27 September 2011

Forgotten CDs

A reorganisation of the CD shelves has just been completed.  Probably a pointless exercise since it's looking increasingly unlikely that I'll be able to stay in Singapore after the end of the year – there just isn't enough work here for a man of my limited talents – but a necessary one since the collection has now exceeded the 13,000 mark.  Having all those CDs lying around on the floor and being checked off against the catalogue drew my attention to some forgotten members of the Rochester Collection, not least those at the very top left hand and very bottom right hand corners in a collection arranged numerically and alphabetically.  Interestingly, those discs at the extremities came with stories closely connected to my time with the Petronas Philharmonic Hall in Kuala Lumpur. 

For the bottom shelf, you will have to wait!  Coming in at the top left hand corner, however, with the catalogue numbers 00-00341 and 00-00549 were two discs of piano music played by Craig Sheppard on the German-based Annette Tengermann (AT) label.  They were both given to me by one of the most loyal, dedicated and kindly choral singers I have ever had the privilege of working with, Judith Blake. 

In June 1999, James Judd (and one could write a substantial chapter on the sorry saga of his involvement with the MPO, but that's probably best left to submerge beneath the waves of time) conducted a performance of The Planets.  The problems the Americans had in getting their space programme underway were nothing to what we went through to get a ladies' choir together for the final movement.  It all but fell apart and, in the concert post-mortem, it was decided that we should get a pool of singers trained and ready for occasional performances when a chorus was needed.  This, of course, ran against an objection many Muslims have to singing on stage, and a very delicate line had to be struck – after all the hall was specifically designed not to accommodate a choir.  However I assembled a group of some 50 voices and, over the course of the next two years, got them to a fairly acceptable standard.  We decided to launch ourselves with a choral concert on 8th April 2002.  It couldn't be a true choral concert as this would have caused some issues with the authorities, who did not want to annoy the more fundamentalist Islamic leaders from the east coast states (from which the vast bulk of Petronas oil was extracted), so we did it as a kind of piggy-back on one of my early evening organ recitals.

The one public appearance of the MPO Chorus
Less than a month before the concert, I was told to submit a list of choir members.  "Too many foreigners", I was told, "Bring in more Malaysians".  How, after two years' training, I could sudden conjure up a group of locals and get them to sing well defies the imagination; but it is typical of the astonishing musical ignorance which has always plagued DFP management.  When I said that wasn't possible, I was told to axe the foreigners.  That would have left me with a choir of 20 and I refused.  A fortnight before the concert, I was told that only foreigners with Permanent Resident status or with valid work permits could be allowed to perform on stage, others would need to revoke their current Malaysian visas, apply for a permit allowing them to perform at a public concert, and then reapply after the event to revert to their original status, which was by no means guaranteed.  When it became obvious that, during the process of applying and re-applying, they would need to leave the country, the concert looked doomed.

The wife of the then German Ambassador to Malaysia, one of my sopranos (holding a diplomatic passport and therefore no work permit), was outspoken in her condemnation of all this and expressed her resentment to her husband.  In an act of astonishing ineptitude, he, without checking any facts with anyone at DFP, wrote a letter to the national press accusing Malaysia of racism, which caused a considerable stir in the DFP office.  Not long afterwards, the German Ambassador was recalled (coincidence?), but, through patient argument (not my strong point), and a concession that the choir would not be called, as originally intended, the MPO Chorale, we were able to let the concert go ahead with most of the original choir, but on condition that it would be disbanded immediately afterwards and never perform on the DFP stage again.

As all this saga unfolded Judith remained a tower (more a mountain – she, like me, was not the most svelte person in the world) of strength and dependability, always optimistic and seeing a solution to every problem.  In gratitude, after the concert, she gave me two CDs by Craig Sheppard.  She had heard him perform some years earlier and been so moved she had bought all his CDs.  By giving two of them to me, she was sharing something very special, and I was deeply moved by her sacrifice. It would be nice to report that I, too, found the CDs deeply moving, but at the time I was not bowled over by them and, sadly, have left them to fester on the top shelf.  Until now.  Prompted not only by the memory of Judith's loyalty and immense kindness, but by the fact that Craig Sheppard was in Singapore a couple of weeks ago giving a masterclass to Yong Siew Toh students, I have taken the trouble to revisit this pair of CDs.

If, back in 2002, I found Sheppard's approach to Bach too dry and technical, I have obviously become more attuned to this style of Bach pianism since then, for I love the way he mulls so intensely over every phrase, and I simply adore the nimbleness of his articulation in the brisker of the "Goldberg" Variations. Some of his dynamic extremes and rallentandi seem a little overbearing, but this was obviously a live recording, and I can imagine it would have had a spellbinding effect in the hall (it was recorded, I see, in the Berlin Philharmonie in April 1999).  The overriding impression I get of Sheppard's Bach playing is of intense musicality with a vivid consciousness of textural intricacies.  His fugal playing (in var.4, for example) is spellbinding, his ear for balance and his subtle nuances of touch little short of brilliant, and his innate pianism making it all sound perfectly suited to the instrument, even if he is a little over-inclined to exaggerate Bach's virtuoso writing (as in var.14).  He misses out the repeats – which means his Goldberg takes 43 minutes compared with the 73 of Murray Perahia (on Sony Classical SK89243) – and neither the recording nor the piano itself has the all-embracing warmth of Perahia's, but I think I marginally prefer Sheppard simply because it has such a feeling of vitality and because, as this is genuine harpsichord music (which you can't say about everything Bach wrote for the keyboard), he has clearly informed his performance on harpsichord technique.

The second disc could not be more different.  Juxtaposing the 24 Preludes of Chopin and Scriabin, his playing is, while technically very impressive, a little dry and impersonal.  He has a wonderful sense of texture, and balances the musical strands superbly, but, while Chopin is not up there among my favourites, I do feel his music warrants a little more emotional weight than it gets here; the G major (Op.28 No.3) has all the character of a Bach Toccata, while the ensuing E minor comes across entirely in the manner of Bach's organ chorale prelude "Erbarm dich mien" (BWV721). Similarly the Scriabin Preludes (which I do love) have a detached, impersonal feel.  Again, texture is impeccably delineated and technical detail delivered with absolute precision, but it is playing without soul; except, possibly, for the magical way he interprets the closing bars of the B major.  Perhaps Sheppard was distracted during the performances, recorded live in Seattle in October 1994 and May 1995, by an audience unable to restrain their substantial bouts of coughing, but my feeling is that, when it comes to this romantic repertory, Sheppard is not the most persuasive of advocates.  When it comes to Bach, he is second to none, and this particular disc is not going to be allowed to gather much more dust in Singapore or anywhere else.

26 September 2011

Composer Sound-alikes

Chang Tou Liang on his Pianomania blog is running a series of pianist and conductor lookalikes.  Coincidentally, that matchless forum for contrived lookalikes, Private Eye, has one in its current edition which Pianomania has missed; not wishing to steal Tou Liang's thunder, I simply reproduce the Private Eye letter as it appeared.

Me or Maestro Levine
Apart from someone once remarking that I looked a bit like conductor James Levine, I've only ever been said to resemble non-musicians;  my old piano teacher thought I looked like Raymond Burr (the weighty actor of many years ago who played Perry Mason in the TV series), while my sisters swear I am the living reincarnation of the late Richard Whiteley, an anchor on Yorkshire Television in the UK who became famous as host of an afternoon TV quiz aimed at the unemployed and geriatrics in which he cracked appalling jokes and never understood anybody else's witticisms (which is perhaps the similarity my sisters recognised rather than any physical resemblance).

Raymond Burr
Me or Richard Whiteley?

But my voice, apparently, is very familiar.  There used to be a fellow on television called Alan Whicker who joined the millionaire set and travelled the world with a film crew in tow.  Countless of times people have heard my voice in shops and in the street, turned round to see the great man only to find, to their manifest disappointment, me.  I have even been asked if I do Alan Whicker's voice-overs, and even today there is someone out there doing the rounds as a voice-over artist for commercials and documentaries who sounds exactly like me, judging from the constant queries I get from strangers whenever I open my mouth.  Ironically, my voice is still occasionally heard by listeners to the BBC in the UK, and I never forget walking into a country pub with my wife in darkest Cornwall, going to the bar to place our order and having the whole pub and serving staff stop dead; "You're the man on the radio, aren't you?", the barmaid asked, and got everyone in the bar to listen to me as I spoke again.  There was no mistaking me for someone else; on this occasion they'd got me bang to rights.  My wife was profoundly impressed and so was I; who would have thought regulars at a dark pub down a tiny lane in the lee of Bodmin Moor would have been avid Radio Three listeners?

Alan Whicker
Lookalikes and soundalikes are, for all the fun they give us, not really my scene.  My real fun comes from composer's names.  There's nothing I like more than being able to play around with puns and jokes in my concert notes where a composer's name lends itself to such treatment.  Of course, the more abstruse it is, the better; jokes are best when, Richard Whiteley-like, nobody understands them except the privileged few.  After 13 years of writing coded jokes in the MPO programmes, only oboist (and fellow-Englishman) Simon Emes ever consistently spotted them.  On one occasion a visiting Canadian violinist harangued me in the bar after a concert for a subtle joke I had made at one composer's expense which she had completely misunderstood.  Not for me what one of my former ABRSM colleagues did during an examining tour of Hong Kong; faced with a grim piano candidate by the name of Wong Noh Tee wrote on his report form, "Not many right notees here!"  (I kid you not – he really did, and got dismissed for his pains.). 

A Commanding Figure

I like it when I can, for instance, suggest that Marco Enrico Bossi (1861-1925) was one of the commanding figures in Italian organ music of the late 19th century, or that Max Reger (1873-1916) wrote music which made as much sense when played backwards as it did when played forwards.  At Llandaff Cathedral we had a Precentor who I liked to catch out by juxtaposing various composers in the listing of psalm chants; I got him to intone with the utmost reverence "the chants are Alcock and Noble" before he realised and burst into giggles which echoed the length, breadth and height of the nave. 

This playing with composers' names did get me into trouble at university when, charged with fellow-student Stuart Nettleship, to organise the music faculty's annual dinner, we hit on the idea of naming tables after composers, and choosing the composers to match the people sitting at the tables.  Thus we had the violinists on the Ysaÿe table, the singers on the Verdi table and the organists on the Bach table, the bores we put on the Rheinberger table, the avant-gardists went on the Cage table, and the only people to object were the senior professorial staff.  I think it was Stuart who hit on the idea of putting up a seating plan outside the ballroom with every name diner's name alongside a fragment of (unattributed) music.  Once the doors were open and the summons to dinner made, everyone had to find the table with the appropriate composer's name.  You'd have thought the violists would have identified the piece of Hindemith we'd found for them – but not a bit of it – but most others didn't have a problem.  It was all good fun until it came to the senior professorial staff, whom we had placed on a table identified by an extract from the Tabulatura nova of 1624.  Only one of them – the senior history fellow – recognised the composer, at which point he became exceedingly angry and stormed out.  His colleagues were more sanguine about having been placed at the Scheidt table.
A Pile of .....?

I have a whole fund of such composer names, but a new one came my way today during the students' weekly lunch time concert at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  A lovely concert, far too long (someone needs to tell these students how to time their performances so we don't overrun by 20 minutes again) but culminating in an absolutely brilliant account of the first two movements of Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto given by Zheng Qingshu, it also included a series of pieces for viola by one Hans Sitt.  After listening to it I still couldn't judge precisely where he fitted into musical history, although I have since looked him up and find that he was born in Prague in 1850, died in Leipzig in 1922, and was violin professor at the Leipzig Conservatory.  The music was harmless but immemorable, and I joined in the applause, resisting the temptation to sit on my hands.

24 September 2011

Martial Arts and Buses

Daimler Fleetline and Routemaster -
surely as different as chalk and cheese?

There is always a fear when you commit yourself to print that you will make some fundamental error which will immediately be seized on by those who have a specialised and profound interest in the subject.  I remember getting very angry when some silly scribe got the distinction between Routemaster and Daimler Fleetline confused;  "How could anyone be so ill informed?", I raged.  Of course, I have long since learnt that there are some things, very precious to me, that others regard as being of monumental unimportance.  I hate to say it, but where I see Leylands, Volvos, C42Fs and H43/39Rs, Wright, Duple, Plaxton or Alexander bodies, others merely see buses.  So I have to accept that whenever someone whose interest in road passenger transport vehicles is less intense than mine mentions the subject, it is the thought behind the words rather than the black and white facts which matter most.

It is difficult to maintain such quietude when you read opinions which are plainly founded on ignorance.  A letter to the Bangkok Post last week was vitriolic in its criticism of a cartoonist who had drawn a map of Europe with the initial letters of the countries Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain so organised as to spell out the word PIGS.  "How Rude!", screeched the ill-educated epistler, "These countries have noble and honourable histories, theirs are among the great civilisations of the world.  And your cartoonist ignorantly refers to them as pigs!"  Oh, the ignorance of the man.  Does he only read cartoons?  A cursory glance at the news pages for the past year would have assured him that the acronym PIGS has become universally accepted as standing for those countries whose finances are in such a dire strait that they are threatening to bankrupt the whole of the Eurozone.

So with all this in mind, I have been agonising long and hard over a review I have had to write on a new CD featuring the music of Tan Dun.  Much as I like a lot of what he has written, The Martial Arts Trilogy is, for me, utterly dire.  It seems to be a simple regurgitation of tracks from three movies without any coherent theme.  Yes, his publishers refer to it as being concerned with "Love. Betrayal. Death. Revenge. Resurrection", but, frankly I don't hear it in the music.  All I hear is the aimless meanderings which are what most film music is when divorced from the onscreen visuals.  On top of that, a gratuitous piece of pandering to the mass public by adding a pop track sung (if that's the right word, which I doubt) by CoCo Lee, renders the whole project pointless so far as a critic is concerned.  Ms Lee's fans will assume that I am a pig-ignorant gweilo if I suggest that she is anything other than fantastic, and those who look to a critic to give them a closely reasoned and objective report, will consider I am punching outside my weight if I begin to suggest she is anything other than a miserable failure as a singer.

This is my percpetion of Martial Arts.  Is it wrong?
But my real problem is the title.  Dare I say that, for me, Martial Arts is all about kicking, posturing and ceremonial fighting?  If I buy a CD called The Martial Arts Trilogy I expect something aggressive, energetic and reasonably vivid.  What I get here is wall-to-wall mood music which exudes utter and total stasis.  I'd love to tell the readership that, but I dare not for fear of having my ignorance exposed by those who have as passionate an interest in the Martial Arts as I have in Road Passenger Transport Vehicles.

(Follow the link for my review on theclassicalreview.com).  Meantime here's a pic of CoCo Lee looking all Martial Artsy and a lovely piccy of a Routemaster with a Fleetline in the background.  Which do you prefer? (And don't say CoCo Lee!)

23 September 2011

Why Do We Listen?

The Bangkok Post today ran a CD review of the latest release in the excellent Bach Cantata series on Bis from Masaaki Suzuki and his excellent Bach Collegium Japan.  This was disc no.49 in the series and covered Cantatas 156, 159, 171 and 188; not among Bach’s best known essays in the genre, but getting an enthusiastic welcome from reviewer.  True, much of the focus on the review was on the borrowings and on Bach’s apparent penchant for “recycling his own music and that of other composers”.  We are not given any specific examples where Bach has poached from another composer in these cantatas and even where the reviewer suspects him of borrowing from his own music, details are very sketchy: the implication is that in place of the (lost) Sinfonia for Cantata No.188 Bach borrows from a concerto.  But which one?  “Nothing is lost in having the solo part played here by an organ rather than a different keyboard or string instrument”.  I’m well aware that Bach was, like all his contemporaries (Handel being the supreme example), happy to reuse and adapt earlier material, but I doubt I’d go so far as the sub-editor at the Bangkok Post who added the headline “Album pays tribute to the great recycler, JS Bach”.

Great recycler, or not, my interest in this review stems more from what it is physically reviewing than the dubious claims the reviewer makes for the music’s provenance.  For, while it gives some brief mention of performance and singers, it seems to spend rather more time complaining about the lack of documentation.  To get some background information, the reviewer apparently had to look up the Bach Cantatas website (which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Bach Collegium Japan).  We read that “if only BIS could begin including documentation”, which might seem odd bearing in mind how very good Bis documentation is, except that the review includes this remarkable comment; “The BIS label continues its lazy habit of not including along with their downloads the digital versions of the documentation that come with the physical disc”. 
Ah!  So this is no CD review, but a review of a download.  No problem now that that’s clear.  But why complain?  You know what you’re getting, so why expect something else.  And when the review concludes, “Of course, though, those who invest in the CD come out ahead in sound quality”, you wonder what it was all about.  Here we have a review of a product which, presumably because it’s cheap, is not as high quality as one which is more expensive. That’s a hard commercial fact, much more indisputable than Bach’s alleged obsession with recycling other composers’ work.  Why accuse a company of being lazy when all it is doing is offering up a cut-price, reduced specification version of a prime product?
Where the review goes so fundamentally wrong is to confuse what is being reviewed with something else. Contentious facts are one thing; a complete muddle over the target audience is an altogether different thing.  Presumably, the Bangkok readership who buys their recorded music as downloads knows all about its limitations, and do not want to have them highlighted still further.  It reminds me of the daft presenter on the BBC travel programme yesterday who, while driving a 1928 Alf Romeo, complained, “It doesn’t have power steering”!

This does raise an interesting question; what do people look for when they buy a recording of music? It’s probably true to say that the vast majority of those who buy recorded music make their choices on the grounds of the music, the artists and the quality of the actual recording.  I think most people would prioritise those differently, but those would remain the three principal reasons for buying.
Organists, of course, have a fourth reason; the instrument itself.  Plenty of specialist record companies in the organ world don’t bother much about repertoire, artist or recording quality, the thing they highlight is the organ itself.  “First recording of the newly-restored organ in xxxx” is a common catch on the CD booklets, and I’ve often heard comments like this from organ record collectors; “The music’s terrible the playing’s bad the recording not up to much – but what a wonderful organ!”.

That said, I know of people whose interest in one of the three key areas is so strong that the others pale into insignificance.  At school when LPs were still the cutting edge recording medium, I went to visit a friend’s home and was startled by the vast numbers of LPs his father possessed.  The thing that surprised me was the astonishingly eclectic taste the collection implied; Beatles alongside Beethoven, Rolling Stones alongside Ned Rorem, Errol Garner alongside Eric Coates, Dizzie Gillespie alongside Gabrieli, and so on.  There were speech records, sound effects records, avant-garde, pop, easy-listening and ethnic.  “Dad buys records for the sound they make”, my friend explained.  “He loves good recordings and hates bad ones.  He never listens to the BBC because their recordings are so bad, he says”.  I’d encountered my first true audiophile; someone whose interest had nothing to do with music but everything to do with the techniques of recording.
My old friend Arthur, of whom mention has already been made in this blog, only liked recordings of great performances.  He still inhabited a world where the 78 ruled the roost, and the audio quality for him mattered not a jot. The more scratches, distortions and fade outs there were, the better, and whether or not he liked the music was an irrelevance. The performance was what Arthur was after.

My preference is for the music rather than the performance; after all, I can never find in a recorded performance that same excitement I get from a live one. All the same, I can’t take a really bad performance on disc nor a disc where the recorded sound is so ghastly that it obstructs the music.  I can’t take downloads because I really value the documentation that comes with physical discs (indeed, I have bought discs simply because of the documentation; and, ironically given the recording which triggered this post, I buy the John Eliot Gardiner Bach Cantata series on Soli Deo Gloria primarily because of the lavish documentation that embraces every disc).  And I simply can’t listen to music on my computer; the whole business of downloads gives me a headache, so I NEVER do it.
I don’t like it, but I fully appreciate that others do and while I’d probably draw the line at reviewing a download, if I did, I think I’d steer clear of the risky business of comparing it with a CD; it’s about as pointless an activity as comparing live with recorded performances.

17 September 2011

Countertenors at Large

My review of Bejun Mehta's latest CD appeared on The Classical Review website (http://theclassicalreview.com/cds-dvds/2011/09/bejun-mehta-down-by-the-salley-gardens/) alongside an interview Michael Quinn had with Mehta himself.

It was interesting to be reminded of the perplexed reception for the countertenor voice until very recently.  Descriptions of it as "helium-high" and "the most exotic and female-sounding of all male voice registers" tended to concentrate on its sound rather than the artistry which lay behind it.  Tom Service, in a characteristically robust piece in The Guardian, opened with the words; "The world of the countertenor is a weird, high-pitched place, where the possibilities of the male voice are pushed to Bee Gees extremities".   I well recall an early concert given by the King's Singers when the countertenor introduced himself to his audience as sounding "as if something's not quite right" and got an embarrassed giggle when he demonstrated the purity of his top notes.  I remember a decade ago preparing the ground for the first countertenor to sing at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, and explaining that it was a wholly natural voice, trained to an incredible level of expertise.  As it was I didn't have to bother, for Andreas Scholl, who gave that concert back in October 2000, was so supremely gifted as a musician that nobody found it in any way odd; everybody was smitten by the sheer artistry of his singing.

As a former male alto myself – and, in a way, that's wrong, the alto traditionally being a male voice (like the treble), while contralto, mezzo-soprano and soprano are exclusively the preserve of women - I've come in for my fair share of stick when people heard me sing in a studied falsetto.  But as Quinn so eloquently points out, there has been quite an explosion of outstanding countertenors in the past few years – James Bowman, Gérard Lesne, Christopher Robson, David Daniels, Michael Chance, Lawrence Zazzo – and they have brought with them a whole new and valuable perspective on a voice (almost) for which some of the great 18th century operatic roles were conceived.

That, though, is the problem.  The countertenor is perceived as being an essentially Baroque voice, filling, with the same level of vocal power and artistic maturity, the roles originally designed for castrati.  True, some recent works have been written specifically for the countertenor voice – Jonathan Dove included a role for the voice in his opera Tobias and the Angel – but it remains almost wholly associated with the music of the Baroque era, and particularly that of Handel; Scholl's Malaysian concert was an all-Handel affair.

The Natural Preserve of the Countertenor?

So am I merely finding it difficult to adjust to hearing it out of what I regard as the countertenor's comfort zone when I have reservations about Mehta's disc of 20th century English song?  It has had some rave reviews from the critics – Andrew Clements writing that the singing is "so heart-stoppingly beautiful and musically perceptive" – and this has prompted me to revisit the disc several times.  Is it just the surprise at hearing a countertenor sing songs usually the preserve of Tenors (Robert Tear used to do it beautifully) and Baritones (almost better than the matchless Benjamin Luxon in this repertoire has been Bryn Terfel) that has me feeling a trifle uneasy, or is it Mehta's approach?

Mehta's expressive abilities are limited to portamento, exaggerated articulation and carefully-moulded sustained notes, especially when they are high in the register, ending off the phrases.  There is little in the way of dynamic subtlety and the vocal timbre actually rarely varies – we don't get that lovely Luxon resonance, the Tear whisper or the Terfel relishing of the individual syllables in a way only a Welshman can do – but that may be an inherent problem with the countertenor voice. Certainly I can't fault the intention in the interpretation, just the delivery.

I love this music as much as much as anything, but my love of it transcends personal preferences and I am open to alternative interpretations.  I'm keen to hear another countertenor try this so I can know whether it is Mehta, or whether it's the countertenor voice itself which really can't offer the kind of musical complexities music written in the last 200 years demands.

14 September 2011

Indian Musical Dynasties

Dynastic musical families are far from rare.  Grove lists no less than 283 of them, and that doesn't include such as the Sweelincks who, through each generation, changed the family name.  Of course, the most numerous musical dynasties were in the 17th and 18th centuries, and while not all matched the Bachs in sheer numbers of musicians in the family (Grove considers 14 to be of sufficient worth to warrant individual entries), many ran them close; the Benda family (12), the Couperins (10), the Webers (9) and the Scarlattis (8).  Even the Mozarts bred sufficient members to warrant six individual entries in Grove. 

For children to follow in their father's footsteps was much more common in an age before a broad-based education system and transparency in professional appointments opened up the job market allowing families to spread across the professions; my father, for example, was a civil servant, my brother an oil company executive, one of my sisters a teacher and myself a musician.  Indeed, there is almost something suspicious today when a son follows in the career footsteps of a high-profile father.  My own father still gets very angry when either David or Jonathan Dimbleby appear on television, assuming that they only reached their eminent positions because of their father Richard's pioneering role in the early days of BBC television.  For him, who achieved high office in his career through his own efforts (and possibly through an exceptional standard of integrity), any hint of nepotism is utterly despicable.

It is inevitable, however, that when a father's occupation so fully involves his life that it is impossible to distinguish between work and family, his children will be more inclined to follow in his footsteps.  I think of son-following-father situations such as Lucian and Andrew Nethsingha, both of whom were English cathedral organists, Lennox and Michael Berkeley, both of whom were composers, and of course Neeme Järvi and his two sons, Paavo and Kristjan, all eminent conductors.  Less common are families who have kept within a single profession but have spread out within it to perform various roles, and by a funny coincidence, the two that spring most readily to mind are Indian.  The great sitar virtuoso, Ravi Shankar, has fathered two daughters one of which, Anoushka, has followed him into the world of Indian Classical Music while the other, as Norah Jones, has carved out a career in a totally different genre, standing as one of the big vocal artistes in western pop music. 

The other family is the Mehtas.

As a student I first encountered conductor Zubin Mehta when he ran a conducting masterclass.  I was inspired by his work and while it showed me that I was not cut out to be a conductor, the morsels of information I picked up from him then have stood me in remarkably good stead throughout my subsequent, mostly non-conducting career.  Last year I found myself on a discussion panel with his brother, Zarin Mehta, director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a wonderful man whose vast reserve of common sense and piercing logic were as inspiring to me as the eminently practical advice gleaned from his brother. Then, on my frequent visits to India, the name of their father, Mehli Mehta keeps cropping up.  He it was who founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra and whose pioneering work did so much to ignite the passion for western classical music I have found in India; indeed, one of my best students at the moment is an Indian boy who would never have had the doors of a musical education opened so generously to him had it not been for Mehta's pioneering work. 

Then, just yesterday, a disc for review dropped through the door starring yet another Mehta, Bejun.  Embarrassingly I have to confess that I had never heard of him before, yet I read from his agent's website that "Bejun Mehta has been regarded for a long time as the most impressive countertenor worldwide, both vocally and dramatically".  What's gone wrong?  How come I, who should be more aware of the great stars of the concert platform than most, was so ignorant?  Frantic researches found that he was none other than a nephew of Zubin and Zarin, while his own father, Dady Mehta, was a pianist of whom, somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, I had heard.

There can be no hint of patronage or nepotism here, not least because the kind of music countertenors normally sing is not the kind Zubin ever conducts or Zarin's orchestra ever performs.  I would add, too, that countertenors and pianos are not that common in combination, which would rule out influence from Dady, except that the disc I had for review was a recital of 20th Century English Song performed by Bejun accompanied by a piano, the matchless accompanist, Julius Drake doing the honours.

I'd love to report that, having heard him now in repertoire which is very, very, very close to my heart, I am even more appalled that his name has not impinged on my consciousness before but, sadly, I can't say the recording bowled me over.  Indeed, while I admire his voice, after a while I found his method of performing this music vaguely irritating.  Check out my review on www.theclassicalreview.com.

Not all members of musical dynasties can be expected to be uniformly excellent, but I will not take my disappointing initial experience of Bejun as a real indicator of his talent; his ancestry is too impressive for that.  Instead I shall root out some of his opera recordings, many of which seem to have encouraged some enthusiasm from the world's critics impressed by his individual excellence, rather than his family ties.

13 September 2011

Orchestral Playing in China

If you believe what is up on Wikipedia – and let's face it, you've got to be pretty desperate to believe everything you find there – there are six professional symphony orchestras in China.  The oldest of these is the Shanghai Symphony which dates back to 1956, although its roots are in an orchestra which was founded back in 1922.  Of the others, only one is more than 50 years old, and that's the Guangzhou Symphony which was founded in 1957. 

According to www.chinaculture.org "The orchestral piece New Raiment of Rainbow and Feather Dance, composed by Xiao Youmei in 1923…is regarded as the original Chinese symphonic music", and most academic research has similarly identified the first western-style orchestral activity in China to date from the 1920s.

With the growth in orchestral activity has come what can only be described as an explosion in manufacturing of western-style musical instruments.  According to the China Musicians' Association, in 2003 there were 87 factories in China making western musical instruments. By 2006 that figure had grown to 142 and they produced between them 370,000 pianos, 1,000,000 violins and, believe it or not, 6,000,000 guitars. Today, no country produces more pianos, violins or guitars than China.  On top of that, as the New York Times' reported from Beijing; "The government has a complex bordering on mania when it comes to building concert halls. Some are white elephants, constructed hastily with little attention to programming or economic viability.

That same news item, published under the headline "Classical Music Looks to China With Hope", suggested that; "China at its best produces virtuosos who can compete worldwide".  Indeed, much is made of the brilliant young virtuosi coming out of China and more than one commentator who, under normal circumstances, might exercise restraint and reserve when peering into the future, has gushed about China as the "new force in classical music".  Certainly when it comes to numbers, China is a force to be reckoned with.  There are, according to the CMA, an estimated 30 million piano students and 10 million violin students in China, and the country's leading music conservatories attract nearly 200,000 students a year, 100 times more than they were attracting in the 1980s.  But while such vast numbers will inevitably throw up a crop of great solo virtuosi, there remains many thousand excellent, possibly outstanding players who, lacking the charisma or marketability to become clones of such classical music superstars as Lang Lang and Yundi, nevertheless wish to pursue a career in music.  For them, especially the string and wind players, the obvious choice is to join an orchestra.

It amused me when the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra was coming under criticism for "buying in foreigners", that nobody thought to look at the sheer number of orchestral players from mainland China who have inveigled themselves into most of the symphony orchestras of the world.  Frankly, without Chinese musicians, I suspect that some orchestras would be facing a very serious manpower problem indeed.  That so many Chinese orchestral players have found seats in orchestras in Europe, America, Australia, Africa and, of course, Asia, is possibly as much a reflection on the parlous state of orchestral life back home as a desire to travel overseas.  And it is to keep these native orchestral players at home that the last 20 years has witnessed a three-fold increase in the number of professional orchestras in China.  Sadly, to quote again from the New York Times, China "has no symphony orchestra that ranks with a major orchestra in the United States".

I have been putting that observation to the test this week, listening to the second oldest of the Chinese orchestras, the Guangzhou Symphony.  These were closed door, invitation only concerts, held as a gesture of thanks for Singaporean financial and intellectual support in a new development in Guangzhou city.  I suspect that a majority of the audience may not have been habitual concert-goers, but they clearly loved what they heard and the enthusiastic response they gave was unquestionably genuine.  I have to say, from my point of view, these were very impressive shows and I was glad I was in a position to attend them.

True, conductor Long Yu decided to go for the kill by giving a phenomenally fast performance of Shostakovich's Festive Overture in which there was no hope that any of the music's detail would emerge from the manic rush of notes, but even I was caught up in the excitement of it all and cheered as loudly as the rest at the end.  Long pushed the boat out even more with the 1812 which ended Monday's concert, while his colleague, Lin Daye, who conducted Tuesday's, was a little – but not much – more discreet with Tchaikovsky 5.  We had almost inevitably, the Butterfly Lovers' Concerto on Monday, with Lu Siqing hamming up the melodrama embarrassingly, but unquestionably delivering this corny music with a panache which made it easy to overlook the sheer banality of it all.  It was in the two other works that both the strengths and the weaknesses of the orchestra revealed themselves.

I have a belief that the Chinese are not team players.  They do make excellent soloists, but they have neither the interest nor the sensitivity to blend in with others.  That's a shocking and disgraceful generalisation; but that's what I think, and nothing I heard here prompted me to change my mind.  This soon became obvious in Ye Xiaogang's Moonlight Reflection in the Serene Lake.  Instead of the smooth, blended, reflective, almost impressionistic tone colours I've heard non-Chinese orchestras produce, the Guangzhou Symphony blurted it out in big, indigestible chunks, no serenity or reflection here, just a demonstration of technical competence.  And for all cellist Wang Jian did to evoke some subtlety in Chen Qigang's homage to his teacher Messiaen, Reflet d'un temps disparu, the orchestra were really not going to let him steal their thunder.  Balance was never an issue; sensitive soloist/orchestral relations were.

If the Guangzhou Symphony is typical of Chinese orchestras, it has a level of technical excellence which puts many orchestras in the west to shame.  I can't imagine many violin or cello sections offering up quite such collective virtuosity as these lot did in the Shostakovich, and few percussionists have evoked the clamour of cathedral bells quite so vividly as did the Guangzhou player in 1812. But these are players who like everything painted in garishly bright prime colours; brilliant reds, dazzling blues, eye-catching yellows. Not for them pastel shades or delicate hues.  And it is that inability to subjugate themselves to the service of the music that bars Chinese orchestras from rising to the very top rank.  They are made up of brilliant, world-class individual players, but collectively they are second-rate orchestral musicians.

12 September 2011

An Asian Cultural Divide

This weekend was supposed to see me in Hong Kong hearing the HKPO in Rachmaninov Symphony 2 and Piano Concerto 3 with Simon Trpčeski as part of their final season under Edo de Waart.  As it was, nothing quite worked according to plan. 

For a start, de Waart is recovering from an operation and has had to cancel his first concerts of the season, his place taken by fellow (but healthier) Dutchman, Lawrence Renes.  Then, almost as I set off to the airport to catch the flight, my daughter came down with something which so worried my wife that she persuaded me not to go away until the doctor had given the all clear.  I was very sorry not to be able to give my planned pre-concert talk (apologies to all concerned and, if you really want, I'll email you a copy of the script!) and particularly sad to miss Rachmaninov 2.  My daughter is made of pretty resilient stuff and, of course, within 24 hours, she was almost back to normal, but a frantic wife's wishes are not something you override if you value your peace of mind, and so I had an enforced weekend at home.

As it was, while I didn't go to Hong Kong, bits of Hong Kong came to me, and over the weekend I encountered some of Hong Kong's musical elite right here in Singapore.  And I felt very embarrassed at what they found.

I bumped, first of all, into one of this blog's more dedicated followers who – when she's not ploughing her way through my excessive online verbosity - works for one of the SAR's most successful musical exports, Naxos records.  She was here in the run-up to her company's 25th anniversary looking at the local CD scene and thinking up ways to improve availability of Naxos products here.  Discussing the local market, which is not so much in terminal decline as barely shuddering its final death throes, it struck me just how pitiful Singapore must seem to any lover of recorded and broadcast classical music after the glories of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has those world-class CD emporia - Prelude, Sun Cheong, Hong Kong Records, etc. etc. - and a very active society of audio-buffs who adore classical music; the old Singapore Gramophone Club died out decades ago and the last talk I went to here about recordings was attended by less than 10 people.  Hong Kong has its outstanding dedicated radio station, RTHK Radio 4, polished, professional and with a strong and loyal following; how nauseatingly amateurish and pitiable is Singapore's miserable little Symphony 92.4.  And of course Hong Kong is home to what now must be the biggest and certainly the most successful dedicated classical music record label in the world, Naxos. 

My first Naxos recording, bought in 1987, was a pretty ghastly affair. Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (with a total disc playing time of 42'31"), featuring the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Bystrik Rezucha (who he??).  The anonymous liner notes told you next to nothing and the recorded sound was deadly.  Compare that with one of my most recent Naxos acquisitions, 68'49" of orchestral music by Michael Daugherty performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop.  It's a demonstration-quality recording with copious and informed liner notes by the composer himself.  From grotty cut-price recordings bought for peanuts from eastern European orchestras desperate for some hard international currency and produced with a minimum of care, to cutting-edge recordings of remote repertory by the major orchestras and conductors of our day is, truly, a quantum, leap.

Yet, in Singapore, I suspect that the highest expectations music lovers have of recorded quality would render the Rimsky-Korsakov disc as something very good indeed.  Many will suggest that the "CD is dead", that we have "moved on" and that with YouTube, iTunes and whatever else you care to label your downloaded and transitory electronic music sources, there is no space for the CD.  But there is.  While the Naxos lady reckons that there is "a good six years at least" left in CDs before they are replaced by some other medium, neither she nor I have any idea what that medium is.  It certainly does not seem to have bene invented yet.  Distressingly, after decades in which record companies have striven to create a more realistic and vivid sound and have supported this with ever more scholarly and readable in-disc literature, the fashion now is for convenience over quality and accessibility over aural acceptability.  Random tracks are downloaded or played over the radio without anyone bothering to tell you what they are, who is playing them, or anything at all about the music.  The assumption is that all we are interested in is some background sound, irrespective of its provenance.  It is shaming that recorded and broadcast classical music in Singapore is on a par with Sierra Leone and Southern Sudan. 

Shame was the order of the day when I went to the Arts House to hear the Principal Clarinet of the HKPO Andrew Simon, out on a sabbatical year (and unfortunately having to hand over that wonderful solo in Rachmaninov 2 to a substitute), and Warren Lee, a pianist I have met many times when promoting Trinity exams in Hong Kong.  Warren is Music Director at St Paul's Co-educational College in Hong Kong, which boasts an outstanding music department, and has been recruited by Steinway as one of their signature artists.  Their Friday evening recital should have been a gem.  It was certainly a lovely evening for companionship and relaxed music making of the highest order, but of the audience (I counted 10), over half seemed to be Hong Kong visitors or expats.  Singapore managed to dish up worse still. 

Best to leave my review from the Straits Times to tell the sad story.  I'll just say that, much as I love Singapore and the rich musical life here, it's got some way to go to match Hong Kong in at least some key areas.

06 September 2011

Exceptional Musical Experiences

Every so often you go to a concert expecting one thing and come away having experienced something altogether different. 

I remember a performance of Korngold's Sinfonietta given by the MPO under Matthias Bamert which did just that.  I quite liked the Korngold already, and enjoyed Bamert's own recording of it on Chandos (CHAN9317) with the BBC Philharmonic.  But the MPO had rebelled so much against Bamert's gentlemanly and restrained style of direction – he trusted them to behave and play like a mature orchestra, but they preferred to be treated like students with every nuance of their interpretation dictated by a tyrant – that almost out of spite they rarely played well for him.  (Not quite.  The MPO has always been utterly professional when it comes to performing to an audience and they could as easily give a bad performance as I could run a marathon – all 110 kilos of me.)  On top of that, Bamert found it difficult to unbend sufficiently to communicate with the Malaysian audience other than through his baton, and as they liked their conductors to turn round and speak over their heads, they, too, had little affection for him.  Yet on Saturday 16th February 2008 the MPO gave what was for me the performance of their lives when they performed it in the second half of one of the weirder concerts they have ever given.  Oh, those far-off days when MPO programming was adventurous!

 In the first half that difficult pianist, a man who blows hot and cold on the concert platform with alarming unpredictability, Alexander Melnikov gave simply horrible accounts of two Bach keyboard concertos.  As if to apologise for the eccentricities of the first half, when he came on stage for the Korngold Bamert spontaneously turned round and gave a charming talk to the audience about how Korngold had been just 14 when he wrote the Sinfonietta, and extolled with such obvious sincerity his admiration for such a young genius that the audience were prepared almost to worship the ground he stood on.  Sadly, not a word of Bamert's speech was audible to the players on stage, but when the performance came, Bamert pulled something out of the hat and drew something out of the ordinary from them.  For me, they played on that Saturday evening better than they ever had before or have done so since.  True, the players will not acknowledge this, largely because they find it difficult to shake off the memories of working with such great men as Lorin Maazel, and don't always realise when they are performing well in their own right.  Similarly the audience recalls the star singers and soloists and forget just how good the MPO can be in its own right. 

I went to that concert expecting something fairly ordinary and came away aghast at the sheer and unbridled brilliance of Bamert's vision and the astonishing heights of collective musicianship he drew from his players.  It stands as one of the dozen or so truly great concerts in my 50 years of concert-going.

Another one came along in Singapore last Sunday evening when, asked to review it by the Straits Times, I went to a chamber recital by local musicians in the unedifying surroundings of the Recital Studio at the Esplanade.  I'm not sure I would have gone unless I had to, not least because I'd already had a busy weekend of concerts (including the unwholesome Mozart concert from the SSO to which I referred in my previous post) and the programme itself did not attract me.  I don't really like the music of Ernest Bloch with its bursts of Jewish melancholy and awkward nods towards a very watered down avant-garde.  On top of that I have never found anything in the music of Amy Beach which has stuck in my consciousness sufficiently for me to remember it within a second of hearing it.  It turned out to be the very best concert I have yet attended in Singapore and the finest chamber performance I've heard in Asia.

For a start my preconceptions about the music turned out to be wholly wrong.  The Beach was opulent and lavishly Romantic, clearly wallowing in the sound world of César Franck, but with such powerful hints of Rachmaninov in the virtuoso piano writing that I began to wonder whether, perhaps, Rachmaninov had heard it before he set about writing his own music; certainly Beach could not have heard much Rachmaninov when she wrote her Piano Quintet.  A lovely work, and one which I will travel far to hear again.  I've already sent in the order for the only available recording of it – from Chandos (again) – but I suspect that the performance will come as a disappointment after what I heard on Sunday night.  But more of that later.

Bloch Piano Quintet No,1 - played by
LIlya Zilberstein, Alissa Margulis, Lucia Hall,
Nora Romanoff-Schwarzberg & Mark Drobinsky on EMI 607367-2

As for the Bloch First Piano Quintet, I knew it from having heard it during my student days at Cardiff played by the University Ensemble with the inimitable Martin Jones thundering through the piano part and the all-too-easily imitable Alfredo Wang peering over his first violin with his glass eye, countered by "Backward Jim" Broadbent, who was so chronically left-handed he had to have his violin reversed.  I hadn't much cared for it then, and my one recording of it, on the EMI box set of recordings made live at the Lugarno Festival in 2009, had certainly not endeared me to it.  Given the powerful, compelling and breathtakingly intense performance I heard in Singapore, I have to admit it now ranks as a huge favourite of mine.

What made this such a fantastic concert was, of course, the performances.  Lim Yan, playing on just about the most sumptuous-sounding piano I've yet heard in Singapore, immediately caught our attention with powerful, persuasive and brilliantly fluent handling of Beach's virtuoso writing for the instrument – I notice with some amusement that she took it on herself to play the piano at the work's 1907 première, obviously using it as a vehicle to demonstrate her own pianistic talents.  Very much cast into the supporting role, the quartet of Foo Say Ming, Lim Shue Churn, Chan Yoong-Han and Chan Wei Shing, nevertheless played with incredible delicacy and finesse.  And when it came to the Bloch, with its driving motor-rhythms, quarter tones, unusual pizzicato and bowing effects, they revealed a virtuosity every bit as magnificent as Lim's.  More than that, these were astute and highly sensitive chamber musicians, clearly utterly at ease with each other, and the intimacy and intuitive reactions they showed revealed that this is an ensemble of exceptional quality.  This is what chamber music is all about – it's just a shame we don't experience that often.

I would hope that I experience such marvels of music-making again in my lifetime; but not too often, such extreme experiences are best when they come only occasionally and totally out of the blue.