29 April 2011

Wedding Fever

If you have been able to avoid Royal Wedding Fever this week you have been unusually lucky.  It seems to me that it has affected every country on the globe, and certainly it hasn't escaped the media – if not the people – here in south east Asia.  And why not?  Weddings are great excuses for happiness and celebration and their anticipation is always a lot of fun.  I should know.  I've been to thousands, three of them my own.

This should strike HORROR into the hearts of
all right-thinking church organists
Like any church organist, weddings were both the bane and the benefit of my existence; the latter, simply because of the extra income they provided, the former because of the downright dreariness and unbelievable unimaginativeness of the music chosen.  When I started, for example, just about every wedding opened with some arrangements of the Water Music before the Bride wandered in to the Bridal Chorus from Wagner's Löhengrin.  A couple of hymns – usually "Love Divine" and "Praise my Soul" – a Psalm (either 67 or 23, in the latter case it usually involved that God-awful tune "Crimond"), a bit of soft mood music in the bit while they sign the registers, and then out to Mendelssohn's Wedding March from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It all began to change in the 1960s when, in the wake of one otherwise unmemorable royal wedding (Princess Alexandria in 1963), Widor's Toccata took over from the Mendelssohn, while Charles and Di (1981) added "Let the Bright Seraphim" to the signing-the-registers musical interlude.  The latter pair also gave us Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary, but that had already been growing in popularity over the previous years as anti-German sentiment swept Wagner off the agenda.

Now you can buy (if you are terminally stupid) whole discs of "suggested wedding music", none of which is of any use whatsoever and most of it is wholly and utterly inappropriate.  There's even plenty of web space given over to suggested wedding music; there's also a lot of web space given over to hard-core porn, and, on balance, I think the latter is less offensive.

I had the good fortune (if that's what it was) to be assistant organist at the church which, in its day, had the highest wedding rate of the entire Church of England.  St Michael's Aldershot was the church of choice for soldiers wanting a posh wedding (and which ones didn't?).  Aldershot was the Home of the British Army and, when I was there, you knew it; the place was teeming with squaddies and their hangers-onners, many of whom had to get married in some haste.  Our record day saw seven weddings back-to-back, but the average was nearer four every Saturday.  I was there for seven years, so you can do the maths if you wish.  The fact is, Peter Mound, my Organist, had long given up reconciling the financial benefits with the musical detriments, and I was given the whole lot to play for and advise.

St Michael's Church Aldershot
And it's that advising role which is the organist's biggest bane.  Every Thursday after choir practice, a bevy of harried brides-to-be with Mothers in charge (but potential grooms using the excuse of military exercises to keep a low profile) would wait to discuss the music and, while the debates were often colourful, heated and extended, the result was always the same; Wagner, Mendelssohn/Widor and the usual hymns/psalms.  However much I tried to head them off in the direction of Marcel Dupré's Prelude & Fugue in B (my party piece at the time) or Vierne's Final to go out to, and Trumpet Tunes by Stanley, Purcell and C S Lang (there's a great Fanfare by him which I did manage to persuade one bride to use) to go in to, in the end, tradition always overcame individuality, and another half-hour on auto-pilot at the organ beckoned.

For a very brief time I stood in as organist at a church in Shrewsbury.  It put me off church organ duties for life.  The vicar was moronic (he loved the hymn-tune "Richmond" and had it every service,  getting very angry when I was allowed to choose the hymns and chose four all with the tune "Richmond", ending the service with a Choral Prelude on "Richmond" by a composer whose name I have long forgotten - the copy of which has passed from my possession into that of a Shropshire landfill long ago) and the congregation largely under the impression that they knew all there was to know about music.  Wedding discussions were dreadful, with outrageous suggestions which needed very careful handling.  I remember an extraordinarily fat bride demanding she had the Wagner; only when I pointed out she had asked for a choir - in those days everybody sang the Wagner to the words "Here comes the bride/All fat and wide" – and at the end of her trudge up the aisle she would be met by hordes of giggling choir boys, did she take up my suggestion of the much leaner Jeremiah Clarke tune.  It became something of a contest to challenge the organist with something unknown and then watch him squirm as he tried to work out whether he could play it.  It caught me out too often and I mentioned this to a the organist of a neighbouring church, David Grundy.  "Ah yes", he said, "They phone up at all hours of the day and night and sing down the phone; Lah-la-la, Loo-loo-loo-loo-laaah-leeeeh, Lah-la-la, Loo Lee Loo Lee.  And get quite taken aback when I immediately tell them; Ah yes, that's Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor".  "How do you do it?" asked I.  "Simple.  Just watch the TV soaps and make a note of any wedding music that comes up; it will be requested within the week".  So I did that and, more than that, I unearthed an invaluable pair of books which lists in a clever way almost every theme from classical music.  It still sits by my desk, and while I never play for weddings these days, with a couple of notable exceptions, organists still phone and email with desperate pleas and are astounded when I quickly tell them the tune they seek.  I will never divulge these books; but they are priceless to any church organist.

This is NOT one for a village church organ
Unfortunately I can't fully escape wedding duties. 7500 miles is a useful excuse but no real barrier when it comes to attending family weddings back in the UK.  These are the worst, because emotional pressures are put on you to relent to the most impossible of demands.  A nephew, marrying in a small country church in Buckinghamshire (not a million miles from the home village of a certain Ms Middleton) presented me with a fait accompli.  His potential father-in-law was a keen organ fan and had a big record collection which included the pieces he wanted me to play for the wedding.  They came in to a movement from a Bach Trio Sonata and went out to Henry Smart's Postlude in D.  Foolishly assuming he knew the church and its organ, I agreed.  Unfortunately, I thought he meant Smart's Postlude in C, which is a standard, and only at the last minute did I realise he didn't.  A call to a publisher to get a special print-run sent out to me in KL revealed the full horror.  Not only was it very long, it was also extraordinarily difficult with a truly virtuoso pedal part.  I learnt it on the KL Klais, but when faced with three-and-a-half stops on a rickety mechanical action organ with less than a quarter of the pedal board functioning, it defied even my attempts and the bride's father said wryly as I met him over champagne at the reception; "It didn't sound much like my recording".  Luckily the Trio Sonata – a physical impossibility on the available resources – didn't matter so much since it took the procession less than 30 seconds to traverse the length of the church and by that time, with a judicious tempo, I only needed to play two bars a couple of times and miss out the pedal entry.

I'll be glued to the TV for THE wedding, but the champagne I'll be quaffing will not be primarily to celebrate William and Kate's big day, but to toast to my success in having left all that nonsense behind.

A postscript.  Why did I have three weddings when I have only ever had one wife?  The vagaries of Malaysian law meant that my Malaysian wife and I had to marry in the UK (which we did) before it could be formalised by the Malaysian government (which it was).  We wanted a church wedding in Kuching (which we had, only after presenting the authorities with our Malaysian wedding certificate which was, in turn, derived from our UK wedding certificate).  On the very day of the third and final wedding in St Joseph's Cathedral Kuching, the priest asked us if we had ever been married before, to which we both responded "Yes, Twice", and a lot of explaining needed to be done before the wedding went ahead.  Gareth Cowell, an old friend from Bangor who happened to be staying with me at the time, was press-ganged into being Best Man and into playing the organ and, without music, attempted to play my wife in with something suitable.  Sadly, nobody recognised what he was doing and the congregation stayed firmly rooted to their seats and engrossed in their conversations as the wedding got underway.  I realised than that there were some benefits in keeping things traditional.

27 April 2011

Is Singapore Music Education World Class?

The Straits Times reported on its front page that a tertiary education institution in Singapore has been authorised to teach and award the Bachelor of Music degree from London's Royal College of Music.  I can't think of another country in the world where a news item about formal music education would make the front page of a national newspaper, least of all in the run-up to a General Election.

The two are not entirely unconnected, however, as the picture on an inside page detailing the official signing of the agreement between the RCM and the Singapore institution reveals (right).  It shows Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loon, standing before a student orchestra, arms aloft as if conducting them (the political element takes over here, because, of course, nobody is paying the blindest bit of attention to what he is doing); the not-so-subtle message being that, for good educational policies in the arts, Vote For My Party.  Nothing wrong in that, of course, and a wholly appropriate and sensible election issue.  The fact remains that, if it was merely a question of politics, another story would have found its way on to the front page.  So we are left with the unavoidable conclusion that in Singapore, music and music education are regarded as important matters which affect daily life in the country.  This is the kind of wonderful thing about life in Singapore which prompts me to bite the bullet and head off to the Immigration Department to hand in my papers for Permanent Residency.

Singapore should be proud that it has become the first country in the world to have one of its educational institutions recognised by the RCM as an appropriate place for the teaching and administration of one of its courses, and while the RCM BMus degree might not be all that it's cracked up to be, it's still a very impressive qualification, and for Singaporeans to be able to work for it without leaving their homeland can only benefit the musical environment in the country.

There is a bit of a scramble generally for music schools and colleges in south east Asia to gain respectability by announcing formal associations with overseas institutions.  You can hardly step into a private music school in Malaysia without some evidence of a tie up (real or aspired) with a foreign institution.  All too often these are dismal schools awarding spurious qualifications from dubious institutions ("International Mozart-kiddies Academy of Bandar Puchong Utama is proud to be the ONLY music school in Jalan 56/4A authorised to award the Certificate of Really Astounding Piano-playing from the University of the Elephant and Castle – formerly known as South London Young Offenders' Drop-In Centre"), the thinking being that the kind of parents who send their children to such shabby schools will not know any better, and will be duly impressed by statements of such international recognition.

Singapore music schools tend to be more circumspect, and while there are a lot of dismal ones around, parents generally are more willing to probe claims made by music teachers; Singapore schools can't so easily get away with boasting about spurious or even non-existent international links.  So the tie-up with the RCM is a real and valid boost to the Singapore music education scene and is to be applauded unreservedly.

There are, naturally, a few questions to be asked. 

Firstly, is it certain that a student for the RCM BMus who studies in Singapore will be the true equal of a student who studies for the same qualification in London?  For a start, you only need to walk into the main door of the RCM in Kensington and feel both the ghosts of great musicians crowding in around you and the very tangible atmosphere of a centre of musical excellence through whose doors have passed many of the greatest musicians of the past 130 years.  Every room oozes the musical history of the place, and the fact that there is one of the most famous of all concert halls just over the road only adds to the atmosphere of it being at the centre of the musical world.  There are portraits on walls, busts on shelves, and volumes in the library, not to mention a plethora of old and varied musical instruments.  These things simply do not exist in a 21st century architect-designed, state-of-the-art educational factory sitting almost on the Equator.  It's probably unquantifiable scientifically, but is nevertheless an undoubted fact, that environment has a considerable impact on one's susceptibility to learn; and if you study surrounded by constant reminders of your fellow-students who have attained the supreme heights of your chosen profession, you are more prone to aim to emulate them than when you are surrounded by the clean, clinical and impersonal acres of glass and steel which could just as easily be a hospital, a financial institution or the Singapore parliamentary offices.  One plus mark for London; one minus mark for Singapore.

Secondly, will the teaching be as good?  The RCM certainly has access to some of the greatest musicians alive and can call on them as teachers and visiting professors.  Such people are far less easily attracted to a Singapore campus.  That said, great musicians do not necessarily make for great teachers, and I suspect that the standard of teaching offered by some of the dedicated and committed staff in Singapore will be considerably better than that offered by famous names who often begrudge the fact that they are forced to speak to students when they would far rather be out practising their performance skills.  So, one minus for London but a plus for Singapore.

So we're pretty well equal at the moment.  But then comes a third consideration. 

The great benefit in learning music in London has always been the city's super-abundant musical life.  On any day of the week, 52 weeks of the year, a music student in London can attend any one of three or four dozen concerts.  From piano and organ recitals to symphony and choral concerts.  From musical shows to grand opera.  From string quartets busking in the underground tunnels to brass bands in the bandstands by the Thames.  From world authorities in period instrument performance to cutting-edge rock bands.  London has it all – and on a daily basis.  And, since a good musical education demands as much and as varied live listening experience as possible, nowhere offers quite such variety and quantity as London.  So how can Singapore possibly compare?  It can't, but it puts up a very good fight and, when all is said and done, a single human being can only attend a certain number of concerts in a lifetime.  Talking with Chang Tou Liang about helping him out with occasional reviews for Straits Times, it soon became obvious that it was impossible for the two of us to cover everything, even if the paper allowed us to (and its classical music coverage is, I have to say, among the most generous of any daily newspaper in the English-speaking world).  The thing is, there is so much going on here that in many weeks if the two of us attended a concert each and every day we would still miss quite a few; and since we are married men with a child apiece, we do have to spend a little time at home. We don't get the big names or the range of events London does, but there's more than enough going on in Singapore to keep even the most avid music student occupied for the length of a BMus course.

So, on balance, the RCM tie-up bodes well. 

But there is one huge concern which may well sound its death-knell unless it is addressed pretty soon.  Nobody can doubt that the standard of conservatoire-level training in Singapore from the likes of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and La Salle is truly world-class.  Unfortunately, neither is there much doubt that the majority of lower-level music training is abysmal. There are some good private teachers and music schools around, but a lot of bad ones too, and, good or bad, the over-riding concern amongst parents and teachers is the passing of exams.  Sufficient skills are taught to enable students to pass exams and nothing more.

I am a musician, a music educator and a music examiner and from all three vantage points a good exam pass is worthless as it stands.  When a student tells me "I got distinction at Grade 8 at the age of 10", I immediately write-off that student as a competent musician; if all they learnt was to pass an exam, for all the good it's done them they may as well have spent their time learning how to cook Nasi Goreng or Curry Mee.  Music is not a competitive sport requiring nothing more than the ability to muster whatever forces are required to do better than the person next to you.  It is, rather, a comprehensive activity involving emotions, intellect, personal development and physical strengths, and to teach just one of those is not to teach music.  Exams cannot assess all those areas, and it is a sad fact that most south east Asian teachers (admittedly encouraged by ignorant parents) work merely to pass an exam and not to train a musician. 

Currently I am undergoing an extensive tour of Malaysia directing workshops in musical theory based on the Trinity exam syllabus.  It's a new and revolutionary syllabus which requires the candidates to have a very broad and extensive general musical knowledge before they can realistically expect to pass an exam.  Individual skills (the old concepts of writing out ornaments, grouping notes into bars according to time-signatures, defining lists of random technical terms) which were assessed by simple right or wrong answers, are subsumed by more loosely-focused questions which demand a grasp of historical, stylistic, idiomatic and harmonic backgrounds all of which are revealed in answers which can be marked with varying degrees of rightness or wrongness. The biggest issue with these workshops is the teachers who cannot understand how music is not black and white; how a question asking about form and cadences requires the student also to know about a composer's style and the art of orchestration.  They want to teach specific skills in order to get their students through the exam; we want them to teach students to be musicians and then assess them according to the amount of knowledge we expect them to have absorbed at a certain point in their education. 

Music is not a definitive subject study; it is open to interpretation and objective assessment.  The RCM BMus reflects this.  Will Singaporean students be able to adjust to that ethic when their early training has been along such fundamentally different lines?  I hope we don't have to wait for another General Election before the Straits Times reports on its front page that the Prime Minister visited the Bedok Bach-Busters Music Academy for the Under Sixes to congratulate it for its internationally-recognised music educational standards.

22 April 2011

Asian Organ News...with a Belgian flavour

After the hugely successful recital at the Tapestry of Sacred Music at the Esplanade, giving the Singapore Klais a thorough workout and, at the same time, getting the entire audience clapping along to the encore (which was Nigel Ogden's Saints on a Spree), I'm pleased to say that I am preparing a similar sort of programme for the Pedals and Pipes concert there on Friday 9th December at 7.30pm.  Mark it down in your diaries and watch this space for programme details!  I've got some interesting and exciting ideas up my sleeve and I'm discussing with the Esplanade authorities which one they like the sound of most.  Be assured there will be little of a serious vein, although one Nigel Ogden a year is more than enough for me.

Equally successful, although, for a change, we had a couple of empty seats (possibly put off by the shenanigans earlier in the year when nobody turned up to open the hall) was the last DFP recital on the Kuala Lumpur Klais.  This couldn't have been more different, concentrating on Baroque music in the company of two of the MPO trumpeters.  I'm trying to persuade the MPO clarinet, Marcel Luxon, to join me for the next one as it's a celebration of his native land, but I'm not holding my breath; Marcel likes his music very serious and, I'm afraid, this recital is not going to be entirely high-brow.  Still we live in hope and I'll update the details nearer the time. 

I had hoped to be able to add an extra recital in KL during May or June – a lot of people have asked for one – but the hall is being used for several extra concerts of local music and you know what that means; acres of speakers, cables, prompting boxes, mixing desk and all the paraphernalia that comes when performers who can't live by their own wits take to the stage.  Unlike an orchestral performance of, say, a Mahler Symphony, we can't just go in when the orchestra's not there and give a concert using the upstairs console, the whole hall is off-limits to any but the electricians and technicians for days in advance.  So KL organ fans have to wait until Saturday 16th July at 1.30pm for their next fix.  Please make sure you book your FREE tickets well in advance as these things have a habit of filling up quickly and as this will probably be the last free recital (next season the organ programme is being taken over by the MPO Artistic Team, so I can't say what will happen), I expect it to be packed. 

That recital almost coincides with the Belgian National Day, and it struck me as a good wheeze to plan a programme of Belgian organ music. The Bibliography of Organ Music by W B Henshaw, an invaluable - if rather heavy – tome for anyone planning an organ recital, lists 158 Belgian composers who have, between them, published 1338 pieces of organ music, so filling 45 minutes with Belgian music is no difficulty at all.  The only problem being what to miss out.  Of course, César Franck, Joseph Jongen, Flor Peeters and Jacques Lemmens must be there, which pretty well fills up the 19th and 20th centuries.  So what about earlier music? 

I'd love to include something by Jean-Baptiste Cupis de Camargo (1711-1778), partly because this year marks his tercentenary, but more especially because he is described as a "Belgian composer and Horseman", and there aren't too many of them around.  Sadly, he (and am I alone in noting a nominal similarity with a French region famed for its horses?) didn't write any organ music.  Jean Baptiste Joseph Boutmy (1725-1799) did, but I've not been able to lay my hands on the two Divertissements Henshaw lists.  The heyday of Belgian music came even earlier, and while composers such as Dufay (1400-1474), Ockeghem (1410-1497), Josquin (1440-1521), Nicolaus Gombert (1500-1556), Clemens non Papa (1510-1556) and Lassus (1532-1594) cannot be ignored, none of them wrote any organ music and, in any case, you could argue that they weren't really Belgians in the first place.

The problem is that Belgium as a distinct national identity didn't come into being until 1830, so to be totally correct, if I am to give a recital of Belgian music, it can't properly have any music it in it from before that date.  And there's nothing wrong in that.  I frequently criticise those who devise recital programmes for diplomas for casting their net too widely over stylistic and historical periods, attempting in half an hour to cover centuries of music.  So I'm happy to confine myself to the last 181 years; there's more than enough to be going on with.


A recording of the Fetis Fantaisie Symphonique
is available on Guild GMCD7215

Groves Dictionary writes that, after achieving independence, Belgium "immediately set about establishing its own national musical institutions with the conservatories of Liège and Brussels".  The former, it suggests, was aimed primarily at violinists, but among the pupils of its first director, Louis Joseph Daussoigne-Méhul (1790-1875) was César Franck, while in Brussels the Conservatoire Royal de Musique was established in 1832 and had as its first director yet another hyphenated Belgian François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871), a man who did write for the organ (including a magnificent Fantaisie Symphonique for organ and orchestra; I possess a recording but when I tried to programme it with the MPO even our brilliant librarian of the time was unable to track down the score).  A significant pupil of his was Lemmens.

Much though it pains me to say so, Grove is factually incorrect in its statement that "all Belgian music of the early 19th century…was predominantly influenced by the French".  Both Franck and Lemmens were not influenced by France, but rather went on to be the dominant influences over French organ music; indeed, we can say that organ music in France in the second half of the 19th century was entirely and uniquely influenced by Belgium.  Franck settled in Paris where he dominated the organ scene and counted amongst his pupils Louis Vierne, while Lemmens's influence spread to France by way of his pupils Guilmant, Widor and, most significantly, Cavaillé-Coll.   Students at the Liège Conservatoire included Joseph-Jacques Callaerts and Joseph Jongen, while indirectly influenced by Lemmens (they were trained at a conservatoire Lemmens created in Mechelen specifically for church musicians) were both Flor Peeters and Arthur Meulemans.

So I think we have enough to be going on with, and add to that the Belgian March which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Falmouth (which set me off thinking about a recital based around Belgian music in the first place), and you have the programme for my next recital at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS.  This is subject to change, but hopefully this will get your taste-buds going; and if I can rustle up some Belgian chocolates to hand out after the recital, so much the better!

César Franck (1822-1890) : Grand Choeur (Op.24 No.28)
The French like to claim him for their own, and he did spend most of his life in Paris, but if proof were needed that he was Belgian, you need only look at his name.  For some reason, many Belgians have very long, frequently hyphenated and extraordinarily complex names (even by Malaysian standards) and bearing the mighty moniker César-August-Jean-Guilleaume-Hubert Franck places him firmly north of the French border.

A Carillon keyboard
Joseph-Jacques Callaerts (1830-1901) : Andante Cantabile (Sonata No.1)
He was so talented that even before he had completed his studies with Lemmens in Brussels, he had been appointed Organist of Antwerp Cathedral, where he had been a chorister.  He made quite a racket in Antwerp, what with one thing and another, for he was also the city's carilloneur (the man who rang the bells).

Dr Jongen in full regalia
Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) : Menuet-Scherzo (Op.53 No.2)                    
For organists Joseph Marie Alphonse Nicholas Jongen needs no introduction, yet I have to confess that I admire rather more his chamber and vocal music, which is only now coming out on disc.  He had the chance to live and work in New York but decided to remain in Belgium.  Unfortunately, the First World War forced him to flee to England, but on his return he was appointed Director of the Brussels Conservatoire.

Frederick Scotson Clark (1840-1883) : Belgian March                                
An interesting if short-lived character, his mother had been a student of Chopin's, while he himself had studied organ in Paris with the then organist of Notre Dame (Eugène Sergent who, despite holding the post for an astonishing 53 years, eventually succeeded by Vierne, is almost totally forgotten today).  He held a few organists' posts in his native London, as well as at Exeter College Oxford, and on being ordained into the church of England, promptly rushed off to Leipzig and Stuttgart to continue his studies, eventually returning home and founding the London Organ School. 

Flor Peeters (1903-1986) : Legende (Op.59 No.2)
July was a notable month for Florent Peeters who was both born and died in July; specifically on the 4th.   He possessed a personal keepsake of César Franck – he owned the organ console Franck had designed for St Clotilde in Paris – and was, in the words of John Henderson's A Directory of Composers for the Organ, "one of the few musicians ever to be made a Baron by the King of Belgium".  He wrote this piece during a recital tour of the USA in 1949 and dedicated it to the great American virtuoso, E Power Biggs.

Arthur Meulemans actually made it
on to a postage stamp...
Arthur Meulemans (1884-1966) : Allegretto and Sostentuo
Arthur Josephus Ludovicus Meulemans (commonly, and incomprehensibly, referred to as A J G Meulemans) is remembered in Bruges every five years when a play for which he wrote the music, Sanguis Christi, is presented in the city's belfry.  His suite of six pieces from which these two come, is dated 19th May 1960.

Jacques Nicolas Lemmens (1823-1881) : Fanfare
...while Lemmens made it all the way
on to a plinth!
Henderson (op.cit.) sums it up beautifully; "Jaak Nicolaas Lemmens was to influence the world of organ playing far more than his organ compositions might suggest".  His compositions were, at best, frivolous, and include a famous musical evocation of a storm complete with thunder and lightning and driving rain.  No such pyrotechnics in his "Fanfare for Concert Use" which is given that title to differentiate it from the remarkably improbable "Fanfare for the Drawing Room".

20 April 2011

Shiraz and Shostakovich

It is truly amazing what stupid things you get up to after a couple of glasses of red wine.  A convivial evening with some errant members of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra turned serious when, sat beside my old sparring-partner, cellist Simon Cobcroft, we suddenly found ourselves indulging in an activity no sober musician would ever countenance.  We started making a list of the ten greatest composers in the history of music.  Now, let’s be frank, you have to be either mentally deranged or hopelessly inebriated to do that, and I’m ashamed to think that I had let my self-restraint slip so badly under the pernicious influence of Shiraz that I was doing such a disgusting thing.  Worst of all, I was doing it in public!

Yet, in the cold and bitter light of day, aspirin and hangover remedies pending, I can’t help but look back on our drunken ramblings and continue the discussion within myself.  When Gramophone magazine ran a piece about the Ten Best Orchestras, everybody reacted with horror and disdain, yet it turned out to be a truly fascinating and, in many ways, exciting thing.  So it is with our lists of composers.

Simon Cobcroft (appearing on ABC
where he was billed (in 2003) as "one of
Australia's most talented young musicians")
While continually agreeing that it was a pointless exercise and that any such list was purely subjective, Simon and I showed remarkable unanimity in our lists (I don’t actually think we ever made it to ten, but things always seem bigger when you’re drunk) and while we argued bitterly over Bach (Simon put him at the top, while I placed him lower down the scale) and Messiaen (I felt he deserved to be there, Simon argued that he needed to have been dead a lot longer to be properly assessed alongside the likes of Wagner and Brahms – both dead certs for both of us), there were no substantive divergences of opinion when it came to listing the Greatest Composers in the History of Music.

The difference came when we decided to make a parallel list of our Ten Favourite Composers.  Up came such names as Percy Grainger (for me), Rachmaninov (for both of us), Shostakovich (for Simon); names which would certainly raise eyebrows if added to the first list. 

And that leads to a point which, even without alcoholic prompting, does seem quite serious and relevant.  To what extent can a musician differentiate between personal taste and objective judgement?  The answer seemed to be, Pretty Easily.  Even two opinionated and inebriated crabby old soaks like us were able to make clear distinctions between what we liked and what we knew was good.  We set out clear criteria for greatness which, when applied to the contenders for the first list, made it easy to come up with a majority of names in common.  Removing those criteria and allowing personal taste to dictate produced a very different second list.

There is a valid point to all this (apart from, hopefully, generating a lot of lists from blog readers – I’d love to have your 10 best in each category – I have a strong feeling while list one will be very consistent, list two will throw up dramatic differences).  I am often asked as both a critic and an examiner how I can be objective in my assessments of a performance.  The assumption is that my personal tastes must have a strong bearing on my judgement.  I’ve always maintained that, for example, whilst I loathe and detest the music of Chopin with every sinew of my body (it’s grotesquely self-indulgent, harmonically silly, melodically flaccid and appallingly limited in its scope) I would not hesitate to accept him as one of the three greatest composers in the history of the piano (alongside Liszt and Rachmaninov) and would rave as much as the most ardent Chopin-o-phile over any performance of his music which I found impressive.  It was nice to have proof that I am not wrong; that when it comes to appreciating great music, personal taste has no significant role to play.

Composers listed, we then had yet another glass and set to on string concertos.  Best cello concertos  - Dvořák and Elgar me, Dvořák and Shostakovich 2 Simon; Best violin concertos  - Beethoven both of us, Brahms me…  And if Simon had a second choice I cannot tell what it was; collapse of stout party on to the floor singing verses from the French National Anthem.  Pass the Aspirin.

19 April 2011

The Sterile Blues

“If you ever come across a book about music which does not contain a single musical example, throw it away.  It’s worthless!” 

That rather sweeping statement was uttered at the very start of my undergraduate history of music course at university.  The utterer, for want of a better word, was the incomparable Ian Macrae Bruce, a man whose eccentricities, unashamed bigotry and trenchant opinions made for lectures which were not just entertaining but remarkably educative too.  If only to prove him wrong (which few were ever able to manage) we went out of our way to read around the subject in preparation for and subsequent to his lectures.  His remarkable lecture on Handel – billed as four hours after which an essential essay had to be submitted – lasted a matter of seconds.  He entered the lecture theatre, minus the stack of records and books that were usually under an arm, stood at the rostrum and announced; “Ladies and gentlemen.  I am supposed to be lecturing about Handel.  But Handel could not compose, so I shall not.  Good bye.”  That single lecture taught me the value of research and of finding out information from other sources rather than relying wholly on the words of a single teacher.  It was the most important and valuable lecture in the whole history of my education and, if I didn’t thank him then, I can’t now (he’s dead) other than to pass on his acts of extreme wisdom.

I was minded to relate that story the other day when, travelling the length and breadth of Malaysia giving seminars about musical theory, I encountered a batch of teachers who were badly puzzled by the Blues.  In the excellent Trinity Theory syllabus, students have to write a 12-bar blues.  It seems awfully simple to me, especially since in the examination the chordal progression is given, the scale is given, the length given, and all the candidate has to do is the musical equivalent of joining up the dots.  But it caused these Malaysian teachers no end of worries.  After lengthy discussions I eventually found out the problem.  “You see”, said one teacher, after I had gone over the matter for the umpteenth time, “Our teachers never told us about it”.

Of course they didn’t.  Why should they?  Ian Bruce never told me about Handel, but I can reel off facts, figures, anecdotes and worklists for hours, because I went out and found out the information for myself.  I despair that students rely so heavily on teachers that they never develop the ability to think for themselves.

But infinitely worse than that was the plain fact that these teachers had no idea what the Blues was.  True, if you confine yourself to the basic Blues as given out in the Trinity theory syllabus (especially a peculiar example in the text books which is more akin to Clementi than anything else) you’ll not learn much, and seasoned jazzers will look on in disbelief when they see what passes for the Blues in Trinity theory.  But theory, just like any musical syllabus, is at best a starting point, and to do it well (especially in an exam) you need to know a lot more than what you are told or what you read in the exam workbooks.  I asked these teachers what Blues they had heard and, of course, the answer was “we’ve never heard the Blues”. 

How can you attempt to write or even analyse music if you’ve never heard it?  What’s the point of harmonizing a chorale in the style of Bach if you have no idea what the style of Bach sounds like?  Yes, you can do it all on paper and achieve some sort of result, but what is the point of that?  Musical theory is an integral but not exclusive element of the totality of music.

In reality, nobody can be successful in the study and execution of music theory without listening to music.  It’s not merely an academic exercise, it has real relevance and an indivisible relationship with how music sounds.  Books abound about theory, giving you acres of sample exam questions and working exercises, but unless you can hear theory in action, it is as sterile and ultimately pointless as a book on music which doesn’t have any music in it.

14 April 2011

Tchaikovsky was not Gay

A couple of days ago the Daily Telegraph in London published an interview with a cellist which I found to be about the most confusing piece of writing on music I've come across for a long time.  Perhaps the cellist – and I didn't recognise the name then and can't remember it now – was not very coherent; although I doubt that since every cellist I know speaks passionately and fluently on music.  Perhaps the interviewer didn't write it up very well; although the Daily Telegraph is usually pretty good in the standard of its written English.  Most likely the blame lay with me; I read the piece on a crowded underground train trying to fend off two dozen different conversations in as many different languages going on around me in the carriage.  Whatever the excuse, I found that the content of the interview was, like the cellist's name, forgotten almost as soon as it was read.  But one comment did stick in the mind.  The cellist complained bitterly to the interviewer about a critic who had described his recording of the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations as "colourless".

I have to confess that as a critic, and as an examiner, I use that word rather a lot.  It's one of those handy catch-all terms which you pull out to help keep within your word-count.  It may be loose and vague, but it does have a meaning which, I suppose, implies a lack of variation in dynamics, a lack of expression and an absence of all those little interpretative nuances which help lift the music off the page.  I can understand why a performer objects to being criticised for being "colourless", and I have made a mental note to use the term much more sparingly in future.  Levelling that charge against someone who is performing Tchaikovsky, a composer who is, above all others, "colourful", is especially offensive.  I've not heard the offending disc nor read the review, but I can imagine both what the critic was complaining about and why the performer was so upset.  However, the interviewer went on to ask the cellist what he thought the critic had meant, and the response was startling.   "Tchaikovsky, you know, he was gay". 

One thing you can never say about Tchaikovsky is that his music is gay.  Pained, impassioned, fraught, self-indulgent, maybe, but gay never.  When he comes up with something superficially cheerful (like the third movement of the Sixth Symphony), there is always an undercurrent of bitterness there.  Certainly gaiety and Tchaikovsky go together as comfortably as Russian Roulette and Longevity.

Then I realised my mistake.  Born and brought up in England, with literate and well-educated English parents and taught English at good schools by competent English teachers, I developed an extensive early vocabulary which has stood me in good stead throughout my life.  The problem is that I have been rather slow to latch on to new meanings which have been given to words which, in my youth, already had a very definite and useful meaning.  The worst example of that is the hi-jacking of the very clear and unique word "gay" by those seeking a word to apply to those whose sexual preferences are directed towards their own gender.  I've often wondered why they chose that word; I once saw a grim young man, togged out in torn denims, dirty tee-shirt, shaven head and tattooed face and bearing the scars of bad acne, poor shaving and a forlorn future, sporting a badge bearing the inscription "Proud to be Gay".  He was manifestly neither proud nor gay.  I've often wondered, too, why they felt they needed a word in the first place.  Those whose sexual preferences are for those of the opposite sex, for themselves, for animals or non-existent never seem to feel the need to have a label, and certainly I don't recall seeing badges with inscriptions like "Proud to be Auto-Erotic", "Proud to indulge in Bestiality", "Proud to be Celibate" or "Proud to be in a Monogamous Relationship with a Member of the Opposite Sex", but then, perhaps, those groups don't suffer the same inferiority complex as the first.  All that is, of course, irrelevant.  The thing is, why should Tchaikovsky being homosexual justify a colourless performance of his Rococo Variations?  More than that, is Tchaikovsky's sexual preferences of any relevance when it comes to interpreting his music.

A leading concert pianist who is clearly "Proud to be Gay" has said that he feels closer to the spirit of Tchaikovsky than those who have the misfortune not to be.  What rot!  Following that argument I should be an instinctive and perceptive interpreter of Bach and Handel, both, like me, portly fellows.  I'm not and, if anything, I feel artistically closest to the composer Frank Martin who was not only about the most gaunt and cadaverous composer in musical history, but was also a chain-smoker (a habit I detest and have never taken up myself) and avoided alcoholic drink (a pastime I enjoy almost above all others).  There seems to be an inordinate desire to find and identify homosexual composers; I was once asked if I thought Handel was a homosexual - my response was that I had no opinion on the matter and I didn't see what on earth it had to do with anything - and listening to Humphrey Burton on BBC Radio 4 the other day talking about Leonard Bernstein a similar point was raised.  I loved his reply; "The gay community like to claim him as one of their own, but in fact the only person he ever lived with was his wife of 25 years".  So it is with Tchaikovsky.  The fact that he was a homosexual should be totally irrelevant when it comes to understanding, appreciating and interpreting his music.  But it's not quite that simple.

It may be irrelevant that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual, but it is very relevant that he was a homosexual in a society where such practices were completely forbidden and regarded as abhorrent.  Knowing how desperately Tchaikovsky needed to cover up his sexual orientation helps us understand the pain, anguish and frustration, not to mention the taint of bitterness undermining moments of cheerfulness, which permeates all his music.  It was because Tchaikovsky was a homosexual that he was not gay.

05 April 2011

Soviet Musical Remnants

How does a world class orchestra cope with an indifferent conductor and two flawed masterpieces?

The answer, so far as the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is concerned, is with determination and supreme professionalism.

Conductor Thomas Sanderling is something of a remnant from the Soviet era.  Imbued with the concept that performing great music with great orchestras is an industrial rather than an artistic exercise, his interpretations are driven by ideology rather than inner conviction.  Everything is directed towards the moment with little sense of delving beneath the surface to release what it is the notes are trying to tell us.  A nice sound seems to be what he is after with minimal emotional involvement.

He certainly got a nice sound from the MPO when he directed their concert over the first weekend of April.  True, the horn tone was horribly hard and unyielding, a world away from the luxuriantly obese quasi-saxophone tone Sanderling would have enjoyed from his Soviet-era horns, while the basses were given almost frightening prominence (a problem, I realise, of the MPO's current seating plan which has the basses pushing out their sound uninterruptedly over the first violins rather than filtered through a sea of cellos).  The orchestral layout, rather than any weakness in Sanderling's attention to inner balance, was probably to blame for the fact that, from my seat, the entire cello section along with the clarinets and flutes were totally masked by the piano lid, leading to an unfortunate gap in the overall orchestral picture.  But no seating plan is perfect, and however an orchestra decides to set itself out on stage, there will always be winners and losers; the winners on this occasion being the violins whose ravishing tone was vividly on display.  Nothing, it seems, can stop this orchestra from sounding wonderful.

It would be wrong for me to describe Grieg's Piano Concerto as a flawed masterpiece.  Flawed it most certainly is, but masterpiece it most certainly is not.  While I would not go so far as to echo the words of my old Cardiff lecturer, Ian Bruce,  who frequently informed us that "Grieg could NOT compose", I'd certainly suggest that once he'd covered a single sheet of manuscript paper with a nicely harmonised folksy melody and generous repeat markings, Grieg's inspiration dried up.  He could definitely compose charming piano miniatures; it's just that anything longer and requiring more instrumental colour seemed to defeat him.  The Concerto, his most successful venture into extended orchestral music, survives because the melodic material is so delightful and the orchestral writing, often little more than obvious clichés, inoffensive.  Sanderling started it off in a rather lacklustre, indifferent manner – there was none of the drama or awesome splendour some can draw from these bars – but as soon as Alice Sara Ott took over, the whole thing became infinitely more elevated.  She revelled in the lyricism, stirred up the drama and entered into such an intimate relationship with the orchestra that it took on an almost chamber-like character.  Who's to tell whether this might not have become a memorable performance had not the Front of House staff (complete with crackling walkie-talkies) decided to let in latecomers with plenty of fuss and kerfuffle even as the first movement was giving way to the idyllic second?  As it was, the interruption had destroyed the magic, and the remainder of the Concerto passed by routinely.  Ott produced a stunning wealth of dynamic richness from the piano and her interplay with the orchestra was a joy to behold, but the spell had been broken and Sanderling's four-square approach meant that we were made embarrassingly aware that Grieg, desperately trying to hold his ideas together by means of strict classical form, lacked the skill to paper over the inbuilt cracks in any formal musical structure.

Under normal circumstances, Ott's choice of Liszt's La Campanella would have seemed an inappropriate choice for encore – here, surely, is a chance to show what Grieg really could do with the piano in his almost made-for-encore solo pieces – but the atmosphere had already been tainted, and she delivered it with such enchanting aplomb – taking the broken string effortlessly in her stride – that it deserved the rapturous response it received from audience and orchestra alike.

When I first learnt that Sanderling was to perform a version of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony in which the closing bars were to be replaced by a restatement of the final part of the first movement, I have to confess to being puzzled.  He explained that this was how it was performed during the Soviet era and, as Tchaikovsky himself had subsequently (having earlier described the whole work as one of the best things he had ever done) expressed dissatisfaction with the ending, I wondered whether this might not have been a composer-sanctioned way of ending the work.  I expressed some puzzlement about this in an earlier post, and I received several very interesting responses; too late, I regret, to include in my concert notes.  All agreed that it was how the Symphony was invariably performed in the Soviet Union, but both a member of the Tchaikovsky Society and a German PhD student preparing a thesis on Soviet attitudes to pre-Soviet music offered some more detailed insight.  It seems that Stalin objected to music which implied that there was something better than life under his rule; specifically music expressing an eternal, heavenly resolution to earthly woes.  Tchaikovsky had Manfred finding ultimate redemption and "seeing a heavenly light" shrouded in ethereal orchestral tones complete with organ.  Old Joe S didn't like this at all, so to keep him happy, when it came to the moment of Manfred's redemption he was taken back to the maelstrom of earthly existence given out in the first movement. Tchaikovsky's Manfred is a masterpiece; but in this version it is a flawed one, and one can only speculate as to why Thomas Sanderling thought Malaysia an appropriate place to revive this long-forgotten bastion of Soviet ideology?

The problem is that you cannot escape the niggling feeling that it's all been a waste of time, that the Symphony would have been just as effective had it ended after the first movement and allowed us to get to the bar that much sooner.  Perhaps this would have been best on this occasion, for Sanderling took us on an interminable trudge through the normally light-as-a-feather second movement (those of us who recall Kees Bakels doing this symphony with the MPO a decade ago will not have forgotten the gossamer thin delicacy with which he ended this charmer of a movement).  MPO Concertmaster Marcus Gundermann certainly tried to evoke that delicacy as he sent the movement off into high orbit, but Sanderling's reading was just too laden to let it really get off the ground.  The high point, however, was that whirling Russian dance which dominates the opening of the final movement.  Exciting and compelling, this may not have been quite as rumbustious as it could, but nothing was going to stop the determined MPO from showing their mettle in this great display of collective virtuosity.

Indifferent conductor, flawed masterpieces, but, as ever, astonishingly accomplished orchestral playing, and it is this last aspect which sticks in the memory, long after the concert's weaker points have, like the Soviet era, passed into merciful oblivion.