24 April 2019

What Makes a Good Recital?

This seems to be Recital Month.  Over the past few weeks I have sat in on more recitals than at any other time in the year, and while many of these have been the usual end-of-year student recitals, there seems to be a fair proportion of professional, public recitals thrown into the mix for good measure.  And all this recitalising has got me thinking; about what makes a good recital?

I come out of some recitals feeling I have had a wonderful, rewarding or stimulating experience and others where I come out earnestly wishing I had never been.  The old Trinity College London assessment criteria for a Fellowship recital – - would you have paid money to hear that?” -– is a really good one, but easier to answer than to define.  So I’ have been thinking I liked some recitals more than others?  Was it the music they played, the way they played it, or something else?  Certainly a recital is a total package which involves a great many things beyond repertory and performance, so here’s a kind of check-list.

Performance: The actual quality of the performance plays surprisingly little part.  An ugly voice, a stumbling technique, split notes or even a complete breakdown cause minor irritations at the time, but are quickly forgotten and ultimately overlooked.  We might remember these things later, but often they do not affect our overall feelings about the recital.  Indeed, a memory slip ingeniously covered can make a recital even more memorable and rewarding;: there was that famous one in Berlin by Ella Fitzgerald in which she just threw in all kinds of random names to cover her complete memory loss in Mack the Knife, – and that flawed performance has gone on to become a classic.  I’ have never forgotten leaving a Rachmaninov recital given in London by Artur Rubinstein in which, as one fellow-audience member put it on the way out, you had to “spot the right note because so many of them had been wrong.  Another great 20th century pianist, Shura Cherkassy, was renowned for his bad technique yet, as he himself put it, “””’’”””””Some people like my playing and some don’t, but nobody can say that ‘I’m boring.”  And that’s the key.  The audience does not want clinical accuracy, polished tone or impeccable technique (although they are quite nice to have), they want to be entertained.

Spoken Introductions: The most obvious way to entertain an audience is to speak to them, but so very few recitalists ever do this.  There is good reason not to.  You have to remember the notes and in your nervous state you do not want to have to carry around in your head the baggage of a few words to remember (and it is utterly fatal to read from a prepared script, even if some key points need to be scribbled down and referred to), and maybe your command of the audience’s language is not good.  But I urge every recitalist to try, – even if it i’s just a smile and a word of welcome.  But for goodness sake, do not tell them to Enjoy (that’s the job of your performing) and please do not suggest you will get down to playing Without Further Ado”, – it makes it sound as if you are grudging about playing to them. 

Programme Notes: All good recitals have programme notes to serve as both guides to the audience and souvenirs of the event.  Without a programme note, the audience is lost during the recital– and has nothing to remember it by when they have gone home.  You may be lucky enough to find a professional programme note-writer to do this (my fees are reasonable!) but mostly, you will do it yourself.  It makes sense, since if you are serious about your recital, you will have prepared the programme exhaustively not just as a performance but as an interpretation.  And you will have read about and researched the background to the music. Programme notes are also invaluable in linking the works together so that you do not create the impression of simply having thrown your favourite pieces together to form a programme. Back stories are invaluable in getting an audience into a receptive frame of mind, so the more interesting things you can find out, the more amenable the audience will be to your performance.  Frankly, if I read that Dvorak was rescued from a burning inn when he was less than a year old by his father, and forged his butchery certificate, my ears prick up when it comes to listening to his music.  And when it comes to+ describing the music, do not alienate an audience with dry technicalities - he wrote such-and-such a piece in Rondo form and it modulates during it to the dominant, subdominant and relative minor -– but give them a few notable points to listen out for.  Audiences want to know when to clap, so tell them what to listen out for which will signify the ending (is it loud, soft, big or small?) and give them an accurate timing to within 30 seconds. 

Stage Presentation: So few recitalists realise that they are responsible for this, and so need to instruct those concerned in setting up and sharing the stage.  How is the piano to be positioned?  Where are other instruments to be placed to create the right sense of intimacy (if that’s what you want) or distance (if that’s your choice)?  And what does the page-turner do?  Does he come on and bow, does he leave and bow, does he bring in the music, does he take the music out, does he stay there until the applause has died down or walk off with you as it still rings?  Where i’s the piano lid going to be - – fully open, half-stick, quarter-stick, closed? – What is everybody going to wear?  A page-turner, accompanist, and fellow musician must all look as if they are part of the team and not odd-bods brought in off the street.  In any recital there is one principal – do not allow anyone to eclipse the principal - and that goes for printed biographies too;;: I have lost count of vocal recitals where the accompanist warrants less space than the singer, and while the accompanist is vital, it is the singer whom the audience has paid to hear and see.  If you have hired a Master of Ceremonies for your recital, chain them to a chair off-stage before the recital starts, for; an MC in a recital is always an acute embarrassment and distraction, no matter how good they are.

Repertory: I a’m inclined to think that this is the real key.  Certainly analysing the recitals I have attended recently, without a shadow of doubt the most memorable have been because of repertory.  As I see it, there are three golden rules for choosing repertory. 

·         First, choose music you want to perform. There is nothing more contagious than indifference, and an audience quickly recognises when your heart is not in it.  You may play a piece well, but if you do not like it, do not perform it.  It is not necessary to adore everything you play, but you must really want to share it with others. 

·         Secondly, there must be some coherence to the programme.  Random pieces thrown together because you like them does not make for a good recital.  Forge a connection between them and make this clear in the programme notes so that the audience feels they are sharing a journey with you and not merely sitting in the hall as outside observers.  The more imaginative the connection, often the more fascinating a programme you can build.  How about a recital comprising entirely works which are “Opus 40, or one where all the works were written in the same month (regardless of year), or all written in the same year?  How about a recital made up of works written in 1519, 1619, 1719, 1819, 1919 and 2019?  Celebrating an anniversary is always a good thing.  As I write this, for example, I note that today marks the birthdays of Giovanni Martini (an Italian composer who lived between 1706 and 1784) and Roxanna Panufnik (the English composer, noted for her choral and vocal works, born in 1968). On this day exactly 100 years ago the French composer Camille Erlanger died at the age of 56.  It’s also the birthdays of singers Barbara Streisand’ (1942) and Norma Burrows (1944), while tomorrow marks the 101st anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald. It doesn’t take too much brainwork to devise a programme which includes something with a connection to at least one of these, and if I were a singer, I could construct an entire recital just around these six names.   

·         Thirdly, avoid the predicable, especially pianists.  Everyone who has ever shown even the vaguest interest in the piano will have heard the famous Beethoven Sonatas, as well as most of the music by Chopin and Debussy.  If you put it in, all that will happen is that people will compare your performance (unfavourably) with another they have heard.  I live in continual despair that, while the piano boasts one of the largest solo repertories of any single instrument, fewer of those works are programmed into recitals than for any other instrument.  What is it about pianists that predisposes them towards a mentality which avoids exploration?  Some of the best piano recitals I have been to recently have been presented by Stephen Hough who invariably finds something unusual to play and often devises whole programmes of almost forgotten music.  Why not Pierne instead of Debussy, John Field instead of Chopin, or Rossini instead of Beethoven?  A bit of programming imagination can transform a recital from tiresome predictability to absorbingly intriguing at a stroke, and unlike a concert where audiences like to the familiar, a recital hinges on the individual rather than the repertory, so to be adventurous is good.  Speaking for myself, I will avoid any recital (no matter who gives it) of Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy, simply because I’ have heard it all so many times before it’ has lost its allure for me.  Conversely, I will beat a path to something more unusual.

So with all that in mind, I should perhaps come clean and suggest which of the two-dozen or so recitals I’ have so far attended this month, stands out as the best.  It was, ironically, the one I was looking forward to the least.  A trumpet and trombone recital given by two members of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Chris Moyse and Kevin Thompson, – with Nicholas Loh as their accompanist.  In a funny way this was the perfect recital.  The playing was not flawless but oozed enjoyment and enthusiasm.  The spoken parts were informal, easy and informative.  The stage manner was beautifully relaxed (especially from Loh who had an instinctive understanding of his role which played into the narrative of the whole recital).  But most of all, the repertory comprised totally music I had never heard before, yet I felt was well worth hearing, even if it was, ultimately, unmemorable.  Moyse and Thompson told how they had scoured the music shops of Hong Kong looking for unusual things, and you got the impression they were really enjoying exploring this music and sharing it with us.  That, in turn, led to the audience falling into the mood and clearly enjoying the totality of the recital.  This is what makes a good recital.

17 April 2019

Adult Learners, Tigers and Goats

A presentation by a colleague on approaches to teaching the piano to children was quite an eye-opener.  Although I spent the best part of 20 years working as a private piano teacher, I never taught really young children (or “kids” as they are called in Singapore – I always thought a kid was the young of a goat, so perhaps that explains why the song Chan Mali Chan is so popular in Singapore.  But I digress.).  My speciality then and now (I still have a few private pupils scattered around the globe) is in guiding the niceties of interpretation and musical insight in more advanced level students.  I suppose the youngest pupil I ever had was aged 12, so to hear about teaching approaches to younger ages than that was fascinating.  I have nothing but admiration for those who can somehow impart the knowledge of piano tuition to those who can barely walk and talk – which seems to be common practice here in Singapore as well as in Hong Kong and China.

One of the more memorable comments my colleague came up with was in response to a question about children lacking the life experience to cope with the full emotional range of music.  She suggested that sometimes imagination was a form of experience, and sometimes imagination served the purpose better than real-life experience.  I liked that idea, and realised how appropriate it was for young children.

But as the presentation continued with fascinating examples of how young children had been encouraged to express music through movement and how the principal focus in all teaching was to make it “fun”, my mind began to wander.  It had not been advertised specifically as being a presentation about teaching piano to children, but that is what everyone expected.  In Singapore society “teaching music” means teaching the piano, and teaching the piano is something which is almost exclusively done before one reaches puberty. 

I am currently working on an article for an educational magazine in which I address the idea that “music” is such a wide-ranging term that, in education, we need to use it with extreme care.  After all, both the kid learning the piano and the teenager being taught how to lay down song tracks in a recording studio are being taught music, even if they are mutually incompatible.  So it concerns me deeply that teachers so freely use music as a synonym for piano.

Even more so, it concerns me that we assume “music” is best taught when the student is young.  There are elements in music which can only be taught to those of more mature years, and even the laying down of a technical foundation for pianists is not something which should be the sole preserve of the under-fives.  And as my mind wandered even further, I suddenly realised that, while in most societies of my experience, adults – even the very old – are encouraged to learn a musical instrument, that is not the case in Singapore, Hong Kong or China.  Piano lessons here are the preserve of the young and represent an alien culture to most over-30s.

In my examining life, I examined in some places where adults formed a majority of the candidature – notably in the West Indies and parts of India – and the exam boards have done much to encourage the adult market by introducing such things as performance certificates.  I have been to conferences in the UK which have concentrated on the techniques of teaching adult beginners, and I can look back over my past students and realise that a majority of them has been adult.  Indeed, one of my first ever students was a lady of 65 who passed her Grade 3 after a couple of years work; and the achievement for her was more glorious than that for the 6-year-old kid and Tiger Mum whose real satisfaction was getting past Grade 3 a year before anyone else in the class.

True, if you start learning the piano at 65 you are unlikely to become the next Lang Lang; but, to be brutally frank, if you start learning the piano at 5, it’s still extremely unlikely that you will be the next Lang Lang – as my colleague pointed out, many of those who start young see success in graded exams as an opportunity to quit and move on to things other than playing the piano.  But the therapeutic, psychological and all-round mental health benefits of learning a musical instrument at an older age equal, if not outweigh, the physical, emotional and competitive values of learning it as a child.  Yet so skewed is the Singapore/Hong Kong/China mentality to piano lessons as a childhood thing, that few adults or teachers even contemplate it.

Musical activities for older people here tend to look towards communal things like choral singing and orchestras, but the experience from other countries shows that there are huge benefits for the individual in taking up the piano (or other instrument) in later life.  Perhaps if this idea could be implanted into Singaporeans, we might find our musical climate a little healthier.  After all, we are only young for a short time in our lives – we are old for ages!  If you have given up the piano after grade 8 at 14, you are looking at a bleak musical future; if you take it up when you are 55, you are looking at a wonderfully fulfilling retirement.

16 April 2019

Forgotten Madness

On 30th April our 3rd year student, Lee Hui, is going to present a paper on the issue of mental health and music.  Called "Does Music Make Us Mad?", she takes as her focal point the issue of Schumann's mental decline.

It has been my extreme privilege (along with my revered colleague Prof Craig de Wilde), to guide Lee Hui through her Musicology module and I am hugely looking forward to her presentation.  I hope lots of people turn up as it is not only a fascinating subject, but one which she has shown immense sympathy towards.

By a strange twist of odd coincidence, I accidentally came over a blog post from 2015 which, in my own personal madness, I had forgotten I had ever written.  It seems rather nicely to set the scene!


Surviving the Ashes

The superstitious will be having a field day.  A fire broke out in Paris’s St Sulpice Church four weeks ago, another one broke out last Saturday (the eve of Palm Sunday) in New York's Cathedral of St John the Divine, and yesterday saw Notre Dame in Paris go up in flames.  All this is happening in the church’s season of Lent when Christians remember Christ’s period in the wilderness with a sustained period of prayer and reflection.  So what does all this ecclesiastical burning tell us?  That churches are an abomination in the sight of the Lord, that Christians are misguided in their beliefs, that God is reminding the world of the existence and value of churches, or merely that today’s workmen are prone to carelessness with their oxy-acetylene torches?

News of each fire reached me, not through my addiction to 24-hour news services from trusted organisations, but via my subscription to an organists’ group on Facebook.  I’m not one to check Facebook very often (once a day is excessive for me), but a sustained period of “pings” on my phone woke me up at night as each organist-member wanted to get in with his or her expression of sorrow and regret.  It amuses me that the first question raised in the case of each fire has not been “were there any casualties?”, but “has the organ suffered any damage?”.  That’s not to say me and my fellow organists are heartless; merely that for us, the organ is a living, breathing animate object.  Like other - ostensibly “normal” -  people who post endless pictures of cats, dogs and babies along with grotesquely mawkish comments for their friends to share, we do the same with pipe organs.  I’d like to think our comments are more elevated, but in truth, they’re not.  We love our pipe organs, just as others, inexplicably, love their cats, dogs and babies.

And among all organists, there can be very, very few who do not love the sound of the wonderful instrument in Notre Dame, which has now been utterly destroyed and lost to us forever.  It was the organ at which Louis Vierne died while giving an organ recital, and on which Pierre Cochereau effectively re-defined the art of improvisation.  Hearing it live pouring out its soul in the vast, dark recesses of Notre Dame was an experience I could and will never forget, and to realise I will never experience it again is very much akin to losing a dear friend. 

But as with all deaths, the legacy of memories ensures that death does not mean an end, but a beginning of new kind of relationship in which only the best aspects survive.  Since Notre Dame was such a magnificent instrument, it was frequently recorded, and between church fires, I was privileged to be sent for review what must be now the last ever recording of the instrument; Olivier Latry’s “Bach to the Future” on La Dolce Vita (LDV69).  That review is slated to appear in June’s copy of Gramophone magazine, so I will not reprint it here.  Suffice to say, that it was heading towards one of my all-time favourite organ recordings before the emotional fillip afforded by yesterday’s fire.  It won’t be leaving my CD player now for a good few weeks – unless, of course, the CD player itself overheats and the inevitable ensues.  Luckily CD players are replaceable, as are organ CDs, which means that the irreplaceable lost in the Paris inferno, can live on long after the ashes have been swept up and the rebuilding completed.

In the spirit of love and bonding which follows such a catastrophe, I offer up some pictures which other people than I will enjoy, as well as one for my organist friends with whom I share a deep sorrow and a recommendation that, if they have not already got it, Olivier Latry’s spectacular all-Bach recital from Notre Dame – “Bach to the Future” – is just released on the La Dolce Vita label and needs to be snapped up with all haste.


15 April 2019

Examining in Brunei

An assassination attempt was made on me in 1997.  Attending the annual luncheon of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in London, I was pulled aside by the CEO who introduced me to a man from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  I was informed that they had “credible evidence” that an attempt would be made on my life during my forthcoming examining tour to India.  I was advised to “think about it” and, if I withdrew from the tour, the Board would understand, although they were anxious to increase their presence in India and this tour was a key part of that strategy. 

It seemed from the threatening letters received that a man with a grudge against the English and their colonial activities in India (a grudge with which I am not unsympathetic especially in this centenary year of the terrible Amritsar Massacre for which the English have, disgracefully, yet to offer a full apology) saw me as a “soft” but legitimate target on the basis that I represented a “Royal” organisation (the Royal name has gone now that the official name has changed to ABRSM).  Since the Indian Nationalist would-be-assassin’s anti-English correspondence was conducted exclusively in English, I rather felt it was a hoax and chose to continue with the tour.

Meetings in the Board’s then headquarters in Bedford Square followed, during which I was given updates on the efforts being made at the Indian end to identify the would-be-assassin, and various diplomatic people and Scotland Yard operatives gave me instructions designed to ensure, as best as possible, my own personal safety.  On arrival in Bangalore, the Board’s representative thrust a bundle of papers in my hand, told me that she wished “to God you hadn’t come” and sent me off to my hotel; we never met again. 
I was assigned a huge Sikh driver/bodyguard who accompanied me throughout the tour, but the intelligence was that the assassination would be carried out in the hill station of Ootacamund, so it was there that the full force of the Indian army and police service took over.  An entire wing of the Holiday Inn was emptied of guests and filled with armed guards and me.  And I was transported to and from the examination centre in a convoy surrounded by armed guards, who were so twitchy I suspected that I was more likely to be shot by one of them than any crazed anti-English Indian nationalist.

On my third day there, news reached me that a car had been stopped a short distance from the hotel and a heavily armed man arrested.  I lived to examine another day (or, to be precise, another 20 years).  The Board refused to prosecute the would-be-assassin, and instructed me not to do so either for fear of undermining confidence in their burgeoning Indian operation.  As an interesting postlude to all this, a decade later I found myself once more in Ootacamund, this time examining for Trinity, and was told that one of my candidates was the daughter of the would-be-assassin. 

The point of all this autobiographical preamble is to point out that, as with any international occupation, there are dangers which those of us who undertake such work recognise and accept.  Sometimes the British Government intervenes and specifically instructs exam boards not to allow its people to travel to certain places, and insurance companies occasionally make certain overseas tours impossible.  Rarely it goes wrong – as in a visit to Sierra Leone when I arrived just in time to catch a military coup, or when a plane-load of colleagues landed up in Kuwait at the same time as invading Iraqis – but we all know the dangers and live with them.  For an examiner, the importance of giving a keen young musician the chance to prove themselves is incentive enough to undergo a whole array of real risks.

So it is a matter of the most extreme concern to me, and to all my former colleagues, that one of the examination boards has cancelled exams in a loyal territory, not because of any risks, but because of pure social and commercial pressures.

When the Sultan of Brunei announced that he was going to impose full Sharia law, the world was outraged.  My feeling is that Sharia Law is primitive, medieval, inhumane and barbaric, but that’s because my cultural heritage ingrains in me a belief in the supremacy of tolerance, justice and common humanity.  It certainly is not for me to criticise a culture simply because it differs from my own, although I am totally at liberty to express my personal feelings, should I so wish, by refusing to visit Brunei or any of its overseas assets.  That, though, would be driven by my own conscience, not by pressure from others.

Trinity College examiners are not allowed the luxury of personal consciences on this matter, however.  Trinity College London has withdrawn its examinations from Brunei at very short notice this year on the grounds that examiners might feel under threat by the exigencies of Sharia Law.  Perhaps the examiners’ profile has changed since my day, and Trinity examiners are now more prone to indulging in public acts of homosexuality, adultery and theft (the issues which have most exercised the collective objections of those in the West), but somehow I doubt it.  Which means that, without any justification from the British Government or their insurers, Trinity have decided to oppose a purely internal Bruneian concern by withdrawing their services.

Candidates, having spent months and weeks preparing, have now had all their hard work negated because of some ridiculously narrow-minded, culturally intolerant and politically-correct imbecile in the Trinity headquarters.  Presumably pressure came from big customers in the UK who, probably unable to identify the Sultanate of Brunei on a map, think that it is peopled by darker skinned English-like people whose natural human rights are being denied them by a despotic government.

22 years ago I felt the commitment we as examiners owed to young musicians was worth putting my life on the line for; it seems that Trinity is more concerned in looking good in the eyes of the cossetted western campaigners than in fulfilling its moral duty to young students. This astonishingly weak action by Trinity College London will surely get everyone who lives in any territory where standards of English governance are not the norm, to ask whether there is any value at all in preparing candidates for Trinity music exams when a bit of public pressure from disinterested sources can lead to those exams being cancelled at a moment's notice.

11 April 2019

Singapore Classical Concerts May 2019

Here is the most current list of classical music events in Singapore during May.  Please let me know if anything's missing.

ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall
ESP RS = Esplanade Recital Studio
VCH = Victoria Concert Hall
YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
SBG = Singapore Botanical Gardens
TTP = The Theatre Practice, 54 Waterloo Street
SSO = Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Friday, 3 May 2019 7.30pm ESP Red Balloon series  Rhythms, Rites and Renewals SSO
Friday, 3 May 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Bence Szepsi (clarinet)
Saturday, 4 May 2019 6.00pm SBG Songs at Twilight New Opera Singapore
Saturday, 4 May 2019 7.30pm YST Nobuko Imai in concert Nobuko Imai (viola/Albert Tiu (piano)
Saturday, 4 May 2019 7.30pm ESP Improvisations Adam Gyorgy (pno), Bence Szepsi (clar)
Saturday, 4 May 2019 8.00pm TTP Very Venetian Vivaldi string concerti Cappella Martialis
Sunday, 5 May 2019 8.00pm TTP Very Venetian Vivaldi string concerti Cappella Martialis
Friday, 10 May 2019 7.30pm ESP Missa Solemnis SSO Masaaki Suzuki (cond)
Friday, 10 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Oriental Strings Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra Gabriel Lee (violin)
Saturday, 11 May 2019 8.00pm ESP RS French Operas - Ecstatic Moments
Sunday, 12 May 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Enchanting Evening 6 The Chamber Musicians
Friday, 17 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Death and the Maiden SSO Chamber Series Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 18 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Temptation of the Saintly Plot SSO Chamber Series Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Sunday, 19 May 2019 4.00pm VCH Brass Ensemble of the SSO SSO Chamber Series Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Sunday, 19 May 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Bolling Suite for Jazz Ensmeble re:mx
Monday, 20 May 2019 12.30pm VCH If with All your Hearts VCH Organ Series Evelyn Ang (sop), Joshua Chang (ten), Phoon Yu (org)
Saturday, 25 May 2019 7.30pm VCH How Far I'll Go SLO CHildren's Choir
Saturday, 25 May 2019 7.30pm SOTA Songs of Love and Despair T'ang Quartet
Sunday, 26 May 2019 4.00pm VCH Song Bridges Singapore Symphony Youth Choir Wong Lai Fong (cond)
Thursday, 30 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Singapore International Piano Festival Sa Chen (piano)
Friday, 31 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Singapore International Piano Festival Ronan O'Hora (piano) ) 

09 April 2019

Sibelius Symphonies Concert Review

Having clearly whetted some appetites (and got someone in Baltimore on the warpath over some questionable content in the concert's programme), I give here the original version of my concert review, published in today's Straits Times.

They completed their run of the complete Beethoven symphonies a few months back, so Lim Yau and the Philharmonic Orchestra have now turned to Sibelius and a year-long series performing all seven of his symphonies.

 There is some sense in following Beethoven with Sibelius - even if you miss out such significant 19th century symphonists as Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky - since Beethoven’s and Sibelius’s Firsts were, respectively, the first and the last major symphonic premieres of the 19th century.

 Lim, however, chose not to start this Sibelius cycle with the First, but launched straight into the Third Symphony.  A sensible choice, since the Third is Sibelius’s most accessible symphony, brim full with great tunes and glorious moments.  In the first two movements the Philharmonic Orchestra were producing some fabulous playing, and Lim was inspiring them to impressive heights of excellence.

 It was neither entirely the orchestra’s nor Lim’s fault that the third movement often seemed rather shambolic.  You get the impression that Sibelius got a bit bored after producing such wonders earlier in the symphony, and it ended decidedly lamely.

 Never mind, high ranking professional orchestras and top-flight conductors have come to grief over Sibelius symphonies, so it was to their eternal credit that these Singapore musicians not only produced very creditable performances but showed some glimpses of a real affinity with the music. 

Every section of an orchestra is projected in a Sibelius symphony, and strengths and weaknesses are cruelly exposed.  The Philharmonic Orchestra were certainly producing some top-class playing here, but in the First Symphony, which followed the interval, a couple of weaknesses were revealed.  A little more time spent tuning the wind on stage would not have gone amiss, as things were very ugly for a moment in the second movement, while a serious shortage of cellos was the one obvious indication of an orchestra which does not play in public with any real frequency.  Given the lovely collective violin and viola sound and a disarmingly powerful double bass one, a couple more cellos at least would have given a wonderful richness to the string sound.

 Lim’s direction had the great benefit of purpose and fluency, and where things wobbled, he kept them on the straight and narrow, and where things shone, he did not hesitate to give extra lustre through an expansive approach to dynamics.  Great big climaxes and intimate little passage of self-reflection brought the symphony vividly to life. 

Symphonies 2 and 4 will be in the next instalment of this series, and while you will have to wait for October for that, the wait will certainly be well worthwhile.