30 August 2011

A Critic's Dilemma

As a music critic, I am continually questioning what purpose I serve.  It is, as they say, easy enough to criticise, but there are obligations and expectations in any piece of criticism, and meeting those is a much more difficult task.  I was prompted to ponder the expectations of both the artists I review and the audience which reads my criticism when, over the weekend, I was asked to review for the Straits Times performances by musicians who, I suspected, might have rather different expectations of me than most. 

On Friday I was sent to review a concert given by the Orchestra of the Music Makers. They are something of a phenomenon in the musical life of Singapore in that they are essentially an amateur orchestra made up of young people, most of whom have already started out on career paths away from music, but who share not just a love of orchestral playing but a determination to, to put it bluntly, beat the professionals at their own game.  They tackle monumental works head on (I last wrote about them after their performance and recording of Mahler 2) and have made no secret of their ambition to make an international splash; not least a burning desire to perform at the BBC Proms.  Their dedicated, enthusiastic and highly capable Music Director, Chan Tze Law, is a friend and (temporarily) a colleague, and speaks to me at such length about the orchestra and its aspirations that I sometimes feel as if I am a part of it myself.  

So what am I expected to do when I review them? 

I could preface my thoughts with an observation that they are young and amateur, and adjust both my critical yardsticks and the horizons of the readership accordingly; rather like we all used to do at Gramophone magazine when the Naxos label first hit the streets – "A very fine recording, considering its superbudget price" was our mantra, implying that, of course, you wouldn't expect really top class for the money you were asked to pay (there's still a bit of that about, but mercifully most of us assess Naxos on quality irrespective of price).  But to do that would be not only patronising to an orchestra with a determination to be treated as professionals, but would undermine their very ethos.  Simply put, if the public are expected to pay the same for OMM tickets as for a professional orchestra, they must be judged by the same criteria.  However, I also know that what I write will have a very direct bearing on how others will view the work of an orchestra for which I have considerable personal affection and admiration, and to assess their performance without taking into consideration their young and amateur status might create an entirely unfair perception. 

In the end I decided to treat them as if they were a fully professional bunch and not pull my punches if it turned out to be a failure; after all, as  a friend said during the interval, if they must tackle such challenging repertoire, they only have themselves to blame if things go wrong and, perhaps, a bad review might encourage them to adopt a more realistic approach to their public performances.  The benefit of adopting this approach is that, when they do something good, the positive aspects of the review will have all the more impact and be taken all the more seriously.  Nobody takes seriously a critic who finds everything perfect in an amateur orchestra; even the most basic musical intellect will wonder who the critic is trying to kid. 

Then on Saturday Marcel Luxon gave a clarinet recital.  Marcel is a very dear friend whom I've known since the day in 1998 he arrived in Kuala Lumpur to take up his seat as a founder member of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. We've been to each other's homes, sat in bars getting drunk together, enjoyed riotous parties, indulged in bitter arguments, discussed world and personal affairs, agonised over marriage partners and friends, and spoken at inordinate length over the finer points of all aspects of music making.  In an ideal world, of course, one wouldn't review such a close friend's performance in a public arena; but it's not an ideal world and it's almost inevitable that as one grows older and gets more firmly embedded into the wider musical life, one increasingly finds oneself in this position.

When I first got to know the conductor Stephen Layton socially, a man whose outstanding discs on Hyperion I had raved over at length for many years, he expressed a certain regret that we had got on so well.  "It seems to me", he lamented, "That whenever I get to know a critic, the very next time he writes about me, he slates my work".  Luckily, the very next time (and several times since) a Stephen Layton disc has come for review, I've raved about it as much as ever.  But I know what he means; there is a subconscious sense that you are so keen not to let friendship cloud critical judgment that you are often tempted to go too far the other way.

The choice facing me was whether to decline the review or go ahead and risk either alienating Marcel or being accused of opening myself up to a charge of favouritism.  In the end, the deciding factor was the realisation that if I didn't review his concert, nobody would, and he is too important a player not to warrant a review when he gives a public performance.  On top of that Marcel is a man for whom music comes first, second, third and last in life, and he would fail to comprehend any comment which was not purely governed by musical considerations.  One thing I could be sure of, if anyone felt my review was affected by personal issues, it wouldn't be Marcel.

Read the two reviews (which appeared in yesterday's Straits Times) with the full knowledge of the circumstances under which they were written, and decide for yourself how fair or prejudiced they are.

There has been a third event which has got me thinking about how musicians and the public regard critics, and that was a lecture I attended last night at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory on "Barbirolli on Record" given by Dr Raymond Holden from the Royal Academy of Music.  It was a marvellous lecture, delivered with real passion and enthusiasm for the subject and highly informative.  A shame, I felt, that it was so poorly attended, but in Singapore most people seem to have lost interest in recorded music and fail to recognise its vital importance in the development of music since the early years of the 20th century.  But I was brought up short by Holden's almost vitriolic contempt for critics.  A comment that a recent piece in Gramophone about conductors was "shallow" almost had me shouting out, "but it's a review magazine, not a work of scholarly depth".  I held my tongue then, but worse was to come.  Whether Holden has an axe to grind or I have failed to understand what people's expectations of critics is, I can't tell, but something has clearly broken down here.

He quoted a Barbirolli letter (dated 23rd April 1930) criticizing in no uncertain terms Mahler's Second Symphony; "The material is very thin, and as regards the orchestral sound Berlioz and Wagner have all done it far more convincingly.  It seemed to be an impertinence to want all those people to make that particular music, as if size had become a morbid obsession with him".  I liked that, not least because it accords to a certain extent with some of my Mahler reservations.  But Holden clearly likes his Mahler, and he likes his Barbirolli, so that was dismissed almost as if it was a joke, not to be taken seriously. 

However, when it came to averse critical opinion of Barbirolli himself, Holden, was almost speechless with indignation, reading out an offending review in a mocking voice and adding comments to point to contradictions and misconceptions which, so far as I could see, simply weren't there.  The review he found so appalling was written by David Cairns in the July 1968 issue and was of Barbirolli's Mahler 6 recording.  I have to say I agree wholly with DC's comments (I have the old ASD recording and spent this morning revisiting it), but I can accept that others may not Yet there was nothing in this review (you can access it via www.gramophone.net) which showed anything other than a considered personal assessment.  DC described the first movement as being taken "much too slowly" and added "If one cannot take to a tempo, one cannot enjoy a performance".  In response to that, Holden seemed to berate the fact that the critic was setting out his own personal opinion on a performance, yet I have always assumed the public expects us to do just that.  And he actually became quite bitter when he read; "at his slow tempo the march loses its grim Mahlerian forward stride, to take on a grandiose Elgarian expansiveness".  "He only writes that", sneered Holden, "because he knows Barbirolli conducted Elgar".  Surely, as critics, we are expected to have a background knowledge of the subject which can inform our writing, but when a speaker as knowledgeable and authoritative as Raymond Holden seems to disagree, I am forced once more to ponder over what artists and the public expect from critics, whether they are friends or complete strangers.

26 August 2011

Lunchtime Concerts

If you are in London, New York, Paris, Sydney or, indeed, any major city in what we confusingly describe as "The West" during a weekday lunchtime, you can almost guarantee that there will be, somewhere in the city, a short concert, usually with free admission.  Lunchtime concerts are a traditional way for musicians to get themselves known to the general public and for the public to get exposure to music without having to go too far out of their way.  My parents told me how vital the lunchtime concerts in the National Gallery were for morale during the years of the Second World War in central London, and as a young organist I knew how important it was to have the shop window of a recital in a London church, even if the audience numbered less than the fingers of a single hand.

As a break from the trials, tribulations and stress of daily work, the lunchtime concert has obvious benefits, affording those who attend a moment of rest and reflection in an otherwise busy day, and as an escape from the telephone, the computer screen or the tedium of meetings, it has no equal.  Nothing recharges the batteries of an overworked and pressurised executive (have you noticed that just about everybody, irrespective of their job, is classified as an "executive" nowadays?) than an enforced period of personal silence in the relatively calm environment of a concert hall, recital room or church. Many lunchtime concerts even provide the lunch.

Hong Kong has a pretty good culture of lunchtime concerts, but other south east Asian cities seem not to have embraced it so enthusiastically.  In Kuala Lumpur, for example, I introduced the lunchtime free organ recital as a benefit specifically for those working in the Petronas Twin Towers.  At one stage an imaginative CEO even got a tie-up with a local sandwich shop to provide refreshments – the whole thing falling down because the lower-ranking executives usually forgot to inform the sandwich shop when the concerts were taking place and we had the ridiculous spectacle of vast platters of sandwiches arriving outside an empty concert hall long after the audience had departed.  Nevertheless, we did attract a lot of office workers, and I never forget looking down from the organ loft at a veritable sea of tudongs as the female workforce from various Petronas offices took time out from their day.  The trouble is, we began to attract so many that we simply didn't have the resources to man the hall and we moved the recitals to the weekend, when our audience became harassed shoppers rather than overworked office executives.

Singapore seems generally to have avoided the lunchtime concert, however, and only very occasionally have I been able to find a moment of musical refuge in the city of a weekday lunchtime.  On Thursday of this week, however, the Esplanade opened its concert hall doors for a free lunchtime concert given by the SSO.  It was clearly something of an experiment, and I suspect those involved had not really thought the thing through.  That said, the audience was very large and exceptionally attentive – interesting to note an almost total absence of mobile phones whether in silent mode or clicking out their inane texts – and the fact that they listened with such rapt attention clearly disconcerted conductor Lim Yau who at one point, turned to the audience to castigate them for being "Very Quiet".  I wondered what he had been expecting, but I was grateful that they were.

Clearly there is an audience for lunchtime concerts, and while Thursday's consisted more of retirees and tourists than harassed office workers (after all, the Esplanade is hardly in the heart of the Central Business District) it obviously served a need.  However, I wonder about the value of offering up a full orchestral concert at a time when all people are after is somewhere to go with their own thoughts and to hear some pleasant, undemanding music.  The programme was made up of what I would describe as Popular Classics of the Third Division – Nielsen's Helios Overture, Sibelius's Karelia Suite, Grieg's Holberg Suite, etc. – harmless ditties all, but giving off a whiff of formal evening concert in their fairly large orchestrations and levels of musical erudition.  With a conductor formally coming on and off stage between items and only towards the end unbending sufficiently to feel comfortable actually addressing the audience, it had an atmosphere of formality which sits uneasily with a lunchtime concert.  There was also the inescapable feeling that we were sitting through more of a run-through for a future event than a properly prepared orchestral concert; anyone hearing the SSO for the first time would not have been particularly impressed.

I do hope, though, that the SSO give us more of these events.  Concerts made up of conductor-less ensembles (there is something much more immediate and informal about musicians playing directly to the audience at these occasions) and offering up a more broad spectrum of repertoire would give the whole thing a clearer sense of purpose.  This lunchtime concert gave off strong hints of being an evening concert in the middle of the day.

21 August 2011

Clashing Elites

This has been an exceptional weekend in the annals of classical music in Singapore.  Friday saw the opening night of Singapore Lyric Opera's production of Salome, which runs until Tuesday.  It also saw the opening of Singapore's first ever Lieder Festival which concentrated on Schubert this weekend and will continue with Schumann in September.  Friday also saw the first of two concerts (the second was on Sunday) in which members of the SSO performed Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.  And there was more which was largely denied me because of my professional involvement in the above.

A full weekend of classical music is one thing, but how sustainable is it?  Put bluntly, does Singapore have the audience for such riches? Salome sold out, I attended Saturday night's Lieder concert and the Arts House Living Room was jam packed for that (although Pianist Shane Thio told me Friday night's had been poorly attended) and the two Brandenburg concerts attracted a very good crowd.

On the surface, then, it seems Singapore can support such an active classical music scene. When it comes to the basic business of bums on seats, there seems to be no shortage of bums even if, at both the Lieder concert and my pre-concert talks for the Brandenburgs, there simply weren't enough seats for the bums.  And all these people came despite little obvious effort put into marketing; Singapore still cannot coordinate its arts publicity and you have to root around to find out what's going on from individual (and not always conventional) venues or from the website of the company which sells tickets for some - but by no means all - of the events in Singapore.

Why did they come? 

For all the years I worked at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur I tried to find out what it was that encouraged people to attend in a society where there was no tradition of concert-going.  Sending out questionnaires was pointless, so over a decade I mingled with the audience, getting to know the regulars and identifying the new-comers, and by casual conversation and blatant eavesdropping, I began to gain some insight into what attracted them.  Certainly it wasn't the music – that became very obvious early on.  There was a multitude of reasons, one of the most interesting being the hall's stipulation that the audience should dress up for the occasion.  Long castigated as a turn-off by the minority who attend primarily to hear the music, it seemed others relish the suggestion of social respectability and special occasion status the dress code implied. 

That's not an issue with Singaporeans who, as I've written many times before, regard classical music concerts as dress-down occasions and vie with each other to look the most unkempt (Salome had the ridiculous spectacle of a local choreographer appearing for the curtain call dressed in school uniform complete with short trousers, striped blazer and cap – I suspect he'd been reading his Idiot's Guide to Looking Artistic).  It will be years – if ever – before I can get to grips with what draws the Singapore audience, but again it seems pretty obvious that it's not the music.

The trouble is, with their determination to look yobbish, audiences feel moved to behave like yobs and, not for the first time, I felt utterly alien in an environment which for decades has been my second home.  Unable to concentrate on the music because of the appalling behaviour of the audience, I was left to ponder over the value of craving for bums on seats when the quality of those bums is so bad (or good, depending on your interpretation of the word bum).  If this influx of numbers drives away the long-term supporters, how sustainable is the live classical music scene here?

Of course, a great many commentators will go on about shedding the elitist image of classical music and not putting up barriers to discourage potential audience members.  Let us, they say, allow everyone in regardless, and show them how classical music is so accessible.  I get very worried whenever people go on in this vein, simply because by creating mass accessibility, you risk destroying the product.  I sat in on a lecture to conservatory students recently in which the lecturer pressed home the point that music was not for an elite.  How wrong she was.  She, like so many others, fundamentally misunderstood the word "elite". 

Take these two real examples.  My elder brother is appallingly, disgustingly rich (before he retired he helped run one of Europe's major oil companies) and received a better education than I ever had (even if his talents were such that he was poached by a leading employer before he could embark on any post-graduate study). In many people's eyes being rich and well educated puts him in an elite.  Those same people then make the quantum leap into linking that elite with all others.  Rich and well educated, they say, equals the key to the door of the clique which enjoys classical music.  Not a bit of it.  For my brother, classical music is a closed book and although he went through piano lessons he escaped as quickly as possible and has only darkened a concert since when obliged to out of familial duties.

Then there was my old friend Arthur (affectionately known to all and sundry as Arffer).  He left school at 14, got a job in a brewery and, when I first met him, was working as a cellarman (he wasn't up to dealing with customers) in a busy town pub.  He loved the job because the barrels were marked X, XX and XXX, which equated with his level of literacy.  One day he wandered up into the bar – where I was doing a vacation job – and, as it was quiet, got into conversation.  Out of courtesy rather than real interest, he asked what it was I studied at university.  When I told him it was music his eyes brightened.  "You mean, like, Schoenberg and that mob".  It turned out that Arffer not only adored classical music – and was obsessively passionate about the Second Viennese School – but on his day off, invariably took the train into London to attend a concert.  I went with him as often as possible and still to this day blush with shame as, while he sat mesmerised in some freezing hall while a few individuals did their plinkety plonk stuff in the name of cutting edge avant-garde, I sat and fidgeted and wished to God I was back in the bar.  People wouldn't associate Arffer with any elite, yet he belonged to a tiny one from which even I, as a music student, was excluded.

Classical music, be it 17th or 21st century, is appreciated by an elite, but an elite which is based not on wealth, class or education, but on something much more profound and individual; personal taste.  I am not a member of the elite that likes taking drugs or rioting in the streets, nor of the elite whose members can earn vast sums of money through dabbling on the stock exchanges of the world. I am not even a member of that seemingly large elite which can, of an evening, sit down and vegetate in front of the television in the comfortable knowledge that another day's work has been successfully done.  These are all elites; groups of people with a shared interest.  I belong to an elite which adores classical music, and while it is open to anyone regardless of background, not everyone has the emotional, intellectual or spiritual qualities to belong.  We are living in a fools' paradise if we fail to recognise that basic truth.

I'd love everyone to belong to my elite, but when it is gate-crashed by those who accidentally or deliberately disrupt it, I am profoundly hurt.  Too many in this weekend's audiences in Singapore were clearly out of their usual elite and, rather than (as I had done with Arffer's crowd) sit and try to appreciate, they brought their own agenda into the hall with the result that those of us there knowing what we were in for and looking forward to it, had our enjoyment ruined.

My good friend Chang Tou Liang has more than once condemned yobbish behaviour at concerts in Singapore, but what I experienced, while equally disruptive, was altogether more subtle.  Misled into believing opera to be a musical rather than a dramatic medium by mass-appeal CDs of star divas churning out popular operatic arias, by the antics of the Three Tenors, and by a myriad ersatz-opera singers who wouldn't last five minutes on a real opera stage, many in Friday's Salome audience sought in vain for a memorable aria or even a recognisable tune.  Puzzled by this, they failed to notice that Janice Watson gave a virtuoso display of operatic technique second to none.  As a result the performance was met, not with the eruption of adulation it deserved but by generally polite but uneasy applause.  There were those, however, who decided this was too tame and, for no obvious reason, occasionally burst out with animal whoops, screams and frenzied howling more suited to an African township singing contest than a western opera house.  What's happened to the good old habit of calling out "Bravo"?  Why do these people want to make an exhibition of themselves?  It left a very nasty taste in the mouth.

That was nothing to what the audience got up to at the Lieder Festival.  I don't think I've ever seen so many mobile phones and hand-held devices in one place at the same time other than in a mobile phone shop.  Little blue screens flashed continually, while the excellent singing of Daniel Fong was accompanied not so much by Shane Thio on the piano as by a constant clicking of texting fingers, sounding for all the world like a nest of mice at a hunk of cheese.  When, out of sheer frustration at the kid next to me who hadn't stopped texting in the half hour since the performance started, I nudged him and asked him to desist, I was met with an astonishing outburst.  "Fxxx you!", said the yob in a violent whisper, "Mind your fxxxing business".  He did have the good grace to stop and after the interval, by which time, I imagine, his friend (who seemed to be connected with the performers) had tipped him off that I was the reviewer for the Straits Times, apologised.  But you don't go to lieder recitals to be abused and sworn at, and I am inclined to give September's concerts a miss as I don't want my evening spoilt by uncouth swearing and loutish behaviour. 

And it didn't stop there.  Along the row in which I sat a couple of females, clearly using the occasion as a precursor to a night on the town, were stuffing into a couple of Big Macs and soft drinks.  They didn't make a noise but it jarred with the elegance one expects at a Lieder recital. 

All these people may have been enjoying the music in their own way, but it ruined my enjoyment.  Is that selfish of me?  All I can say is that I am careful when I enjoy music to remain conscious of others in the audience.  We have obligations as audience members to the music, the performers, but perhaps most of all to each other, and if that gets forgotten, one elite will quickly be driven out by another.

20 August 2011

What's on my CD Player - 4

Hyperion CDA66275 - Heroic and Ceremonial Music

Playing this one was a BIG MISTAKE.

I put it on and promptly stopped everything not for just an hour, but for several. It has stayed in the car being played over and over again for the journeys from home to the university and back each day for a week, and I'm still not tired of it.  I've even given up listening to the World Service news.  (Is Gaddafi still in charge in Libya?)  A good friend, horn player Nick Smith, lent me a copy when we were planning a concert with the MPO brass, and so taken was I by the disc that I went out and bought my own.  With the MPO brass we did the Widor and Vierne – spectacular in every respect – and planned to do the Françaix in the centenary year 2012; sadly the DFP pulled the plug on the organ concerts, so that will not happen now.  No matter.  Christopher Bowers-Broadbent and the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble do not so much pay it full justice in this sumptuous recording, but produce about the most spectacular disc of organ and brass I've ever heard.  I could live without the miserable bits of Langlais, and the Litaize and Koechlin have little to offer, but who cares when the rest of this disc is so incredibly, amazingly, breathtakingly, glorious?  Sadly, by the time Felix Aprahamian got round to writing the liner notes he was past caring, and his contribution is a model of pointless waffle.  Yet he was one of the great figures in English musical criticism and what he didn't know about 20th century France just wasn't worth knowing.  He remains one of my great heroes, in spite of a remarkable tendency to churn out drivel when the mood took him.

Metronome METCD1082 - Zelenka Requiem/Miserere/Lamentatio Pro Die Veneris Sancto

I once confessed to an editor that I loved Requiems (which I do) and since then I've had an unbroken stream of them sent for review.  This disc appeared in 2007 and is harmless enough. I don't take to the very dead sound or the rather precious style of delivery, and while there are some nice moments (there's a deliciously delicate little Tuba mirum with Grace Davidson trilling away merrily above some discreet string playing, while with a wonderfully full-voiced James Bowman and some enchanting violin playing from Kerslin Linder-Dewan the Liber scriptus is an absolute joy to behold) the performance doesn't really sell this music.  I yearn for a little more colour and variety; this seems to rely wholly on the fact that period instruments are used, and little seems to be done beyond that to convey what is, at heart, very lovely music. 

Having written all that, I rooted out my original review.  Here it is (from International Record Review)

Czech Chamber Choir/Baroque 1994 Ensemble/Roman Válek  -
Supraphon SU0052-2

Fiori Musicali is an early music group founded in the English midlands in 1983 by its current Director, Penelope Rapson.  They have released a number of CDs, most recently on the British Metronome label, the majority of which feature only their instrumentalists.  Certainly these instrumentalists are a pretty impressive lot, as can be appreciated from the delectably tasteful playing in the mouth-wateringly appetising Lamentatio, a work in which they are providing rather more than mere accompanimental support to the incomparable James Bowman.

With the other two works on the disc we are introduced to Fiori Musicali’s choral forces as well as an instrumental ensemble augmented by the presence of His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts.  While Penelope Rapson is quite correct in claiming this to be the “first UK recording” of Zelenka’s Requiem (a work it seems was written not so much to mark “the passing of some great dignitary”, as the booklet suggests, but specifically the death of Emperor Joseph I), this is not the first time the work has appeared on disc.  A 1995 Supraphon recording coupled the Requiem with another of Zelenka’s sacred choral works heard on this disc, the Miserere.  That disc has since been deleted, which is a shame since, for all the performance’s rough edges (and there were many), it had a vivid sense of involvement which is lacking from these English forces. 

Besides the polished and committed instrumental playing, the choral singing seems superficial.  There’s no doubt that Penelope Rapson has enthused her singers to deliver Baroque music with real vigour, but something has been lost along the way, while a sense of forced jollity results in the fugal second section of the Miserere sounding as if it was performed on horseback. (If jollity seems an inappropriate quality to find in settings of such misery-laden texts, one must not overlook what Rapson so rightly describes as Zelenka’s “quirkiness”.)  Perhaps the choral group is a little thin in numbers – the booklet lists 23 names, but are they all singing all the time? - and possibly lacking vocal maturity, but the blend and balance (and, I regret to say, the intonation) between voices and trombones (which often seem merely to be doubling the vocal lines) is decidedly unappetising.  A warmer acoustic – after all the booklet note promises “a magnificently sonorous texture” – and a little more choral bulk would, I suspect, have yielded infinitely more rewarding results. 

While the choral forces leave something to be desired, the quartet of soloists adds real distinction to the disc.  A sombre, but by no means dark-hued Simon Whiteley, reminds us that it is a requiem rather than something lighter in his impeccably poised “Mors stupebit”, while “Te Decet” finds Benjamin Nulett and James Bowman offering as graceful a pairing of voices as one could imagine.  At one, both musically and vocally, this would be the real vocal highlight of the disc were it not for the presence of Grace Davidson.  Her unassumed purity of tone, natural vocal delivery and instinctive feel for the idiom, is a joy to behold.  Her truly heavenly delivery of the “Gloria Patri” from the Miserere elevates this disc from the undeniably interesting to the unmissably arresting.

16 August 2011

What's on my CD Player - 3

Wow!  No other word is needed.  This one really blows your head off!

This wasn't so much a random pull off the shelf as a real desire to hear some Glière.  Yesterday I attended a student recital in which a young horn player – Tan Chai Suang – gave a fine account of Glière's Horn Concerto's second movement.  I confess to never having heard the piece before and I was absolutely enchanted by its lovely melodies, luxuriant harmonies and gorgeously idiomatic (and demanding) writing for the horn.  I realised that all I knew of Glière was the Red Poppy Suite – which is a lot of fun with its ethnic dances and clever little orchestral gimmicks – and when I got home I looked to see what else I had by Glière on my shelves.  Out came this – bought God knows how many years ago – and what a stunning thing it is.  It's a fine symphony – a little over-heavy on the effect and light on the substance – but greatly distinguished by this simply stunning performance and breathtaking recording.  A real must have for the audio buffs, despite being all of 15 years old.

A random choice and one which I've had to play a couple of times simply to get to grips with music which should be accessible and coherent, but comes across as incoherent and eminently forgettable.  I bought it a while ago when I saw it in a shop simply because for me, as a non-cellist, David Popper (1843-1913) is the man who writes all those unaccompanied studies thrown into graded cello exams, and I really wanted to know if he had ever done anything else.  There's a Suite called Im Walde which has lots of the Elgar Cello Concerto about it (without the nice bits), a Requiem for three cellos and orchestra which relies as much on cliché as novelty factor, and a fistful of ditties which sound as if they are simple transcriptions of second-rate songs (my favourite is the colourful Vito).  It's harmless enough stuff but Naxos have hardly done the musical world a major service by releasing it from its well-deserved obscurity.  Maria Kliegel's cello makes a lovely sound, the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia sound as if they are all relaxing on thick velvet cushions and Gerhard Markson is clearly happy to let Maria do the work while he just tags along like a well-trained poodle behind her.

The Musician as Servant

Shaftesbury - A Haven of Courteousness
On a recent visit to the UK I found myself in that delightful Dorset town, Shaftesbury, famed for its precipitous hill and rows of thatched houses.  I was stopped in the street by primary school children involved in a survey about what their town offered visitors.  Having been searching in vain for a toilet, when they asked me if there was anything Shaftesbury lacked by way of tourist facilities, I promptly replied "public conveniences".  They met this with a shocked silence and a quizzical look but politely moved on with a "Thank you for your time, sir".  It was only as I turned round to head back down the hill did I see I that the interview had been conducted on the very step of a clearly marked (and spotless) public convenience.

Another question they asked me was; "Is there anything you feel passionately about when you visit Shaftesbury?"  A difficult one since visitors tend not to feel passion in sleepy and quaint Dorsetshire towns, but so polite and well-mannered were these children that I was able to answer; "I feel passionately about the good manners, the courtesy and the consideration shown by the residents".  As so often happens, the question actually set my mind racing, and for some time afterwards I was taken up by thinking what would have been a better answer.  When it comes to Shaftesbury I don't think, even with a few weeks contemplation, I could have come up with a more genuine answer, but broadening it out, I have spent some time recently wondering what I do feel the most passionate about.

In fact, I think the one thing which really does get me passionate is courtesy, consideration, thoughtfulness and respect for others.  When I see people behaving in an inconsiderate, selfish way, ruthlessly putting themselves above their fellow man and oblivious to the common decencies one human being ought to show to another, I think I get more angry, more passionate, than over anything else.  I seethe with hatred at the sight of mindless violence, I am consumed with anger at the sight of graffiti, litter throwing and vandalism, and I boil with rage over the most common of selfish acts (the sort of things most Asians seem to regard as their birthright; pushing to the front of queues, rushing to be the first off the plane, driving recklessly just to get in front of another vehicle, and pushing into trains and lifts regardless of the desires of others to leave  - in the case of lifts, Asians still find them such a novelty that there is a frantic rush to be the first to stand beside the control panel and push the buttons, and I am not averse to pressing coins into their grubby hands and leaving the lift with a loud "Thank you, lift attendant"). 

This passion is positive as well as negative, however, and there is nothing that excites me more fundamentally than serving my fellow man.  When I used to be a bus driver, I derived enormous satisfaction from serving the public.  There was something wonderful about having the power to offer a small service, a small act of kindness, even a pleasant smile, which could brighten someone's day.  I love the fact that Singapore bus drivers are all clearly trained in the art of good service, and I have rarely boarded a bus here without getting a cheerful smile and a courteous greeting.  It makes me want to travel by bus rather than subject myself to the hatred and vicious injustice meted out by Singapore's execrable and astonishingly incompetent  car drivers.

Zubin Mehta does it right.  Does that
diminish his musicality?
Standing in for a semester at the National University of Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory while one of the permanent staff is on maternity leave, I am teaching a course on music history and context from 1600 to 1830.  I mentioned to the students that in those years a musician was a servant, employed solely to serve a master - be he a king, a prince, a wealthy aristocrat or the church - and drew their attention to the fact that musicians still often adopt an attire which is shared by waiters and servants in high-class restaurants and hotels.  They found it funny and vaguely ridiculous that musicians were once seen as little more than waiters serving up, not food, but entertainment.  Yet, to me, the greatest joy to be found in performing is the sense of service.  Just as, on the buses I had the power to add a little brightness and cheer to a stranger's life, so as a musician I have the power to enrich, for a brief time, the lives of others.  And that is something, surely, we should all be passionate about.

Mr Turnip-Head started the rot!
I despair at the innumerable young musicians who believe that performing is really a path to individual glory, that the stage is for them to display their personal prowess, that the composer's art is solely for the purpose of providing a vehicle through which they can achieve fame.  We can look to the Elvis Presleys, the Michael Jacksons, the Amy Winehouses of this world and say that they died because they could not handle fame; fame acts like a drug with far greater addictive properties than the mineral and vegetable products they consumed with apparent abandon.  Musicians in the classical arena tend not to have gone down that path yet, but it can only be a matter of time before we get our first star suicide, prompted by an inability to cope with the self-imposed levels of fame so eagerly sought at the beginnings of careers.

The warning signs are there for us all to see.  The conductor who wears a colourful frock coat instead of tails, the singer who gives herself over to the promotion of luxury non-musical products, the violinist who poses topless for her promotional photographs, the pianist who employs a fashion guru to advise on concert attire.  All of these have lost sight of their servant status.  They get a lot of money, their names are familiar and adoring crowds flock to see them, but where's their passion?  Am I alone in finding that these star performers often seem to have lost any power to move their audience?  Is not the passion to serve – be it the composer or the audience - at the heart of any great musical performance? 

12 August 2011

Malaysian Organ News - The Final Chapter?

By one of those deliciously bitter ironies which, if you read it in a book you would put it down to artistic licence, in the same week that the organ programme at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur comes to an end after its successful 12-year run, Discovery Channel airs for the umpteenth time its remarkable documentary on the very instrument which is now about to fall silent, possibly for good.

With several transmissions a year both on Malaysian domestic television and on Discovery Channel internationally, the documentary about the DFP pipe organ – Pipe Dreams - has become, not only the most watched programme about pipe organs in Asia (if not the world) but remains the most powerful promotional tool that DFP has ever had, bringing the uniqueness and glories of this great concert hall to a far wider public than any internally-produced marketing campaign could.  And it all came into being because of the single-minded dedication and enthusiasm of a Penang schoolteacher.

A Spectacular Backdrop to the DFP stage
The story of the Klais organ at DFP should be well-known to avid readers of this blog.  In short, intended primarily as a visually stunning backdrop to the concert hall stage, my interference in the early days of the organ's existence ensured it actually got used on a regular basis and, after some pretty dismal solo recitals by luminaries of the organ world (the powers-that-be failed to realise that luminaries of the organ world were utter nonentities so far as the Malaysian concert-going public was concerned), I was able to devise a uniquely Malaysian programme which ensured the organ became an integral and, indeed, popular part of Malaysia's classical music scene.  It's worked hugely well until this week when, finally, the DFP management seems to have killed it off. 

In addition to the popular recitals of repertoire deliberately chosen to avoid any sense of the organ's association with the church, and the innovative programmes of organ chamber music concerts, the organ open days, the educational presentations and the active demonstrations of the workings of the biggest (and most expensive) single musical instrument in the country, I also persuaded the education department to include organ lessons in its prospectus.  The students were not always entirely suitable.  There was the airline pilot who rarely managed lessons because he was so often on the other side of the world, the school boy who only signed up for three lessons just so that he could add another instrument to his CV, the young girl who was so frightened of making a noise she never actually played a note in five lessons and another who simply didn't have the physical strength to press down on a single key and get it to sound, and the married man who had designs on one of the girls working in the DFP office and saw organ lessons – which necessarily take place in the late evening - as a means of getting closer to her without his wife knowing.

And then there was Leonard.

Leonard Selva had taught himself to play the organ in his local church in Penang, but he wanted to improve his skills.  Any teacher will tell you that self-taught is a recipe for disaster, especially in the more mature student, and the systematic undoing of all the damage done by unsupervised development of incorrect techniques is a daunting task.  But, having had so many utterly inappropriate pupils, I felt that at least Leonard knew what he was in for, so took him on.  He travelled down to KL from Penang every fortnight at his own expense, and had a habit of deciding what he would like to learn, rather than allowing me to devise an appropriate syllabus.  I quickly realised that when Leonard wanted to learn something, he would learn it, and if it required a complete undoing and rebuilding of technique, that did not faze him at all.  In short, he was living proof of these sayings about faith moving mountains and nothing being impossible.  We even got him through one of Trinity's performance certificates his examiner being Peter de Blois, organist of Auckland Cathedral and not a man likely to miss failings in technique or poor musicianship.

Then one day in 2007, Leonard mentioned that he had seen an advert asking for those with an ambition to become TV documentary-producers to come up with an idea directly associated with aspects of life in Malaysia which they could then present to a panel.  The winners would be given the full professional facilities and training to produce their documentary which would be aired on a series to be called First Time Film-Makers.  Leonard had done a lot of research into the history of pipe organs in Malaysia – he had even given a fascinating lecture on the subject at one of the DFP Organ Days – and wanted to suggest this as a documentary subject.  I'm afraid I poured cold water on the idea.  I suggested it was of limited interest, did not reflect the image of Malaysian life as the panel of judges (which included a government minister) would recognise it, and would make for some pretty dull television; after all, an organ looks and sounds mightily impressive but doesn't move around very much, which rather undermines its televisual attractiveness.  Leonard disagreed, and presented his plan to the panel with such conviction that they accepted it.

Somewhere along the line the story changed and, instead of Leonard presenting a documentary about the pipe organs of Malaysia, he himself became the subject of the documentary as it charted a story of how he had achieved an ambition to give a public recital on the DFP organ.  The organist in me felt a little disappointed that a documentary became a piece of semi-fiction, but it did allow lots of TV airtime to the spectacular inside of the DFP and plenty of close-ups of the organ itself.  I say semi-fiction, because Leonard had never expressed to me a desire to perform in public and when I had once suggested it, he had shown horror at the prospect.  However, better men than me were on the case, and we soon found we had to schedule at the very last minute a public recital for him.  In a response which the present-day management could never match (largely because it involves making a decision) the then DFP management moved heaven and earth to get it off the ground, and within days all had been arranged and the marketing machine (the indefatigable Harry) was in full swing with photos, media placings and posters.  So far as we were concerned at DFP this was just another public concert, and it was subjected to the same procedures as anything else.  I even recall the Discovery Channel people being told to prevent intrusive TV cameras distracting the audience.  Of course it was nerve-wracking for all concerned, but in the event we had a full house for the lunchtime recital on 14th August 2007 which went like a dream.

Watching the documentary again last night, I couldn't help but admire Leonard's playing.  He really did a fantastic job.  The funny thing is, any organist watching it would have assumed a lot of editing and retakes were involved and, perhaps, might even have suspected Leonard did not sound in the flesh quite as polished as he did on TV.  The problem is the usual thing of a TV director with no knowledge of the subject; the cutting and editing were all wrong.  As Leonard was seen to play one thing, we heard another, as his feet moved over the pedals, we heard only manuals, as his hands changed stops we heard no change of tone.  But that was a production error.  In truth everything we heard was Leonard live at his recital – there were no re-takes or editorial patches to the audio – and I can tell you it was a very impressive recital indeed.

It proved that, with people like Leonard Selva around, determined, focused and, above all, possessing absolute faith in the subject, the Malaysian organ scene can feel optimistic, even as the plug is pulled on recitals at DFP.

The DFP Klais in action
And what of the DFP Klais?  The organ is scheduled to be played in two MPO concerts next season and, if anyone has any sense, the two visiting organists – Olivier Latry and Jennifer Bate – will be persuaded to do something more than merely play in the concerts.  But without regular recitals, the interest so many Malaysians have shown in the organ will soon dissipate and without someone regularly playing the organ, it will quickly deteriorate as a working musical instrument; like an expensive motor car, an organ must get fairly regular exercise if it is not to seize up completely.  It would be nice to feel that the future of this iconic instrument is assured, but I'm afraid I don't possess the same level of faith as does my erstwhile pupil from Penang.

09 August 2011

What's on my CD Player - 2

There are visitors in the house today and, rather than sit in like a gooseberry as one of the uglier Chinese dialects (Hakka) is spoken at full volume, I have sought refuge in the office where I am pretending to work.  So I get the chance to listen to three CDs taken at random from my shelves.

By an unfortunate accident – not unconnected with my three-year-old daughter let loose in my office – the cable to my right hand speaker has become dislodged and I listened to the first track of this CD in mono.  It was horrible.  Dense, one-dimensional and very overwhelming.  Once opened up into full stereo, the sound became gloriously all-enveloping and while the recording location – St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London - can never pretend to sound like the Sistine Chapel, Harry Christophers works magic with his choir to bring into sharp focus some of the musical wonders of 16th century Rome.

This brought to my - and, I think, much of the world's - attention the dynamic violinist Leonidas Kavakos.  This is a superb account of the Sibelius, full of vivid imagery and with superb orchestral support from the Lahti Symphony.  Its Unique Selling Point was the presentation for the first time of the original version of the Concerto.  It's fascinating to hear them side by side, even if it soon becomes obvious why Sibelius decided to withdraw the original.  It still sounds outstanding in terms of playing and recording 20 years on.

My daughter came in – escaping the oohs and aahs of adoring relatives - and chose this one for me.  What a hideous sound!.  The organ in the Prélude sur l'introit de l'Epiphanie makes a truly foul noise with the most ghastly trumpet stop known to man, Martin Ford's playing of the Fugue on a theme by Henri Rabaud is utterly and completely uninspired and, worst of all this once fine choir sounds ragged, out of tune, unsubtle and completely unattuned to the spirit of this music.  Mark Chaundry makes a dreadful noise in the tenor solo of the Messe Cum Jubilo and generally the men all sound like sixth form adolescents pushed beyond their means.  I wondered how I had ever got hold of such a dire disc, but then when the brass burst in with completely the wrong notes during the Requiem I remembered.  I had reviewed this disc and given it a pretty thorough thumbs down back in 2008.  As usual the editor sent a pre-publication copy of my review to the company in case they wanted to use a quote in their release material, but they got straight back and complained that I was wrong and that the brass wrong notes were actually what Duruflé had written.  Of course they aren't and only a half-deaf lunatic would think otherwise; and I think I may have asked the editor to pass that message on.  I never did see my review in print!

National Music

Singapore National Day.  Perhaps it's my English background, but I find these lavish celebrations of nationhood faintly ridiculous.  The place is littered with red and white flags, there's one draped over every balcony of every condominium and under each window of every HDB block, the local petrol station is selling covers for door mirrors in the colours of the Singapore flag and most cars have a lethal looking flagpole stuck on to a window bearing a mini-Singapore flag.  (Has anyone released statistics concerning the number of injuries – gouged eyes, pierced chests, scratched arms – caused by these in accidents?) Today's paper forgoes any news to give us "feel-good" stories about how lovely it is to live in Singapore, and the whole place will shortly come to a standstill as the place erupts in a mass celebration of this insignificant milestone in a very young country's progress (46 today).   It was even dafter in Malaysia where they celebrate with even greater abandon; and there they don't even celebrate the anniversary of the forging of the current nation, merely the anniversary of the day on which the previous colonial power left.

One thing these national day celebrations have in common is some pretty dreadful music.  If you venture out in public your ears are assaulted by various over-amplified examples of musical mediocrity projected as examples of how Singapore is breeding fine musical talent (forget the fact that the finest home-grown musical talent has gone to Scotland for the month – see my earlier post).  Worst of all will be the dreadful versions of the national anthem blasted out at every opportunity. 

It is standard procedure for countries to have a national song and one of the first acts of new nationhood seems to be to find a suitable one.  In 2005 Marco Polo produced an 8-CD set of all the National Anthems of the World; 375 tracks in all, although the national anthems represent just 273 nations some of which are not quite what we might think of as sovereign states.  One of the games visitors to the Rochester Rotunda are subjected to is to be played a national anthem and to guess the country.  It's fun, not least because the performances by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Peter Breiner render even the most familiar anthems virtually unrecognisable, but particularly so since few of the tunes have any obvious correlation with the country they are serving. 

National Anthems rarely have music written by a native of the country concerned.  When I wrote about the Malaysian national anthem for the performance given (amidst, it has to be said, a certain amount of controversy which the world's press picked up) at the inaugural concert of the MPO in 1998, the bit when I traced its origins back to a French folk dance was expunged from my copy; in Malaysia they don't believe in history, just projecting the present on to the past.  (The final irony came a few weeks later when an innocent gentleman from Johor heard an old record of Hawaiian dance music and realised the tune being played was actually the Malaysian National Anthem.  He wrote to The Star to express his dismay at hearing the anthem being so belittled, but in truth the recording had been made long before Malaysia ever came into existence.) What matters with national anthems are the words; although how anyone can get a hefty dose of national pride when they sing the wordless anthem of Zanzibar, where the weird music itself is by none other than that archetypically British author of Essays on Musical Analysis, Donald Tovey (and in an ironic twist of fate his March for the Sultan of Zanzibar defies analysis).  If it's nationalism in music you are after, you will rarely find it in a national anthem.

Vaughan Williams published as essay called National Music in 1963.  He began with the premise that all music has national characteristics – "some misguided thinker has described music as the 'Universal Language'.  It is not even true that music has a universal vocabulary" – and goes on to suggest that "the outburst of artistic nationalism in the early 19th century appears to me to be the natural reaction of the artificial carving up of Europe to suit the needs of Emperors and politicians after 1815".  I have his comments in mind as I prepare the concert notes for a performance to be given by the Hong Kong Philharmonic on 14th and 15th October.  They devote the first half of their concert to two composers who certainly did respond to the carving up of Europe during the 19th century by forging a musical language purposefully incorporating elements as drawn from the folk music of their respective motherlands to create a "nationalist" idiom; certainly one cannot write about either Sibelius or Grieg without mentioning their nationalist endeavours. 

For Vaughan Williams, while folk music and similarly obvious nationalist elements might have some novelty factor, the real lasting nationalism in music comes not from a deliberate inclusion of folk melodies but the centuries of ingrained heritage behind every composer.  He writes; "When Stravinsky writes for the chorus his mind must turn homeward to his native Russia with its choral songs and great liturgies of the church".  So, he argues, it is through Stravinsky's style of writing for the voice rather than any superimposed Russian folk elements, that "we find the real and the great Stravinsky which will remain fresh and alive when all the clevernesses of his instrumental music will have become stale through familiarity".  Whether the Firebird – the work which concludes the HKPO concert – has yet become stale through familiarity is debatable, but in the meantime it certainly possesses a very strong sense of Russian nationalism.

We can wave our flags, even stick them up outside our flats or on the windscreens of our cars, but true nationalism only comes from centuries of collective heritage and experience.  I think Singapore, Malaysia and all the other nations of the world who so proudly celebrate a few decades of independence, might do well to learn from the continual evolution of classical music. 

Happy Birthday, not just Singapore, but also that fine pianist Solomon (1902-1988) and the French/Venezuelan composer/conductor Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947).