16 November 2018

100 Years of Nine Lessons and Carols

It's one of those things which has been around so long that we take it for granted and imagine that it's always been there.

Christmas in our family has never been Christmas until we've heard the annual live broadcast from King's College Cambridge Chapel in Cambridge of the Christmas Eve service of Nine Lessons and Carols.  Memories flood back of Mum busily making mince pies and preparing the turkey in the kitchen of our London home to the accompaniment of King's carols; of sitting in my isolated house in North Wales with the fire crackling in the grate, listening to King's before heading into Bangor for our own cathedral carols; of sitting in my car looking out over Lough Foyle in Ireland as I filled the time between services at the cathedral where I was Organist and Master of the Choristers, not daring to travel home over the border since the BBC FM signal once you had crossed into Donegal was always a bit ropey; of lying in my bed in Sarawak, sweating like a pig in the humidity of an equatorial night, ear pressed to my shortwave radio trying to catch King's which goes out there at around midnight; and particularly of the telephone calls immediately after the broadcast service to my father and to my choir friends and colleagues to discuss the finer points of what each year's service has brought.

I have not always liked what I have heard, but as a tradition and as a moving indicator of stability in an often unsettled world, I treat the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's as something almost sacrosanct.  This year it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Receiving the two-CD anniversary set for review was something I never would have dreamt as a young boy in the late 1950s experiencing the King's magic for the first time, and determining from what I heard to become a cathedral choirmaster myself.  I know now I could never have done it better (or even anything like as well) as the Willcockses, the Ledgers or the Cleoburys of this world, but decades of experience as a critic has allowed me to listen to this objectively, even if, emotionally, it remains an unimpeachable treasure.

Here's my review published this week from MusicWeb International, from whom the disc is available for sale.

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This is a notable year for King’s College Chapel Choir, Cambridge.  It marks their final Christmas under their long-serving director, Stephen Cleobury, who retires next year after 37 years in post, it sees the 90th anniversary of the first BBC broadcast of the Christmas Eve service from the chapel (a worldwide broadcast which has made the chapel choir not just internationally famous but the yardstick against which almost all other choirs are measured), and it celebrates the centenary of the first ever service of Nine Lessons and Carols devised by Eric Milner-White for annual use in the college chapel.  It will not have escaped anyone’s notice that this year also marks the centenary of the ending of the First World War, and the fact that the first King’s carol service was in the month following the signing of the Armistice is no mere coincidence.  As Timothy Day’s fascinating booklet essay on the history of the service makes plain, Milner-White “was fired by his love of this place [and] the horror he had experienced in the trenches”.  Day goes on to illustrate just how vital the annual service has become in creating a sense of unity and hope even in times of great international upheaval, and how iconic, and vital to national identity, the annual broadcast of the service has become.

Although one must assume that many of the BBC broadcasts have long been lost – do there exist anywhere copies of the broadcast made under the directorship of A H Mann (I’d love to sample his “Dickensian drama and vehemence, with pianississimos and fortississimos all over the place”, as Day enticingly describes his style of  conducting), and while I believe a 1954 recording under Mann’s successor, Boris Ord (“with ‘t’s’ and ‘d’s’ synchronised with unerring precision”) is in the possession of the BBC, are there any others? - one assumes most of the broadcasts made between 1957 and 1982 under David Willcocks and Philip Ledger survive.  The first of this pair of CDs has rooted out carols broadcast from King’s in 1958, 1963, 1978 and 1980, as well as seven of the broadcasts from Cleobury’s term in office (1985, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2007 and 2017).  For those of us brought up in the Willcocks era, the fact that just five carols from his broadcasts are included (Ledger is even less well represented, with a mere three from his era) is a disappointment; but perhaps now that the vault has been unlocked, we might have access to more of this priceless archive in the years ahead.

We will all have our minor quibbles about the historical balance or the inclusion/exclusion of certain favourites; while it is good to hear the 1985 broadcast of the premiere of Judith Weir’s excellent Illuminare, Jerusalem there is no shortage of commercial recordings of it sung by the King’s choir, one wonders at the inclusion of Bach’s Passion Chorale to the words “How Shall I Fitly Meet thee?”, against which it would not only have been good to have an “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in any of the various versions broadcast over the years.  And given that this year also marks the bicentenary of the composition of “Silent Night”, it would have been appropriate to have one of the many versions of that popular carol sung by King’s over the years.  But such quibbles should not cloud the sense of sheer delight which courses through everyone’s veins at this generous mining of the archive. 

In the Willcocks era the choir had a wonderfully smooth and richly blended quality (Day rightly describes it as “other-worldly”), perhaps emphasised in these BBC broadcasts; which also serve to remind us of the general ill-health of a nation where smoking was still the norm – it is a long time since I have heard so much unrestrained coughing from a congregation, even in the depths of an East Anglian winter.  It is good to hear the Willcocks descant and re-harmonisations of the last two verses of “O Come All Ye Faithful” sounding fresh and committed from his 1963 broadcast, as well as his glittering arrangement of the Sussex Carol from the same year (the organist, unattributed on the recording itself, would have been, if my memory serves me correctly, none other than Andrew Davis who has gone on to somewhat greater things on the conductor’s rostrum).  From the Willcocks broadcasts, we also have Boris Ord’s “Adam Lay yBounden”, a carol which has been something of a fixture in the annual broadcasts ever since.

Philip Ledger created a sound with rather more edge than Willcocks, and that is beautifully demonstrated in a neat, manicured performance of In Dulci Jubilo, taken from the 1980 broadcast.  His own musical arrangements are restricted to his descant to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (from the 1978 service, and something which has never really broken out from under the shadow of Willcocks’ famous one) and his rollicking arrangement of “I saw Three Ships”, which is included in the second disc of this two-disc set, not taken from BBC broadcasts but recorded mostly in July of this year.

The initial impression from the Cleobury broadcasts was just how feminine the boys sound – in “The Holly and the Ivy”, taken from the 1994 broadcast, the treble soloists sound remarkably like female undergraduates.  But perhaps the most obvious changes documented by this disc is the expansion of the carol repertory through commissions.  In addition to the Judith Weir premiere, we hear specially commissioned carols from Thomas Adès (The Fayrfax Carol, 1997), Bob Chilcott (The Shepherd’s Carol, 2001), John Rutter (Dormi Jesu, 2007), Arvo Pärt (Bogoróditse Djévo, 2007), Michael Berkeley (This Endernight) and Huw Watkins (Carol Eliseus).  In addition, new carols by Carl Rütti (his superlative version of “I Wonder as I Wander” taken from the 2000 broadcast), James Whitbourn (The Magi’s Dream), John Joubert (There Is No Rose) and Richard Elfyn Jones (Adam’s Fall) pay testament to the focus on contemporary Christmas music which has been such a major feature of the King’s legacy in the Cleobury years.  On a personal note, I’m delighted that they have included the jovial arrangement of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” by my former organ teacher, Martin Neary, as well as “Can I not Syng with Hoy” composed in 1972 by that veritable and venerable living legend amongst British organists, Francis Jackson.

There are some duplications between carols taken from the BBC broadcasts and those included on the newly-recorded second disc.  These mostly are in different arrangements – Simon Preston’s virtuoso (for the organist) “I Saw Three Ships” (slightly chaotic in the 1994 broadcast) is countered by Philip Ledger’s on the second disc, while Cleobury closes the second disc with his own descant to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.  But to have Willcocks’ “O Come All Ye Faithful” twice, in performances made over half a century apart, only goes to show just how iconic this has become, and also how significant has been King’s College Cambridge’s contribution to the core repertory of Christmas music.  Without King’s, Christmas just would not be the same, and this wonderful treasure trove of outstanding singing and superlative music making merely scratches the surface of what is a major musical legacy.

12 November 2018

Nobody Loves Music

The Five Foot Shelf is a programme broadcast by the BBC1 in which visitors at a bookshop in the UK are asked to name a book they think would be indispensable on any self-respecting bookshelf.  It’s a lovely idea, and while the original inspiration might have been the five-foot shelf on which an early 20th century president of Harvard placed the volumes which he maintained contained all the knowledge anyone seeking a liberal education would ever need, the modern version finds people making the most weird and wonderful choices. 

Whether or not the books selected by the bookshop visitors (ordinary members of the local community) impart valuable knowledge is not the point.  Here we have a tangible example of the deep affection people have for books; not so much a specific book as books in general.  It seems that many of us have a deep affection, not so much for literature, as for the physical substance of a book.

When we are in town with my 10-year-old daughter, she invariably wants to find a bookshop.  We never ask her what she wants to buy, because we know she simply likes to be surrounded by books.  She, like us and many of the people we know, simply loves books for their own sake – and if they contain something interesting or entertaining, so much the better.

People buy books by the yard to give distinction to their houses and offices, you can buy wall-paper designed to look like shelves of books, and one famous coffee shop I visited in Folkestone in Kent had more books in it than you find in the average public library.  We have a love affair with books, and seem to feel more at ease in their company, whether or not we actually actively engage with them.

Of course, many of us have our favourites; books which we hold particularly dear and which we are eager to share with others.  In my case, the novels of Alexander McCall Smith make me feel good even before I’ve read a word; there’s something I find infinitely soothing in the utter niceness of his characters and his complete love for humanity even at its worst (what other author could create a Glasgow gangster by the name of Lard O’Connor with whom the reader develops such an affection that we regret the day he slips down the stairs of Big Lou’s Coffee Bar in Edinburgh and dies?).  If I hadn’t kept lending copies to friends, I’d have The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom on any shelf along with any of the Scotland Street, Isabel Dalhousie and, especially, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels.  But then would I have room for my Trollope, my Rose Tremaine, my Evelyn Waugh, my Anthony Burgess, my Brian Friel or even my Tolkien?  And that’s before we go to the complete set of Grove which, while available online, does not exist in my consciousness unless I see its physical presence on the shelf.  And I would not like to be without my assortment of Hymnals, Psalters, Ian Allen guides to British Bus Fleets, the children’s stories of Arthur Ransome and William Mayne (to remind me of my youth) or Shakespeare, from whom I can always find some suitable quote when all else fails.

Nevertheless, it seems to be the physical presence of books that we crave and enjoy, rather more than the actual books themselves.  And it is not just the English-speaking world that has this deep-seated affection for books.  Look at the crowds that assemble every time there is a book fair in Hong Kong or Singapore, go into the Chinese and Indian bookshops and see the vast numbers of young people sitting cross-legged on the floor totally engrossed in a book.  We all love books.

But do we have the same affection for music?

You could argue that books embrace the world of knowledge, and to hold a book is to possess the key to that knowledge.  But does not music embrace even more the world of human existence?  After all Victor Hugo told us that “Music expresses those thoughts which cannot be put into words”.  Against that, books surely do not have the same potential as music to resonate deeply with our innermost souls?  By all the laws of logic, we should feel a much closer bond to music than we do to literature.  But we don’t.

As with the relationship between literature and books, so is the relationship between music and recordings, be they the LPs of the analogue age or the CDs of the digital one.  We can attend book readings by authors or fine actors, just as we can attend concerts directed by the composers or performed by great musicians, yet to have our own personal unlimited access to literature through the physicality of a book is important to us.  Is the same true with music? 

Many countries have lost their record shops – there is not a single one left in Singapore, a place which claims to love music – and the days when you could happily pass a few hours simply browsing through shelves of LPs and CDs, maybe even sampling a few, have long gone.  It might be said we buy our music online, but we also buy our books online.  Why, then, do most towns still possess a bookshop or two while few have even a single record shop? Is it because we really do not care about recordings, that we take them for granted or even dismiss them as irrelevant?  Surely for people who claim to love music, the physical representation of that music in recorded form is as much symbolic as it is practical.  We have an affection for books, but we certainly do not have an affection for records.
Why is this?  Is it because the dissemination of recorded music has been so dramatically affected by recent technological developments?  I remember when the CD burst on to the scene in 1983, friends bemoaned the fact that they would “have” to update their recorded libraries by changing all their old LPs into CDs.  Have we simply become tired of adjusting to such technological changes, or lost our interest in good quality recordings in the face of a tide of poor performances badly recorded but with the virtue (if that is what it is) of being free-of-charge?  Or is that, at root, we regard music, not so much as an adjunct to life to be treasured and valued, as something which is so ubiquitous that we do not see any value in preserving it?  Is there just too much music in our society for us to develop a personal relationship with it?

It might be argued that since language is in use every day, that, too, is too ubiquitous to warrant the affection we see in those who love their books.  Yet while everyone uses language, the joy of language in its written form as found in books is the way in which that language is used.  Much to music’s detriment, that, too, is an everyday, mundane object, heard (but by no means listened to) by everybody going about their daily lives.  It often is an irritant and a distraction, rather than pleasure (just as language can be), but it misses that vital step which literature takes in transforming the mundane into the elevated.  What we hear in our supermarket aisles, our hotel lobbies and our aircraft as they taxi for take-off, is the same as what we hear pulsing into our inner ear from the little ear-buds firmly affixed to our digital devices as we move through life, and the same as what we hear when we access online music sites where, at least, we have made the conscious effort to find a specific piece of music.  But what we do not have any more is the ability to assess what we hear critically, or to judge its worth in the company of others.  Music has become a solitary activity in a way which sharing the love of books is not, and while I sometimes enthuse over certain pieces of music and recordings (is there a friend of mine who has not been driven to distraction by my advocacy of Stanford’s Third and Seventh Symphonies, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria van Weber or Telemann’s Suite in A minor as recorded by Il Giardino Armonico – my favourite recording of all time?) what I enjoy more than anything else is having myself surrounded by CDs and other recordings.  When we lost everything a few years back, I could cope without the family photos, the piano, the furniture, the clothes the art works, but I have never come to terms with the loss of my vast record collection – I am busily building it back up now, but with a few thousand CDs compared with the 10,000 plus at the bottom of the Atlantic, the loss still affects me profoundly.

Of course there are significant differences between the relationship between books and literature, and records and music.  Generally, one creative literary outpouring produces one book, whereas one creative musical outpouring can create hundreds of records, each re-interpreting the original creation in a way which often becomes more significant in the ears of the listener than the original creation does.  I have a friend whose obsession with the tempi at which Beethoven symphonies are taken has him collecting every Beethoven symphony recording he can find and analysing the speeds to the exclusion of the original musical message.  I know enthusiasts for the piano who discuss Chopin in terms of how different pianists play his music, rather than what his music is trying to say to us through the pianists.  In short, music enthusiasts are so taken up with the interpretation of music, that they cease to value the creative impetus behind those interpretations.

Classical musicians no longer value recordings in the way they once did.  I despair that students’ critical faculties are numbed by excessive exposure to bad performances, badly recorded, but available free-of-charge and easily through such online portals as YouTube, while in the pop world, most enthusiasts now use the word “see” to refer to a recording rather than “listen”; the visual element of pop recordings not so much the equal of the sound as taking priority over it.  Visible image is important, not aural quality. 

The one exception still seems to be the aficionados of jazz, whose affection for recordings is manifest through what is, to me, the essential musical event of the week; the Saturday braodcast2 of Jazz Record Requests when you hear just how deep the affection is for the physical presence of records amongst enthusiasts.  Like The Five-Foot Shelf. Jazz Record Requests symbolises a level of affection for a physical representation of an art form which we in the classical musical world have lost.


1 For reasons best known to themselves, the BBC have chosen not to add this to their BBC radio i-Player.  But you can find details of it on the Radio 4 page

2 Alyn Shipton’s weekly broadcast is always on the BBC Radio i-Player (Radio 3).  Don’t be tempted to seek it out on BBC Sounds – that is not available in south east Asia.

10 November 2018

TV Themes from the SSO

The Straits Times is having some problems finding space for classical music reviews, so this one only appeared online last Friday.  Here it is for those who do nto subscribe to the Straits Times online edition;

Happy Days – Favourite TV Themes

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Salonga (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Wednesday (7 November)

Marc Rochester

It seems odd to fill a two-hour formal concert by a symphony orchestra with TV theme tunes.  Culled from American and British shows screened, not originally in Singapore, over the past 50 years, these ranged from the sixties hit show Hawaii-Five-O, to the cult cartoon of our own time, The Simpsons.

But what might have seemed like a nostalgic indulgence for the few expat over-60s in the audience who’d spent their adolescence in front of the telly, was actually powerfully engaging for an audience largely made up of young Singaporean families and empty seats.

TV themes are of necessity very short, and to bulk them up, all were presented in arrangements which often added so much baggage that it was not always easy to know what the original theme was.  Dallas sounded more like an out-take from West Side Story, while it took almost 10 minutes of atmospheric rambling before Trekkies got their fix of the iconic Star Trek theme.

Three things transformed this concert into two hours of sheer fun.  The first was the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, clearly having a real ball in repertory they don’t usually encounter (with some awesome percussion playing for Sex and the City).  The second was a quintet of local vocalists who added informality to the proceedings.  And thirdly, and most importantly, Gerard Salonga who, making his conducting debut with the SSO, had clearly won the hearts of the orchestra and established such an easy rapport with the audience, that he seemed more like an old friend than an unfamiliar guest.

Salonga had devised the programme so well that it all ran like a well-oiled machine, but double-act Jack and Rai were on hand to smooth down the few lumpy joins with some easy banter.  They also joined in the singing of the theme song from Friends, along with three other vocalists – Hazrul Nizam, Benjamin Chow and Alemay Fernandez – who had individually added their voices to other theme tunes.

Excellent as the male vocalists were, all were eclipsed physically, aurally and visually (she positively dazzled in a generously-sequined white gown) by Fernandez whose personal command of the stage and of the audience showed us all what real star quality is all about.

The production staff had done their bit to transform the concert hall into a TV studio, bathing the stage in a veritable rainbow of coloured lights, so it seemed unfortunate that the conductor and orchestra were all dressed in their formal white tie and tails (which Salonga cheekily suggested was their “smart causal”).  All became clear in the second half with one of the TV themes they played.  They were not dressed as formal musicians at all, but extras on the set of Britain’s much-loved period drama, Downton Abbey.

06 November 2018

The State of Opera in Singapore

This Friday, I am acting as Master of Ceremonies for the Singapore Lyric Opera's Gala Concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall.  It will feature a host of popular opera extracts sung by soprano Nancy Yuen and tenor Lae Jae Wook, the Singapore Lyric Opera Chorus and Children's Choir, and with the Singapore Lyric Opera Orchestra.  By a strange coincidence, yesterday a group of students doing a project asked me to answer four questions about opera.  It struck me, having answered their questions, that perhaps their questions had a wider resonance outside their project, so I thought I would publish their questions and my responses.  I would hope that, for my sake and theirs, some opposing or additional views might be added from others!

  1. Given the varying definitions of western opera we found online, such as a genre of classical music or a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, is there a true definition of what opera is?

If you have found a definition of “Western Opera”, it is wrong! There is no such thing as “Western Opera”.  So far as I can see, the term originated from an anonymous Wikipedia contributor and has been adopted by those for whom Wikipedia is a prime source of information.  Opera is an art form derived from Ancient Greece and revived in the Italian Renaissance. In essence it is a dramatic staged presentation involving representative visual and aural elements involving some or all of the following; speech, movement (action, dance), music, dramatic gesture and scenery.  The notion of “Western Opera” seems to derive from a confusion over the use in Renaissance and post-Renaissance opera of “Western Music” (ie. music disseminated by means of a notational system derived in Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries) and the rise of “imitation” operas in other cultures combining traditional musical and dramatic elements with Opera (in the Greek sense).  Correctly, there is Opera and its derivatives which include Peking Opera (which dates back only to the late 18th/early 19th centuries) and Carnatic Opera (which is an even more recent creation).  Singing is not essential in opera, although music in one form or another is an integral element.

  1. What is the difference between opera and musical?
The growth of Opera since the Renaissance has seen various subdivisions evolve.  These include Opera Seria (tragedy), Opera Buffa (comedy), Singspiel (characters speak as well as sing) and Operetta.  This last was devised in Paris during the 19th century and was taken up with enthusiasm in late 19th /early 10th century Vienna.  Operetta focused more on visual than aural elements, with dance an integral part of this.  It also preferred to be based on humorous and light-hearted stories, or those of a serious nature treated semi-seriously.  Many of the leading Operetta composers in early 20th century Vienna were Jewish, and with the rise of Austrian Nationalist sentiments (defined by the growth of the Nazi political party) they fled mostly to the United States.  The burgeoning Hollywood movie industry had created an appetite among the domestic audience for “live” theatrical presentations which were visually spectacular and colourful (Hollywood movies were then monochrome) as well as aurally vivid (Hollywood soundtracks were limited by primitive recording and suppression techniques).  The émigré Operetta composers recognised this potential, and adapted their Operetta styles to meet the American demands for such lavish musical shows.  Broadway in New York became the theatrical homeland of these shows, which, because the emphasis lay primarily on visual and aural effect, with dancing at least equal, but often dominant to vocal elements, was no longer called Operetta, but became its own opera subdivision, Musical.

  1. Is there a clear line draw between opera and other forms of music?
Yes.  Opera combines elements, most of which are not to be found in other musical forms; for example, dramatic presentation (action, costume, scenery).  Musically, modern opera emphasises vocal prowess in solo and ensemble activity, in a way not to be found in any other musical genre.

  1. How has the western opera scene in Singapore evolved over the years?
I am conscious of a relatively active Peking Opera scene in Singapore, but beyond this Opera is basically alien to the Singapore arts scene.  Various amateur companies have attempted to create a base for Opera here – the most successful of which are the Singapore Lyric Opera and L’Arietta Opera – but none is able to sustain anything beyond an occasional performance.  There are theatres (Victoria and Esplanade) able to stage full operatic productions, and L’Arietta in particular have experimented with opera productions outside traditional theatres, so this is not the issue.  What is the issue, is the economic viability of staging opera in Singapore.  Even Hong Kong, where Western Music is far more advanced and embedded within the domestic population than in Singapore, cannot sustain professional opera companies.  Costs are inflated considerably because the expertise for staging and singing opera is found only overseas (because there is no effective training ground for such skills here), and since staging an opera is not like putting on a concert where a performance can be made viable after just a few hours’ rehearsal in situ, such skilled individuals need to be brought over for many weeks at a time.  On top of that opera requires vocal techniques few, if any, Singaporean choirs possess.  Some pocket productions (notably by L’Arietta) have encouraged Singapore composers to write mini-operas, but with the dual limitations of restricted skill sets from the performers and a demand for local interest stories from the native population, such new local operas must remain relevant only to Singapore with its tiny market for any kind of musical presentation. So, in my view, the opera scene in Singapore has not so much failed to evolve over the years as never really existed in the first place.  

As a postscript, I would add that I believe that  Opera is alien to Singapore – but that is a state of affairs I regard as being neither a bad thing nor something which needs addressing.  We are too small to accommodate professional opera, and those with a taste for opera now have unlimited access to performances of it - which far exceed in quality anything Singapore could ever hope to stage - through recordings and the vast resource of filmed and live transmissions from major opera houses around the world online.  We do not train opera musicians here, and were we to set up an opera school, I doubt it would attract students of sufficient quality to warrant the investment required.  Musically in Singapore we have our own skills which are manifest in one of the most active Western Musical scenes anywhere in south east Asia.  I do not think we need to add another string to our already well-filled bow.

And as a final postscript.  Can I point you in the direction of the Grand Gala Concert being staged by Singapore Lyric Opera this Friday evening at the Esplanade.  I think you will find in it the best we can realistically expect from today’s Singapore opera scene – small extracts from major operas presented in a concert setting.


22 October 2018

Professionals Play them, but can the Public Sing them?

There's a seminar coming up for organists in Singapore on the art of accompanying hymns.

It is certainly something that needs to be taught and, indeed, something which needs serious consideration; and while it's something I do cover in my organ classes, I am aware that for many organists it is seen as an insignificant part of their art.  When there are Trio Sonatas to learn and French Toccatas to master, learning how to play a sequence of simple four-part chords over and over again must seem very mundane.

Yet, for church organists (and, despite the fact that this is a dying breed, it still represents a majority of those who play the organ) it is not so much their core repertory as the most important thing they do.  Hymns are the musical lifeblood of sung Christian worship and are, for many people, their sole exposure to live music-making.  Ask people if they sing and they will tell you that they don't "other than in the shower" - yet those same people often sing hymns each Sunday at church.  The problem is they do not equate the singing of hymns with either music or the physical art of singing.  In short, hymns, despite their ubiquity in church life, are usually treated with the same inconsequence as breathing : we all do it, so what's so special about it? 

In my days as a cathedral choirmaster and organist, hymns were chosen with great care (it was my task to choose them), paired with appropriate tunes, and rehearsed over and over again.  The presentation of a hymn within the cathedral service was approached with all the seriousness of a professional performance.  I knew the hymn lists for the past years, and when I introduced a new tune or hymn, I would ensure that the congregation was properly led by a full verse play through and a strong solo stop for the first verse or two.

When I visit my father's church in England, hymns are the high point of each service.  They are robustly sung by the congregation, aware that the church's once spectacular choir has just about ceased to exist and determined to make good the vocal shortfall.  The organist throws his all at them, often adding a gloriously theatrical flourish to the final verse, registering each verse independently, tracing the texts word by word as he accompanies them, ensuring the music follows the same punctuation patterns and taking care to single out the melodic line in cases where the tune may not be too familiar to the congregation.

Here in Singapore, however, a combination of the pervasive influence of the American protestants and their obsession with populism, and a determination to expunge the last vestiges of Colonial influence, has led to a collapse of hymnody even in the established churches.  Worship songs, with their mawkish lyrics, their unsingable melodies and their self-indulgent music support groups which enjoy the weekly opportunity to dust off their electronic devices and pretend to be fifth-rate failed rock-bands, have become the norm.  Traditional hymnody, known (if not necessarily loved) by all, has lost its ability to unite a congregation musically through a shared knowledge of tune and words.

The church I regularly attend in Singapore still trots out a traditional hymn or three at each service, but rarely with the original words and never in their entirety.  If we get two verses of a great hymn we are lucky - usually it's just one with a heavily simplified text.  As a result as I lustily sing out from my seat in the congregation, I am aware that all around me is silence.  One or two earnest people join in, but the vast majority stand there as spectators, possibly thinking it is the job of the choir to do the singing while all they need do are the hand gestures.

I am conscious of an embarrassment when it comes to hymn singing.  People don't like to sing in public and they find the texts difficult.  My father's favourite hymn includes the words "Consubstantial, Coeternal" - words which roll off the tongue but whose meaning is only revealed after much thought.  Why do we aim for the easy, when the difficult has much more lasting impact?  How many people after a service greet the priest at the church door and ask for an explanation about an obscure phrase in one of the hymns?  When that happens, enlightening conversations on key parts of liturgy and faith can quickly ensue to the benefit of all.

So, if we are to preserve the vital art of public hymn singing and, possibly, revitalise it, we do need to teach our organists how to accompany hymns.  Accompanying hymns involves a deep knowledge of the texts and their meanings, and organists should read and recite the words before they look at the music.  Accompanying hymns involves knowing what the congregation expects, and being able to lead them along new paths - it's a different skill showing someone the way when you already know it but they do not, than it is accompanying them on a path they know well themselves.  And accompanying hymns involves inspiring and colouring through imaginative and fluent use of the organ's resources.  A few drum effects added and the odd electronically-induced bass note simply serves to distract, not enhance; so when it comes to hymns, get rid of the supernumerary instruments.

I shall not be around for the seminar, but I wish it well; and if it both encourages an increase in awareness of the value of hymnody as well as the quality of its performance, it will be time well invested by those who attend.

What it will not teach, sadly, is how congregations should sing hymns.  Perhaps we are  overdue for a few seminars on this.  Having discarded our heritage of hymns, it will take a lot of work to claw it back.  But it will be work well spent.  A few sessions on historic hymns and their value and relevance to today's church-going society would not go amiss.

17 October 2018

Ban the "Customer Review"

What do these pictures have in common?  Read on...


Some years ago I worked as an occasional hotel inspector.  Not a full-time job, nor even one which can ever be put on to my CV, but in the days when one of the big sellers in any bookshop was the clutch of annual hotel guides giving clear, detailed and objective assessments of a huge range of hotels, I was one of the people who helped decide which hotels warranted inclusion.

Hotel guides in those days were complex, professional things.  A minimum of three separate inspectors visited every hotel listed, and cumulatively provided impartial and objective assessments aimed at making the bewildering choice of which hotel to stay in a trifle less bewildering.  All three inspectors had a very different but professional relationship with the hospitality industry, and from their various perspectives, were able to form valid opinions on each establishment.

The first tier (of which I was a part) were ordinary members of the public who, by virtue of their full-time work, spent at least 100 nights every year in hotels.  My work as an ABRSM examiner at the time meant that I was averaging 160 nights every year in hotels the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.  While going about our normal work, setting off each day from the hotel after breakfast, going back to work and relax in the hotel room, eating in the restaurants, drinking in the bars, and possibly sampling other facilities, we had to complete detailed questionnaires which then went to the editorial office.  We stayed in a completely random array of hotels, were never told where to stay, and were under strict instructions never to tell the hotel what our “undercover” role was.  I signed a document agreeing to total secrecy about my role – which lapsed long ago when the publishers of the Guide went bust and Hotel Guides in general disappeared from the bookshelves, pushed out by a plethora of free online review sites. 

The next tier were people with a background in the hotel industry (often hoteliers themselves) who went back to the hotels we had recommended, again completely anonymously, and appraised them from a professional point of view.  After checking out and paying their bills, they would then introduce themselves to the hotel and arrange for a site visit from one or more professional inspectors.  These would get access to all parts of the hotel, and would then compile the final report which would determine the hotel’s star rating.  It was most satisfying when one saw one’s original recommendation being included in the next annual edition of the Guide.

Hotels aren’t assessed that way anymore.  The ubiquitous TripAdvisor relies on frequently biased and interested amateurs posting their unverified and unvetted opinions, and gormless, gullible readers assuming these postings are definitive, professional reviews.  My only direct contact with TripAdvisor came after a horrendous stay in a London Travelodge when I wrote a stern letter to the Manager, who then invited me to complete a Questionnaire.  I pulled no punches in my castigation of his hotel, and did not bother to mark the box about my review being shared on TripAdvisor (I assumed the hotel would not be stupid enough to post such a negative review into the public domain, and I certainly would never have dreamt of doing any such thing myself).  Lo and behold, it apparently popped up on TripAdvisor and I received (and continue to receive) unsolicited mails from them telling me how many people have been influenced by my review, and inviting me to write more. Never!  I think I’d rather stick my head in a bucket of quick-drying cement and ask my friends to video my suffering and upload it to YouTube.

The issue is that with the immediacy and openness of internet review sites, the legitimacy and quality of reviews is not so much compromised as completely negated.  When any idiot (myself included) with no knowledge or understanding of the issues involved, and perhaps a personal axe to grind or a direct personal relationship with the subject of the review, can present a review as if it were authoritative, and thereby influence the decisions of others, reviewing loses all credibility.

A student comes to show me his “reviews” on Amazon, Facebook, and the like, and I ask him why he bothers.  His response is that several thousand people have already read his review and “liked” it (I think several million would “like” my bucket of quick-drying cement stunt, but that does not validate it).  I have a friend who, largely unable to get out due to a disability, spends his time trawling through YouTube posts and writing rude and offensive “reviews” on them; his argument is that if these people are so stupid as to upload their miserable attempts at making music into a public arena, they must face the consequences.  And I rather sympathise with that.

My student bemoaned that some people wrote such hostile things about him after reading his reviews.  “Why do they do it?” he wailed.  The answer is simple.  Anyone who posts a review on an unregulated forum has to accept that such an arena for opinion warrants unvetted responses.

Professional reviews (be they of hotels or music) have the armour of legitimacy behind them; they are written and edited by trained and experienced individuals who have an obligation to uphold impartiality and authority.  If people wish to criticise what we have written, they are welcome; because we know our personal opinions are valid and considered.  We cannot say that about reviews appearing on unedited, unregulated and uncontrolled media.  The time has now come for sensible people who care about music to demand an end to these absolutely pointless “customer reviews” on free internet sites; they serve only to undermine the validity and quality of good reviewing.

Soon the idea of the music reviewer will go the same way as the hotel reviewer; forget impartiality, knowledge and experience, let’s celebrate bias, ignorance and amateurism. If the old idea of an edited review presented in printed form is a dinosaur, all I can say is that the posted opinion on the internet is the meteor which wiped them all out and allowed the world to be regenerated (according to some scientists) by cockroaches and rats.

16 October 2018

Western Classical Music - National or International?

A letter published in yesterday’s Singapore Straits Times once again raised the unfortunate spectre of musical nationalism. 

Musical nationalism was a feature of late 19th century music, when it was used as a means of countering what was seen as German Musical Imperialism in the run up to, and subsequent creation of, the unified nation of Germany.  The elevation of German composers (Bach, Haydn, Beethoven) to the stature of Greats by German philosophers and critics, as well as the establishing of German musical ideologies as pre-eminent by German music scholars, still govern our general perceptions of Western Classical Music.  Attempts by composers including Dvořák, Grieg, Sibelius, Bartók and others to create non-German nationalist voices within Western Classical Music, only succeeded in distinguishing their own music, and did little to offset the encroaching Germanisation of music during the 20th century.  The fact that we also hold up as musical heroes of the 20th century a trio of Germanic composers (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern) whose lasting legacy has been minimal to all but a few die-hard anti-populist composers is surely just another symptom of this issue. 

In his essay National Music the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, poured scorn over the idea of music being an international language, and suggested that it was the job of composers to celebrate their nationality in their music.  He wrote that essay in 1934, as the spectre of Nazism and nationalism was taking root in Germany, and was attempting to dilute the stranglehold German ideals seemed to have over music at the time.  Consciously or otherwise, the idea of promoting one race and culture above another fell out of fashion in music, if not in all national leaders’ ambitions, after the Second World War.  So we revisit the idea at our peril.

Superficially the letter in the Straits Times seemed innocuous enough.  A sub-editor had given it an enticing headline (“Do more to support local Western classical musicians”) and the letter writer herself bemoaned the lack of interest and negative attitudes towards Western Classical Music amongst most Singaporeans; something with which no musician here could possibly disagree.  What harm can there possibly be in calling for Singapore to support those of its citizens who aspire to a career in music?

Unfortunately, the letter was couched in terms which appealed (understandably) to other Singapore citizens, and seemed to hint that, within Singapore, the presence of foreigners undermined the credibility of native Singaporean musicians.  We read that “although the [Yong Siew Toh] Conservatory is located in Singapore, it is shocking to find that the majority of students there are not Singaporeans”.  This is factually incorrect, but the sentiment that prompts that statement is shared by many not just in Singapore but in many of its near neighbours who also boast a bourgeoning Western Music presence.  And that is extremely dangerous, for it promulgates nationalism and isolationism.

Perhaps Vaughan Williams was wrong in his dismissing the concept of music as an international language, or perhaps he was (as I suspect) merely provoking debate in an issue which concerned him deeply, but I believe that in our time Western Classical Music can ONLY survive if we recognise and celebrate its internationalist credentials.

Look at any of the world’s major symphony orchestras; there is not one which does not have at least one (and usually many more) visibly Asian players in its ranks.  The great conductors and composers of the world are drawn from every continent and ethnicity; in the last year alone I have attended orchestral concerts conducted by Taiwanese, Filipino, Indian, Chinese, Singaporean, Australian, New Zealand, Swiss, Finnish, Estonian, Russian, Dutch, German, French, British, Brazilian, Canadian and American conductors and heard music by African, European, Asian, Australian and South and North American composers; not deliberately, I hasten to add, but by the simple accident of attending a Western Classical Music concert.  In music, we take internationalism in our stride, and to crave for something more nationalist is to crave for isolationism.

We had exactly this issue with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, and it almost killed it.  Our appallingly weak CEO was summoned to explain why the orchestra, which called itself Malaysian, comprised mostly non-Malaysian players.  I urged her to counter that with the observations that the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix featured no Malaysian drivers (well it did for a brief time, but he did not survive the heat of professional competitive racing), Malaysian Airlines owned no Malaysian aircraft, and looking further afield, Manchester United Football Club fielded no native Mancunians (and at the time, no native English) while not a single Chelsea player came from Chelsea (or anywhere close by).  That did not stop them identifying with the place of their name and, indeed, the very fact that the best in the world were attracted to these locally-based organisations, immeasurably elevated the prestige of these places in the eyes of the world.  As Tan Sri Azizan, the founding father of the Malaysian Philharmonic, said on more than one occasion, he did not want the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra to showcase Malaysians, but to showcase Malaysia to the world as a place which could attract the very best in their field.

So it is with Singapore and its educational institutions.  Yes, they do have an obligation to focus on the education of their local people, and it is right that Singapore students are given priority in being offered places in tertiary and specialist education institutions.  But is it not also right a Singapore educational institution ought to attract students (and staff) from all around the world?  This, surely, adds immeasurably to its prestige, and reflects well on both its students on Singapore.  How better do local students benefit in education than from being exposed to ideas and concepts from cultures with which they would otherwise have little direct connection?  And how much more advantageous it is for local students to claim to have studied at an institution which has a world-wide reputation for attracting the very best students and staff?

There is an argument to be made (although not one to which I wholeheartedly subscribe) that, in terms of education, national isolation has some relevance in helping create a unified citizenry.  This is especially relevant in a place like Singapore where the citizenry is ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse.  But this can never be the case with the teaching of Western Classical Music at tertiary level, where the cross-fertilization of creativity and interpretative nuances feeds into the larger body of music as a truly international language.

By all means change attitudes of Singaporeans towards Western Classical Music, but do not do it by calling for exclusive and isolationist barriers to be put up, fencing Singaporeans in and keeping foreigners out.  Singapore is demeaned by calls for national musical identity in the face of international credibility.