31 May 2011

The Relevance of Music Theory exams

Having spent a week marking theory exam papers and run round to DHL to courier them all off to London, I would usually now be sitting back and waiting for the cheque to come in.  It's never a particularly worthwhile wait since the remuneration is so meagre it barely covers the cost of running the air-conditioner and light while marking.  (You can't have the fan on as it blows the papers all over the place and keeping the windows shut to prevent the air-con burning out means that the anti-glare tint on the glass also blocks out most of the natural light.  I wonder if those of my British friends who envy my living in the "wonderful climate" of Singapore realise the privations we face on a daily basis.) This session, however, I feel a little more involved and have spent the last few hours collecting my thoughts on the papers I have been marking.

In the immediate run-up to this examination session I was traversing Malaysia giving seminars to teachers about the Trinity Guildhall theory exams, so I feel a little more involved this time.  Of course, the pearls of wisdom I passed on to the teachers will not have borne any fruit in these exams, but it was interesting to see if the impressions I gained from the seminars were reinforced by the results the candidates obtained. 

Of course, it would be entirely unethical of me to be in any way specific about the exams, not least because the candidates will not have had their results yet.  But before students start preparing for their November session, it might be timely to draw attention to a concern that has been strongly ignited by what I have seen this time from the papers I marked from south east Asia.

The first thing is something of a conundrum.  If any research student is looking for a topic for a post-graduate thesis on a music education, they might like to consider this.  In the past I have been conscious of the fact that exam results in music from students in Thailand are considerably better than those from the rest of the region.  More than that, from both my examining and my adjudicating visits to Thailand, I am well aware that Thai children not only perform better in music exams but have a generally higher standard of musical ability (the two are not in any way connected) than those in the rest of south east Asia.  The theory exams have only reinforced this observation.  Why?  Is it something in the genes of a Thai child (the number of foreigners taking exams in Thailand is too small from which to extract any kind of reliable pattern)?  Is it the culture of the country?  Or is it that Thai music teachers are unusually good?  I'd love to know the answer.  What added to my thoughts on this matter was the fact that students from the Malaysian state of Kelantan, which borders Thailand, generally seemed to do better in theory than students in other parts of the country.  I don't think this is a coincidence; it's too consistent a pattern for that.

The second thing is more serious, and led to some pretty horrific results especially from some city states (can I dare to be more specific?).  Take this grade 8 question as an example:  "Name three Baroque composers".  Not a single student got that right.  Those who attempted a response all listed Mozart (in various orthographic permutations) and some listed a composer called Jacob (who he?).  Here's another (from Grade 6); "List the woodwind instruments usually found in a Classical orchestra".  We had trumpets, trombones, tubas and, in one memorable case, a Jacob (what that?).  Of flutes, oboes and bassoons we barely got a whisper.

So what's the problem?  The problem is that candidates do not recognise a correlation between musical theory and musical practice.  Of course, by candidates, I really mean teachers, but you can't blame teachers entirely.  For historical reasons nobody seems to care much about musical theory and it's usually consigned to a few extra hours pinned on to a year's lessons from the piano teacher.  Specialist teachers of theory are as common in Asia as purple giraffes.  Now piano teachers, as we all know, are about as clued up on general musical matters as a Malaysian taxi driver is on safe driving, and for them theory means answering questions on a bit of paper.  That it might have some relevance to practical music completely escapes them.

The Trinity Guildhall theory syllabus is exciting because it is so relevant to music as most of us know it.  You don't need (many) special skills to do well in a theory exam, but you do need a good, solid musical background to call on.  If you go to concerts on a regular basis, you quickly know what instruments are in the orchestra when a Mozart or Haydn symphony is being performed, and you soon learn the names of composers and recognise their connection with different stylistic periods.  You soon get to recognise what a Bach chorale sounds like, and you know what four instrument you'd usually find in a string quartet.  But that's where it falls down.  Teachers have long believed that theory is a subject with no relevance to anything else (an attitude rather encouraged in the past by the horrible ABRSM theory) and so they struggle to get to grips with questions the answers of which are staring them in the face.  If only they had the ears to see!

In the seminars I did, one particular group had huge difficulties with the concept of writing 12-bar blues.  The problem was they had no idea what the blues was and struggled to get to grips with an idiom in which parallel 5ths and octaves and doubled thirds had no relevance.  Others wanted to know if there was a good book to give them guidance in writing 12-note rows; the fact that it has to be the simplest (and the most pointless) musical activity known to mankind had escaped them.  And all of them wanted to know where there was a list of "technical terms", unaware, it seemed, that every technical term in the exams will have been encountered in the music they and their students play on a daily basis.

If any student in south east Asia wants to have advanced theory lessons from me, I'm available and extraordinarily expensive.  But you can learn it all yourselves from appreciating the direct connection between the music you play and listen to and the questions you are asked in an exam.

30 May 2011

CD Review - A Composer to Watch

One of the most impressive CDs I've had for review recently was of choral music by the Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds. Of course, it helped enormously that the recording had been made by Hyperion - a label which somehow has the uncanny knack of rooting out the very best in unknown composers and performers - and that the performances were given by Stephen Layton's outstanding choral group, Polyphony; not unknown, by any means, but elevated to almost breathtakingly outstanding status by their recordings on the Hyperion label without which we probably would not even have heard of them outside the UK. But this was a voice I found immensely rewarding.

Bear in mind that choral music at the moment seems to be dominated by clone nonentities such as Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen, not to mention John Rutter (whose music seems almost complex in comparison with the facile ramblings of the other two).  Men whose idea of music is encapsulated in the horrific phrase "beautiful sounds". Uuuurrrggghhh! God save us from Beautiful Sounds.

Between the dancing  choirs (those choirs who, unable to express themselves vocally seem to feel that choreographed movement and silly staging will in some way compensate for their musical deficisineco9es) and the Beautiful Sound Brigade, I sometimes despair that choral music has deteriorated to an unrecoverable low.  But this has revitalised my faith in modern choral music.  Here's the review I wrote for International Record Review.

"Within seconds I knew I was going to adore this CD and the music of Ēriks Ešenvalds. Assuming him to be a new musical voice on the choral circuit, I delved into his website and discovered that no less than 16 CDs have so far been released featuring his music. I'm amazed that none of these has permeated my consciousness yet, for if what they contain is half as good as what's here, they should be heading high up into the popularity stakes at a time when atmospheric music with a strong spiritual/mystical flavour is all the rage.

"Apologies, then, if in my musical isolation I've been missing out on what everyone else is talking about, but for the benefit of those who, like me, have somehow been bypassed by this 30-soemthing-year-old, former Baptist seminarian whose composition teachers range from Jonathan Harvey and Michael Finnissy to Richard Danielpour and Klaus Huber (and his website lists no less than a dozen more), here's a potted biography. Born in Priekule, Latvia, he studied at the Latvian Academy of Music in Riga and then appeared to go on some kind of European walkabout picking up along the way innumerable diverse musical influences (allowing him, in the words of Gabriel Jackson's booklet note, to "develop a flexible musical language" – a minor understatement, if ever there was one). He then chose to enter the church. Two years at a seminary persuaded him to devote his life to music, but he currently retains his connection with the church by serving as Director of Music for a Baptist congregation in Riga. His output to date lists 57 compositions – not a bad tally considering the earliest is dated 1998 – which, while including theatre pieces, electronic music, solo instrumental, chamber and orchestral works, are dominated by vocal and choral pieces.

"And it is that area of his output to which this recording - the first CD to be released internationally devoted entirely to Ešenvalds's music – is devoted, comprising five a-cappella pieces and the 30-minute oratorio for soprano, chorus and orchestra, Passion and Resurrection. The music encompasses an extraordinary range of styles. Long Road, the most recent piece here (dating from 2010) opens as if it were a simple 19th century hymn before unravelling itself into a wash of gently swaying sound complemented by a few distant tinkling bells and, apparently, some ocarinas, while Gabriel Jackson's notes point to Ešenvalds's use of "avant-garde techniques" in the 2006 A Drop in the Ocean. These, though, seem confined to some vague whistling from the choir who also indulge in a bit of whispering and heavy breathing. Stylistically varied it may be, but everything here has in common a wonderful sincerity of expression and a shimmering sense of colour which I find quite irresistible.

"The major work here is the four-movement Passion and Resurrection. Recorded immediately after these same forces had presented the work in concert in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, last April, this is a performance of considerable impact, not least in the second movement when the electrifying choral cries of "Crucify" dissolve so magically into calm, plainchant-inspired music above which Carolyn Sampson floats with angelic luminosity. Cast in the role of Mary Magdalene, she manages to combine pathos, sympathy and real drama, helped along by highly evocative string playing from the Britten Sinfonia and, of course, the unfailingly remarkable choral sound of Polyphony.

"If the music wasn't so utterly gorgeous, I would happily devote several hundred words to praising Stephen Layton on these totally absorbing performances. But, along with Polyphony, he set the benchmark long ago and while this is as good as anything they've ever committed to disc, the real praise here has to be reserved for Ēriks Ešenvalds whose music clearly warrants a great deal more exposure.

Organists on the Prowl

There is a peculiar phenomenon which I call the Organ Spotter.  What happens is that the person concerned attempts to reach as many organs across as wide a geographical area as possible, sit at the console, play a few notes on any stop called "Tuba", "En Chamade Trumpet" or the like, rattle the bottom notes from a 32-foot reed and play a few bars of either a dreary Victorian hymn tune or improvise in much the same stylistic vein, and then move on.  I've often wondered if there's a book around which lists in columns every organ (with a few vital statistics, the most important being solo reed wind pressures) for the Organ Spotter to underline when spotted, rather in the manner of those lists of train or bus rolling stock.

Indeed, I expect the Ian Allan company to have issued just such a book, but whenever I go into their shop behind Waterloo Station with the intention of asking, their staff are so hostile and unhelpful that my courage deserts me and I limply go away clutching a copy of "Diesel Multiple Unit Rolling Stock on Virgin Cross-Country Services 1998-2001", or some such enticingly-titled tome.  Possibly the I-Spy corporation has produced one, but I suppose if the title "I-Spy Organs" hasn't already been reserved by the medical profession, it will have been snapped up by those involved in the bordello industry.

As a boy I was an avid bus-spotter, on every school holiday escaping with my notebook and pencil to hang around bus stations and busy city intersections rabidly jotting down numbers to be underlined in the relevant Ian Allan fleet list at home that evening.  It was a harmless enough activity, and I would like to say it got me out in the fresh air and allowed me to meet different people; but, in truth, I developed a life-long love of inhaling diesel fumes and an ability to spot and avoid a weirdo at 20 feet.  (When I tried my hand at train spotting, I developed a new skill; that of identifying and avoiding malign sexual predators.  Spotting a curly-haired 12-year-old on the platform was like a red rag to a bull, and within seconds I was surrounded by panting and obese middle-aged men, keen to show me their cameras in the privacy of a nearby bush.  I'm sure that present-day train-spotters are all clean-living and sexually pure gents; which is more than I can say for Organ Spotters.)  The thing is, though, while I still have a passion for buses (and, for those interested, I spotted my first Wright-bodied Volvo on the SBS 14 service on Saturday – Wow!!!!) it has developed into a more involved fascination with the totality of road passenger transport and has not got stuck into the sterile activity of merely underlining another number on a list.  Sadly, the Organ Spotter does not seem to have progressed much beyond that initial step.

When I was at Llandaff, with its eccentric four-manual Hope Jones, at Bangor, with its glorious four-manual Compton, or at Derry with its hideous three-manual Willis (all, now, long gone), the Organ Spotter was unavoidable.  In a cathedral you have to be nice to people (why?  In my experience church-goers are pretty horrible to each other as a rule) and an anorak-clad visitor from a minor parish in the diocese begging to touch my organ could not easily be dismissed.  My Derry friends will already know the famous story of the late great Billy xxxxx, so I apologise for repeating it here.  On taking up my duties at Derry I had to lodge with the Dean (the wonderful George Good), the organist's residence currently being rebuilt from yet another bomb (it was opposite the court house where IRA boys were regularly tried).  A regular feature of life at the Deanery was the ringing of the side door bell by passing tramps.  "Give the feller an Irish 50p piece", Dean Good told me, "and he'll be happy".  So, when the Dean was away, I did just that.  On one occasion a particularly noxious figure in a filthy brown overcoat tied with string and toes emerging from sodden shoes called and, opening the door, I was immediately assailed with a powerful aroma of stale urine and fresh whiskey.  Handing him an Irish 50p piece (which we collected just for the purpose) he pocketed it with copious thanks and then informed me "I'm Billy xxxx.  I'm organist of Holy Trinity Portrush, and I'd like to try the organ in the cathedral".  I got to know Billy well in later years, even counted him as a good friend…but I never got my 50p back.

However, once in Kuala Lumpur at the country's premier concert hall, there were no such obligations and, indeed, it was virtually impossible to allow strangers to gain access to the hall, let alone the organ console.  This did not prevent the litany of begging emails and cold callers, all of whom seemed to think that, as they played in a church somewhere in the UK or US, they were automatically entitled to touch the concert hall organ. The attitude seems to be that Malaysia is a backward third-world state and it can only be for the great benefit of the natives that a visiting nonentity is willing to play the organ which they, by some serious accident of nature, find in their possession and clearly have no idea what it's true function is. I've often wondered whether the authorities at the Festival Hall or Albert Hall in London get so plagued with requests, but I doubt whether many of them show such arrogance and/or ignorance as that shown by petitioners to see the KL Klais.  I've had "I'm an Associated Board examiner so I CAN play the organ", "I have flown all the way from Wisconsin just to play this organ", "I'm a leading organist from Norway come to pay you the honour of playing your organ" and so on.  They don't do their research ("Can you arrange a series of recitals in churches in Malaysia while I'm there?", "I would like to play a programme of music reflecting the Passion of Christ during Holy Week at the concert hall in Kuala Lumpur") and they don't seem to appreciate that a professional orchestra can't just cancel a scheduled concert in order to allow them to play the organ for five minutes ("I'm in KL on Saturday evening and would like to arrange a few minutes on the organ at, say, 8pm").

Very rarely, an organist who has written in advance and made an appointment which has fitted in with the hall's schedule, has enticed me into granting a visit.  Always it has been a disaster.  From the organist determined to play all the hymns in the book from memory, to the spotter avidly taking photos – both of which activities are forbidden, the former for religious reasons, the latter in the interest of copyright – I've bitterly regretted allowing my guard to drop.  I had to fend off a party of angry Muslims interrupted on their way to say Friday prayers by the sound of a visitor playing at full volume a litany of hymn tunes, unaware that everything going on in the hall is piped out to the surrounding areas (which includes one of the access ways to a small mosque), and I've faced the wrath of the management when a CD sleeve was produced showing the organist at the KL console – we had to force the record company to pulp the original booklets, which blotted my copybook with two significant organisations.  So organ spotters are now kept well away and requests for a visit firmly rejected.

But as a resident of Singapore, I find myself the target of yet more Organ Spotters.  Just last week I was approached by both an American and a British organist both of whom were separately in Singapore.  "Can you let me on to the Esplanade organ?" was the request.  Both had tried the concert hall management and maintained that the rejection they had received from that source was due to "musical ignorance", while I, of course, would appreciate the "need" for them to visit the organ. Another asked me to petition the Dean of St Andrew's Cathedral to let them give a lunchtime recital; and I've only once in my life set foot inside the place.  I certainly don't know who the dean is nor, for that matter, had I ever heard of the organist making the request.

If it had been in my power to grant these requests, I would not.  The lesson I have learnt from my encounters with Organ Spotters who visit Asia is that even the most innocuous of fellows cannot be trusted when they are within a hand's reach of a strange organ.

24 May 2011

Perceptive Audience Ears

Baroque music – or at least, music from the 17th and 18th centuries – has been getting a lot more exposure in Asia recently.  Admittedly, that's building from a base of nothing.  For decades Asian audiences – at least those outside Japan and Korea - have rarely experienced in the flesh anything earlier than Haydn, and the fact that we now have a handful of concerts a year which go back a little further into musical history can only be an improvement.  Neither the Singapore Symphony nor the Hong Kong Philharmonic do much to explore the area, but at least Singapore has played host to some pretty accomplished period instrument ensembles of late – the most recent being two concerts from the Academy of Ancient Music – while the intermittent events put on under the Baroque in Singapore banner have seen, so far this year, the stunning Lautten Compagney from Berlin present a marvellous show.  Visiting Baroque ensembles are no strangers to Hong Kong, either, while the students at the Academy of Performing Arts had a true baptism of fire when they staged L'Incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi back in March.

Only the Malaysian Philharmonic regularly tackles what we might call "Early" music head on, and, in most cases, the results are a victory of determination over practicality.  Usually any attempt for the MPO to sound Baroque is thwarted by insipid continuo work, gargantuan double bass presence and individual members of the violin section sounding variously authentic, romantic or just plain pathetic.  Some expert conductors have had a bash at them, but it takes more than a week of rehearsals to get an orchestra, thoroughly versed in the big works of Austro-Germanic romanticism to begin to create the sort of transparency and clarity demanded by practitioners of modern-day Baroque performance.  You only need to compare the sort of sound the MPO makes to that coming from the myriad CDs of period instrumental groups to know what a gaping chasm still exists between their view of Baroque and those of the more specialist ensembles.  (Currently, my enthusiasm is directed towards a fantastic Scottish-based group, Phantasm, who are doing some pretty spectacular stuff on Linn Records.)

Last weekend the MPO had another bash at a programme of "Baroque bon-bons", and this time it attempted to pull in the punters with a populist programme of Pachelbel's Canon, Albinoni's Adagio (not an 18th century work, of course, but we'll let that one go) and Handel's Largo. There was even a soprano added to the mix – Elin Manahan Thomas – so, if the KL audience was uncertain of a programme of undiluted Baroque they had something familiar to latch on to.  Interestingly, this was the MPO's first official attempt at the ubiquitous Pachelbel; which probably shows how little Baroque music they get to play in a season.

On this occasion, however, they fared uncommonly well.  There was a mixture of the chaotic and the informal about it when acting (and outgoing) Orchestral Manager, Syafik Afandi found himself on stage explaining a plethora of programme changes for the Sunday afternoon concert.  But this only seemed to relax the players, and while the opening Corelli Concerto grosso was, to put it kindly, ragged around the edges, with vibrato-less strings struggling to agree on pitch and ensemble, the spirit of the playing was far more stylish than they have ever managed before.  Steve Retallick's manful cello continuo was impressive, and came pretty close to recreating the impeccably stylish but sadly incongruous continuo work Thomas Hurnick used to offer up in the early days of the MPO.  Lone double bass Wolfgang Steicke was a model of discretion and understated depth, giving weight but not significant substance to the underlay.  And perhaps most impressive of all was Markus Gundermann who, as the concert progressed, came to exert over the proceedings an increasingly convincing feeling for the idiom.

The key to the MPO's rather more successful attempts to sound 18th century on this occasion was British conductor Stephen Layton.  He concentrated on lightness of texture and rhythmic vitality, and pared the sound down to an absolute minimum.  As a result, for the first time in living memory (apart from when Datuk Ooi Chean See disastrously decided to have her harpsichord amplified above the orchestra) we actually heard the harpsichord, and while its presence was discreet (to put it mildly), it was nevertheless there.  Textures were transparent and inner detail exposed because Layton kept the dynamics down, and as a result balance – a perennial problem when big symphony orchestras tackle 18th century music – was good.  It will take several months of concentrated labour for the MPO to begin to sound passably Baroque but, as Layton himself said afterwards, "they show an openness and willingness to tackle this music which few major symphony orchestras do".

For me, though, the most stimulating thing about the concert was the audience response.  It is one of the eternally fascinating aspects of concert-going in south east Asia.  We get the Hong Kongers' avid enthusiasm for anything with a Chinese face and a complete disregard for everyone else – witnessed by the mass walkout which accompanies the last bar of every orchestral performance.  We get the Singaporeans' desire to stand or wave their hands in the air in any performance where more than 50% of the notes are vaguely in tune.  But the KL audience has always been a little less predictable, often showing quite remarkable perceptiveness.

There was the usual loony in the front who decided to burst into applause (and let everyone know he was doing it) whenever Layton let his hands drop below waist height and the customary row of sullen tarts in little black numbers who weren't going to allow anything to disturb their texting, but this audience was full of surprises.

At one point during the Handel Concerto grosso the man in front of me turned round (while the music was in full swing, I hasten to add) and asked if the concertmaster was playing a new instrument because he had "never heard such lovely violin playing" before.  Markus has, indeed, changed his instrument recently, but for one of the audience – and not a musician by any stretch of the imagination – to spot it, brought me up short.  When I passed on his enthusiasm to Markus after the concert, Markus said that the same man had way-laid him on the way out with the same question; "It's amazing.  You play to the same audience week in and week out and never know whether they are hearing anything you do or even listening to you.  Then suddenly someone shows that they have incredibly perceptive ears and you realise that it's all worth it".

More than that, though, was the audience response to Ms Thomas.  Singers usually fire Malaysian audiences with exceptional enthusiasm, and she was no exception, the rousing cheers after a delightful account of Handel's Sweet Bird thoroughly justified not merely for her incredible vocal flexibility and delightfully nimble trilling, but for Hristo Dobrinov's sublime flute obbligato.  Yet afterwards the debate was quite heated.  Some were ecstatic, pointing to "dazzling technique" and "effortless delivery", while others were not; "Why do the Welsh always sing flat?" was one of the more hostile opinions.  For me, her purity of tone was marvellous and her technical delivery of Handel's very difficult lines deeply impressive, but there were intonation problems (Was the orchestra just too soft for her? Did she really need a little more keyboard support?) and a sense that she was reaching the limits of her range both expressively and stylistically.  As my man in front commented during the last of the encores, "That was lovely, but not first rate". 

He may have been talking about the singer, but his ears had picked up on the perfect description of the MPO's latest venture into the world of Baroque music.

23 May 2011

The Best Classical CD shop in Asia?

In the past this blog has made some pretty disparaging remarks about the CD scene in Singapore, while lavishing copious amounts of praise on the CD scene in Hong Kong.

There’s a hint that it’s getting better in Singapore; my last half dozen visits to HMV in 313 @ Orchard showed definite signs of an improvement; larger stock, better shelf organisation and a faint whiff of interest in the product from the staff.  This is probably in no small measure due to the parlous state of HMV in UK; as with Tower records, it seems that the Asian franchise performs better (at least, it serves its customers better) when it can concentrate on its market rather than some dubious corporate policy.
But in Hong Kong it has leapt even further ahead with the opening of Prelude, a CD-emporium-in-a-million.  It’s a poshified Shun Cheong – same stock, same intelligent and helpful staff, but in a glitzy and attractive showroom setting with a real feeling of opulence; the sort of shop in which you really want to linger.  Shun Cheong is still there, crammed into its 8th floor office at Bank Building by Mongkok MTR, and the sense of walking into a treasure trove with seams of unmined gold is as strong as ever.  But what Prelude does is lay it all out ever so attractively and in a brand new shopping mall, at a more respectable part of Nathan Road and with some pretty impressive neighbours; next to it is about the biggest bookshop I have ever seen, but my excitement was short lived when I realised the vast bulk of its stock was Chinese literature – excellent, I’m sure, but a closed book (pardon the pun), so far as I am concerned.
The funny thing is, this glitzy shopping mall used to house my tailor (who I think actually owned it) and, after dark, was a renowned vice den, with mainland prostitutes vying for custom and not caring too much how they attracted it.  Drugs, gambling and sex may figure largely in some musicians’ lives, but I prefer them distanced from my CD buying expeditions, so with the Miramar Centre gutted and rebuilt as an up-market mall, things are certainly looking up.

The thing about Prelude, apart, that is, from its vast range of stock from small independent labels (especially orchestra’s own labels) – so don’t expect to find any BMG, Decca, DG, EMI, Philips or even Bis here – it stocks a wonderful range of newly-pressed vinyl.  Now I’m a vinyl addict; I don’t think it sounds better, but it sounds more like a recording and, as a result, it’s easier to appreciate it for what it is rather than for what it is not (I still find loonies out there who think that a CD is equal to or even better than a live concert).  It also has Gramophone magazine in pride of place as you go in the door and the staff can, with a flick of a key, look up recordings of specific works which exist (as opposed to the HMV policy of using limited guides or broader-based catalogues which expired many years ago).  And, of course, when they don’t stock something they will tell you how to get it if they can’t themselves.  True, to get to that rabbit-warren Mecca (Lady Street) where every other shop seems to house a vast range of forgotten CDs, you still have to go up to Mongkok, but with Prelude I think Hong Kong has added a fantastic new dimension to classical CD buying. 
I’m pretty sure that neither Japan nor UK can compete now with what Hong Kong has on offer.  How nice if this phenomenon could spread across Asia.  As it is, search in vain for classical CDs in Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia and don’t expect too much from Singapore.

14 May 2011

Sol Gabetta in Hong Kong

It would be nice to say that the Hong Kong audience got it wrong; that their tumultuous applause for Sol Gabetta’s performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the HKPO was misplaced and should, instead, have been reserved for the orchestra’s magnificent account of Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony.  But you can’t argue with an audience so bowled over by the young Argentinean’s playing that, what with the row in the middle of the auditorium waving their arms ever higher in the hope that Ms Gabetta might notice the enthusiasm with which they were applauding and the row behind them deciding to stand up to attract attention in their direction, we had the nearest thing I’ve ever seen in a concert hall to a Mexican Wave.

There were certainly a few good moments.  The second movement ended magically and there was some deliciously subtle interplay between winds and soloist in the finale.  But the whole thing was decidedly rough around the edges, not helped, it must be said, by a peculiar acoustic blind spot on the Cultural Centre stage which put the soloist and concertmaster in their own little sound capsule, and making for a disconcerting projection into the stalls.  Obviously something was wrong with the positioning of the baffle board above the stage and, hopefully, somebody will not let that happen again.

After her long and obviously uncomfortable wait for the cello entry in the first movement, Gabetta tackled it with a violence and aggression which, if not wholly inappropriate musically, caused her to make some very ugly and ragged sounds on her instrument.  Dmitri Jurowski clipped the rhythms and cut up the lines to such an extent that Dvořák was given an almost Baroque twist, and this certainly did nothing to help the soloist draw any lyricism from the music.  But she always looked and sounded uncomfortable, and more than once (not least in those awesome double stopped scales in the first movement) one suspected that she was not easily meeting the technical challenges Dvořák had set before her.  As Dvořák Cello Concertos go, this was notable mostly for its unease of delivery.

Born in Moscow and brought up after the demise of the Soviet Union, Dmitri Jurowski is one of those Russian conductors who can relish his heritage without embarrassment, and his reading of Shostakovich’s final symphonic utterance was an exceptional example of looking beyond the political message (who can doubt that the ironic juxtaposition of the Wagner “Fate” motiv and the banal March from the “Leningrad” Symphony, a work unashamedly celebrating the glorious Soviet army, was Shostakovich’s not-so-subtle commentary on the degradation of the Soviet state?) and placing it firmly in the tradition of great Russian symphonies.

The first movement was immaculate:  Crisp, precise, rhythmically driven and almost blindingly logical.  The second movement was immense in its sense of tragedy and horror, the ghastly (in the nicest sense of the word) trombone dead march given a wonderfully hollow ring by Jarod Vermette, showing an exceptional level of empathy with Jurowski’s interpretation, and the great climax utterly shattering.  And the third movement’s bitter playfulness splendidly introduced by the bassoons drawing a more powerful link than I think I’ve ever heard before, on the closing bars of the second.

If by the fourth movement the orchestra was beginning to tire, ensemble cracking and concentration sagging, that was only because the white heat intensity of the first three movements had never once been allowed to relax.  For the first time since I heard the Symphony’s London première in 1972, I began to find the last movement over-long; and so did the audience.  And while it ended, as it always should, with a delightful cascade of glittering percussion effects, there was a sense that what had begun so brilliantly had lost some of its lustre.

However, once Jurowski got the principal double bass – George Lomdaridze - on to his feet (he had worked tremendously hard and added some outstanding moments to the performance), the audience – at least, those who had survived the usual disgraceful Hong Kong mass exodus even as the final bars are still fading away – forgot the dreariness of the finale and were almost back on Gabetta mode; cheering, raising their hands and edging once more towards that elusive spectacle, the Mexican Wave.

04 May 2011

Concert Etiquette

Are there any basic rules audiences should follow when attending a concert of classical music?  Most of us would say that there were, suggesting that a fundamental prerequisite for public listening was silence and that correct etiquette centred around allowing others to experience that silence.  Coughing, talking, applause, these all seem to figure largely in discussions about concert etiquette, but is there a hard and fast set of rules which can be drawn up and, in any case, is it appropriate to impose a code of behaviour on concert audiences? 

When the Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS (aka Petronas Philharmonic Hall) opened in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 it was decided that, as there was absolutely no tradition of attending classical music concerts in Malaysia, it would be helpful to give some guidelines to the audience so that they would know what to expect and not feel awkward.  Preliminary surveys showed that the thing which worried most people was not how they should behave but what they should wear, so a set of dress code guidelines was drawn up.  It all seemed very sensible to me - after all, people expected dress codes when they went to Genting for the casino or when they attended formal functions – and the dress code DFP produced was quite reasonable; no slippers, shorts, jeans or vests, no exposed armpits, hairy knees or tattooed forearms.  Men had to wear long-sleeve batik shirts (customary formal attire in Malaysia) or jackets. 

But we all forgot the one thing about Malaysians.  They resent rules and regulations, especially when those rules and regulations are enforced.  Malaysia is one of the few countries I know where the population is positively proud of their lawlessness and where the expat population will often tell you that the reason they choose to remain there is because laws are so "relaxed" and "flexible".  I have stood at the entrance to the concert hall more times than I can remember listening to extremely irate patrons demanding the dress code be overruled in their unique case; a respectable father white with anger as his teenage daughter, in cut-off jeans and wearing a tee-shirt with the inscription "FCUK" (as if nobody has the intelligence to work out that simple anagram), was refused entry, pointing out that "She wears that to school with no problem"; an Australian back-packer, complete with shorts, singlet and slippers screaming that "I am a professional singer at the Sydney Opera House where we don't care what you wear"; and, most astonishingly, a girl in micro-shorts and a vest which barely covered the nipples, proclaiming that "I wear this to concerts in London and nobody complains" (male members of London audiences would certainly not have complained, but I am surprised that she had not long since succumbed to hypothermia). 

So heated and numerous were the complaints about the dress code that, when it was subsequently suggested we issue guidelines on such matters as applause, coughing, sweet-unwrapping and mobile phone usage in the concert hall, the plan was quietly dropped for fear of yet another public torrent of abuse.  It often worries me that basic guidelines for concert etiquette are not generally issued in Malaysia, but they are in both Singapore and Hong Kong and it doesn't seem to improve matters one iota.

I must confess straight away to being a traditionalist.  Brought up well by respectable parents, I could no more attend a concert in jeans and a tee shirt than I could stand at a road junction and bare my bottom to passing motorists (a practice I remember as being quite common when I lived in North Wales).  My feeling is that the musicians have sacrificed time and effort to be there, have spent years of study and devotion to their art, the composer has sweated blood and tears over his music; surely the least we can do is show our respect by taking a little effort over personal grooming?  In most of Europe it is still rare for people to turn up to formal concerts in anything less than a collar and tie or a business skirt and full-sleeve jacket; concert-going is seen as something you make an effort to do rather than something you just happen upon by accident.  I still blush for shame when I recall the time I was in Singapore at lunchtime, walked past the Victoria Hall and, realising that there was an organ recital on, walked in off the street in my polo shirt and jeans.  Nobody complained, but when I then went off to the Indonesian Embassy to get my visa for a forthcoming visit, I was turned away because of my attire; "We have a dress code here", was the security guard's curt comment, and I was duly chastened.  If a clerk yielding a rubber stamp in a daily chore can demand a certain etiquette in attire, surely a musician, years' in the training and hours in the pre-concert practising, can demand the same?  Yet Singaporeans make a boast of being able to turn up to concerts looking as if they have just been dragged through the sewers.  "We mustn't discourage people coming to concerts", is the clarion cry.  To which I answer, "Yes, we must…if those people are going to spoil the enjoyment of others".

And they do.  Chang Tou Liang reported in the Straits Times this week of a bevy of belligerent youths who disrupted an SSO concert with their crass behaviour.  Good for him.  Good, too, for those many critics who have, over the years, been outspoken in their criticism of Singaporean concert audiences, their incessant chatter, the ringing of mobile phones, the bawling babies and the unrestrained coughing.  Yet don't any of them see the link between bad behaviour and dress?  If you have taken the effort to dress formally, if you have had to take time out to prepare yourself physically for a concert, might you not also be aware that it is not just another thing to do, that a certain mental preparation is also in order?  How can anyone be expected to behave properly at a concert if they are encouraged to treat it as nothing more than stepping into a supermarket?

But there again, what is proper behaviour at a concert?  I remember during my years in the Proms arena the horrified looks and the choruses of "sh" (possibly the most disruptive noise in any concert hall) whenever the seated audience applauded between the movements of a symphony or a concerto.  I remember a radio debate in which it was suggested that Proms audiences were getting dumber because of their inappropriate behaviour; particularly their applauding "at the wrong times".  It barely warrants a mention now, and the last time I attended a concert at DFP in Kuala Lumpur, the ushers even opened the doors and allowed large numbers of latecomers to enter the auditorium between the first and second movements of a symphony.

Is it so wrong to recognise a break between movements?  I always chuckle when people complain about applause after the first movement of a Chopin Piano Concerto since Chopin never for a moment expected anything else.  He composed in the full knowledge that not just applause but entire pieces of music would be interspersed between the first and second movements of his concertos, and the idea that the first movement should be met with silence would have struck horror into his sickly heart. (Frankly, I don't see how anyone can sit through all three movements of the over-sugared candy which constitutes a Chopin Piano Concerto without doing something physical in the middle, but that's just my anti-Chopin prejudice creeping in.)  Add to that the countless stories we have of the premières of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven symphonies, where the applause was so enthusiastic after a movement that it had to be repeated before the symphony could continue.  I don't suppose any of those three great Viennese masters stood up and motioned the audience to silence, let alone burst out in a welter of "sh".  A lot of music simply wasn't conceived to be listened to in rapt silence for the entire duration of three or four movements, so why shouldn't audiences show their appreciation during a particularly impressive performance?

As a performer and as a listener, however, I have to confess that I am distracted by applause between movements and earnestly wish it wasn't there.  I do like to follow the musical thread as it runs through the contrasting movements, and in some instances (such as after the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony) intervening applause is disastrous.  But can I impose on others my personal preferences under the guise of concert etiquette?  If we allow people to come to concerts dressed as they wish, we cannot then turn round and start imposing rules about other aspects of behaviour.

Un-muffled coughing (a habit Asians relish despite the SARS and Bird Flu epidemics), dropping hefty objects on to the floor, answering or sending calls or texts on the phone, and bringing along individually wrapped sweets to open during soft passages, all of these should be banned outright from concert halls, and while I don't think many would argue with that, somehow everybody does one or more of those disgusting things during a concert.  How much more difficult it is to draw up guidelines about applause.  Can we insert into concert programmes suggestions for where to applause in each work; "You may applause if you wish after the first movement of the Chopin, but applause must be withheld until the end of the Tchaikovsky"?  That's an obvious non-starter; and if anyone is in any doubt about this, a recent Singapore Symphony concert proves the point.  It was announced from the stage that a passage from Brahms's German Requiem would be performed in memory of a recently deceased figure in the country's musical life and that, out of respect, the audience should refrain from applause.  I knew then that this was an invitation to disaster, and so it turned out to be.  When a few poor souls forgot themselves to the extent that their hands began to draw together, a chorus of utterly disrespectful "sh..s" resounded around the hall.  Frankly, applause would have been far more respectful to the memory of one of Singapore's great musical figures than that shambles, and I was, not for the first time, left wondering why it was that some people have such a problem with applause. 

When a double bassist collapsed on stage in an MPO concert and the performance had to be stopped while his body was carried off (no easy task when you see the size of the average MPO bassist), I broke into spontaneous applause when, before reaching the wings, the bassist staggered to his feet and gave a shy wave to the assembled throng.  People around me looked askance before they joined in awkwardly, yet I was registering my gratitude that it was last night's booze rather than that day's heart failure that had felled a great and much loved musician, and that the conductor had shown such presence of mind as to stop the performance and walk off stage while the interruption was cleared up.  More than that, the applause was in recognition of the huge physical strain put on orchestral musicians and which an audience rarely gets a chance to acknowledge.  Perhaps we don't recognise the work of orchestral musicians as much as we should through spontaneous applause. 

If we treat the concert-going experience as being on a par with a trip to the supermarket, then we should treat musicians with the same disregard as we do the staff at the checkout (and there hangs another moral issue; my father unfailingly shows his respect to supermarket check-out staff by chatting with them, thereby causing extensive queues of irate customers to build up behind him).  But if we treat a concert as something special, something unique and something worth taking an effort over, why should we start complaining when people show their appreciation of what's going on, even if it does cause some passing annoyance to others.