06 February 2011

Musical Riots

Whenever anyone observed that classical music was boring or elitist, someone else would usually counter with the tale of The Rite of Spring causing a riot at its Paris première in 1913.  I remember a colleague at university in the 1970s taking part in a radio phone-in which asked why classical music seemed to have such little effect on people’s lives; he told about Stravinsky’s score stirring up civil unrest, and voiced regret that modern music no longer had such power over its listeners.  You don’t hear people drawing attention to the Rite Riot so much these days, probably because riots are two-a-penny and they seem to be caused by nothing more than a bunch of bored lads getting drunk.

Of course, it wasn’t Stravinsky’s score which caused the riot but the ballet that it accompanied.  And that, in its way, is even more remarkable.  That people should riot because a stage production involved a certain amount of open sexual antics and included an orgy seems astonishing in an age where people would be more likely to riot when a stage production does NOT include all that (and a lot more besides).

But there is no doubt that the notorious riot did Stravinsky’s reputation no harm at all, so, naturally, others who wanted to be seen as the Bad Boys of Music tried to follow suit.  Most obvious was the case of Prokofiev who deliberately set out to emulate the Stravinsky episode in his ballet Ala and Lolli.  But it rather misfired.  For a start, while his respectable and wealthy parents may have been shocked by the story of primitive rituals on the shores of the Black Sea, nobody else was, and the ballet was never staged.  Not one to be deterred, Prokofiev released just the music as his Scythian Suite and hoped to stir a riot that way.  To a certain extent he succeeded, but the riot was only from the orchestra – and who cares about them, orchestras can’t behave properly anyway – and from the terminally dull academics in the audience – whose idea of a riot is to utter rude things over their mugs of coffee.

That Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite has it in it to stir up a full-scale riot was made plain when the Singapore Symphony Orchestra played it last night.  This was powerful, riveting and truly violent stuff.  I’ve never heard the orchestra play so loudly before and, more than that, I’ve never heard the SSO strings show such steely determination to rise above the pounding percussion and blazon brass.  To say that they gave a committed performance is understating the case; this was sheer grit and determination and the result was astounding.  It would, one felt, have been even more astounding had Kristjan Järvi had a firmer hand on the tiller, but his ultra-relaxed, laid-back style, going with the flow and enjoying the moment, rather than exerting any real sense of shape to the music, certainly gave the orchestra its head, and, boy, did they grab the opportunity with both hands.

The Prokofiev was the highlight of a concert in which the orchestra had to play an astonishing number of very difficult notes in remarkably quick succession.  The SSO rarely let us down; it was astonishing the power the brass had left in them when it came to the opening fanfare of the Janáček Sinfonietta, which closed the programme, and while that power had largely burnt itself out by the time the piece drew to its mighty conclusion, there was still enough there to pull off a remarkable coup.  Most remarkable in the Janáček was Jonathan Fox’s incredibly well-tuned timpani (has any critic ever commented positively on timpani tunings before? It’s not something one notices as a rule) which, hammered out by very hard sticks, rang with all the melodic clarity of a bell.

The problem with the concert – apart, that is, from a programme which was probably a little too unrelentingly colourful for both audience and orchestra – was that Järvi never really did anything to shape the music.  They may have been shortish pieces, but they still needed a sense of architecture which Järvi failed to deliver.  Neither did he do anything to draw out the many subtleties hidden in these four scores.  When the violins marched into Nielsen’s Marketplace at Isfahan (Aladdin Suite) like so many secret policemen at a Cairo riot, Järvi all but let the woodwind get trampled underfoot, losing the magic of that wonderfully dramatic moment when the strings walk away and we find the woodwind still there, singing with the same tune.  Orchestral ensemble was good, as the SSO will always be left to its own devices, but Järvi didn’t make it tight; everything seemed a little unfocused.

Such lack of subtlety and overall sense of fuzziness around the edges, made for a very uncomfortable account of the Scriabin Piano Concerto, but here the real problem lay in the Russian wunderkind, Yevgeny Sudbin.  He seemed on very unfamiliar territory indeed, feeling his way around the score and not helped by Järvi’s loose support. For most of the Concerto, only the orchestra seemed to know where they were going, but Sudbin usually managed to get in their way, clearly unaware that, unlike the Chopin concertos where the orchestra is very much the junior partner, Scriabin expects his orchestra to do something worthwhile.  Uneasy with the music’s all-too-frequent calls for delicacy, Sudbin was clearly anxious to get somewhere else.  Where that was remained a mystery until the Concerto was over; it certainly wasn’t the work’s ending he was eager to reach, that fell desperately flat.

It turned out to be the encores.  Clearly a man with a mission – the mission being to fit in as many as he could irrespective of whether they were called for or not – every time Sudbin appeared on stage to accept the applause, he sat down at the piano and rattled his way through a series of pieces (there was Rachmaninov, Scarlatti and something which could have been Shostakovich, but I don’t really care, I’d like not to hear it again) in which dazzling virtuosity was very much to the fore (and truly breathtaking it was in the Scarlatti) and musicianship just about non-existent.  He achieved his goal, though.  From the very lacklustre response the audience gave him for the Concerto (which was, after all, why he was there), by the end of the third encore, they were on their feet, ready, it would seem, to leap on stage and rip the poor man’s ill-fitting jacket off him in a bid to get him to dazzle them with some more lightning fingerwork.  There was a riot at this concert; a riotous scrum as autograph hunters scrambled to get the piano man’s autograph in the 20 minutes the Esplanade allocated for such dubious activities.

Sudbin had appeared on stage in a jacket so tight that he had to undo it before he could sit down at the piano – I’ve seen more fleshy beanpoles than Sudbin’s gaunt frame, so to find a jacket THAT tight was quite some achievement – and as he played he looked for all the world like some tired clerk who was late for work and forgot to put on his tie.  Järvi decided to wear the tightest pair of trousers – so tight that he periodically had to pull them down when they rucked up above the knee – and a body-hugging frock coat.  His frequent lifting of the feet also revealed to us a pair of shoes so new we could almost read the price tag on the soles.  Both men looked uncomfortable and faintly ridiculous from behind, and I am tempted to ask, not for the first time, why is it that conductors and soloists are increasingly tempted to wear unconventional and often inappropriate dress on stage?  I know that, for Singaporeans, attending a classical music concert is a dress down occasion (we had the ultimate disgrace of two baseball caps in the front row last night) but the artists really shouldn’t go down that route unless, God forbid, their real goal is to draw attention to themselves rather than the music they play.  There’s a very good reason why certain dress has been accepted as the norm on a concert platform, and before you change it you would do well to take a long and hard look at what you are going to wear before you foist it on your public; unless you do, there’s every chance you’ll create, not a riot, but riotous laughter.

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