Writing About Classical Music - with a focus on South East Asia
26 August 2011
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.