the music which was based more on a consciously artistic approach than an innate empathy with the music itself.  Like the Engineering Professor seated beside me in the concert hall last evening, I find it impossible to hear Sea Pictures without recalling the magical voice of Janet Baker.  Yet Tan revisited the work afresh, put her own take on it, and as such delivered what was, certainly in the adjudicator’s view, the most rewarding performance of the evening, even if it was neither the most perceptive or the most dazzlingly virtuoso.

It’s easy to forget, in the admiration for these three outstanding soloists, that what really made them play so well (apart, that is, form their superlative teachers) was the unfailingly outstanding support from the Conservatory Orchestra which, faced with three quite demanding works, showed a level of professionalism and all-round awareness, which made you forget they were there.  There was no hint of strain or struggle about the orchestral playing – it did what it needed to do brilliantly, and added much of real worth to the overall performance.

And for that, one cannot over-praise the superlative Jason Lai, who reveals in every concert he conducts, a level of musical insight and integrity which never ceases to astonish.  Here, his stylistic perceptiveness was never in doubt, and it was delivered in the calm, unflustered manner by which you just know that he is in total control and that, should anything go amiss, he’ll handle it without breaking into a sweat.  He showed himself an innate Elgarian, blending with infinite precision the various orchestral hues Elgar writes in his opulent score (let’s hear Lai do an Enigma Variations or a 1st Symphony – he’ll be more than a match for the Andrew Davis’s of this world, I have no doubt).  He showed himself to be a thoroughly idiomatic Shostakovichian, gently prodding the touches of satire and pathos in the Concerto and driving it onwards with that persistent, unflagging momentum which characterises everything Shostakovich wrote (something I trace back to his days accompanying silent movies, where you could not stop once the film had started).  And he showed himself an instinctive Sibeliusian, deeply conscious of the sparse harmonic and melodic idiom which calls for an expansive, long-term view which so many other conductors find elusive.


It was a concert of winners, certainly, the biggest of whom was the audience who sat entranced and enthralled throughout an absolutely sumptuous musical banquet.

28 January 2016

Jaap's New Yorker

It is not really the preserve of this blog to follow the movement of personnel in orchestras outside Asia, but the announcement yesterday that Jaap van Zweden has been appointed the New Music Director of the New York Philharmonic does have some implications for the musical life of South East Asia.

Jaap had been Music Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic for the past three seasons and is contracted to remain there until 2019.  There is no hint that he intends to curtail that contract in the light of the New York appointment.

On top of that, he is  half way through a major project to perform and record all four parts of the Wagner Ring cycle in Hong Kong over four years, and if the outstanding quality of Walkure last week is anything to go by, he is not going to drop that at this stage; as one extremely enthusiastic North American critic spluttered afterwards, "On the strength of that performance, he must be the best Wagner conductor in the world!"  An exaggeration, perhaps, and based on the flimsiest of evidence, but one I am in no way inclined to dispute the assertion.

The most significant implication for Asia of Jaap's appointment is the reflected glory and inevitable additional international scrutiny the Hong Kong orchestra is going to experience as a result.  That he has so quickly established himself as one of the foremost conductors in the world speaks volumes for the Hogn Kong Philharmonic's foresight in appointing him in the first place, and if other budding maestros see the Asian orchestras as, not so much a useful stepping stone, as possessing  star-making quality, then it can only be good for the orchestral scene here.

It would be nice to think that orchestras in Singapore, Bangkok and other regional centres might catch some of the kudos Hong Kong has brought on itself.  A succession of worthy but, in all honesty, past-their-prime visiting conductors along with Music Directors who, while growing with their respective orchestras, have minimal international exposure and attract little attention outside the region, is the best most orchestras achieve here.  How nice to be able to say that at least one of them has recognised and, to a small extent nurtured, true star potential.

21 January 2016

Unlocking Mendelssohn

Last night I attended a concert.  Nothing noteworthy about that; indeed, it would be more unusual for me to write that I had NOT attended a concert.

The difference was that I attended this concert not for professional reasons, nor yet because of a sense of duty. None of the performers was familiar to me as a friend, student, colleague or musician, and there was nothing in the programme which particularly enticed me.  I did not go because somebody had asked me or because I was going to be in someone else’s company, and, in truth, being an amateur, student concert, it was the sort of thing I might usually have avoided, especially as it came at the end of a long work day and I was quite keen to go home.  The fact was, though, that having spent my day up to my eyes in music and music-making of considerable professional intensity, I just thought it would be the best way to unwind.  At home I have no television, which would be my customary method of relaxing after a hard day, and my useless internet provider (a company called MyRepublic which I urge all Singaporeans to avoid like the plague) does not offer me sufficient bandwidth (despite their claims to the contrary) to listen to radio online (forget any notion of watching any video content).  A concert of uninspiring trifles played by amateurs seemed the nearest thing I could think of for mindless entertainment.  There was a chance I could just sit down and let the sounds wash harmlessly over me.

Performances were notable for the dedication the student players had put into them, and if the end results ranged from the amusingly bad to the earnestly careful, that was not to belittle the obvious sense of achievement each player showed as they left the stage.  The amateurishness of the event was heightened not only by a programme booklet, which was so full of basic errors as to be a source of great mirth, and a Master (or rather Mistress) of Ceremonies who performed an utterly pointless role.  Why is it that amateur concert promoters in south-east Asia feel the need to call on the services of an MC?  Invariably the MC knows nothing about the event, reads a script with no understanding of the words it contains nor any ability to pronounce them, wholly misunderstands the purpose of the function and generally obstructs the proceedings to the extent that it seems to run on interminably.  Last night’s MC seemed there purely to show off a pretty spectacular blue dress, but with crass phrases like “Let us put our hands together for the players” (replace an L with and R in that sentence, and you have what was always told to us children in church) she had obviously read the Bluffers Guide to Saying Stupid Things In Public.  Fortunately the packed audience of students and friends were far more clued-up than the presence of an MC implied, and they ignored most of her entreaties and listened to the music with rapt attention, supporting the performances with genuine applause. 

It impressed me how much hard work had obviously gone into preparing the performances, and the clear level of concentration every one of the student performers showed and their obvious satisfaction in having achieved their objective of performing on stage to the best of their ability more than amply compensated for the many and obvious musical shortcomings in the performances.  Amateur music making is not about high-level technical delivery or intuitive interpretations, but about effort, determination and commitment, and these all succeeded magnificently, even if I did have a good (private) laugh at some of the more blatant errors.  It all served to make me profoundly glad that I had gone and to regret the fact that I had approached it in a slightly negative frame of mind.

The highlight of the evening was when a group of eight string players did the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet.  It got a deservedly warm round of applause and some genuine cheers  from the audience who, it has to be said, behaved impeccably throughout (as opposed to the ushers who decided that walking around and loudly telling people off for taking photographs during the performance was more important than allowing the rest of us to enjoy the music).  There was a wonderful look of triumph on the faces of the players when they reached the final cadence – as well there should have been.  They did really well.

The thing is, no performance of the Mendelssohn Octet can ever leave me unwound or relaxed.  It stirs something deep inside me which churns my stomach and makes me restless.  On the bus going home after the concert I fidgeted and hummed to myself, much to the irritation of the young lady seated beside me who appeared to be attempting to text the entire contents of the Old Testament in the space of a 20-minute bus ride.  And despite a hefty whisky (or two) back home, any hope of relaxing had gone.  I spent a restless night going over the Mendelssohn time and time again in my head. 

I would never suggest it was one of my favourite pieces, yet I love it in a very deep and intimate way.  And I suppose that love comes from the fact that it is one of a handful of pieces which has, in the past, unlocked internal musical doors for me.  Mendelssohn’s music was among the first I got to know.  As a piano student I played many of his simple piano pieces and his Songs Without Words, while as a young organist I had his Sixth Organ Sonata firmly embedded in my repertory (not to mention the Wedding March and the War March of the Priests ). Yet somehow Mendelssohn was just another composer, pleasant and harmless, occasionally predictable and worthy, but never inspiring, and when I first performed Elijah as a tenor in the university choir, I enjoyed the experience but never really felt affinity with the musical idiom.

But that changed dramatically one Saturday morning when, listening to the Record Review on BBC Radio 3, I heard the reviewer recommend the Nash Ensemble recording of the Mendelssohn Octet.  So persuasive was the reviewer (surely it wasn’t Lionel Salter, but I hear his voice in my inner ear uttering the words) that I went out and bought that record.  On one hearing I was transfixed.  This was the key to understanding Mendelssohn for me.  I listened to it over and over again, and from that moment onwards in every piece of Mendelssohn I came across, I saw a new and inspiring light.  Every composer has his distinct voice, and sometimes you need a work to act as the trigger to unlock your access to that voice.  For me, it was the Octet which opened my ears to Mendelssohn.

It has happened with a few other composers.  Hindemith came alive for me only after hearing the Mathis der Maler Symphony, and for Franck it was the Violin Sonata which opened my ears to what he genuinely had to say.  Other composers – Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Rachmaninov, Messiaen – I locked on to straight away, while for others – Chopin. Liszt, Verdi – I have yet to find that key; and there’s a lot of fun in looking for it.


But the message I take away from this is that, for each individual listener, true access to a composer is often to be found only in one work which, for some inexplicable reason, triggers a reaction deep in their psyche.  We should never say we “don’t like” a composer’s music; instead we should suggest that we have yet to find the work which unlocks that composer for us.  We can’t really dismiss a composer’s music until we have heard everything he has to say.

25 November 2015

Castrated Turkey


There is a large grand piano bearing the legend “FEURICH” in the downstairs section of the CIP lounge in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.  You might assume it gets an airing in the evenings with some light jazz and, maybe, the odd tinkle in late afternoon with some innocuous “light classics”.  Not a bit of it. It plays morning, noon and night (or at least when I have been there between 5 and 8am, 11am and 2pm, and 11pm and 1am).  I don’t play it, nor does any living soul.  It is attached to an automatic player device which seems to have an uninterrupted diet of Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.

It is horrific.

The performances seem to have been prepared by a youngster with a couple of years’ tuition under the belt and a sort of pass at Grade 1, so appalling are they.  But it gets even worse.

In order not to disturb the model Formula 1 racetrack, the banks of TV screens showing different soccer matches simultaneously and the war-like computer games nearby, all of which exude an inordinate amount of noise, it is adjusted so that the sound that emanates from this large instrument has been completely castrated.  It seems to do this by moving the action so close to the keys that it prevents any dynamic above a molto pianissimo and causes a great many notes in passages originally marked piano or less, not to sound.  The effect is a bit like those heavily pixelated images of the Mona Lisa; you can tell what it is supposed to be, but the result is so horribly disfigured that it would be better had it never been born.

If the music was something harmless like Andrew Lloyd Webber or ABBA’s greatest hits, it might be bearable, if it was the already wholly-castrated limpness of Richard Clayderman it might even be an improvement.  But Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt?

It has just played me isolated notes from the Pathétique Sonata.  Most of the slow movement was missing, and as, for some reason, middle C has broken, the rest of it sounds simply ghastly.  I have heard better performances in a diploma exam in Hong Kong (which you can’t often say), and even Beethoven in all his deafness could never have imagined his music sounding so utterly hideous.  What kind of tone-deaf lunatic has not only allowed this revolting thing into the so-called “exclusive” area of an airport is one thing, what criminally insane imbecile allows it to carry on with its appalling musical defacements day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year defies imagination.

There's a similar thing as you undertake the long and gloomy walk through Heathrow Airport's Terminal 2, passing all the notices telling refugees and asylum seekers to turn back and battling with the non-functioning automatic doors and chewing gum encrusted travellators.  At least this one creates the kind of atmosphere the Heathrow authorities want to induce; one of unwelcoming resentment to anyone who has the gall to attempt to visit the UK.  And as you are pushed past it by the press of third world immigrants (most of them, inexplicably, clutching UK passports) you never get the chance to know whether this one has been as savagely castrated as its Turkish counterpart.  But I suspect it has.

I’m all for live music, and even though most of them are unspeakably bad, those pianists called into dribble over the keys in “mood” music in public places usually are able to press the notes down (even if they don’t always get the right ones).  But my most earnest wish after subjected to another 2 hours of this ghastly excrescence is that, far from shooting down Russian warplanes, the Turks looked closer to home and destroyed the most offensive and obnoxious thing they possess; the player-piano in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.

20 November 2015

Shameful Programme Notes

Some weeks ago I was invited to a concert by a major orchestra as part of a programme arranged by a local education ministry aimed at secondary school children and their teachers.  Earlier this week I attended another private concert, also by a leading musical ensemble, this one intended as a celebratory gift to bankers.  Both were outstanding musically and I felt immensely privileged to have attended.  The one for schoolchildren was also a lot of fun, with children allowed on to the stage to peer into the instruments and try out playing the tuba (why is it they always head for the tuba?) and a conductor who was a wonderful communicator explaining what to look out for in the music.  The bankers’ one was a lavish affair with boundless hospitality in the guise of liveried flunkeys floating around with trays of champagne and an amazing buffet spread provided by a leading hotel.  But in both concerts, the lasting effect was badly let down by a silly, stupid and totally pointless act of cost-cutting which reflected badly on both the government ministry and the bank.  Both concerts had provided the audience with a lasting souvenir of the event in the shape of a concert programme booklet, but both had completely negated its beneficial effects by using off-the-peg, cut-and-paste programme notes which were as uneven and carelessly put together as the playing had been polished and immaculately prepared.

Why is it that those whose responsibility it is to provide audiences with programme booklets seem so incapable of understanding what it is they are doing?  A concert lasts a couple of hours at most and leaves an impression on its hearers which quickly fades.  The only tangible reminder of it (unless you keep your ticket stub) is the programme booklet, and this can last a lifetime and bring back vivid recollections of a particular concert. (I kept mine from the very first concerts I attended in the early 1960s until they were all lost in my disastrous house move of 2012.)

British programme books are renowned for costing the earth, filling themselves up with glossy ads for things no self-respecting music-lover would ever want, and squeezing in a couple of hundred words by some academic as interested in the sound of the music as he or she is in who came fourth in the 1978 tiddlywinks championship in Sierra Leone.  American programme books, on the other hand, often have such vast reams of tightly-packed text by some critic or other who expounds at his leisure on the music, the composer and the psychological state of musicians in general, that it is impossible to absorb in one sitting. 

Programme notes veer from the indecipherably analytical (how would any audience feel helped by the comment that “the modulation to the remote sub-mediant enharmonic minor represents a dramatic re-alignment of conventional Sonata Form”?) to the blandly pointless (“the nice tune at the end makes your hair stand up”) by way of the embarrassingly naïve (“I used to play a simplified version of this as a child”) and the awkwardly populist (“it’s Bach’s version of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’”).  Too often any available music enthusiast, academic or orchestral member is called in to write the notes, with little regard for the function they fulfil.  That function is as much publicity and souvenir as it is illumination and education; and how many programme notes manage to combine all that?

What was fundamentally at fault with the ones from the two concerts I attended was that, rather than call in a professional (or even an amateur) writer, they simply took isolated notes from a variety of sources (mostly freely available on the internet) and re-printed them without regard for context.  Thus, in one concert we had, apparently, two different composers - Rachmaninov and Rachmaninoff - while in the other we had a lengthy description of six brief folk dances by Bartok against a terse, brief paragraph on Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Asian schoolchildren were told that the “big tune” in Rachmaninov’s famous 2nd Piano Concerto is “well known to us all from David Lean’s Brief Encounter”, while Chinese bankers read of “lush Romanticism enveloping the skeletal traces of Classical style”.  Both statements are quite true, but do they really resonate with the target audiences?
The answer is no simply because there were no target audiences.  In both cases the notes came from (I assume) sources which had no connection with the event.  Huge amounts of money had been lavished on bringing the orchestras across the Pacific, on hiring halls, on arranging hospitality and visits to schools; yet a shoestring budget was devoted to providing the audience with a worthwhile lasting souvenir of the occasion and a valuable educational support to help these non-specialist audiences comprehend this most mysterious of art forms.

The art of programme note writing is just that; an art. It requires an understanding of the music, the audience and the context of the concert.  The best programme notes draw links and connections between the works being performed and even, where relevant, between the music and the environment familiar to the audience.  It requires an immense knowledge of what the music sounds like – not what it reads like – as well as a huge wealth of facts and figures which can be used to illustrate and illuminate the music to an audience who may or may not have a common interest, but certainly has a geographical and temporal commonality.  It has to be both a guide and a reference source, accessible and literate, it has to be informative yet comprehensible to even the most musically illiterate readers, and it has to reflect the length, the style and the mood of the music; programme notes are usually read before the performance, and the best ones set the mood of the audience to one which is most receptive for the music which follows; and if, by reading the nets, the memory of the music and its moods comes flooding back, then they have achieved their purpose.  All programme note writers worth their salt try to describe the music in such a way that their words instantly bring to mind the sound of the particular piece they are writing about.

With an archive of several thousand programme notes to my name, I often thought about making them available on the internet (at a charge, I hasten to add – my words of flawed wisdom only come free in this blog where they have to be taken with a big pinch of salt), but then I realised how wrong this would be.  If someone wanted to use my notes, I could not let them for fear that they would be used inappropriately.  Frequently I am commissioned to write notes on a work I have written about many times before.  Sometimes I can lift whole chunks from my previous notes to use in the commissioned note, but it never quite works out that I can simply re-present the original note in its entirety.  The note is affected by who plays the music, when they play it, to whom they play it and what else they are playing in the same concert and in the concerts before and after.  I’m not the best, by a long chalk, but I’m infinitely better than the cheapskate cut-and-paste jobs with which so many audiences are obliged to accept. 


I enjoyed both these concerts, but my lasting memory of them is in the form of rather nasty little booklets; and that’s a shame.

16 November 2015

Concert Attire


By a stroke of luck, I caught a programme about André Previn’s association with the BBC just hours before the BBC i-Player took it down.  It was a wonderful trip down memory lane, to the days when mainstream television in the UK devoted peak viewing hours to a programme of classical music performed by the greatest musicians of the time. There was a youthful Janet Baker reminding us that hers, surely, was one of the greatest voices of the 20th century, and an even more youthful Anthony Camden leading the oboe section of the matchless LSO.  Sadly neither of those great musicians is still with us and the LSO is a shadow of its former self.  But Previn remains, albeit older and somewhat more bloated - and his comments on these historic clips from the archives were every bit as fascinating as the archives themselves.  He reminded us just how controversial these programmes were at the time, not because they were “serious” music presented as entertainment, but because of Previn’s own relaxed and informal style.  As he said, he wanted to make the viewers feel at ease, and chose to wear roll-neck sweaters and casual trousers; a dress-code which did not seem to have been allowed to members of the orchestra.  At the time I do remember how outrageous this seemed; conductors wore tails and white bow ties - how could anyone take a conductor seriously who dressed like a normal human being?  Of course, 1970s normal is not 2010s normal, and he looked incredibly stiff and dated in his carefully-manicured relax-ness while the orchestra, apart from astonishing hirsute displays, could have been filmed yesterday, so comfortably familiar did they appear in their formal concert attire. 

From that point onwards, the issue of what musicians should wear for concerts and recitals has become ever more problematic; how easier it all was when nobody questioned the need for musicians to dress in the timeless style of a head waiter or butler.  The introduction of women into orchestras certainly created an awareness of the need to formalize a dress code (in Previn’s programmes, female orchestral players were conspicuous by their absence, although an early appearance of Kyung-Wha Chung brought a moment of restrained elegance), and today there are strict guidelines in most professional orchestras about what women players should wear. 

The only trouble is, they are all different, and as for solo recitals and chamber presentations – not even to go down the road of vocal performances which is an issue too thorny even for this brave blog to tackle – there is no consensus at all.  Search the internet and you will find thousands of different dress codes; indeed, it seems that every school, college, conservatory or teaching studio which has an online presence has its own unique dress code.  My favourite came from one in the US (I saw it, moved on and quite forgot to log which one it was) which stated; “backs, shoulders, elbows and knees must be covered”, although I have to say I admired the delicacy of advice from the Eastman School at the University of Rochester that “Too much bare skin anywhere (décolletage, arms, legs) can be very distracting”.  That seems pretty sound advice, yet how few seem to take it.

I attended a concert on Friday evening where the solo violinist wore a backless dress which exposed so much skin (and the hint of what was once euphemistically referred to as a “builders’ cleavage”) that, clearly, she regretted her wardrobe choice and took the first opportunity to slip of stage and change into something less revealing.  I sat in on some student chamber concerts on Saturday and saw into rather more young girls’ armpits than I care to mention (luckily they had all shaved).  And I will never forget the curvaceous violinist at a concert a few weeks ago whose spaghetti straps so persistently fell off her shoulders, I forgot about the music in eager anticipation of a full-scale wardrobe malfunction; it never came, possibly because, in the interval, it had obviously slipped off altogether and she reappeared on stage in something altogether more practical for the occasion.

As the women strive to turn a musical performance into a fashion statement, so , in our age of metro-sexuality, men, too, feel the need to show that it is they, not the music, which is the centre of attention, and find all manner of weird and wonderful things to wear in a bid to outshine the dull and dreary attempts of Bach and Beethoven to capture our full attention.  One eminent pianist, in an act of absolutely appalling narcissism, actually tells us who his “wardrobe designer” is – as if that has any bearing on the music he plays - while another is so anxious to be at the cutting edge of male grooming that his extraordinary tight clothes physically prevent him from the kind of displays of virtuosity of his peers.  Tieless – even shirtless – jackets, shin-length leggings and weird and wonderful displays of neck have become the norm up top, while at the lower end of the body (the bit that everyone in the front rows of the audience sees) things are even more wildly inconsistent.  I have seen bulky running shoes, flat sandals, flamboyant shoes with more strings than a theorbo, and cumbersome boots which would easily do for a climb up Mt Everest.  The most disgusting thing I have seen was at the chamber concerts on Saturday when one violinist wore shoes without socks, and this sight of his bare ankles heading directly into none-too-clean shoes was really more than my stomach could stand. 

Some might argue that they need to feel “comfortable” on stage; yet comfort easily leads to complacency, and that kills performances.  Others, that formal attire creates a barrier and prevents the audience feeling at their ease; as if listening to a Brahms quintet is “easy”.  Yet formal dress serves a very important purpose.  It visually unifies an ensemble of musicians, and presents them, not as the ultimate creator, but as the servant by whom the creator passes his work on to his consumers.  Do waiters in restaurants wear chef’s clothes?  No; in the highest class restaurants the delineation of duties is clearly defined by their dress.  I can think of no more nourishing role model for a concert than a top-flight gastronomic experience; it’s not coincidence that has musicians wearing the same uniform as butlers and head waiters.  In the world of pop and jazz, there are different attitudes; the performer there is very much the creator.  But in the world of classical music, performers are at the mercy of what they have to perform, and they need to show it to create that sense (subliminal as it may be) of serving the music, rather than promoting themselves.

The wonderful recital diplomas of Trinity College London include an element called “Presentation Skills” in which, among other things, attire is considered and both marked and remarked upon.  The syllabus states that “dress should be of the kind considered appropriate for a lunchtime or early evening recital”.  So far so good, except that, as we have seen, there is no accepted dress code for recitals, irrespective of whatever time of day they take place, and in its typical inability to join up its thinking on a potentially excellent product, Trinity gives no advice or guidance whatsoever either to students or, more seriously, examiners.  At examiner meetings we frequently argued interminably over what constituted correct attire.  The older ones felt nothing short of full white tie and black tails would suffice, while others concentrated on shoes and shoulders, some were adamant that a plastic water bottle taken on stage would warrant loss of marks, others that the very fact that the candidate appeared for an examination warranted 100% in the Presentation Skills section.  It really does come down to the luck of the draw; whatever you wear will be marked according to the examiner’s preference, not a clear unequivocal indication of what is expected.  If your examiner is old, quickly nip off and change into formal uniform, if he’s young, stick to the jeans and torn tee shirt.  And, in typical Trinity style, if you don’t like what is said in the report, send it back and complain; you are almost guaranteed to have your mark raised so terrified is Trinity of upsetting its “customer base”.

There was a time when questions of dress were never raised, and musicians could concentrate totally on their performance.  Thanks to Previn and his roll-neck sweaters, the music too often is overshadowed by the dress.  Can that be right?