27 February 2011

Organ Stagnation

During the 1970s it was my duty to cover all the London organ recitals for the Musical Times.  It was a dream job.  1500 words a month on as many or as few organ recitals as I chose.  There was the 5.55 recital every Wednesday at the Royal Festival Hall, while every day of the week you could find some church or other in the city hosting a lunchtime recital.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to sample the London organ scene, but a day-long meeting in central London with a long lunch break gave me the opportunity to see if it was still as active as it was 40 years ago.  I know the 5.55 RFH recital (along with the organ itself) is now history, but everything else seems very much the same and at the second church I tried (St Bride’s, Fleet Street), I struck lucky. 
St Bride's Fleet Street

To say that nothing much seems to have changed is putting it mildly; I felt that I had stumbled into a time-warp.  Everything seemed exactly as it had in the 1970s.  The audience numbers were still pitiable – apart from a couple of old codgers who wandered in and started to talk to the organist while he was playing (and had to be shooed away by his minder) we remained resolutely at nine – and among this milling throng were those there just to pass the time, businessmen seeking a quiet place to munch their sandwiches, and seasoned old hands who attend every recital and let their opinions be known to all and sundry.  There should be something reassuring about such continuity, but in fact I found it deeply depressing, the real problem being the complete unoriginality of the recital itself.  The name of the player – Simon Hogan - was new to me (as were just about all the players listed in the brochure about recitals handed to me by one of the seasoned old hands) but he could have been a clone of the organists who used to perform in the 1970s – young, eager, neatly attired in suit and tie and clearly living a life in which the organ and its music dominated existence to the exclusion of all else.  Saddest of all, his programme was just what nearly everybody played in the 1970s; Fast and French. 

I always used to think there were two types of organist, those who believed the only organ music was by Buxtehude and Bach and a few other 18th century North Germans, and those who believed the only organ music was by Vierne and Widor and a few other 20th century Parisians.  The former believed in counterpoint, polyphony and emotional intensity, the latter in fast, furious and musical superficiality.  Simon Hogan is clearly in the latter camp and limited his programme to music written in Paris during the 44-year period between 1878 and 1922.  He showed us that he was capable of playing lots of right notes in very quick succession with very few wrong ones thrown into the mix.  If he were to have presented his programme of Widor (Allegro from the 6th Symphony), Duruflé (Scherzo), Dupré (G minor Prelude & Fugue) and Vierne (Final from 1st Symphony) for a recital diploma he would have been laughed out of court; the obligations to present varied and contrasting music so blatantly ignored. 

But this was not a recital diploma, it was a concert presented to the public.  True, it was not a fee-paying public - the great thing about the London organ recital scene is that the recitals are usually free - but the audience had given up its time to attend and deserved a little more variety.  I would happily listen to any one of these pieces every day of my life, but not in this kind of undiluted concentration.  Spiced up with something relaxing, something expressive or something intellectually challenging, I could digest and enjoy it, but even when the Dupré Prelude evoked tranquillity, Simon Hogan was clearly more interested in the rapid undercurrents and we missed those celestial chords.  In fairness, it is not his fault he has no idea how to devise an organ recital programme; he was simply following what everyone else has done since time immemorial (or at least since 1970).  I just wonder whether it crossed his mind that, while dazzling us with his undoubtedly brilliant technique, he might have been keeping people away as well.  Nine people enjoyed derrière-à-derrière Fast French Frolics; perhaps a few more might have enjoyed a little more variety, even if such programming prevented Simon Hogan from offering up an uninterrupted display of technical wizardry.

In south east Asia we have realised that if you want to attract large audiences to organ recitals, you have to accept that not all of them will be organ aficionados, capable of appreciating technical skill as an isolated entity.  We offer varied and interesting programmes which cater for all tastes, and in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur at least, we are disappointed when audiences dip below 300.  I fear the London organ scene has stagnated simply because it is catering solely for that small but loyal band of diehard enthusiasts.  It’s surely possible to attract them as well as a wider audience, but until young players realise this, the organ in London is destined to remain in its own time-warp ghetto.

20 February 2011

From the Malaysian Press


This article was published in The Star, Malaysia.  I hope they don't mind my reprinting it here; you can access it online at http://ecentral.my/news/story.asp?file=/2011/2/20/soundnstage/8077786&sec=soundnstage

Sunday February 20, 2011

Piping good fun


Dewan Filharmonik Petronas’ concert organist Marc Rochester shares anecdotes about his career and expounds on the role of the pipe organ at the concert hall.
MARC Rochester’s name may not light up the eyes of the casual music fan. What’s more, at a glance, he looks like a jovial English bus driver who’s only too happy to take you to your destination, rather than a musician (as a matter of fact, he really did drive London’s double decker buses for a while to finance his post graduate studies).
But mention the pipe organ, and his name takes much greater significance. For music fans who’ve walked in and out of Kuala Lumpur’s Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP), Rochester is definitely a known entity. He’s the man most often seen behind the monstrous German-made Klais pipe organ (out-fitted with a thematic angklung facade) there.
Few people simply wake up one morning and miraculously harbour the ambition of becoming a concert organist. After all, it’s not one of the more common vocations. Rochester’s story on being smitten by the instrument, however, is slightly different. “The most obvious thing is it’s solitary ... you only have one organ. But I’ve always wanted to be an organist because it makes an incredible amount of noise,” says the musician candidly during a recent private interview.
He concedes that his bashfulness allowed him to communicate through the instrument better than he would be able to verbally. Or as he eloquently puts it: “It mends a personality defect.” Rochester’s description of his inadequacies sounds utterly outrageous given his bubbly personality – you’d never think of him as shy, that’s for sure.
It’s probably this sense of self-proclaimed reticence that allows him to be an extrovert on his instrument of choice. Behind the organ, the University Of Wales music graduate can hit the lowest and highest notes or be the loudest or softest in an orchestra.
“The ambition is to have the power and control. It’s like a person who wants to drive a Lamborghini or Ferrari on Malaysian roads ... there’s absolutely no point. When that novelty wears off, you begin to love the challenge of turning a machine into a musical instrument,” describes the 56-year-old on how his love for the instrument evolved over the years.
He reckons organists are boring people (which is in total contrast to himself) and opines that other musicians usually hate the organ. “Here in Malaysia, 10 years on, and the pipe organ is still having new audiences. There may have been one or two pipe organs here during Colonial times but definitely nothing since DFP came into the picture,” he said, and cleared the myth that organs are instruments for churches.
“My job was to bring in audiences and we’ve done so to an extent by playing pieces which combine the machine and musical instrument characteristics of the organ. During our early years, we used to advertise the organist as going from a whisper to thunder.”
Rochester plays a range of musical instruments, including the violin, piano, French horn and Celtic harp. His past as a music examiner allows him to generate at least a few notes on any of these instruments. “I can do it in private, at least,” he quips. He offers that the organ – which is a highly sophisticated machine – isn’t as intimate an instrument as the others he plays. “Also, when you play, inevitably, your back is to the audience, which means you lose that face-to-face contact.”
As one of the few concert organists in the world (organs aren’t too common in orchestral pieces simply because they aren’t featured as much), Rochester shares this lingering nightmare with all of them. “I have this recurring nightmare where when I am supposed to start a piece quietly, I accidentally hit the wrong button and the music comes in blaring. I wake up in cold sweats in the middle of the night because of this,” jokes the hilarious musician.
He picked up on the instrument inspired by his organist father. The English education system encouraged him to join a choir, and the organ – a long-standing instrument in that environment – was naturally exposed to Rochester. “I got my first lesson from my father. You can’t play the organ until you’re physically big enough because you need to reach the pedals. So I suppose I was about 10 or 11 when I started.”
He was the youngest person (at 24 years of age) to ever hold the position of Organist And Master Of Choristers at a British cathedral when he was appointed to Londonderry Cathedral in Northern Ireland. “It wasn’t something I was terribly surprised with because I think I was the only person willing to go to a war-torn country. But I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it at this age because you’re going to have to deal with the politics and sensitivities, which is tough when you’re young.”
From the very start, he’s had an insatiable appetite for music. “I now have about 7,800 CDs, and LPs too, but very little organ music because, as I mentioned earlier, most players are boring and tedious. I’m a jazz fanatic,” he admits.
Rochester has based himself in Malaysia since 1987, when he arrived in Kuching and eventually found his way into the peninsula in 1995 after he was appointed by Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (UPM) as a lecturer in music.
His gig at DFP as its concert organist came about when Tan Sri Azizan Zainul Abidin, Chairman, Petronas, Malaysia, became involved in the project of wanting to start an orchestra. “An English company conducted a survey to see the viability of setting up an orchestra here. They weren’t sure if people in Malaysia were incredibly advanced or still swinging from trees. When the venue was being constructed, I was in the background writing all the concert notes for DFP. One day, I saw a picture of the hall design and saw an organ, but they said it was just a dummy. At some point it went from being a dummy to a real organ.”
And with his innate knowledge of the instrument, Rochester naturally became the best candidate for his current gig as concert organist at DFP, even though he stopped playing the instrument for nearly 10 years prior. The excitement of playing before a new audience became a temptation too good to resist, he says.
“For the first season, many big name organists were brought in but they drew no substantial audiences. And some of the American organists who were brought down naturally indulged in their culture, which was church music, which was a problem, so I had to revise the whole thing and came up with the informal afternoon shows,” Rochester reveals.
DFP commissioned the first piece of organ – Journeys – music written by Malaysian composer Vivian Chua in 2002. Nearly 10 years on, and the pipe organ culture is steadily catching on here.
But how significant is the instrument at the hall? “A concert hall without a pipe organ rules itself out of some of the most spectacular repertory and, in many people’s minds, a hall without a pipe organ is not a proper concert hall. In our history, some of the most memorable concerts have involved the pipe organ: Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, Pines of Rome, Camille Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony, Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, and many more.”
Rochester goes on to vouch that the instrument’s removal would simply ruin the hall. “It has attracted huge interest from Malaysians. It was even featured in a Discovery Channel documentary (also aired on RTM 1) in the New Malaysian Documentary Makers series, fronted by Penang teacher Leonard Selva. So far, some 12 students from Malaysia have learnt the organ at DFP. Artistically, removing the organ would make the hall very third-world indeed!”
The success of the outreach programmes by DFP has increased the Klais organ’s stature. “The programme runs several organ-related events. The innovative ‘Organ Day’, in which hundreds of school students were allowed to explore the inner workings of the organ, was the most successful, but we have also done several school programmes with the organ – “Colours of the Organ, The King of Instruments” – as well as family fun days (including one which included a competition between the MPO and the organ to see which could play louder, softer, higher, lower and could hold its breath the longest ... the organ won on every count!). This created a very enthusiastic and young audience for the pipe organ,” he explains.
Seeing the kids wide-eyed with amazement is truly a treat and he says kids are always curious to hear the lowest note on an organ. “You can’t even hear it, it just rumbles, and the children love that. Of course, they also want to hear the highest note. They also like to hear the softest and loudest volumes,” he shares enthusiastically.
As far as his own experience with pipe organs around the world is concerned, Rochester has played some interesting specimens. “The most impressive one is probably the one at Truro Cathedral in Cornwall ... it’s just one of those organs where everything worked. It was one of those organs that grew organically ... it wasn’t architect-designed.”
Specifically for the organ, the most impressive venue he’s played at is The Royal Albert Hall in London, which houses the second largest pipe organ in Britain.
“I’m sorry for being Anglo-centric but it’s absolutely fantastic. For years, I accompanied a male voice choir in Wales, and every year, all the male choirs gather at the Royal Albert Hall, and so you have 2000 voices singing, and accompanying those voices is just the most exciting thing I’ve ever experienced.”
Marc Rochester’s upcoming organ recitals at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas are on April 3 and July 16. Browse dfp.com.my for more information.

18 February 2011

Not on my Chopin Liszt

When I express my profound distaste for the music of Chopin to the man who, not without justification, claims to be "probably Singapore's most rabid pianophile and pianomaniac", Chang Tou Liang, he is rendered almost speechless (and if you follow the link to his action-packed Pianomania blog, you'll find ample evidence of his piano passion).  He is equally incredulous when I utter disparaging words about Liszt.  But I've noticed that fans of the piano tend to regard both composers as demi-gods, so I can appreciate the horror they feel when they hear such blasphemy.  I certainly don't deny that both were important and influential composers and that without them the subsequent course of musical history would have been very different.  I just can't stand their music.

My dislike of Chopin was considerably increased by the excesses of the bicentenary year.  Hardly a day went by without being subjected to one of those hideous, self-indulgent and painfully affected Nocturnes, Waltzes, Mazurkas or Polonaises, and as for the two dreadful piano concertos, Chopin's musical imagination barely sustains their moderate length, it certainly doesn't sustain the levels of repeated hearings both were subjected to during 2010. 

The trouble is, of course, Chopin didn't really compose anything else.  He never once in his output gave the piano a miss; which is a shame because I confess to rather liking the orchestrated versions of his piano pieces in Les Sylphides; my preference being, somewhat perversely, for the Roy Douglas orchestrations over Glazunov's.  (One of the versions – I can't tell you which – is being performed by the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in Kuala Lumpur on 18th March, so Chopin fans should book their tickets now – especially since you'll also get a chance to hear the inimitable Paul Philbert in Panufnik's excellent Concertino for Timpani, Percussion and Strings.) He did, however, write a handful of chamber works, and I vaguely recall a performance of the Cello Sonata whilst at university; if my memory serves me correctly (which I doubt), it was little more than another dreary piano solo with occasional irrelevant and unnecessary interjections from the cello, but I do recall that I rather liked it.

Naxos 8572499

Chopin also wrote some songs, but through the whole of 2010, at least here in southeast Asia, all we had was back-to-back piano solo music.  A total waste of a bicentenary!  Surely that's an excuse, if ever there was one, for resurrecting the works which do not usually get to be heard in public.  By chance, however, returning to the UK for the first time for several months, I found waiting for me among a huge box of CDs for consideration, one devoted to Chopin's songs.  Intrigued, I sat down and listened to it straight away and have to say it gave me rather a lot of pleasure.  I was a bit perplexed by the fact that the "Complete Songs" amounted to 23 – all the reference books seem pretty fixed on the number 19 – but then I realised four of them were the Pauline Viardot arrangements of four of the Mazurkas (arrangements which Chopin himself was not entirely complimentary about, and I don't blame him given the dreadfully silly Aime-moi), but with the Op.74 songs as well as the two without opus numbers, we get authentic Chopin songs, sung in their original Polish (mostly written around the time he went into exile and, therefore, expressing powerful feelings of nostalgia for Poland).  The four Viardot songs are in French.

The disc doesn't feature a genuine Polish soprano – Olga Pasichnyk is Ukrainian, although she did study in Warsaw and was a member of the Warsaw Chamber Opera – but she has a real feel for the idiom (listen to the haunting quality she brings to the magical unaccompanied phrases of Špiew z mogily) and, greatly aided by the uncannily perceptive partnership she has with her pianist sister Natalya, those songs which are little more than piano solos with optional voice (Žyczenie and Wojak being the most blatant examples) come across compellingly, while the truly integrated songs – perhaps Moja pieszczotka is the finest example – vie almost with some of the Schumann songs of the same period.

Most effective of all are those songs where the piano adds colour but leaves the musical meat to the singer (Wiosna and the almost Grieg-like Poseł) and in these the excellent Pasichnyk sisters provide a real glimpse of what might have been had Chopin ever been able to tear himself away from the piano even for a single opus number.  For all its poetic potential and self-sustainability, the piano is still a very limited musical instrument, and in these songs Chopin's vocabulary just seems to take on wholly new dimensions.  You can hear in the tragic poise of, say, Melodia, echoes of some of the great piano pieces, but how the perspective is enlarged and opened up simply by the presence of a voice.  Chopin has to write melodies which have shape and direction, and do not just survive on the charming pianistic effects he can create. 

When you think of it, Chopin should have been a natural writer for the human voice; he was happy to pour out oodles of expressiveness into his music (singers like to be expressive), he wore his emotions on his sleeve (singers like to do that too), he relished moments of high drama (what singer doesn't) and, although it can be overdone, his music cries out for the rhythmic freedom of rubato (and if there's one thing a singer hates it's being confined within a firm beat), and these songs show that he had it in him to be a magnificent song composer.  How I wish he'd stuck at it.  I might be less inclined to incur the disapprobation of Chang Tou Liang.

16 February 2011

Belshazzar's Feast

Some years ago a group of ladies who were active supporters of the arts in Malaysia invited me to give a talk introducing the new season of concerts at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS.  They wanted me to point out the highlights, suggest concerts they should attend and, most importantly, make sure they all knew which concerts were so important that no self-respecting supporter of the arts would dare not attend.  It was very difficult.  That season a decision had been taken not to invite guest orchestras or big name soloists, and without the draw of famous names or the fascination of strange orchestras, it was difficult to engage their interest.  I realised, not for the first or the last time, that for many people, classical music is very much personality driven.

Detail from sleeve of the Adrian Boult
recording for the Pye label

How I wish that talk could have been this year and to a group of Singaporeans, for there's a concert coming up which, while it features neither big name soloists nor unfamiliar choirs, orchestras or conductors, is nevertheless an absolute must for any supporter of the arts or, indeed, any music-lover.  On Friday 15th April the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are performing Walton's Belshazzar's Feast.  I've sung in it, played in it and would have given my right arm to conduct it (although that would rather have defeated the purpose, I suppose) and it remains the one work which comes closest to being that elusive thing, "my favourite composition".  Funnily enough, I don't have any really outstanding recordings of it, and I couldn't point you to one off the top of my head.  But that's because it is one of the very, very few works I can summon up at a moment's notice on any occasion and in any situation from my memory, so firmly etched is it into my consciousness.  My personal portable performance is probably an amalgam of some unforgettable performances I've heard in the past.

I first heard it in Gloucester Cathedral during the Three Choirs Festival in, I think, 1970 conducted by Christopher Robinson and with the peerless Raimund Herincx as baritone soloist..  I sat mesmerised (there's no other word for it) by the sheer sound of it, those off-stage brass bands echoing through the dark aisles and around the transepts (the brass bands being a last minute addition when Thomas Beecham, who deciding the work would be a flop, had suggested to the composer shortly before its premiere at the Leeds Festival of 1931; "As you'll never hear the thing again, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?").  That performance was most memorable for the great choral shout of "Slain" which had such a physical impact that a bevy of bats was disturbed and flew madly about the cathedral's west end.  It could have been disturbing, even amusing, but it was actually electrifying.

Then there was the unforgettable André Previn performance at the Royal Festival Hall a few years later when a hugely popular baritone soloist got so overwrought at the climax of his great recitative that, after a spellbinding lead up - "Praise Ye.  Pra-ay-ay-ay-ay-aise ye.  The Go-od of…" - he allowed his Cornish roots to burst through in a great cry of "Gaw-awd".  You could have heard a pin drop as the entire audience waited with bated breath to see whether the LSO chorus would copy his extraordinary enunciation in their great choral restatement; but in the event they were as good as Gold.

I think it was at the Albert Hall – maybe even a Prom – when I first heard the glorious Willard White in the role, and the vision of his dark, austere, forbidding demeanour and his mighty, magisterial voice, sent great pulses of awe through my body, causing every hair to stand on end and the blood to run cold.

With all these great performances so firmly embedded in the memory the Singapore performance on 15th April will have a lot to live up to.  But the great thing is, no matter what they do, it will set all those memories running again in my head and I know I will come out of the performance as excited and enervated as I was 40 years ago.  The American soloist, Stephen Powell, is a new name to me, but the Singaporean conductor, Lim Yau is not, and I have no doubt he's going to come up with a marvellous performance; he always does, whatever the work.  How the choir, in particular, will respond is of more interest to me since, in the first half, they are performing a work about as different from Belshazzar's Feast as it's possible to get, the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms.

The two works might be as different as chalk and cheese – the Walton powerful, blazing in its imagery and painted in a myriad colours, the Stravinsky discreet, intimate and focussing on rhythm above expression – but they both have a dear place in my heart.  I've not only sung in, played in AND conducted the Stravinsky, but the ethereal "Alleluya" remains one of my most Magical Musical Moments of all time.  Some years ago I took part in a charity show in which eight critics were invited to list and explain the one musical moment – a single chord, a short phrase or the setting of a single word – they could not live without.  I chose the Stravinsky and, I readily confess, I would again.

15 February 2011

Who needs Graded Music Exams?

Doing some background reading for my book – a work which has been in progress, it seems, since the day I was born and still shows no signs of significant progress – I came across three different musicians who proudly boasted that they had never done a graded music examination in their lives.  "So what?" was my immediate reaction.  There is no obligation on anyone to do graded music exams and whether or not you do them has no bearing on your subsequent musical career.  A phrase I commonly trot out when talking to teachers and parents is that Mozart didn't do graded music exams and it didn't seem to stifle his development as a composer.

Of course, that's daft. Graded music exams didn't exist in Mozart's day and who's to say whether he might not have benefitted from them.  It's very easy to suggest Mozart was a dazzling genius and assume that's enough, but in fact he was not without his faults.  I am always vaguely amused by those private music schools in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore who call themselves "Little Mozarts" or "Mozart Kids" (sometimes with a z in place of an s to emphasise the fact they are interested in the musical rather than the orthographic development of their students); I'd never send my child there simply because, if they are training the children to become like Mozart, they are in effect training them to become social misfits.

I can think of two or three successful concert pianists who did go through the mill of graded music exams, but the vast majority of successful musicians around today have never been near one.  I recall explaining to incredulous musicians from the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra exactly what graded music exams were; most of them originally came from Eastern Europe or North America where such things are largely unheard-of, and it certainly hadn't hampered their musical development.  And, if graded music exams really are important, how come they never came into being until some wise guy at Trinity College London devised them in 1877?  (A full 12 years before the ABRSM, the two London-based boards to this day dominating graded music exams around the world.)

The fact is, graded music exams came into being because there was a need for such things then and, from the vast numbers of candidates sitting the exams, there is a clearly a need for such things now.  The trouble is the innumerable students, teachers and parents who are actively associated with them, don't fully understand what they are all about; and that mass ignorance seriously diminishes their value in the eyes of the musical world.  For many people, graded music exams are an irrelevance and should be left alone, but for many others, they serve as a useful and essential role in musical development.

The original and continuing force generating the need for graded music exams is the unregulated approach to musical instrument teaching which exists in the majority of countries worldwide.  Anyone can set up business as a piano teacher and nobody knows whether they are any good or not.  Parents, keen that their child should experience the many and real benefits that accrue from learning a musical instrument, have no means of judging how good a teacher is (unless, of course, those parents are themselves professional musicians and, therefore, would know how to bypass the whole system anyway).  On top of that, conscientious teachers, anxious not to damage the development of their students, have no means of knowing whether or not their teaching methods are correct.  And students, failing to grasp the long-term objectives of frequent lessons, quickly lose interest if there is no short-term goal in sight. 

All of these issues are neatly addressed by the graded exam system. It offers an independent annual assessment (which is what it is intended to be, carried out over the eight years perceived to be the standard length between first taking up an instrument and achieving real proficiency at it) using well structured criteria which are in the public domain.  From these graded exam results parents can develop an informed opinion as to a teacher's ability, the teachers can see whether or not their teaching methods are on a par with those of their peers around the world, and students have a clear goal to work for.  On top of that, the assessors are well trained professionals who will hear in a year countless more students on countless more instruments than any single teacher will in a lifetime, so are able to give a global perspective on a single teacher's work.  If a teacher's students are getting distinctions at grade five, they're not being measured just against their neighbours but against every student at grade five across the entire world.  And, speaking for both Trinity and ABRSM, the examiners are impartial and disinterested observers who are trained to a level whereby it is just about impossible for personal issues to cloud ultimate judgements.  

All well and good, so far. Why, then, would anyone denigrate this educational nirvana? 

The problem lies largely in perceptions.  Parents, teachers and students too often perceive that the graded music exam is the ultimate goal in music education.  In southeast Asia it has long since become a competitive sport:  Who can get the highest marks, who can get the highest grade at the youngest age, and who can get through the highest number of exams in a year.  All this leads, in turn, to the exam assuming disproportionate importance.  Too many students are put off music for life because a teacher pushes them too hard – a bad result could affect their professional standing – or because a parent is over-ambitious on their child's behalf – Emma got 140 at her Grade 8, you've got to do better than her.  Fear and anxiety come into play when these should have no place in a child's musical education; the result becomes the guiding principle of doing the exam rather than the skills that are accumulated in its preparation.  Nothing in the system is designed to prevent this, and so the system itself is blamed for the mis-perceptions of its adherents. 

Of course, despite the fact that they are officially charities, both Trinity and ABRSM have a strong commercial incentive for their exams to be taken, and while the examiners and the academic administrators may rail against such mis-perceptions of the system, one is always conscious of a lack of real desire to have it changed from those mythical people ultimately "in charge" of the organisations which administer the exams.  Both boards have moved their business away from merely providing exam assessments to capitalising on the desire teachers have for professional support – I attended one meeting in which one of the boards claimed that, in a few years, graded exams would no longer be their "core business" – but that philanthropic headline only masks the very real commercial need for students to keep doing graded music exams.  They are now big business, and while ABRSM has long been a monolithic, impersonal body where everyone involved has the feeling of just being a cog in mighty wheels, Trinity is rapidly following suit, the charming (and very important) local autonomy given to dedicated representatives, rapidly being swept aside in a growing centralisation driven by ever-increasing candidate numbers.

For a great many teachers, students and parents, graded music exams are necessary and hugely beneficial.  I've been an examiner for 30 years – 20 with ABRSM, 10 with Trinity – and I am passionate about its value and importance.  Recognising its shortcomings doesn't diminish my dedication as an examiner, and while most of my examiner colleagues prefer to maintain a wisely discreet silence, keeping their opinions on the matter close to their chests, I am proud to stand up and say that, while it's a flawed system, until anyone devises a better one, I support it one hundred percent.

14 February 2011

Who Needs Critics?

Quite a number of websites and blogs devoted to classical music have started up in the past few months many of which, I gather, have been created by music critics axed from their regular spots in the columns of newspapers in the US and UK.  When it comes to belt-tightening and making economies, classical music coverage, as a perceived niche interest, is an obvious target. 

When you have been used to churning out several hundred words a week about some musical topic or other, and spent countless hours sitting in concert halls one part of the brain on the music, the other on composing your review, you cannot easily break the habit.  So it's perfectly understandable that all these critics, denied their usual outlets for literary expression, have created their own.

There are, in fact, a great many benefits in running your own blog rather than supplying your copy to a newspaper.  You have none of the harsh limitations on words (something I have taken to heart as I pour out words by the thousand, gratefully released from the tyranny of "400 words max"), nor yet an obligation to fill space when you have nothing to say ("700 words please on new music for the clavichord" when I'm lucky if I can make 70).  There's no sub-editor around to annihilate your copy with random cuts, no arts editor with a hidden agenda wanting you to slant your copy this way or the other, and no restraints on what you say.  Nobody buys adverts on the blog, so you can be rude as you like to, say, Naxos, and not suffer the financial consequences, and you have a much better idea of your readership, and they have a better understanding of you, so you know exactly where to pitch your posts.

It all rather begs the question, why bother to maintain classical music criticism in newspapers? 

The critics who review recordings have an easy answer.  No matter what the Prophets of Doom tell us about the demise of the classical music recording industry, there are still far more new releases each month than any single human being can cope with (look at the back pages of Gramophone or International Record Review and you'll see exactly what I mean) and the job of the critic is to guide the public through that maze, pointing them in interesting directions and steering them away from the obvious dead ends, while providing enough information to let each individual form their own purchasing decisions.  At the same time, they feed back to the record companies a (relatively) disinterested opinion on the success or otherwise of their product.  The public may occasionally write to record companies when they have a particular axe to grind, but the critics are the only reliable source of audience feedback for them. 

It's much less easy to justify a review of a one-off, live concert in a non-specialist newspaper.  There are, as most would agree, two obvious functions to this.  Firstly, for the artist it offers valuable commentary on the success or otherwise of their performance.  In a critic you have someone who knows about music, who has a lot of concert-going experience, can compare like with like and whose opinion is clearly based on knowledge and experience.  You may fundamentally disagree with the critic, you may feel he has misunderstood your intentions, but at the end of the day, he is offering a listener's perspective on your work, and, as such, has to be taken seriously even if he is then ignored. 

Secondly, the critic presents a focus for the public who may wish to consolidate their own opinions by first reading someone else's.  We are all reticent about giving our opinion on something we know little about (although that doesn’t stop most), and it helps to have a solidly-based viewpoint to use as the foundation for a less confidently-held one.   Critics are well used to hearing their own views passed off by others; great society discussions are based on what someone else has said about something, and when you quote a critic, you are safe in the knowledge that the opinion holds water, even if others vehemently disagree with it.  It's an aspect of the newspaper critic's role which is often overlooked, but he undoubtedly enriches the fabric of society by providing an assertive opinion.

There is, however, one even more valuable role the critic in the newspaper industry plays.  The critic provides a very useful barometer to the cultural environment of the newspaper's home territory.  While the UK and US might be busily expunging all non-essential matter from their newspapers in an attempt to cut costs, they are also inadvertently painting a picture of an encroaching cultural desert afflicting those nations.  Those who might never go near a concert hall or recital studio, nevertheless are conscious that such things exist because they notice them as they scan through their daily newspapers on the commute into work.  Suddenly, they've disappeared, so the inference to be drawn is that classical music itself has been cut and the quality of life correspondingly diminished.

Compare that with the situation in Hong Kong and Singapore, where hardly a day goes by without either the South China Morning Post or the Straits Times reporting on a Classical music event.  Indeed, things have reached the stage at the Straits Times now that their esteemed music reviewer, Chang Tou Liang, is so overwhelmed by the classical music events he is called upon to cover for the paper that he's been obliged to call me in to help him out on occasions. 

It's certainly not just a case of editors wanting to fill column inches on broadsheet papers which take pride in their daily bulkiness.  I have never seen any figures or heard any statements to support this claim, but I would reckon that both papers are read by as many outside these two territories as by those who live in them.  Whenever I check into a Shangri-La Hotel anywhere in the world, they offer me a South China Morning Post, both newspapers are handed out free in hotels in Hong Kong and Singapore, and passengers on both Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines always find a copy of the carrier's respective national daily at their seat. I knew that both Hong Kong and Singapore has active classical music scenes long before I ever visited them, because I read about them in the papers I picked up on aircraft.  People who get on a plane in London expecting Singapore to be simply a four-hour transit are quickly disabused when they read in the "Life!" supplement of the Straits Times that, a couple of days before, there were concerts, recitals, operas and whatever else taking place.  By the time they arrive in Sydney, having had the following day's paper to digest, they realise that Singapore is not just a comfortable transit lounge, but a vibrant artistic hub too. 

The newspaper critic might not increase either the paper's circulation or audience numbers to concerts, but the role they perform in promoting a country's artistic environment is invaluable. Entertaining as they are, blogs can never perform this function (unless, of course, you check out Chang Tou Liang's Pianomania blog in which he posts all of his Straits Times reviews to provide an astonishing overview of Singapore's musical life over the past few years), so I say Long Live the Newspaper Music Critic; he's much more valuable to you than you realise.

And, as an afterthought, there is always G K Chesterton's neat definition; "The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic".

12 February 2011

More Mahler Mania

In Hong Kong, Edo de Waart continues his protracted survey of the Mahler symphonies with what promises to be an unforgettable account of the Sixth next weekend (18th and 19th Feb).  I love his Mahler and am only sorry that a family funeral in the UK will keep me away (and, incidentally, my apologies for not being there to give the usual pre-concert talk on Friday); I still recall his fantastic Seventh back in September.  In Malaysia, Claus Peter Flor will be doing the Ninth on 7th and 8th May - an absolute must for any true-blooded Mahlerians - while the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra are still on a high after their tremendous efforts in the First back in December.  In Singapore, not forgetting Rattle's riveting take on the First during the Berlin Phil's brief visit last November, Lan Shui brought the Singapore Symphony's complete survey of all the Mahler symphonies to a spine-tingling close a couple of weeks back with the Ninth, and their DVD of the Tenth, taken live from their performances of the Clinton Carpenter completion has now hit the shops (and their online shop which you'll find on their website - follow the link).  Mahler's still very much alive and kicking in South East Asia, memorable performances popping up with frightening frequency.

I still reckon that last year's performance of the Second in Singapore by the Orchestra of the Music Makers was, in its special way, the most exciting of them all and, as luck would have it, I've been afforded the rare luxury of being able to go back to the review I wrote after their live performance and reconsider it.  They have brought out the performance, taken live and with no obvious editing, on CD.   I have to say I sat down and listened to it with a certain trepidation; when you review a live performance you don't always want your words thrown back in your face.  Yet, if anything, I understated the case.  True, I missed the near-catastrophic opening of the Urlicht - but then that's such a terribly difficult entry that very few ever do get it totally right - and wind intonation did falter rather more than I had first suggested.  But I also missed the incredible tautness and visionary sense of architecture Chan Tze Law brought to the performance.  I was so bowled over by the orchestra's playing, that I forgot about the interpretation.  And I apologise, now, that a truly inspirational reading of this mighty score was, perhaps, not as highly praised then as it should have been.

Nevertheless, for those who missed the original post, you'll find it at http://drmarcrochester.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/mahler-mania/ 
and I stand by every word!

An Award-Winning Writer

(This post first appeared on drmacrrochester.wordpress.com on New Year's Day this year)

Always at this time of year there is a plethora of awards being handed out left, right and centre. I, myself, have had to vote for awards here, there and everywhere – for best CD of the year, for best performance of the year, for best up-and-coming young musician of the year, and so on – and so it comes as a pleasant surprise actually to receive one from an unexpected quarter. In its Year End round-up of the Arts Scene in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post named me as “the most consistent aspect of this year’s classical concert scene”. True, it did rather temper the honour by suggesting that, handing it to the writer of programme notes rather than a performer, was “a touch outrageous”, but I accepted it with a good grace and feel honoured that my work in Hong Kong – I’ve been writing the notes for the HKPO since 2004 – has been recognised. It has, however, prompted me to cogitate a little on the work of the writer in the music world. I’ve always had a problem explaining to others exactly what my profession is.

If I tell them that I am a musician, they immediately assume I’m a performer and ask me what instrument I play. I could tell them that I play the organ, but as almost every organist I know is terminally dreary, I don’t like to tar myself with the same brush – even if I am myself terminally dreary. (And, as if to prove a point, I’ve just been interrupted in the writing of this post by a 35 minute call from an organist in London who wanted my views on how to play a couple of bars of one of Mendelssohn’s most dreary organ pieces – one which even he had the good sense to discard – and wouldn’t take seriously my earnest urgings not to play it at all.)

If I tell them that I am a musician who writes, they immediately assume I compose. And, to be perfectly frank, there’s nothing in the world I’d want to do less. Composers are, in my experience, either chronic alcoholics or utter weirdoes, often both, and the world is awash with ghastly new music which gets played (if at all) once and is then passed over by all except the composer who feels that it’s worth sending round to anyone unfortunate enough to have their names listed in some list of music critics. To feel that I might be one of that barmy army of congenital third and fourth raters who not only foist their horrible attempts at composition on others, but have the nerve to think that it might be worth hearing, is too much to bear.

With thanks to the MPO who drew up this flattering caricature
to go with  my by-line in their concert programme-notes.
So I tell them I am a professional listener. That really gets them. After all, like driving, just about everyone thinks they do it, so they don’t appreciate that anyone might do it for a living. More than that, as with driving, as everyone can do it badly, they assume that bad is the norm and have no perception that there are advanced skills to be learned before you can do it professionally. (Just go on to the roads and you will see what I mean; whether it’s the spotty youth in his Dad’s Lamborghini in Singapore, the nerdy student in his souped-up Proton in Malaysia or the blatantly halitosis-laden taxi-driver in Hong Kong.) Yet the one thing driving all my professional life is listening. As a critic I have to listen intently to pick up the salient points in a single sitting (if it’s a concert review) or in a concentrated period of time (if it’s a CD review). As an examiner I have to listen with extreme concentration in order to produce a fair assessment of what may be the deciding test in someone’s career. And as a commentator on music (which is what a programme note writer is) I have to listen in order to guide the readers through the maze of what they are to hear, be it a dreary organ performance or a ghastly new composition. I have tastes – likes and dislikes – but they have to be set aside when it comes to guiding others through the music; my job is to encourage others to listen and enjoy, not to get them to pre-judge according to my own tainted taste-buds.

Listening to music for a living is no easy task, and it has taken years of hard work to develop a good pair of ears. Nobody teaches you how to listen (perhaps they should – it would certainly help built up a solid audience for music in the future) and nobody appreciates the sacrifices that have to be made before you can really listen to classical music. I cannot, for example, sustain any sort of conversation when there is music going on in the background – it acts as a magnet to my ears and holds them close, obscuring all non-musical sounds – so attending parties is an activity long lost to me. Similarly, I cannot concentrate on financial transactions when there is music playing, which rules out most shopping centres or malls. I can’t go to gyms, since physical exercise has now become irremediably associated with pulsating rock music. Travelling on long-distance coaches – once the highlight of my life – went the day they introduced in-coach hi-fi. When I drive, the radio has to be tuned to talk radio only, which means no radio when driving in Malaysia. When I am put on hold by a telephone operator, I drop the call, for invariably some music is thrown down the line at me. And as for visiting bars or dining in almost any restaurant, that’s a pleasure long gone.

Indeed, it was my hideous experience in a KL Delifrance which finally brought home to me just how different my approach to listening was from that of the vast majority of my fellow man. Obliged to ask the manager to turn off the loud rap music playing at lunch time, I suggested that the lyrics – “You f****** c********* have f***** your mother******* mothers” – were possibly inappropriate to the families gathered there, only to be told, not only that nobody else had complained, but that he had never noticed the words before, and doubted whether anyone else had. Looking at happy Muslim, Chinese and Indian families all chewing their imitation meat in boiled bread-type sandwiches, limp lettuce leaves and cocky cockroaches peeking out from under the soggy crusts, I realised that he was right; people simply don’t listen.

So, as the possessor of a rare and thankless skill, I find it all the more welcome to be honoured and awarded. Thanks, SCMP, I’m approaching my work with renewed vigour. (And if you want to read those Awards in full, you can find them in the South China Morning Post arts pages for 17th December 2010.)

11 February 2011

Watching the Conductors

A youthful ambition – ultimately fulfilled – to become a bus driver led to months working as a bus conductor before I was finally allowed into the cab.  Even for a bus conductor, the training was surprisingly intense; three days dealing with such issues as operating ticket machines, handling change, dealing with passengers, changing the destination blind and, I kid you not, operating the bell (apparently those long ropes which used to be strung along the inside of double-deckers were prone to stretching and we were shown the way to get them to ring clearly and precisely even when they were drooping down well below head level).  When I finally stood on the platform in charge of my first solo No.9 I felt confident that I was adequately equipped to handle whatever the world of stage bus travel could throw at me.

Compare that with my first solo outing as a conductor of music.  What training had prepared me for the ordeal?  None.  When I stood up in the aisle of Guildford Cathedral to conduct (I was assistant organist of the church slated to sing Evensong that day and, as the anthem was Harwood's O How Glorious, the Organist decided he wanted to play - and who can blame him, just look at the first page!) all I had behind me was the aural test in my graded ABRSM piano exams which obliged me to beat two, three or four in a bar to a rigid pattern.  When, years later, the ABRSM announced its intention to abandon this test, I stood up half jokingly to say that it was a bad idea since this was the only proper conducting training most British cathedral organists ever received, and was shocked when the British cathedral organists amongst the assembled throng of examiners all agreed.  When, at university, I was obliged to conduct an entire concert of Palestrina, the ABRSM training did not really help and the final straw came when a choral society I conducted along the North Wales coast, performed The Country Beyond the Stars by Daniel Jones. 

The choral parts are straightforward enough, but there is a central orchestral symphony ("Joyful Visitors") which runs in an alternating 3/4, 3/8 time signature, and I couldn't handle that at all.  The society had booked members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to play and, after sitting down and going over it with their excellent concert-master, he suggested I just tried to hit the down beats and they would do the rest.  I have to say, despite this difficulty, any choral society with a competent conductor should attempt The Country Beyond the Stars; it's a fantastic sing, a great piece for the audience and, astonishingly, since Charles Groves recorded it with the WNO chorus in 1972, I don't think it's ever been recorded again (although the Groves has come out again on a Lyrita CD).  For my part, though, I decided I'd abandon conducting unless and until I could get some proper training.

That was hard to come by and I was advised that most conductors came from within the ranks of orchestras and were mostly violinists (which surprises conducting friends of mine who claim that, apart from the guys in the front two desks, no violinist would ever recognise a conductor if they met him in the street) and I would do better just to sit and observe.  I've been sitting and observing thousands of conductors' backs and hundreds of their fronts for years and still haven't fathomed out what the secret is.  Of course, as with all musicians, the real work is done behind the scenes, but unlike other musicians, when the conductor is on stage most of the audience takes all that for granted and judges you simply on how you look.  If a conductor looks graceful, easy and in command, he's good; if he looks stiff, awkward and panic-stricken, he's lousy.  This probably explains why there are so few really top-flight female conductors; musically they are every bit as good as male ones, and when it comes to orchestral discipline they are in a dictatorial league of their own, but when they are out there with their backs to the audience, few look entirely in their element.  Funnily enough when I first attended a concert given by the most successful female conductor around at the moment, I assumed the programme had printed her name incorrectly and that Marin Alsop was actually a man called Martin.  Nothing I saw at the concert disabused me of the belief that she was a male and I have a horrible feeling I was reviewing the concert for some newspaper or other and referred to her persistently as he; I haven't the nerve to go back into the archives and check.  My apologies to her for getting confused over sex, but to say that she looked like a man is, in a funny way, a great compliment.

A lot of conductors do come up through the ranks of an orchestra, but there is also much more work done to train conductors than ever was the case in my student days.  So it was thrilling that the Prize-winners' Concerts run by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory at the National University of Singapore this week and last, included one performance by a student conductor.  Wong Kah Chun has clearly got what it takes from the audience point of view; he looks at ease, looks natural and looks to be in command of the score (he was conducting Mastersingers Prelude from memory).  More than that, he's one of those conductors who, if you were unable to hear the music, you'd still be able to tell what he was directing, so strongly was he involved in the music.  He even added a touch of individuality at the end to make it a distinct, and musically cogent, interpretation.  True, the student orchestra was at times ragged and more than once they seemed to be leading him as cues came just that fraction of a second too late, but it's unfair to judge purely on what an orchestra of his peers, coming on to stage cold with a pretty daunting programme ahead of them, does, and my belief is that Wong Kah Chun has it in him to become a very good conductor.  With his fellow-Singaporean, Joshua Kangming Tan, having made a pretty impressive show in the performance of Carmen last month (see my post Singapore's Operatic Bellwether), I reckon that Singapore is becoming something of a breeding ground for fine conductors.

Given the exceptionally high standards Bernard Lanskey inspires from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory students, it certainly wasn't in any way surprising that all four concerto winners acquitted themselves magnificently.  Last week it was pianist Jonathan Shin and violinist Zhao Yi who wowed the audience, but without doubt for me the startling talent was that of Zhang Feng who gave last night an astounding account of Weber's Second Clarinet Concerto.  Nerves and inexperience led to rather longer breaks between movements than the audience was really comfortable with, but in every other respect his was an astonishing performance, full of character, drama and wit, elegance and humour, and revealing a quality of tone and control which only the very top soloists usually muster.  This is clearly a player to watch; my money is on Zhang Feng from China becoming one of the big clarinet names in the near future.

But even Zhang Feng's brilliant clarinet performance was not the musical highlight of these concerts.  That came with the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto.  Xie Tian was certainly a fine soloist, impassioned and totally committed to the music, although he needs to work on his vocalisations – at times they drowned out the sound of his own cello.  But it wasn't his performance that turned this into an unforgettable musical experience, it was that of conductor Jason Lai.

It might seem insensitive to praise above the students the Conservatory's professional conductor, but this was a real revelation.  I've known and admired Jason Lai's work for years.  He impresses me as an astute musician, an alert conductor, a fine communicator and one of those few people with a real gift of making music accessible to all.  He's been doing fantastic things in Hong Kong with his Babies' concerts and he's well-known for his work in de-mystifying the art of conducting through his television appearances.  But what he did here cast him in an entirely new light.  Jason Lai is an astonishingly astute Shostakovichian (is there such a word?).  His intensely focused reading, which had us all in thrall for the entire length of the Concerto, was so compelling, so thoroughly at one with the character and spirit of the music and so wholly absorbing in its far-sighted sense of architecture, that I honestly don't think I've heard such a convincing reading of a Shostakovich score before; certainly since the death of the composer.  Inspired by their conductor's visionary reading, the Conservatory's orchestra raised their game to a level where little separated them from a top-flight professional band, some individuals (notably the horn) shining above and beyond the very best orchestral musicians around.

If there's any orchestra out there looking for a charismatic conductor to lead them through some Shostakovich, or a record label keen to sign up an as-yet unsigned talent and reap rewards with a Shostakovich symphony cycle, Jason Lai is clearly the man.  And if, while he's with them, the local bus company needs conductors I'll happily come along too.  After all, I'm very well trained.

10 February 2011

Choral Athletics

Reading an article in a most impressive in-house magazine produced by a private music school in Singapore (My Musical Chamber – www.my-musical-chamber.com.sg) about the excellent Singapore Symphony Chorus, I was struck by the comment from one of the choir members that "talented young people get scared off by this crazy impression that we're all grey-haired has-beens".  What was more disturbing was the comment that "the oldest singer in the SSC is in his mid-fifties".  I'm undoubtedly into my mid-50s – in fact some would describe me as being on the wrong side of the mid-50s – and I had seriously considered auditioning for the choir.  I love choral singing and haven't been able to do any seriously since I left the Bangor University Choral Society in the 1980s.  With no choirs worth talking about in Malaysia, part of the joy in moving to Singapore was the very active choral scene here.  I had fully intended joining one, but now learn that I'm too old.  What happened to that lovely attitude we had in England where choral singing was one of the things people looked forward to after their retirement, and where choral societies recognised that mature voices were both reliable and solid?

Of course, the voice, like the body, deteriorates with age, and for a choir to be as good as the Singapore Symphony Chorus it needs not only a brilliant choral director (as it has in Lim Yau) but voices at the peak of their quality.  Sadly, as you grow older, vibrato, insecurity of pitch, an inability to sing in tune (a problem associated with deterioration in hearing) and a fondness for idle chatter with your neighbour, all conspire to make you unwelcome in choirs with an ambition to sound good.  

But in this mad rush to expunge everyone over 40 from the ranks of choirs, people forget that choirs can also sound too young.  Immature voices lack depth, singers lack artistic experience and musical judgement, and the desire to shine can lead to a disrespect for the ideals of ensemble to which any choir must aspire.  In an age when "Young is Good" seems to be the mantra which governs every aspect of daily life, it's too easy to think that young is always better than old; and in choral singing it very much is not.  I have yet to hear a choir of children or under-twenties sing with any real depth, colour or musical insight. Enthusiasm, yes, real emotion, no.

The trouble is, since young voices do not have the life experience to indulge in the emotional depth and artistic substance of the music they sing, their interest is kept alive by turning choral singing into some kind of competitive sport.  God forbid, there is even some ghastly and unsavoury thing called the "Choral Olympics"; I suppose these choral Olympians have already started to destroy their bodies with strict dietary and exercise regimes, and some are possibly even taking performance enhancing drugs.  That the social and life-enriching activity of choral singing should come to this prompts me to hold my chubby hands up in horror.  I am well aware that school Principals in south east Asia and the US – rarely people with any awareness of life beyond what they can quantify on a bit of paper – feel that the only way they can assess the quality of their school's choir is to force them into competitions and assume the results are in some strange way indicative of quality (which they manifestly are not), but they probably also believe that the only real benefits to accrue from athletics is a gold medal and any student who doesn't win one is merely wasting their time.  So - and for God's sake don't let the children read this - we can dismiss the misguided views of school principals.

There are unquestionable benefits in young people singing in a choir; teamwork, enhanced listening, reading and linguistic skills, emotional enrichment, increased historical and artistic perceptiveness, and a great many more.  But let's not confuse something which benefits children's developing minds with something which is a good musical product.  I've just been sent a disc for review of a very young choir – the UK-based Rodolofus Choir – performing Bach's B Minor Mass.  It is very good singing indeed from a technical point of view, and most choirs would envy their precision and clarity; they'd walk through any competition with their exceptional vocal stamina.  But, while my highly-respected colleague George Pratt waxes lyrical on it in the current BBC Music Magazine (a magazine I usually dismiss out of hand purely because they've never invited me to contribute) I fear his critical faculties have been clouded by their youthfulness.  My impression is of a colourless, soulless and light-weight presentation which fails to appreciate the work's position as one of the great pillars of western art music.  Simply, they lack the weight and substance which only comes with vocal and mental maturity.  I'm not for the old-fashioned, heavyweight "this-is-sublime-music-and-we-are-humbled-by-its-magnificence" approach prevalent in the 1960s and typified by the matchless Klemperer recording on EMI, but I do like to hear Bach performed with not just an understanding of its structure but a profound appreciation of its spiritual depth.  The B Minor Mass is not the preserve of the old, but don't be fooled into thinking that just because the singers are young and can rattle off the music's extreme technical demands with astonishing ease, it is in any way an exceptional performance.

Singing in a choir is a wonderful experience, and I urge everyone to indulge.  But I urge all choral directors of adult choirs to give up this manic pursuit of "young, fresh" voices.  Most choral music was never written with that kind of sound in mind, and it not only prevents choral performances from having real musical strength, but turns them into nothing more elevated than simple choral athletics; a sport where, once you are in your 20s, you are already way over the hill.

09 February 2011

The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra at 13

In recent weeks there's been a lot of activity in the chat rooms, on Facebook and on the MPO's own website concerning the orchestra's history and its future.  Orchestras are, by the very nature of things, organic, and growth often means changes which, at the time, seem unwelcome and perplexing to those most closely involved.  I'm as guilty as anyone to opposing change when I don't see the purpose of it, but I've learnt to sit back and wait before coming to a decision one way or the other.  That said, I don't like to see the true facts obscured by those who, in the heat of the moment, would happily re-write history, and I have been concerned that some versions of the MPO history have had some key-figures air-brushed out of them in order to minimise the effect of on-going changes to personnel and policy. 
I am and remain the most ardent supporter the MPO has, and I am also one of the few people who has been involved in it since its very beginnings.  I've kept a close record of all that has happened since 1997 and, one day, will tidy it up and publish it.  But, in the meantime, just to reassure those who may be worried that the history as published on the official website and  elsewhere has either been deleted or altered, I have unearthed the potted history I produced, in cooperation with the MPO Management, for inclusion in this season's calendar.  This history is still in the public domain and can be found in many MPO publications, but in case you missed it, here is how things stood in October 2010.
The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) gave its inaugural performance under founding Music Director Kees Bakels at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS (DFP), Kuala Lumpur, on 17 August 1998. Over the past twelve seasons it has consistently impressed and inspired audiences. 

The initial search in 1997 involved a worldwide audition tour resulting in a 105-member symphony orchestra made up of outstanding musicians from 25 nations - a remarkable example of harmony among different cultures and nationalities.

A host of internationally-acclaimed musicians has worked with the MPO, including Lorin Maazel, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Mstislav Rostropovich, Jiři Bélohlávek, Sir Neville Marriner, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Vadim Repin, Joshua Bell, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Truls Mørk and Simon Preston, many of whom have praised the MPO for its musical qualities and vitality.

Building on the pioneering work of his illustrious predecessors - Matthias Bamert, who held the post of Principal Conductor for three seasons, and Kees Bakels, who served as Music Director for seven - MPO Music Director, Claus Peter Flor, continues to expand the orchestra's enviable reputation for musical excellence by presenting the very best in orchestral music to Malaysian audiences. During the 10/11 season, the MPO performs over 100 concerts presenting a varied programme of orchestral music drawn from over four centuries, as well as chamber, contemporary and specially commissioned new music. It also encourages collaborations with local artists; last season opening with a sell-out Gala Concert featuring Malaysian piano prodigy Tengku Ahmad Irfan Tengku Ahmad Shahrizal performing alongside the MPO and Maestro Flor.

The MPO’s mission is to nurture an interest in classical music in Malaysia, and to nurture home-grown talent.  The MPO’s Education and Outreach Programme - ENCOUNTER, reaches beyond the concert platform to develop musical awareness, appreciation and skills through dedicated activities which include instrumental lessons, workshops and schools’ concerts.  ENCOUNTER has also arranged memorable events in such diverse venues as orphanages, hospitals, rehabilitation centres and community centres, thereby enriching the lives of those less fortunate members of Malaysian society. 

Encouraging and promoting new composers is also very much at the heart of the MPO's work and to this end the MPO Forum has been created. Last season, ENCOUNTER organised two concerts in conjunction with the MPO Forumplus presenting works from six local composers. Seeking to put Malaysia on the new music map, the MPO International Composers’ Award was initiated in November 2004 with interest shown from composers in over 40 countries.

The most recent manifestation of this commitment to furthering musical interest in the nation was the creation of the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (MPYO), coached by the MPO players and directed by MPO Associate Conductor Kevin Field.  The MPYO gave its inaugural concert at DFP on 25 August 2007 and followed this with a highly-successful tour of several cities in Peninsular Malaysia. In December 2008 the MPYO undertook a highly-successful tour of Sabah and Sarawak, and in December 2009 visited Singapore.

Touring has become an important ingredient in raising the MPO’s international profile. It has regularly visited the major cities of Malaysia as well as Singapore, while extended international tours have included Japan and Korea (November 2001), Australia (October 2004), China (September 2006), Taiwan (October 2007) and Japan (September 2009).

In its relatively brief existence the MPO has established itself as a respected recording orchestra. Thirteen CDs have so far been released, including eleven internationally for the Vox, BIS and Naxos labels. Last season the MPO collaborated for the first time with a local film studio - KRU Studios - to produce the soundtrack for movie ‘Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa’.