Blogs – and this one is no exception – are not for those in search of reliable facts, incontrovertible truths or balanced arguments. Responsible bloggers (and I hope I’m one) do try to check their facts, write responsibly and be as accurate as they can while expressing opinions which are entirely and singularly personal. But, without the filters of sub-editors, editors, legal advisers (a body of people to whom much of my copy seems to have been sent in the past) and, most especially, a critically-alert and educated readership which is part and parcel of writing for the print (and broadcast) media, a blog can never be quite so reliable. Decades of working as a journalist, writer and broadcast script-writer have made the double-checking of facts and careful balancing of arguments second nature, and although the freedom of the blog allows me to say things I would never commit to the discipline of print, I hope I keep a certain standard of decency and accuracy in what I write. I don’t expect it of all the others out there, but I do expect from certain quarters, so when I was directed to a blog from the Daily Telegraph I assumed I’d find truth, accuracy and decency, even if I also found a strong personal opinion.
(For the benefit of the vast majority in south east Asia who live in ignorance of such matters, I should here explain why the Daily Telegraph would lead me to expect high standards. Interviewed on television recently the actor Harrison Ford said of American breakfast television news that “you can always find a news programme telling you what you want to hear”. The British press is much the same. There are numerous different daily papers each offering up the same news but slanting their reporting and their comments in a myriad ways to cater for most levels of political acuity, cultural background, social standing and intelligence. There are broadsheets (offering expansive and detailed writing), tabloids (punchy and dealing primarily in headlines) and the ones in the middle (I forget what these are called, but titles like The Guardian take this form), there are those assuming a predilection amongst the readership for liberal thought, for firm adherence to the establishment ideas and for those who like to see naked and buxom flesh intertwined with headlines. In short, British newspapers provide news in just about any coating you want.)
Amongst the UK press, the Daily Telegraph has long been my paper of choice. I don’t side totally with its politics, but I am more in tune with its opinions than any others, I relish the broadsheet layout and I adore its focus on literate and educated writing. I assumed those standards percolated through to its bloggers. So I was amazed to read in one Daily Telegraph blog something which, while neither inaccurate nor dishonest, struck me as at the very least disingenuous.
Writing about the Singapore Symphony’s recent tour of London, the blog (by Damian Thompson) included this amazing pair of sentences; “I suggest that the SSO under its Chinese-born maestro Lan Shui could become one of the great orchestras of the 21st century. To be fair, so could its regional rival, the Malaysian Philharmonic – but the latter was bought rather than grown, if you get my drift.” Yes, Mr Thompson, I get your drift, and it’s wildly, wildly off course.
We’ll come to the astonishing claim about the SSO in a moment, but what shocked me was that bit about the MPO being bought, and the obvious insinuation that, because of this, the orchestra’s musical worth is diminished. What bloody rot! What professional orchestra has not been bought? Do the musicians of the SSO pay their own way? Do the Berlin Phil, the Vienna Phil, the New York Phil, the LSO, the LPO, the BBCSO play for free? Of course they don’t. Every professional orchestra comprises players who have been bought, in the sense that someone has given money to pay their fees/salaries. It might be an airline, it might be a broadcaster, it might be a national government, it might be an imprisoned Canadian fraudster or weirdly reclusive twin-brothers (sorry to bring up old sores, Mr Thompson), or it might be an oil company. Sorry to disabuse the Daily Telegraph blogging community, but orchestral musicians don’t do it for love, they do it for money and very few of them really care where it comes from.
The insinuation is obviously that the MPO is somehow a fraudulent orchestra; its players don’t come from Malaysia and have only been enticed to Malaysia by vast sums of petro-dollars. But aren’t English football clubs the same? Are there any Mancunians in Manchester United, west-Londoners in Chelsea or cockneys in West Ham (I don’t think there are any English either, but I don’t follow football and care so little about it I can’t be bothered to check my facts), so why adopt a different standard when it comes to orchestras? If Manchester benefits by having a gum-chewing Scot and 12 foreigners earning vast sums of cash running about on its ground once or twice a week, surely you can’t begrudge the benefits that befall Kuala Lumpur from having a coffee-drinking German and 100 foreigners playing on its stage five or six times a week, each earning a fraction of what a single Manchester United player does.
There is also the suggestion that, while the SSO has “grown” to achieve the level of excellence Damian Thompson observed in it, the MPO was born great, which further devalues its current claim to greatness. Many who are born great have to work hard to live up to expectations, whilst those who achieve greatness have none of that kind of pressure on them. That the MPO has managed to stay a great orchestra even after some of the appalling things it’s been through (periods of bad management, unfortunate personnel choices, problems with Music Directors, not to mention political and community opposition) surely only legitimises the initial greatness which Kees Bakels created with a bit of help from Malaysia’s off-shore oil reserves.
Damien Thompson attended the SSO concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall last month and was clearly impressed. So, I am pleased to say, were most of the London critical fraternity. I was supposed to be there but, at the last minute, family issues kept me away. However, long conversations with colleagues in London who did attend attest to the fact that the SSO clearly raised its game. Most I spoke to would never go so far as to suggest it was one of the world’s potential great orchestras, but clearly the SSO has it in it to do rather better than its Singapore norm.
Once an orchestra can be great in the eyes of its domestic audience – as the MPO undoubtedly is concert after concert – it is well on its way to being a great orchestra in the eyes of the world. But let’s not forget that greatness comes with a price, and to achieve greatness at home and abroad does mean your players, in effect, need to be bought. And that’s a truth no blogger can deny.