17 August 2017

The End of Music

An illustration by Mark Stamarty taken from Culturebox
Predictions have never been my strong point.  It seems that just about everything I have predicted has not come about.  In the past, this has caused me some embarrassment and a considerable amount of bruised pride, but with my latest prediction, I earnestly hope that I am proved wrong.

I predict the demise of music.  One day, not in my lifetime, possibly not in that of my daughter, but quite probably in that of her children and certainly by the time of the subsequent generation, music will have become extinct.

Naturally, I need to define what I mean by music before explaining why its destruction seems to me inevitable.

By music I do not mean musical sounds – those accidental noises, not necessarily originating from mankind, which seem to us to have a musical quality – but that art form which, ever since the earliest of human civilizations, has been used for the gratification, inspiration and entertainment of man and involves pre-meditated combinations of pitch and/or rhythm and which is disseminated by means of sound.  Today we may talk about Folk, Pop or Classical music as distinct genres – as, indeed, they are – but my prognosis sadly refers to all of those.

To understand why I believe it is in terminal decline, we need to look both at history and at Man’s relationship with the environment.

History first.  Although few today realise this, music was not part of most people’s lives until about a century ago.  For the vast majority of the world’s population, music simply just did not exist until the invention of recording.  Before that, if you wanted to hear music, you had to make a sacrifice, and one which only a few were either able or prepared to make.  You had no control over what you heard, you had to make a conscious decision to hear music, you needed to travel to a specific location where music was being performed, and in most cases you had to devote considerable personal resources both to reach the location and then to gain entry.  Music did not happen every day, and your exposure to it was determined by forces beyond your control.  Christians usually had access to music at worship in their churches, but only a very small percentage of the world’s population were Christians, and few other religions used music to the same extent in worship.  

Going back still further in time, music was denied to all except the aristocratic or religious elite, and going even further back, it was seen as the sole possession of rulers and gods.  (I have never subscribed to the romantic notion that peasants were routinely entertained in the fields by roving hordes of travelling musicians – for this to have happened, it seems to me, there would have been so many travelling musicians that there would not have been any peasants left to work the fields!)  So, for most of human history, music was an irrelevance.  Those ridiculous people who claim they cannot live without music should know not only that they can, but that their ancestors most certainly did; the absence of music did them no harm whatsoever.

As for our relationship with our environment, we have seen – in my own lifetime – the destruction of much of our natural world.  Species become extinct, natural habitats are destroyed, pollution poisons rivers, seas and land, and as climate changes, our very existence seems to be under threat.  In all of these cases, much of the harm has been done by man’s complete indifference to the environment.  We have plundered natural resources without regard to their sustainability, we have damaged the atmosphere without thinking of the long-term consequences, and we have hunted, fished and slaughtered with an abandon which has outstripped the abilities of animal and fish stocks to regenerate.  In short, we have been in grave danger of destroying our environment simply because we have taken it for granted. 

Unlike most natural resources, music is not a finite resource.  But it is an abstract one, and as such possibly needs more care and attention because we do not really know where it comes from or what it is.  We only know our own intellectual and emotional responses to it without fully understanding what its true nature is.  Yet we still take it for granted and, unable to see the parallels between Man’s relationship with the environment and Man’s relationship with music, are heedlessly heading down exactly the same path.  Our indifference to music, our assumption that it needs no protection and our simple taking it for granted will finish it off before we are really aware of what is happening.

Today, unlike 100 years ago, music is all around us.  We cannot escape it.  It is used as a tool to make us buy, to help us eat, to calm our nerves, to get us excited, to make us change our emotional state, to encourage us to spend money, to spur us on to dance and move.  It is used to exercise our intellectual and motor skills.  It is used as a game, a competitive sport, as a recreation activity and as a background to onerous tasks.  In short, music has become all things to all men, and in so doing has lost its very raison d’être.  Music is now used as a substitute rather than something in its own right.  And, as with any substitute, it can just as quickly and comprehensively be substituted by something else.  Once music is used as an adjunct rather than an object, it no longer has any purpose and its survival hangs on a knife edge, ready to collapse as soon as something new comes along able to take its place.

Even today, as we ask young people about music, we learn from their responses that music no longer has anything unique about it.  They will talk of “seeing” music; a generation raised on music as being a visual stimulus can no longer listen to music without the benefit of visual images, and there has been a marked change in music as perceived as being accompanied by images to images perceived as being accompanied by music.  They will talk of music as being “emotion”; yet emotion exists without music.  And many will say that music helps them work, relax or think, activities which can easily be undertaken without music.  If, for them music does not exist in its own right, how long before they recognise the irrelevance of music and replace it with something else?

Until that disastrous year of 2012 when I lost all my worldly possessions, I had a collection of many thousand sound recordings.  People used to ask me why I had so many and that, surely, I did not need so many nor even have a chance to listen to them all.  I used to come up with what I thought was a pretty good response, and even now, as my CD collection has risen, once again, well into four figures, I excuse its enormity by suggesting that I can listen to anything I want, when I want, and, for my professional purposes, have access to just about every piece of music I might need to refer to.  Similar arguments are put forward by those who build up ridiculously huge playlists or who cannot travel any distance without access to a music-sharing device.  Yet I, like them, am guilty of abusing music, of treating it as a commodity which I need to have access to at any time of day or night.

Music is not a commodity, it is a luxury which, treated properly, can enhance our lives in a way no other thing can.  But like a dependent drug, initially taken to alleviate a medical problem, continued reliance on it to the point of addiction negates its value and leaves us open to a recurrence of the problems for which it was originally taken as a palliative.  The parallel between music and addictive drugs is one which we should not ignore.  Look around at the people on trains, planes and buses; are they not all totally addicted to music as ingested by means of digital devices and small white leads plugged into the ears?

By taking music for granted, as we do, and by using it for purposes and to achieve ends it was never intended to satisfy, we are risking losing it altogether.  Once its unique purpose is lost, it becomes valueless.

Is there a solution? Can we ensure music is restored to its place as a unique art form rather than a ubiquitous accompaniment to life?  I think there is, but one which is so unpalatable that it will, surely, never be adopted.

I suggest one international music-free day.  24 hours during which it will be impossible to listen to, hear or have any exposure to music.  Most of our radio channels will close, shops, hotels and transport hubs will cease to function, gymnasia and other sports arenas will be emptied and major multi-national companies will see their share values plummet.  The more you think about losing music for a day, the more profound the repercussions are.  Yet that in itself is symptomatic of our wholescale abuse of music.  How has something so elevated, special and unique reached a point whereby it props up just about every human activity?

Music MUST be valued and our exposure to it limited, if it is to survive for future generations.

14 August 2017

Vulgar Music

(photo courtesy of Straits Times)
It was good to be back in the pews at Singapore’s Cathedral of the Good Shepherd on Sunday after a four-month absence.  In the UK I had access to the most spectacular buildings, the most superb choirs and some of the most uplifting and inspiring music, but there is still something warm and homely about the Good Shepherd, and Peter Low’s marvellous choir is always a joy to hear, irrespective of the music they sing.  Sunday morning’s Mass included some lovely items; most notably the Sanctus and Benedictus from Schubert’s Deutsche Messe – an object lesson in sublime musical simplicity – as well as a couple of gorgeous hymns, Repton (although an inserted verse had me in fits with the strange phrase “Temptous Seas” – suggesting that Peter had stepped out of the boat allured by the tempting water rather than appalled by its tempestuousness) and Jerusalem, used somewhat incongruously as a setting for words about “a new song” but which proved to be a gloriously invigorating start to the service.  I do miss a concluding organ voluntary which would send the congregation out on a high, especially as the Good Shepherd boasts a very fine organ, but I suppose there are good reasons for this which a simple musician cannot be expected to appreciate.  The absence of an organ voluntary does, however, allow an immediate upsurge in conversation among the congregation as they head towards the doors, and I got caught up in one of these as I left on Sunday.

I was reminded that on a previous occasion I had suggested that some of the music sung at Mass was “vulgar”, and I was asked what I meant by the word.  That caught me up short.  How often we use a word to hang a whole range of ideas on without really thinking about the word itself.  I know what I mean by “vulgar music”; but does anyone else?

“Vulgar music” implies for me Street Music, or the kind of innocuous musical sounds which impinge on our daily lives without any requirement for us to exercise our brains to process what we hear; not so much easy listening, as brainless absorption of unexceptional musical noises.  But others have a very different perception of the word “vulgar” as applied to music.

There are clear dictionary definitions of “vulgar”, many of which veer towards the concept of “rude”, “indecent” and “sordid”, but I see it, when applied to music, more along the lines of “tawdry”, “unrefined” and “kitsch”.  In short, the word’s definition spreads so widely that to use it loosely is a pretty pointless exercise, and I apologise for having done so.  But how, then, should I explain why some of the music I hear in church is, to my way of thinking, wholly objectionable when it is deliberately designed to be harmless and innocuous?

The Roman Catholic Church, more than any other Christian denomination, can look to centuries of musical tradition which have yielded up some of the very greatest and most inspiring artistic creations man has ever produced.  In the service of the church, composers have drawn from the deepest wells of their skill, creating magnificent music intended expressly for the glory of God and the inspiration of those who hear it.  Their driving force was always a desire to produce the best in praise of their Creator.  The modern-day idea that serving God through music simply involves taking what is popular in the streets, bars, clubs and brothels of every day existence, was anathema.

That all changed in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II in the early 1960s.  Coinciding with a general loosening of public morals and the explosion of Pop culture (not for nothing is the decade still referred to as the “Swinging Sixties”), the church’s decision to dispense with some of its hallowed traditions – notably the abandonment of the ancient language of the church, Latin, and the shattering of the mysteries of the Mass by turning the priests round so that they showed the congregation what they were doing rather than keeping it hidden from sight – seemed to open the door for a complete relaxation of standards across the board.  That, as Pope John XXIII put it, the church needed to let in some fresh air, was obvious; but as is so often the case, give an inch and people take a mile, and the repercussions of Vatican II led to an almost total abandonment of the high artistic standards which up to that point had permeated all church music.

One of the joys at the Good Shepherd is that they happily use Latin and invoke the musical traditions of the church by frequent use of plainchant, which is easily woven into the fabric of the service greatly assisted by the consummate skill of the choir in performing it.  But alongside this, they often regurgitate nasty, tasteless and wholly inappropriate street music presumably in the misguided belief that “it’s what the people like and experience in their daily lives, so let’s bring it into church”.

That is an attitude which destroys the whole fabric of church music, the purpose of which should be to uplift, reflect and inspire on the great principles of faith – not to serve as a sordid accompaniment to bland utterances of simplistic notions of peace, happiness and joy.  An act of religious worship should take people beyond the drudgery of their daily lives and into a spiritual place way beyond their normal existence.  The function of music is to make that journey easier, not to keep us firmly rooted to our daily existence.

30 May 2017

Black Sheep Dining

My picture shows a delightful pub nestling in the Kent countryside which I chanced upon taking the backroad from Canterbury to Dover - the Black Sheep in the tiny village of Kingston.  It is as lovely inside as out, it has very pleasant and courteous staff, a charming village atmosphere, sells outstanding beer (as it should - this used to be Hop Country) and sumptuous food.  I had a matchless pint of Doom Bar (true, Cornish beer rather than Kentish, but my all-time-favourite tipple and something never to be ignored when it is in attendance) and a fish pie of such utter gorgeousness that I shall never be able to face one again with the same anticipation.  Bursting with the most beautifully fresh salmon, haddock and prawns as well as oodles of smoked fish and a topping of nicely chopped new potatoes, glorious cheddar cheese and a nicely runny poached egg.  Mmmmmm!

It was one of those interminable late May evenings which seem to hover on the brink of sunset but never quite get there.  It was a peaceful Sunday, bursting with the promise of a summer, bees buzzing in the flowers, the fields of wheat ripening even as you looked at them, and one of those magical breezes which waft in through the open window and seems to cleanse the very air it passes through.  I avoided the bustling bar and sat in a quiet back room where the only other patrons was a trio of ladies of mature years, one of which seemed to be a long-term local originating from America.  With its typically English pub-style mix of furniture - IKEA-self assembly tables, oddments picked up in various antique  shops, strangely domestic pieces and everything celebrating the once trendy fad for stripped pine - the room was hugely comfortable, there was a  vast pile of logs by the open fire (which contained just a single candle to avoid it looking too empty) and all in all, I could not wish for anything better.  I'd spent a lot of my early youth in this part of the world and felt utterly at home.

But I doubt that I will visit the Black Sheep again.  For all its visual effort to create the archetypal English pub, it destroyed it utterly with ghastly, inappropriate and offensive music from which no escape was possible.  It turned my beer sour and my fish pie to ashes in my mouth.  Music was not necessary - the chatter in the bar was loud enough to permeate the whole building, and those of us in the back room were clearly content with our own aural space.  I enjoyed overhearing the American lady say gently to her friends, "Don't you find this music simply dreadful?". Nevertheless, despite every bit of evidence pointing to the inappropriateness of loud piped music, we were subjected to insistent whine of ersatz-Country and Western and computer-generated female-type wailing, generally in a minor key and clearly expressing sentiments of deep sorrow and personal loss.  How to destroy an atmosphere utterly with one easy tap on a tablet screen.

The UK is not alone in stuffing its TV schedules with programmes about food.  The English seem obsessed with watching people work against the clock in sweaty kitchens to present the most weird and wonderful food on a plate to unsavoury types who utter pointless criticisms which are of no value to anyone at all.  Yet, this seems to have had one benefit to society; food is now treated with a little more care and attention and diners are often more critical of stuff they don't like, even if they borrow all their critical ideas from the people they see on the television.  So my fish pie was probably inspired by Masterchef, Come Dine With Me, Yes Chef, or any one of a million similarly themed reality shows.

What Masterchef, Come Dine With Me, Yes Chef, and all the rest do not do is tell you that food is only a small part of it.  A fine dining experience involves ALL the senses - sight, smell, taste and hearing.  Yes, hearing!  We eat as much with our ears as with our eyes, our noses and our tongues, and we want something which complements, not distracts, which mirrors the food, not opposes it.   Country and Western goes with burgers and fries; something soothing and relaxing goes with Doom Bar and Fish Pie. When the Black Sheep learns this, I would certainly be tempted back.

24 April 2017

Tapestry Festival of Sacred Music

What a wonderfully festive weekend it has been in Singapore!  Most of my waking hours seem to have been spent in and around the Esplanade soaking up the atmosphere of the annual Tapestry Festival, one of the highlights of the city’s arts calendar. 

(I have to confess to a personal connection with the Tapestry Festival.  It was at the Tapestry in 2011 that I gave one of my last ever solo organ recitals in Singapore.  It can’t have been any good, for nobody seems to have remembered it and they never asked me again, but I remember having had a wonderful time myself!)

Running since 2009, the Tapestry Festival celebrates sacred music in all its guises.  It tends to be more an ethnic arts festival than anything else, the sacred music it presents coming mostly from non-Christian and culturally remote faiths, but it affords us all a wonderful insight into cultures and religions which, even in multi-cultural and multi-faith Singapore, are alien.

This year’s festival comprised, by my reckoning, around 50 events all of which, miraculously, were free.  There was Korean Shamanistic music, Thai Buddhist chant, Sikh Singers, Devotional Songs of Shiva, Shima Singing bowls, 10th century chants, and 19th  century French choral music, along with Islamic Devotional Poetry, Hula dancers, Arabic calligraphy and a talk on pre-Islamic carpets.  Nobody could have any excuse for not being aware of the multiplicity of faiths in our world.

A magical moment for me came on Saturday evening.  Taking a break after the lovely medieval chanting of the three ladies who comprise La Voix Médiévale and before the Megwhal Singers of Rajasthan, I sat with my wine in the outside bar of Harry’s watching the sun go down as the flaming torches shimmered by the harbour.  At the next table sat the Esplanade’s director, while at another sat a group of dancers who had performed earlier.  Around us a crowd moved slowly around, lapping up the sights and sounds, talking about what they had seen and what they were going to see.  Children played around noisily, a party of disabled people, bedecked in bright green tee shirts, was gently shepherded by  ever-patient and attentive carers (the sacred in practice, you might say) and the whole thing just felt utterly festive; compensation for the absence of true Festival club where we could all have mixed and discussed across cultures and arts disciplines – hopefully that will come one day.

However, there is a niggling ethical issue I have with this, which is probably the product either of an over-sensitive mind or an indicator of a suppressed conscience.

Twice in my professional life I have been actively engaged with ethnic music.  The first time came as I had completed my Masters degree at Cardiff and been accepted to do a doctorate.  In need of funding, I approached the Welsh Arts Council.  They had no funding available but, to my surprise, the Director offered me a job identifying, researching and setting up a musical instrument collection for the Welsh Folk Museum which would portray the wealth of music making in South Wales.  For a year I travelled around, locating weird and wonderful instruments, learning how they were played and what their function was in the long-dead societies of which few then could remember, and then present their history and sound to interested students before putting them on permanent museum display.  At the end of the year I was offered the job full-time, but I turned it down, partly because this was not what I wanted to do, but largely because it seemed so alien to me.  It was not part of my culture, nor my tradition, and while I for a very short time probably knew more about it than anyone else, I felt always as if I was a stranger, an outsider, to a culture of which I could, by virtue of my birth, never be a part.

The second time came around 20 years later when, in a project supported by the Sarawak Government, I was asked to identify and record the music of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak.  A mad-cap scheme thought up in Kuala Lumpur to build a massive and utterly unrealistic hydro-electric plant in the middle of Borneo would have resulted in the flooding of native lands of some 26 different indigenous tribes.  In a sop to environmentalists (the disappearance of one of these, the Swiss Bruno Manser, had drawn in unwelcome international scrutiny on Malaysia’s treatment of its non-Muslim indigenous peoples) it was decided to record their arts for posterity.  Once again I spent a year travelling, listening and learning in the company of an ethnomusicological expert from Canada, and was intrigued and fascinated by the sounds I heard and the music I experienced.  But when one man from a particularly remote tribe refused to sing for a recording, stating that for his song to be heard out of context would bring bad luck on him and his people, I realised that I really had no idea what was at the heart of what I simply regarded as interesting sounds.  I could recognise the sounds the music made and enjoy it on my own terms. I could even look with the academic eye of a musicologist at its rhythmic complexities and remarkable tuning systems.  But I could never appreciate the music as it was intended – I could only re-interpret it through my western eyes.   The music lost its legitimacy once I was involved in either its delivery or reception.

How much more dangerous it is for us to treat so carelessly music which belongs to faiths of which we have no understanding, and can never have because we are not of the culture, the land or the ancestry of those who create the music.  To put on public display the sacred music of others is, as I see it, paralleled by the medical student who dissects and regards the most intimate details of a cadaver but can never begin to appreciate the person who once inhabited the very cadaver being so clinically inspected.

It hit me very much at the Tapestry Festival this year during a display of Shona music from Zimbabwe.  The hypnotically attractive sound of the Mbira was charmingly introduced by Fradreck Mujuru, and he was joined by two locally based musicians with a skilled interest in ethnomusicology.  They could certainly make the right noises and the sound of the music was enchanting.  But when Mujuru endearingly described the Mbira as a “telephone” by which the Shona people could contact their ancestors, I suddenly felt the dread hand of ethical doubt.  What is the point of having a telephone if there is nobody to contact?  Our two local musicians may have known how to operate the keypads and dials, but neither of them had the ancestors at the other end of the line nor, I presume, the inner conviction that they were there to be contacted at all?

My worry is that while Christians have for so long taken their great musical legacy for granted to the extent that it is now almost wholly lost (how often do you hear in Christian worship today the great music which has sustained Christian beliefs for so many centuries? - it certainly is extinct in Singapore) are we not in danger of allowing the same thing to happen to the music of other faiths.  We even lump it all together as if it were a single entity under the generic label “World Music”.  My fear is that, by taking possession of selected parts of other faiths for non-faith purposes, we will end up doing with that what we have done to our own heritage – take it so much for granted we let it die.

May the Tapestry Festival continue and thrive not as a means of preservation but as a simple reflection of the world in which we live yet which we largely fail to understand.

19 April 2017

Ignoring Musical Boxes

The Tana String Quartet have paid a surprise visit to Singapore and gave an unannounced concert last night.  A handful of conservatory staff attended along with a slightly larger handful of students, most of whom are studying composition.  They were told it was a programme of “contemporary” music, which it was not, with the pieces themselves having been written in 1989, 1977 and 1928 respectively – long before most members of the audience had been born.

A question posed to the Quartet afterwards raised the issue of their apparent reputation as performers of “contemporary” music, and their response is well worth reiterating here. 

We do not, the questioner was told, approve of putting music in boxes.  Yes, we do play contemporary music, but we also play the older repertory.  A string quartet which does not play Beethoven is as bad as one which does not play contemporary music.  For us, all music we play is great and that is all.  Why do we want to put music in boxes and give it labels?  If you go to the museum and you look at a picture and do not like it, then you move on to another.  Why do we not do the same thing with music?  Why do we not place it all side by side? 

This was a great response and one which I wish everyone would accept.  By this appallingly banal habit of throwing music into boxes marked “Baroque”, “Classical”, “Romantic”, “Modern”, “Contemporary” and so on, we block it off from reality.  Instead of letting music be part of the great flow of society, continually changing and evolving and never stopping, drawing from the past and reflecting the present, we cut it up into isolated fragments, unrealistically drawing completely incompatible composers together and separating like-minded ones from each other.  Anyone who says “I like Baroque Music” or “I hate contemporary music”, is really saying “I am an imbecile with no understanding and none of the mental capacity to cope with listening to music”.  As the Quartet pointed out, if you play Bartók in the same programme as Haydn, Bartók sounds modern; if you play him in the same programme as Cage, he sounds old. 

And that refreshing level of realism informed their playing in what was, for me, one of the outstanding concerts of the Yong Siew Toh calendar. 

They began with John Cage’s Four.  Eloquently introduced and explained in unpretentious terms, the audience members were advised to shut their eyes and see behind their closed eyelids little lights come on and go out as each member of the quartet played, within a certain time-frame, isolated pitches.  It was a lovely suggestion and worked well, the beautifully framed playing of the pitches creating an atmosphere which was profoundly evocative of the immensity of space.  Rarely has Cage sounded so compellingly romantic – and I recommend all those who, in their imbecilic ignorance dismiss Cage as “contemporary”, with all the hostility they bring to that meaningless label (Cage died 15 years ago so is no more “contemporary” than Beethoven), to listen to Four.

The only work by a living composer in the programme was also the most accessible, tonal and rhythmically direct.  Arvo Pärt’s Fratres is one of the early classics of his “tintinnabulation” style, dating back to 1977.  Originally scored for wind quintet, string quintet and percussion, he subsequently arranged it for violin and piano, cello and piano, four, eight, 12 or 16 cellos (1980), solo violin, strings and percussion (1985) and in 1989 produced the string quartet version played by the Tana Quartet. 

They played it magnificently.  While the second violinist, Ivan Lebrun, held a single note for the entire duration of the piece, he had by far and away the most difficult role.  For to maintain a single note on a violin, unchanging (apart from a gradual dynamic rise and fall) for 10 minutes is a pretty near impossible feat.  He did it, while Jeanne Maisonhaute provided strong percussive sounds from the cello and violist Maxime Desert and first violinist Antoine Maisonhaute provided the meat of the work through instruments tuned significantly out of their normal range.  To describe this as a moving and profoundly spiritual performance is barely to scratch the surface of the mesmerising effect it had on the audience.

They ended with Bartók’s acerbic Third Quartet, composed in 1928 and considered by some to be his greatest single work.  Again an eloquent spoken introduction from Antoine Maisonhaute gave the audience some subtle but valuable listening pointers, and the delivery of the work by the players themselves was little short of astounding.  The quality of tone, the variety of sounds (including, in the central movement, a passage which sounded for all the world like a muted trumpet fanfare) and the sheer commitment of the playing, meant that this was a performance in a million.

It is to be hopped that the Tana String Quartet can bring their refreshing brand of musical realism to Singapore again very soon, but hopefully with a little more notice to allow more than handful of conservatory staff and students to experience what great music making is all about.

17 April 2017

Singapore's Concert Hall Staff - A National Disgrace

A Facebook user from Brunei slipped this one past the G.E.S.T.A.P.O.
Anyone sitting in the Esplanade stalls for last Thursday's concert will have been all too well aware of the catastrophic error by the Front of House staff who, in the middle of the Barber Cello Concerto, opened the doors to several dozen late-comers.  As the Concerto's slow movement unfolded, an increasing disturbance spread across the stalls as late-comers, like locusts invading a field, made for their chosen seats.  Far from being encouraged to stay back, the ushers actively abetted the disturbance by flashing their torches like so many anti-aircraft searchlights across wartime night skies, pointing to empty seats and forcing concert goers to stand up and shuffle around to make room for the errant late-comers. 

Whoever made the decision to open the doors mid-work needs, at least, an immediate sideways promotion (possibly to oversee access to the disabled washroom), while I would earnestly hope that the organisation which booked the hall will demand some kind of financial reparation for the distress caused to those of its patrons who had made the effort to arrive and be seated in time.  It is utterly unforgiveable that Singapore's premier concert hall should treat patrons in such an appalling manner; staff changes at the highest managerial level are clearly long overdue.

For those who luckily missed this disgraceful spectacle, the Concerto had been running for about 15 minutes when there was a general pause to set the scene for the tranquil central section.  Possibly noting from the screens outside that nobody on stage was actually moving and no sound of any kind was coming out of the hall (not even a cough - so rapt was the audience in the music) some FOH official made the decision to open the doors.  The waiting crowd outside filed in even as the music was playing, but no attempt was made to hold them back or even direct them to a waiting area.  Instead, oblivious to the fact that there was a concert in full swing, the ushers studied tickets and directed, with the aid of flashlights, the late-comers to their appointed seats - inevitably centre row at the front.

The conductor should have stopped and waited - it was simply impossible to hear the music over the distraction of so many late-comers.  That he did not was an error of judgement on his behalf.  But he should not have been put in that position in the first place. 

If this had been a one-off error on behalf of the Front of House staff, it might be seen as an isolated, if catastrophic, mistake. But it was not.  Such things have become an inevitable feature of concert life in Singapore.  I have arrived late myself to concerts and been obliged to wait outside; and have witnessed the complete absence of any guidance given to those charged with the smooth running of FOH practices, on one occasion having to tell the staff who were about to open the doors, that the music had not finished - it was just very quiet.  From my own professional experience with a concert hall I know the pressure FOH staff are under from those who have bought a ticket and assume it gives them complete authority over the running of the entire event.  But good staff training should be enough to counter such attitudes.

And there you have the root of the problem.  Good staff training.

In the very early days of the Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in Kuala Lumpur, I was involved in training FOH staff and ushers and impressed on them that the environment in the concert hall during concerts was sacrosanct, and only a dire emergency could allow doors to be opened in mid-concert.  Staff were given explicit details of when breaks in performance were allowed - I even played recordings of the works to be performed to identify cues for preparing to admit late-comers.  Conductors and soloists were consulted about appropriate points when late-comers could be admitted, and ushers were told about discretion and unobtrusiveness within the hall.  We made mistakes and more than once I or someone else was called out from the office to explain to an angry late-comer why the member of staff at the door was denying them entry.  But generally it worked, and to my knowledge, we never once had the kind of catastrophe which befell the unfortunate audience and musicians on Thursday. 

I would say that it is purely an Esplanade problem.  But Victoria Concert Hall has its FOH issues too.

While the General Esplanade Staff Team Against Photographic Opportunism (GESTAPO for short) means that ushers spend much of each concert moving up and down the aisles and hissing across sibilantly to putative photographers, the VCH team are far more obtrusive, running up and down, climbing over seats and asking patrons to pass messages along to some camera-wielding fan in mid-row.  You do not attend concerts in VCH without being continually aware of the ushers running around in their crazed search for errant cameras.  It's a waste of time in both venues (see above) and an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction; if it matters that much, why not simply confiscate the cameras and phones  at the door?  After all, anyone attempting to gain entry to the Esplanade auditorium has to undergo a security check in which bags are opened.  The purpose of this seems merely to look inside the bags, but it is surely not beyond the wit of man to train the staff to identify cameras and phones and ask them to be left outside?  As it is I fear that if you had an explosive device in your bag marked "BOMB" they would simply look at it and let it pass.

The job of FOH staff is to assist in the smooth running of an event, not to disrupt it.  This is something which eludes FOH staff in Singapore's premier concert halls, and it is a national disgrace.  Even as Singapore is emerging on to the international scene as a major force in the world of music, it is becoming a laughing stock because of untrained and misguided concert hall staff.

15 April 2017

A Secret Stabat Mater

In that weird, mixed-up, disjointed way in which Singapore manages its classical music events, there was another concert in Victoria Concert Hall last night (Friday) billed as “Stabat Mater”.  It followed hot on the heels of last Friday’s, and for those people who knew of the second concert, it seemed as if it was simply a re-run of the first; a couple of regular concert-goers told me they had “already been” when I asked them if they were going last night.  Unless you were observant and knowledgeable, there seemed no clear distinction between the two.

Of course, hardly anyone knew about the second.  Dismally publicized, the organisers sent a round-robin email a matter of days before the concert, by which time most people would have already organised their weekend schedules.  Luckily, I had spotted a notice about this concert when I had attended last Friday’s, and manfully negotiated the almost impossible task of procuring a ticket from Singapore’s appallingly monopolistic and hideously obstructive ticketing agency.

I was certainly not the only person in the audience.  In fact it was very heavily attended.  But the majority of the audience was students from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts whose orchestra and choir were performing and who had, I assume, been given the tip-off about the concert long before it had been grudgingly brought to the notice of the general public.  That most of the audience comprised students was obvious by the fact that those of us who were not, felt we were intruding on some kind of internal party in which what went on onstage was peripheral to the comprehensive texting, selfies and chatter of the audience.  I sat by one particularly obnoxious example of studenthood – a diminutive girl wearing a white baseball cap pulled down over her eyes, a scarf pulled up over her nose, who spent the entire concert texting, giggling and turning around to whoever it was she was texting to make gestures. 

Badly behaved audience apart (I assume Nanyang – in common with almost every other tertiary musical institution - never teaches its students how to listen to music; train them to be manufacturers but not consumers is the policy when it comes to music colleges) this was an outstanding concert.

Conductor - and Dean of the School of Music - Lim Yau assembled a huge student orchestra on stage.  It was so huge that it had, apparently, been obliged to cut down in size and some musical re-arranging made by in-house composers.  They launched into a magnificent account of the Overture to William Tell.  Gorgeous cello tone, beautifully poised basses, some delicious woodwind solos and a totally riveting final romp which showed a perfect mixture of discipline and raw excitement.  The comment in the programme notes that Rossini had been “inspired by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony” in writing his Overture came as news to me, and I fear it is a claim which does not hold water; but it was very interesting idea which encouraged me, at least, to look afresh at this very familiar music.

Bartók’s rarely-heard Rhapsody No.1 for violin and orchestra showcased a superb young student violinist from Thailand, Nattawat Luantampol, who not only played the piece brilliantly, but seemed utterly at ease on stage, delivering a compelling and musically alert interpretation.  Tan Jie Qing added a strange Chinese/Hungarian colour with her excellent command of the Pedal Yangqin, taking the place of Bartók’s preferred Cimbalom, and the orchestral support was nothing short of magnificent. 

Before both halves of the concert, the oboe gave the orchestra a wide variety of A’s to choose from in tuning up, but somehow they all chose the same one, and there was impressive intonation conformity across the entire orchestra.  In fact, excellent internal tuning was one of the many impressive elements of the performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater which, in addition to plenty of exposed wind parts, involves quite a lot of unaccompanied choral singing – and this always stayed perfectly in tune.

I have had a great fondness for Rossini’s sacred music ever since first pedalling my way through the harmonium part of the Petite Messe Solennelle. The Stabat Mater is similarly operatic in character, wearing its religious devotion on its sleeve but not without a strong feeling of sincerity.  It was a work Rossini did not want to write, once written wanted to keep secret, and in the end fought legal battles to be allowed to complete and to bring out into the public domain; such is the off-stage drama which so often seems to surround Rossini’s music. Anyone performing it has to make the decision; do we play up the operatic or suppress it in order to convey the religious?

Lim Yau got it right (and how I wish last Friday’s loosely controlled quasi operatic attempt at Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater had shown such interpretative maturity).  His choral forces – a huge choir very top heavy on paper but actually much more balanced in reality – was responsive, alert and confident.  This was a very fine example of massed choral singing. 

The four soloists, described by some of the most outrageously conceited biographies I have ever read, were of varied vocal quality. But all of them were well up the task of bringing across the music along the lines defined by Lim’s whole approach.  Soprano Lin Ching-Ju (she is, apparently, “world-renowned”) wobbled a bit too much for my taste, vibrating across so many notes in the pursuit of one that it was not easy to pick out a melodic line.  Jessica Chen (who “frequently receives invitations to perform with eminent companies and orchestras”) was a splendid contralto, rich and robust, spot on in pitch and diction, and utterly self-assured throughout.  Lin Chien-Chi (“a secret star”) was an ideal Italianate tenor, strutting his superficial passion, putting the top notes on to isolated pedestals and generally doing all the things which Rossini would have expected.  Firm and vocally precise, William Lim (who modestly devotes his biography to a long list of past performances which seems to include every bit of music ever written for the male voice) had a few projection problems and looked particularly strained and nervous, rarely taking the risk of raising his eyes from the score.

There were balance issues – as there always will be when so many musicians are crammed on to the stage of a concert hall not designed, acoustically, for such big sounds – but while Lim Yau was demonstrative in trying to keep his orchestra down, they did not seem to respond.  And, perhaps, this was a good thing.  For this was a concert designed to show off what was an outstanding orchestra and a brilliant choir – projecting soloists above this, for all its stylistic legitimacy, would have stifled the overall sense of involvement which was such a powerful element of this performance.

It would be wonderful to hear this again.  Before that, however, someone might like to give a few basic lessons in marketing and advertising to those who put on classical music events in Singapore.  How nice it would be to attend concerts by design rather than accident.