31 December 2012

One Note or Three?

The Hong Kong Philharmonic has just released a disc of orchestral showpieces by Tan Dun.  There’s some exciting music on it and clearly the HKPhil are relishing the opportunities Tan Dun has given them for virtuoso display, not only of instrumental skill, but also of shouting, whispering, vocalising, stamping of feet and various other non-musical physical activities.  It’s good, too, that this major Asian orchestra has finally joined the others in the international record catalogues, their earlier efforts appearing either on obscure labels (David Atherton directed them in some Stravinsky released in 2000 on the GMN label) or going back to the very early days of Marco Polo when neither recording quality nor performance standards rose above the  abysmal.  What’s more, while the Malaysian Philharmonic are on a hiding to nothing working their way through Dvořák for Bis – a hiding to nothing because, no matter how good they are, they can never seriously compete with the giants who have set the yardstick in Dvořák recordings – and the Singapore Symphony (also on Bis) cast their net so widely that their discography looks like Lan Shui’s favourite hits, the HKPhil has the virtue of sticking to repertoire with which it has a special, not to say unique, affinity.

One of the pieces on the Tan Dun disc is his Symphonic Poem on Three Notes.  Inspired by the name of Placido Domingo (if you say that name with a Chinese accent it sounds like Lah-Si-Doh which, as everybody knows, are the last three notes of an ascending scale) the work manages to stretch the musical figure A-B-C to a staggering 12 minutes.  Cleverly using lots of percussion and non-melodic effects, Tan Dun nevertheless shows what an ingenious composer can do with fundamentally minimal material. 

What couldn't Bach do with 3 notes?
It set my mind thinking about other composers who had built works around such meagre melodic motivs.  The obvious one is, of course, Bach and his Fugue in D (BWV532).  I remember when I first heard this played at a recital, the programme notes mentioned that the work showed Bach’s supreme genius in developing such seemingly restrictive material, and I was duly amazed by his audacity in building a substantial fugue around the notes D-E-Fsharp.

But even Bach, like Tan Dun, had to break away from the three notes in places to prevent the music becoming terminally repetitive.  As a student organist, having mastered the ubiquitous Suite Gothique by Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897), I looked around to see what else he had composed.  I came across a publication in the long-defunct Ashdown imprint called “Four Recital Pieces”.  I quickly understood why he was known almost exclusively for Suite Gothique, and for 40 years the volume rested pristine in my music drawers.  Then, for my last public recital in Singapore, I decided to present a programme looking forward to the musical anniversaries in 2012.  Boëllmann’s was among them and, having played the Suite Gothique at a previous recital at the Esplanade, I decided to resurrect the Four Recital Pieces and see if one of them would do.  I chose the Carillon (Op.16 No.5) which is based entirely on three notes reiterated endlessly in the pedals for all of the work’s 132 bars (a little under 4 minutes in total).  It was not Boëllmann’s greatest hit, but I wonder whether he was inspired by another French composer whose life was cut short in his mid-30s, Georges Bizet (1838-1875).  I imagine every music-lover knows the famous Carillon from the first of his L’Arlesienne suites which, too, is based on just three notes, but with rather a lot more interest added than Boëllmann dared.  (So many three-note French carillons!  But the French are not alone in their penchant for bells in threes.  The chapel of St Salvator in St Andrews boasts three bells and I could swear I heard attempts at ringing changes on them the other Sunday morning.)

Nevertheless, three seems to be the very minimum number of notes any composer can work with in building a coherent melodic line which can extend to a reasonable length of time.  Try as I might, I cannot think of a single work built on just two notes (although Bruckner tried his hardest in some of his symphonies, and Beethoven went  some way down the path in the 3rd movement of his Eighth Symphony before deciding to branch out into more fertile pastures), but I can think of one which makes a positive virtue out of being based on a single note (and I’m not talking about Jobim’s One Note Samba).

For the one and only public appearance of the Malaysian Philharmonic Chorus, destroyed almost as soon as it was born by the toxic combination of an incredibly foolish German ambassador and a frighteningly weak MPO CEO, I chose to end the concert with a performance of The Immovable Doh by Percy Grainger (1882-1961).  The story goes that Grainger was playing his harmonium when a note stuck.  Not wishing to waste good composition time, he devised a choral work around the note C which sounded continually whenever the harmonium’s bellows were filled with air.  It was an absolute masterpiece, since, while the C dominated and the music sung by the choir unfailingly associated itself with that C, it made perfect musical sense and, moreover, easily had enough interest to maintain its five minute duration.  I have a recording of the performance in which we asked the organ tuner, Tan Eng Pin, to sit at the console and hold down the C while the choir sang.  I had suggested he might like to keep on holding it even after the choir had stopped and the recording captures a fake gunshot from the stage which ended his C and the life of the Malaysian Philharmonic Chorus.

30 December 2012

Annual Musical Highlights

Sometime in September the first request comes in; Can you select a disc/performance/artist/work which, in your opinion, is the finest of the year?  As most magazines and newspapers run a retrospective of the year which includes some mention of classical music, there is no need for this blog to do the same, and it is certainly not my intention to turn this into the electronic equivalent of those round-robin Christmas epistles which have come in for such a pasting by the media this year.  I’m not sure why they have suddenly been made the source of so much ire.  Like women priests and gay marriage, I have no basic philosophical objection to round-robins, I just object to the kind of people who indulge.  Women priests are so often, in my experience, aggressive to the point of outright hostility in their proclamation of their right to administer the sacraments, while those who feel the need to make a public display of their same-sex relationship all too often hide behind outrageous self-parodies involving silly clothes and affected voices.  Similarly, those who send out round-robins usually lead lives of such terminal dreariness that they seem to find pleasure in afflicting their boring existence on those whose lives are much more interesting.  Not that all round-robin writers fall into that category.  The end of this year was much darkened by the absence of the annual missive from my old friend Donald Hawksworth.

Donald Hawksworth (1930-2012)
Donald and I first met when he was on an extended ABRSM examining tour of the Far East in 1987.  He lived a truly eventful life and his annual letters detailing his multifarious activities over the previous 12 months were best read with both a stiff whisky and a world atlas to hand.  He was an insatiable traveller who, usually travelling on a shoe-string and relying on strangers he met along the way to accommodate him and point him in the right direction, managed to live life, as they say, to the full.  I recall the momentous year when, while on an examining tour of Malaysia (he was at Taiping at the time), he was informed by that his house in Scotland had been completely destroyed in a gas explosion.  Upset only by the loss of his Steinway, Donald realised there was no point returning to Scotland until the house had been rebuilt, and sending instructions to various people back home, he set off on a world tour which took him to the Philippines, just in time to get caught up in a military coup, to Fiji, just in time to find himself half-way up an erupting volcano, to New Zealand, just in time to catch a major earthquake and finally to the USA, where he got caught up in a major shoot-out between police and drug dealers.  All this was recounted in Donald’s round-robin almost as an afterthought – for him, the interesting thing were the people he met and the mountains he climbed.

Donald’s death in April was just one of many sad things which led to my regarding 2012 as about the worst year in living memory.  But while I could bore everyone with tales of woe and despondency, without a shadow of doubt, nothing has been so depressing that a goodly dose of decent music could not lift my spirits, and it is in gratitude to the unfailingly uplifting effect certain recordings, performances, compositions and musicians have had on my year that I offer this personal retrospective of 2012’s musical highlights.
Naxos 8.573049

Even as I write, I am relishing a lovely disc of music by Gabriel Jackson.  Beautifully sung by the ever-magnificent Vasari Singers and magically recorded on the Naxos label in the chapel of Tonbridge School, the headline work is the Requiem, and while that might seem an antidote to any feelings of joy, so richly expressive is Jackson’s writing and so warmly affectionate is Jeremy Backhouse’s direction, that the overriding mood is one of profound optimism and contentment. 

My Choral Disc of 2012 - LSO0728
But much as I am enjoying that disc, the choral disc which most effectively lifted my spirits this year and which has been a constant companion ever since I first heard it, was a splendid account of Fauré’s Requiem.  (I assure you this obsession with Requiems is not symptomatic of a fundamentally depressed state; just a reflection of the ultimately uplifting nature of these composers’ response to these age-old texts.)  Here we have another of Britain’s excellent choirs, Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short.  With members of the London Symphony Orchestra adding more colour and depth that one normally expects to hear from a performance of the John Rutter arrangement of the work, what really makes this disc so tremendous is the Bach pieces which precede the Fauré.  On their own, they receive decidedly uninspiring performances.  But the cumulative effect of Bach plus Fauré is to shed a whole new light on the latter, bathing it in a glow of such radiance that one cannot but be profoundly moved.

My Record of 2012 - ODE1191-2D
That, though, was not my personal record of the year.  That accolade goes to a two disc set of orchestral music by Erich Korngold.  There’s a sumptuous account of the Sinfonietta, which is wonderful enough, but there is also the first ever recording of the complete incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing.  Ingeniously scored for a chamber ensemble (with a prominent part for harmonium) this is, for me, the great musical discovery of the year.  Sitting on a train held up interminably by flooded tracks in some God-forsaken part of northern England, all sense of anxiety vanished whilst listening to this lovely and ingenious music.  A glorious performance from the Helsinki Philharmonic under John Storgårds, and a ravishing recording to boot on the Ondine label.

There were plenty of music eccentricities which brightened up my year.  Not the least of these was the sight of Singapore’s Orchestra of the Music Makers performing Delius’s Paris at the Cheltenham Festival.  Turning up at one of England’s most twee towns on the wettest July day ever recorded, with an 11 hour flight and minimal sleep behind them, playing Delius to an audience with an average age of 70 all of whom knew the work far better than anyone on stage, was a pretty ridiculous spectacle.  On top of that, conductor Chan Tze Law managed almost to fall off stage when a misguided stage hand moved the stairs away, and pianist Melvyn Tan could barely see the orchestra or conductor from his position in the corner of an ante-stage.  Nevertheless, the orchestra won over the audience and while I know they can, and usually do, do a lot better, I suspect many Cheltenhamers went back to their sodden homes feeling uplifted.  The weirdness didn’t stop there.  At the post-concert receptions, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK put the final gloss on the evening by proclaiming that, for Singaporeans, Cheltenham was synonymous with “young girls and fast horses”.  Ah, that all diplomats showed such contempt for political correctness.

The ultimate sadness for me in 2012 was being obliged to leave my beloved Singapore and, especially, my work with the students at the Yong  Siew Toh Conservatory.  Without a shadow of doubt, I can say that my brief time at that fine institution was about the happiest of my life, and certainly  it was among the more musically enriching.  My former students continue to keep themselves in my consciousness with a welter of kind and informative emails, but it is their musical prowess which lingers longest in the memory.  One of the best performances I experienced there came in one of the Monday concerts given in March.  This included a performance by Chinese pianist Zheng Qingshu, who almost convinced me that Liszt was worth listening to.  She gave a great performance of the Second Concert Etude, and I don’t recall ever having been so uplifted by hearing Liszt before. 

Much of the sorrow I have experienced this year has emanated from Malaysia.  My home for several decades, I saw it rise and then fall musically, witnessing, towards the middle of the year, it hurtle towards self-destruction.  All that we had dreamt of and worked for fell apart, those of us who cared enough to comment were subjected to vicious verbal (and in some cases physical) abuse, and it seemed as if serious classical music in Malaysia had gone forever.  But among the students populating the music department at Middlesex University, I came across Isabella Pek, and a lengthy tutorial with her suddenly made me realise that there was still hope in the face of the self-inflicted carnage from Petronas.  Isabella is a competent composer and arranger, very good at her duties in RTM of arranging music and adapting Malaysian melodies for popular public consumption.  In most Malaysian eyes, that would be good enough.  But her bosses in KL decided that she would benefit by studying overseas and, eschewing the mind-numbing mantra “Malaysia Boleh!”, gave her a grant to enable her to spend time at Middlesex studying composition from foreign experts.  I am not sure what I admire most; the intelligence shown by the RTM people in sending one of their composers to the UK in order to expand her horizons, or the determination of Isabella both to show her bosses that their money has not been wasted while refusing to abandon the style of writing which has so obviously satisfied Malaysian audiences.  Both of these I find incredibly uplifting.

2013 can barely be less grim for me than was 2012, but I sincerely hope that all of you who read this will have a very successful and happy and healthy 2013.  You can be sure of lots of interesting stuff to read here on this blog – even if it can never quite live up to the fascinating glimpses of world life as viewed by the late, great Donald Hawksworth,

23 December 2012

Iconic Organ Records

Myself and Peter Almond in familiar surroundings
One of the joys of advancing years is the accumulation of memories which can be accessed and replayed at will.  Indeed, one of the drawbacks of advancing years is the tendency to play these memories so extensively that they obscure the present and obliterate the future.  Aware of this tendency to dwell in the past rather than use it to direct one’s present actions to the benefit of the future, I try to avoid too much gratuitous recollection, especially in polite company.  But spending a couple of days with my oldest friend Peter Almond – our friendship goes back over half-a-century – had us quickly falling into the trap of looking to the past when, ostensibly, discussing the present.  Having presented Peter with a copy of the Rütti Organ Concerto over which I have enthused both in this blog and in Gramophone, we got to discussing the music, the playing and the recording. 

The Rütti appears on the Guild Records label and Peter wondered whether it was in any way connected with the Guild Records which our mutual boyhood hero, Barry Rose, had founded during those heady days when he was Choirmaster at Guildford Cathedral.  I was able to tell him that it was, that the enterprising Swiss music enthusiast, Kaikoo Lalkaka, had bought the whole business and the catalogue, and while he has been busily increasing its scope to bring in Swiss music as well as British choral and organ music, unlike some other labels who delete discs almost as soon as they release them (Priory came up for especially criticism in our communal rant), Guild continue to make the back catalogue available, whether they were released by the Barry Rose company or the Kaikoo Lalkaka one.

Proof of the Pudding
Or so I thought.

Peter suggested that, if I was right, then he would be able to buy the EP recording of one of my old organ teachers, Michael Austin, playing on the Wimborne Minster organ.  No, I assured him, the current Guild catalogue included no Michael Austin and comprised original CDs or transfers to CD of former LPs.  In any case, I told him, the Michael Austin record was on the Ryemuse label.  Rifling through his impeccably maintained collection, Peter quickly rooted out the record in question and, sure enough, it was Michael Austin at Wimborne playing Bach, Vierne and Francis Jackson on an EP released by Guild Records.   I do have a copy of that record, but my extensive cataloguing system has not yet included the EPs in my collection and, in any case, it all seems to have been put beyond my reach for perpetuity following my relocation from Singapore, so I have no means of checking, but I could swear my copy is not on  the Guild label.  I am probably wrong.

But the discussion led us, with awful inevitability, to a trip down memory lane and the organ records we had, as boys, regarded as prized possessions.  In addition to the Michael Austin, there were the EPs of Fernando Germani doing Widor’s Toccata and the Bach Prelude & Fugue in G on Selby Abbey (with its wedding-themed sleeve from HMV) and the Ryemuse one (yes, I am certain of that) of Noel Rawsthorne on the mighty Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, a record which introduced us to the Mushel Toccata and Pietro Yon’s Toccatina for the Flute.  And on LP there was the Ace of Diamonds recording of several organists playing on the then new Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral instrument, and “The King of Instruments” compilation LP released by EMI as a test for stereo equipment.  As we mentioned each one, Peter recalled how a recent conversation with another organist friend had revealed that he had accumulated the same records in his youth, while I know of numerous organists of our generation who, similarly, possessed the same records.  Then there is the anecdotal evidence; I never forget a trip into the old UMP showroom in Montague Place in a bid to find a copy of the Jean Berveiller Mouvement which Jeanne Demessieux plays so brilliantly on the Liverpool Metropolitan record only to be told, “Everybody is coming in asking for that.  We don’t think it can have been published”, while mention of the Norman Cocker Tuba Tune when it appeared on a recent CD from St Edmundsbury occasioned a flurry of correspondents recalling the “iconic” recording by Francis Jackson on York Minster included on “The King of Instruments” record.

It seems very much as if those boys who, in the 1960s, developed a keen interest in the organ, all seem to have bought the same records.  Could it be, we asked ourselves, that these were the only organ records available?  I’m sure not.  I remember about that time attending something at the RSCM in Croydon where Michael Fleming claimed that organ and church music records were more numerous than any other genre; something I am sure was not then, nor has ever been, true.  But certainly there were a lot of organ records about.  Every trip to a British cathedral netted an EP of the organist playing the organ there (often remarkably badly), while EMI capitalised on this with their intriguing, if flawed, “Great Cathedral Organs” series.

Perhaps it’s rose-tinted nostalgia, but I happen to think that this quintet of organ records was, in every sense of the word, iconic.  They not only captured fine organs and fine organists of the day (something the EMI series did, if at all, only by accident) but they presented enticing repertoire which offered vivid entertainment for the enthusiast.  I don’t really see the same enthusiasm for organs generated amongst today’s youth by the ghastly screeching of Couperin on authentically-restored 17th century French organs, the nerve-wracking unequal temperaments of wheezy 18th century North German museum-pieces giving us Bach and Buxtehude as it was originally heard, or the stomach-churning weightiness of Widor complete symphonies on a dusty Cavaillé-Coll.  Worthy and important as these are, you do have to attract your audience before you can lead them in the direction of historical authenticity or specialist repertoire; something which is often lacking in a lot of organ discs today.

I certainly would never suggest that organ recordings were much better in my youth than they are today, but few engender quite the same level of deep affection among the young.

12 December 2012

Traditionally Unauthentic

Faced with a bevy of Scottish Traditional Fiddlers I found myself seriously out of my musical depth.  Not that I’ve never encountered Scottish Traditional fiddlers before nor that I do not enjoy the sound they make; I’ve always admired the way they can seamlessly move from pathos-laden laments to jaunty jigs with barely a flick of the bow, and I just adore the crisp snaps of a Strathspey.  But in this occasion I was there to adjudicate each of them individually and I was very much out of my comfort zone.

By a peculiar twist of fate, while my sisters, brother and myself attended the same infants school in what was then a twee suburb of south east London where our Scottish teacher insisted we devote one afternoon a week to Scottish Highland Dancing, we have all eventually gravitated to Scotland.  Indeed, my eldest sister has been living there since the early 1970s.  An abiding memory of my niece’s wedding was the stunning Scottish fiddlers who led the dancing at the whisky-laden reception, while a nephew used to play in a Ceilidh band.  He used to explain to me some of the ins and outs of Scottish Traditional music, but I always regarded these as the sorts of things only of real interest to those actually involved in playing in the bands, and I was content just to sit back and enjoy, in my unashamed ignorance of its undoubtedly manifest nuances, the sound of the music.

What always struck me with Scottish Traditional Fiddlers when I observed them from the outside, as it were, was their astonishing ability to produce rapid playing whilst grasping the instrument with their left hand.  I foolishly assumed this was part of the essential technique which differentiated it from other schools of violin playing, but with my first Scottish Traditional Fiddler, I saw the instrument held classical-style under the chin, leaving both hands free to manipulate the bow and move freely over the fingerboard.  This player produced a lovely, opulent tone full of rich vibrato and warm dynamics which would not have sounded at all out of place in Tchaikovsky.  Excellent violin playing, but was it legitimate Scottish Traditional Fiddling?  I really did not know.

Luckily a colleague passed on to me a leaflet written as a guide to adjudicators so that we would have some idea of what we were supposed to be looking for.  This guide included the following extraordinary statement; “Traditionally fiddlers held the instrument almost under the shoulder rather than under the chin, however the demands musically and technically were not so high.  As a result modern traditional players and students are encouraged to use a more violinistic approach”.

Which begs the question, where does traditional fiddling end and classical violin playing begin?

Surely, if Scottish Traditional Fiddlers no longer play the fiddle in the traditional way, they merely become classical violinist playing Scottish Traditional Music?  That seems to negate any purpose in having a specialist skill in Scottish Traditional Fiddling.  I am not committed enough to the cause of Scottish Traditional Music to have a worthwhile opinion as to whether it is evolving or merely aping what is happening in a parallel art form; I simply suggest that evolution along these lines leads, eventually, to the extinction of an entire tradition, and that cannot be a good thing.

However, it opens up the broader question about what we mean in music as “traditional”.  Strangely, while all art forms naturally evolve, music often seems to believe in regression as the way forward.  Back in the 1950s Thurston Dart was among several pioneers in reviving awareness of historical performance practices in classical music.  I was lucky enough to be taught by one of his students, and I remember attending several concerts given on historic instruments or instruments made as copies of historic ones.  The sound was certainly revelatory and deeply fascinating; and it certainly opened up a wholly different perspective on how the music of earlier periods could sound.  The abiding memory, however, was the fact that after every few bars, the whole thing stopped while they all had to re-tune their instruments.  That doesn’t happen in historical performances today.  Why?  In part, players are more adept at handling their delicate instruments, but mostly the instruments have been sensitively adapted to the demands of modern day performance occasions.

We do know that in the past musicians tuned their instruments – we can tell that from the presence of easily operated tuning pegs and keys on old instruments.  But to what did they tune?  I once presented an academic paper on the history of pitch to a conference, and pointed out that ISO 16 was established to standardize pitch at A=440 internationally only in 1955, and almost immediately orchestras and ensembles have broken away from that short-lived pitch standard.  Pitch before and since has varied from country to country, often from orchestra to orchestra, with few regarding 440 as the norm.  However, I was always led to believe that while pitch was more-or-less randomly selected for each early performance, in general pitch in the Baroque era was around a third lower than it is today.  Many of the historical performances in recent years have addressed the issues of pitch and tuning, but a disc I had to review last month of very early 17th century choral music commented that, although the performances followed strictly historical practices, the pitch had been selected at 440 in order to make it comfortable for the singers. 

We seem to have got ourselves into a continually revolving cycle of evolving music up to a point at which someone decides to return to historical performance practices, only to set off in motion the whole sequence of evolution again and again. I suspect that if I live long enough I shall witness another revival of historical performance practice to undo the developments that have taken place since 1950, while I am sure that before long someone will look at Scottish Traditional fiddling and suggest it goes back to how it used to be done in the past.

08 December 2012

Music for The Moment

There used to be an early evening programme called Nationwide on BBC television which featured some of the more idiosyncratic stories from the various regions of Britain.  I used to watch it as a school boy and remember one particular feature they ran in which viewers were invited to suggest a piece of music and an accompanying image from their region; the BBC editors would then put it together as a film sequence.  I can only recall one of these; following the course of the River Thames to the accompaniment of Vltava.  It worked very well, but only proved that Smetana’s vision of a great river was sufficiently descriptive as it stood to obviate any associated visual images.

That the idea soon died a death was due, I imagine, to the extreme difficulty of marrying music to a particular image.  When, around the same time, the editor whose job it was to select the title music for the serialised book read on the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour was interviewed, the real skill in this job was vividly demonstrated.  She had recently chosen to introduce a serialisation of a book (and I can’t remember which) with a passage from Richard Adler’s Wilderness Suite and the two married so perfectly that listeners had written in their droves to congratulate her.  When she explained what was involved – not being able to listen to any music without a notebook in hand to jot down any passage which, to her, summoned up a particular mood or image – I was amazed.  This seemed to my teenage ears like a dream job and from that day onwards, I made a note of any potentially descriptive passages in music I heard.  I now have a vast and increasing database of suggested musical images (tragically, largely wasted since my precious record collection has been lost in transit from Singapore to the UK) which, if anyone ever asks, I can refer to.  Unfortunately, career choices have never allowed me to work as a BBC editor, so my database is destined to remain unused.
Once or twice a particular piece of music has been so ideally suited to the images it accompanies that it sticks in the mind.  I first fell in love with Rachmaninov, not because of the syrupy pathos of the great piano melodies, but because of the urgent and thrusting main theme of the last movement of the 1st Symphony which was the perfect title music for the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Panorama.  But the fact that all these great musical pairings belong to the distant past is not mere nostalgia on my behalf.  Sadly, for most people, music now accompanies everything from moments of passion and tragedy, to mundane things like cooking a meal or travelling on a train, and the idea of associating music with a particular occasion or emotion has been subverted by a blanket desire to use music to obliterate silence.

Title music for radio and television has been diluted by the omni-presence of music throughout the programme.  A famous spat blew up a few years ago when a serious programme about astronomy was, in many listener’s opinion, ruined by a constant soundtrack of unrelated pop music which made the programme unbearable for those with hearing problems (the one disability largely ignored in the current climate of disability sympathy which is sweeping the UK) and undermined any scientific authority it may have had for those with a real interest in the subject matter.  The response of the presenter to the complaints was that young people cannot listen to anything unless it has a musical background.  (The obvious extension to that is that young people cannot listen to music – they merely hear it.)
The Organ Music makes you stop and stare
at the National Museum of Scotland's
Millenium Clock
So it came as a real shock to me today when suddenly I was pulled up short by a piece of music which was so perfectly suited to its context that I found myself rooted to the spot while it played itself out.  Calling into the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh – a wonderful place, if ever there was one, boasting, among other things, a tremendous display of old gramophones – I encountered the great clock room.  While the cogs of one clock were pushed continually onwards by a giant fly, another, a real Heath-Robinson affair, incorporated mechanical deer ringing bells, a Penny-Farthing bicycle, all manner of weird and wonderful machines and a disturbingly alluring female monkey constantly turning a handle.  This latter clock marked each hour by playing the third movement of Bach’s organ transcription of Vivaldi’s A minor Concerto (BWV593).  Judging from the crowds who just stopped and stared at the clock when the organ music started. I was not the only one who found the music arresting.  It was a touch of genius.  In its original guise (it’s the Concerto for 2 violins RV522) it would not work nearly so well, but Bach’s transcription, with its almost relentless mechanical drive, its multi-faceted detail (including an extended piece of writing for two independent feet) and its sense of inexorable movement, perfectly matched the detail in the clock and the concept of time running relentlessly onwards.

Clocks playing music on the hour are pretty standard fare. The Edinburgh one is something very different and, in the true sense of the phrase, one in a million.

06 December 2012

Christening Tunes

Just over the road from where I work in St Andrews is a cafe.  In a town full of architectural gems and charmingly comfortable eateries, this particularly cafe is notable only for the plainness of its exterior and the utilitarian dreariness of its interior.  Yet every day, come wind, rain, snow or (occasionally) sun, one can spot a party of (usually) Japanese tourists armed with cameras and V-signs (why do Asians always wave this disgusting gesture at whomever is pointing a camera lens their way?) outside this cafe, often blocking the street to get them and the unexceptional exterior in view.  Why? 

The answer lies in a large notice pasted to the inside of one of the windows; "Where Wills met Kate".

Those who work across the road in the Younger Hall regard this with a certain disdain; after all, they were the people who hosted a fashion parade at which the future Duke of Cambridge was seen to look on dewy-eyed as the future Duchess of Cambridge strutted her stuff.  While, of course, the University itself can lay claim to being the real catalyst for this famous relationship; it, though, is more discrete in its publicising the fact, content to run out a statistic whenever the public is around that 70% (or some such figure) of St Andrews University students end up marrying fellow St Andrews University students.

That St Andrews is still seen primarily as the place where a real live prince met his princess was emphasised last week when, sitting in a warm and snug candlelit bar in Cork, a swarthy Irishman on an adjacent stool (and lurching dangerously close to a candle perched precariously by his elbow) did what all Irishmen in bars seem to do, and engaged me in a conversation rather more philosophical than one might usual expect in a bar.  He was attached, in some way, to an educational establishment in the city and when he learnt that I, too, worked for a University, he immediately took an even greater interest.  He had already discovered that I was a musician and an organist, and when he heard that I was based at St Andrews he waved a copy of that day's Irish Independent at me (all Irish pubs are overflowing with daily newspapers - there is always one to hand, whether or not the place is lit by electricity, gas or a naked flame) and pointed to the full page devoted to the announcement of the Royal Pregnancy.  "Will you be playing the organ at the Christening?" he asked. 

It was a peculiar question from a man who had already shown an intellect barely troubled by the intake of copious quantities of Guinness, and even more peculiar that he should have assumed that the royal christening should take place in St Andrews at all. One assumes that royal christenings take place near a royal household (such as Sandringham in Norfolk) and would do so in private with no music around.

It crossed my mind, though, that perhaps Christenings in Ireland are accompanied by lots of noise and music.  That same copy of the Irish Independent included a wonderful statement from an Irish local politician complaining that Muslims in his town had asked that bodies of their dead relatives be buried without coffins in accordance with their religious beliefs ("When in Rome do as the Romans do.  They should mark a death by drinking alcohol for 24 hours").  Perhaps the Irish deal with "Hatches" in much the same way as they deal with "Dispatches".

Considering how important baptism used to be (we don't know when Beethoven was born, for example, but we know when he was baptized, while Vivaldi, born premature during an earthquake, was rushed by his nurse to the church to be baptized within hours of Camilla Vivaldi giving birth in case he didn't live long enough to pen the Four Seasons) it seems to have slipped dramatically down the life/church stakes and now happens almost in secret.  True, in a bid to get people interested, some clergy use the most popular services of the year as an opportunity for infant baptism (how many Easter Day services have been extended interminably by hordes of screaming infants getting their heads wettened?) but as a rule, baptism is a quiet and unassuming event.  And certainly not one which calls for music.  If my daughter is anything to go by, the merest sound of an organ playing would  drive an infant into paroxysms of wailing which not even a mighty Tuba Mirabilis can drown out.

But, harking back to my very early days as a church organist, I recall having to go to the local church quite often on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to play for a baptism service.  As a mere handful of relatives and a couple of elderly ladies, who never seemed to leave the comfort of their pews, looked on, a screaming child was baptised while I drooled something innocuous on the organ.  I vaguely remember George Oldroyd, William Wolstenholm and Henry G Ley provided suitably bland music (some of it coming from a very useful book called A Book of Simple Organ Voluntaries) but if there were hymns or psalms, I don't recollect.  The organ was simply there to drown out the crying and added a certain religious atmosphere to the occasion.

Organs and baptisms don't seem to mix anymore.  If Wills and Kate want to breathe new life into the monarchy, they might like to insist on a Christening complete with bland and dreary organ music to match the bland and dreary surroundings of the cafe in which they, allegedly, met.

22 November 2012

Training the Audience

It would be fascinating to know how many music students there are in the world.  I am quite sure that if all those studying music at universities, colleges and conservatoires around the globe were herded together they would number well into the hundreds of thousands, if not more.  Almost certainly they would outnumber those currently employed in one form or another in the music business.  Instinct tells me that there are more putative pianists than there are pianos, enough optimistic orchestral players to fill all the professional symphony orchestras of the world several times over, more budding opera superstars than there are opera houses and certainly more ardent drummers than there are rock bands with vacancies.  A perennial question from those of us who see these vast numbers coming through the doors of educational establishments around the world is, why do they do it?  We all know that there’s not much money to be made out of music, that it’s a life of solid drudgery and endless disappointments, and that for every concert, recording or gig we manage to secure, there are a thousand that have gone to someone else.  I’ve lost count of the bitter organists who moan – “How come HE gets to play there?  I’m much better and I’ve never been invited!” – or the bitchy sopranos who claim that “SHE only got the role because she’s had a boob job”.
Success in the music world is down to ability (5%), hard work (20%) and good luck (75%), and the competition is so intense that a single misjudgement can kill a career stone dead.  I well remember a brilliant pianist who, given his break and asked to present a 45 minute recital at London gallery, blew it all by playing for around  30 and seeing his audience walk out demanding their money back for short measure.  I run a course at Middlesex University which is intended to provide students with the elements needed to recognise what hard work is needed to fill the necessary 20% work and to recognise when a bit of luck comes along and how best to grab it; it remains to be seen if this helps them in their future careers, but it certainly stops them thinking that the world owes them a living just because they got distinction at grade 8.  But the sad fact is, the vast majority of music students will not find a music job at all and end up as company directors, government servants, hotel managers, train drivers, cleaners, insurance salesmen or, in the worst-case, bankers and financiers.  Have, then, their years of dedication to the cause of music and their commitment to educational courses been a waste of time and resources?

Not a bit of it, for they have been trained to be something far more vital to music than mere players, promoters or pushers.  They have been trained to be members of that most elevated club, the audience.  And there are many, many vacancies for good audience members.  We are desperate for people to fill all those seats in all those auditoria in which we have been able to secure an engagement.  True, there is no salary, but there is something much more valuable on offer; an enriched and profoundly enhanced life
The value of training people to be an audience is usually understated.  After all, the argument goes, anyone can buy a ticket to go to a concert, so why bother with any formal training?  The same argument goes to driving – anyone can do it, why take a special test to be a bus or truck driver?  Just look at the moronic imbeciles who take to the roads of Malaysia and Thailand and you will soon see why special training is a necessity if not an actual requirement.  The popular karaoke singer, lauded by his drunken peers in the seedy surrounds of the bar, may well stagger home under the impression he can sing, but put him on a stage with several hours of Wotan in front of him and he will very soon buckle under pressure.  In every human activity, proper training is of inestimable benefit.  I’d hate to think my train driver has not been trained, and if my cleaner hadn’t had some proper instruction, my toilets would soon smell like they do in China or India.

By trial and error any fool could get a train to move, and most human beings could wave a mop over a urine-stained floor unaided, but how much better the job will be done and how much more satisfaction you will receive from the job if you have been thoroughly trained and have the confidence to handle every eventuality. So it is with an audience.  We can all sit there and feel bored or excited.  But what’s the point?  A quick thrill (or short period of tedium) can just as easily be had seated on a (clean or dirty) lavatory.  Music is something special which can enrich our lives.  But only if we approach it properly; a lot of people have had a revelatory moment listening to music, but for those of us trained in the art of listening experience such things far more often and infinitely more profoundly.  To understand anything is to appreciate it all the more.  By training hundreds of thousands of young people to understand and appreciate the intricacies of music, a generation is being built up which will find great enrichment from a concert and will not only regard it as an essential part of their life, but will help spread the news to those who have not had the benefit of a similar education.
When the Malaysian Philharmonic started up, we devised an education programme designed to train an audience - to explain the music to them and to give them a thorough grounding in the skills needed to listen intelligently to the kind of music we played.  Once the intellectually challenged moved into the driving seats, that all went off the agenda in favour of a so-called “educational” programme designed simply to get children into the concert hall. The idea was as simple as the brains behind it;  pull in the kids, give them a good time, and they will come again with their parents.  So every few weeks on a Saturday and Sunday morning  the hall was packed with noisy children who were faced with the spectacle of an orchestra trying to look as if they were having fun while a funny man dressed himself up (a football shirt sticks in my memory from one of the more pathetic shows) and played small bursts of insignificant fifth-rate music (often signature tunes from long-forgotten British shows of no relevance whatsoever to the children in the audience) on a motley assortment of non-musical instruments.  It barely kept the children entertained at the time, and if any of them ever came to a formal evening concert, it’s inconceivable they would have drawn any connection between 90 seconds of Pop Goes Bach and 90 minutes of Bruckner Seventh.

If we want loyal and enthusiastic audiences in the future, we need to train them properly, not push pointless and irrelevant music-related entertainments at them.  Listening to music is a serious business and needs proper training.

04 November 2012

Critics Copyright

Here in the UK there's something of a maelstrom building up following the demands of an organisation called the Newspaper Licensing Agency that artists, agents and concert-promoters pay a royalty for every quote used from a published review.  These royalty demands move into the tens of thousands of pounds.

As a critic I am well used to seeing my words used without my express permission to promote an artist, to boost concert ticket sales or to help sell a CD and I not only have no objection (even when my words are taken dramatically out of context) but have always assumed that it is part of the unwritten contract that goes with the job.  My understanding has always been that an integral function of music criticism is to provide artists with legitimate quotations for their marketing; just as political journalists are aware that part of their function is to influence the thinking of their readership, so the music critic is conscious that what he writes is boosts or suppresses interest in a particular musician.  In fact, I would suggest that without this element, a lot of published musical criticism is pointless, and I see newspapers cutting back still further on this aspect of their work.

On the surface, it would seem that the Newspaper Licensing Agency is merely trying to secure extra money for critics, whose hard work and dedication is, in general, unrewarded financially.  Except, of course, that neither I nor any of my colleagues have ever received a penny from the Newspaper Licensing Agency.  Where the money goes is a matter for concern, but if someone is charging someone else to use my words, I want that payment; after all, I did all the work.

Luckily many of us are sufficiently well known in the musical community for our names, rather than the publication for which we write, to give legitimacy to any quotes.  The obvious thing, therefore, is to bypass the scurrilous activities of the Newspaper Licencing Agency by providing artists and agents with the quotes direct.  Already I see quotes from this blog appearing on international agency websites and on artist support publicity, and I am not just happy about it, I positively encourage it.  Anyone can quote up to 10 percent of any posting on this blog free-of-charge, provided they acknowledge it duly.

It is, however, utterly wrong both ethically and legally, to reprint in a personal blog with free access a review you have been commissioned to write for another publication, whether or not that publication charges for access.  I have, in the past, re-published here criticisms I've written for others, but only long after the original has been in the public arena on its commissioned source for some time.  Even then, I've been on dubious legal ground.  Usually, when an exceptional performance, artist or recording comes my way for review, I will write the commissioned one first, see it in print and only then write a completely new one for the blog. 

This, though, brings its own issues. Sent what I regarded as a brilliant recording on the Guild label of the Carl Rutti Organ Concerto, I decided greater interest would be garnered were my review to be published in a recognised international publication, so I urged the editor of theclassicalreview.com to carry my review.  He agreed and I duly wrote and submitted it.  After several weeks it still had neither been published nor had the editor come back to me with the usual pre-publication proof, so I assumed he had decided not to spike it.  I then re-wrote it substantially and posted it here, only to receive a curt letter from the editor complaining that I had breached the exclusivity rules.  And I had, and hang my head duly in shame (even if I cannot expect to write for theclassicalreview.com again).

So it seems that those little quotes in brackets which pepper concert and opera posters and CD label adverts are to disappear.  And if the result is that audiences are no longer tempted to buy tickets for a concert or an opera because no respected critic is quoted on a notice near the box office as suggesting "This is a tenor in the Pavarotti mould", and CD sales plummet because those tempting phrases - "Stunning performance - stunning sound" - are no longer around to lure the uncertain buyer, then we know who is to blame.  If the Newspaper Licensing Agency is not intent on wiping classical music from the face of British life, then they might do well to re-think their money-grabbing scheme.

02 November 2012

What is Malaysian Music?

Apologies to regular readers of this blog for the long absence.  A change of location, a change of job and a change of time-zone have kept me otherwise occupied.  But the dust has settled and normal service can now be resumed.  Thanks to all who have expressed concern and regret at this temporary hiatus in activity.

For the next few months at least I am based in the UK from where I get a very different perspective on musical life in Asia, although when I presented my weekly lectures at Middlesex University this week I was both surprised and delighted to bump into a gaggle of former students and colleagues from UPM in Kuala Lumpur who were there to present a demonstration on Malaysian music. Sadly, I wasn't able to make their show; the fact that for the rest of the week I am working at the University of St Andrews, some 800 kilometers away, meant that as soon as I left the lecture theatre I was in the car and heading north.

But I would have loved to have been there, not least because I wonder what is meant by Malaysian music.  When, about 20 years ago, I was involved in collecting and recording the ethnic music of Sarawak, we ran up against a lot of official opposition; the music of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak did not reflect what the government wanted to promote as Malaysia's Islamic Heritage.  (The fact that there is virtually no Islamic Heritage in Sarawak was conveniently overlooked in a governmental attitude which, as I have often said, takes the view that history is a reflection of the present.)  We were forced to remove the lovely Bidayuh art from the cover and replace it with a rather insipid drawing of traditional Malay dancers, and the inset essay was obliged to refer to the Muslim influence despite the fact that this was not apparent from the music on the disc. 

I understood totally the government's point of view.  Malaysia is a new country (formed in its present guise, for those who do not know it, in 1965 - although west Malaysia secured Independence from the British in 1957) and to recognise the ethnic and cultural diversity which many feel is one of the strengths of the country is to undermine the desire, so persistently voiced by the then Prime Minister, for Malaysia to be regarded as a single nation.  Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Polynesian, Indigenous art, enjoyed by the diverse ethnic groups in the country, was seen as divisive, and the push was to subjugate that into a "Malaysian" art which reflected what the government wanted to project to the outside world as the country's uniqueness.  The dominant peoples in west Malaysia, where the Prime Minister lived, were Muslims, so it seemed natural that ethnic arts were absorbed into an over-arching artistic identity which reflected Islamic principles.

Which would have been fine were it not for the fact that, glorious as so much Islamic art is, music does not feature significantly in it.  As a result, while Chinese, Indian or other ethnically specific musics could not be labelled "Malaysian", that left a vacuum since there was no significant Islamic music to take its place.

Attempts to introduce Western Music through the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, met with almost overwhelming opposition from those who saw it merely as artistic colonialism, while new native-born composers, desperate to show that Malaysia could hold its own on the international music front, too often presented their work before they had matured sufficiently to sound anything other than derivative or, more often, imitative.  Gamlean groups took the music of one of Malaysia's neighbours - Indonesia - and tried to argue that close proximity was roughly equivalent to indigenous, while the colleges that grew up to encourage Malaysian musicians, saw success as commercial rather than artistic, resulting in a vast output of bland and inane pop music, linked by slow tempi and minor keys, a desperately unhappy marriage between Indonesian Dangdut and Afro-American Soul.

So I really would have liked to know what my good friends presented to the students and staff of Middlesex University as Malaysian Music?  Can we really say that such a thing exists?

16 September 2012

A New Organ Concerto

GMCD7386 - order direct from the link to Guild Records
It all started in 1735 with Handel who wanted to fill in the gaps between acts in his oratorios and to attract an audience who preferred individual display over collective effort.  He wrote 16 - at least 16 have appeared in print, although as ever with Handel, many did not actually begin life in that guise - and hugely successful they were too.  Handel's organ concertos remain the pre-eminent examples of the genre, but they are by no means the only ones, and while Wikipedia’s English language site lists 64, this number is manifestly wrong (does anyone with a brain seriously look to Wikipedia for reliable information?).  What the correct number should be I have no idea, but so many major works are missing from the Wikipedia random pile that someone should do the world a favour and expunge that page of misinformation from the World Wide Web in case some imbecile does, actually, believe it.

What nobody can deny, however, is that after Handel, the only Organ Concerto to have gained any degree of common currency is the G minor one composed by Poulenc in 1938.  Forget the fact that those by John Stanley, Joseph Haydn, Marco-Enrico Bossi. Josef Rheinberger, François-Joseph Fétis, Joseph Jongen, Aaron Copland, Malcolm Arnold, Alun Hoddinott, William Matthias and Kenneth Leighton (to name an unrepresentative selection of some of my personal favourites) are every bit as good, the Poulenc has, for some reason, caught the public interest and gets a very frequent work-out indeed.

My preferred recording of the Poulenc is the Gillian Weir one with the City of London Sinfonia under Richard Hickox, but there are many others and barely a year goes by without a new crop appearing, the latest coming from Guild.  The soloist on this new disc is Martin Heini, the orchestra is the State Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of Novosibirsk and the conductor Rainer Held.  With the best will in the world, these are hardly household names and it might seem that there is no call for a new version of the Poulenc from an organist little known outside his native Switzerland, playing with a little known (outside their native Siberia) chamber orchestra and a conductor who is, it would seem, making his CD début.  And for all its good points – a fantastic-sounding organ, a player who is not afraid to take risks, and a recorded sound bristling with clarity but wrapped in a magical halo of distant reverberation – this is not a first choice recommendation.  Rainer Held rather overdoes the melodrama and pathos and the orchestra is hardly at the cutting edge of tautness of ensemble or uniformity of intonation.  But there’s something on this disc that makes it not so much compelling as absolutely unmissable ; a new organ concerto which is, for my money, one of the very best to have emerged since Handel’s final one appeared during a performance of Alexander’s Feast in 1751.
Composed exactly 260 years after that last Handel Concerto, Swiss composer Carl Rütti’s Concerto for Organ, Strings and Percussion is his second venture in as many years into the genre.  For my money, Rütti’s outshines the vast majority of its predecessors and certainly gives the Poulenc a good run for its money.  Actually, I’m not entirely sure that, in some respects, it outshines even that icon of the genre. 

For catchy tunes, riveting rhythmic drive and spectacular organ v. orchestra effects, it is in a class of its own, even if the first idea we come across bears a striking resemblance to the Bee Gees’ classic, Stayin’ Alive.  The orchestra impresses from the start, buzzing with incisive rhythmic vitality and crackling with high-voltage energy.  Martin Heini adds a few thousand volts to the proceedings with his decidedly pugilistic cluster chords and sparkling fingerwork.  Written specifically for him (the booklet notes highlight the pivotal role he played in encouraging the composer to write the work in the first place), the Concerto clearly is designed as a showcase for an exceptional virtuoso player who amazes and impresses at every twist and turn of this high-octane score.

Cleverly calling for the same orchestral forces as the Poulenc, Rütti does away with the timpani and replaces them with a veritable battery of tom-toms, cymbals, temple blocks, snare drum, tambourine and triangle, all deftly handled here by percussionist Mario Schubiger (and full praise to Guild for including his name in the disc details, so often the poor timpanist is overlooked when it comes to the Poulenc).  The organ – a 45-stop three manual built in 1996 by the Swiss firm of Goll in the church of St Katharina Horw near Lucerne – gets a full work out; most especially in the slow movement where luscious strings in sumptuous chords gradually transform themselves into bird-song inspired, quasi-Messiaenic outbursts on full organ. 
Hints of Messiaen also fly past in Tongues of Fire, in which Rütti draws together plainchant and birdsong in a seven-minute tour-de force for solo organ.  While, maintaining the orchestra/organ balance, the State Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of Novosibirsk presents an atmospheric account of Arensky’s Variations on Tchaikovsky’s Légende.  No stranger to the catalogue, especially where Russian orchestras are concerned, Held’s affectionate reading never falls into the trap of becoming lugubrious, and if you can accept the distinctly churchy acoustic which surrounds the string playing as well as small moments of uneasy ensemble, this makes an attractive if hardly compelling addition to an enormously rewarding disc.

I did read a review which suggested that the disc had no clear market in mind, and I see the point; those who love organ solo music often do not inhabit the same musical territory as those who enjoy rich romantic Russian string music.  But if this disc draws these two disparate groups together, so much the better, and if it helps draw the Rütti concerto to the wider attention of the general music-loving public, the eclectic programme mix on the disc will prove to be truly inspired.  Oh for the day when the term Organ Concerto does not confine itself to Handel and Poulenc.

28 August 2012

Music's Geographical Future

Vincent, one of this blog’s most loyal and frequent followers, comments that “For many parents in Asia, learning an instrument without aiming for a grade or competition is pointless”.  That is typical of the good sense and realism Vincent brings to every comment he makes in this forum; and it depresses me deeply.

When I first settled in south east Asia some 30 years ago, that was very much the prevalent attitude.  Music was seen as a competitive sport on a par with badminton, soccer or running, and the pleasure that Asian children derived from it was similar; the joy of winning, the joy of showing one could do better than one’s peers and, most of all, the joy of being the source of parental pride.  I quickly accepted that many Asians enjoyed music, but in a very different way from those in the West who regard it as a means of enriching the intellectual and emotional aspects of daily life.  Music’s function in Asian society seemed to be merely as another vehicle through which the joy of competition and public success could experienced. 
My belief was that, after a while, those in Asia who saw music only as a channel through which to improve their standing in society, would eventually come to appreciate its deeper and more fulfilling elements.  When Victor Hugo suggested that “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”, he was telling us that music was a means of expressing our most deepest and profound thoughts, and thoughts which went beyond the confines of language.  To a certain extent, this quote led to the cliché about Music being an International Language.

Vaughan Williams, in his wonderful essay National Music, put the lie to that by pointing out that while English and French “have 24 of the 26 letters of the alphabet in common”, their languages are mutually incomprehensible.  So it is, he argued, with music, where notation may be pretty standard (although ask any German to play the note B on a keyboard and you will hear a very different note from what the English play) but the use it’s put to differs so much as to make it often quite incomprehensible to those from another culture.
It has long worried me that people describe music as being “Western” not least because most of the instruments in our orchestras originated in Asia, notably the Arab lands and China, and even my own instrument, the organ, was not only of Arabian origin, but long after the foundation of Islam, was regarded as primarily an Islamic device.  A report on the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, screened on the BBC today, interviewed an Iraqi girl playing what the reporter described as a “western musical instrument” – the cello – and while in that particular case the reporter was technically correct, the implication was that the entire orchestra was attempting to adopt an alien culture.  One of the recurring comments made about the growing disintegration of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra has been the perceived folly of “imposing an alien culture” on Malaysians.

Vincent’s comment stresses that cultural divide.  Asian parents, as he puts it, do not accept the cultural dimension of music, only the physical one.  I would not be so distressed by his comment were it not for the fact that this was exactly the comment made to me 30 years ago.  At that time, I hoped that with the growing interest in music in the region – after all I was one of those who believed that we were on the brink of an Asian revolution, when the next generation of great musicians and composers would come from Asia – it was only a matter of time before its essential qualities became apparent and then uppermost in Asian musician’s minds.  That the old attitude still prevails with the children and grand-children of those parents who I encountered in the 1980s makes me realise that Asian attitudes to music have not changed one iota.
True, there are some wonderful Asian musicians as well as Asians who do derive full emotional and intellectual joy from music, but they are a tiny minority of those who indulge in the physical activity of music, and their ranks show no sign of increasing.  Who would have thought, for example, that 15 years on, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra has not yet been able to find a Malaysian with an ounce of musical knowledge to head up its organisation?  When it started the CEO needed the support of a professional musical management team from Europe.  That team has long since gone and now the organisation is teetering on the brink because there is nobody in command who knows anything of the business they are purportedly running.  Who would have thought, again, that the kind of catastrophically low marks handed out to examination candidates in south east Asia are still being handed out today?  When I gave 17% to a Malaysian grade 8 candidate in 1985 I assumed that, as musical life improved and understanding of musical skills developed in the country, so standards of teaching would also rise.  I hear from colleagues that marks of 15-20% are still given.  True, Asian students have always included a few of such phenomenal skill that they earn higher marks than anyone else – a colleague recently handed out 100% to a Chinese diploma candidate, a mark I would have thought just about inconceivable in Europe – but their numbers do not seem to be increasing.

In short, my belief that Asia was on the brink of becoming the hub of great musical activity, has been proven wrong.  I see no evidence at all that Asia is going to supplant (if that’s the right word) the West in musical prowess any time soon.  The attitudes Vincent highlights condemn it to its role as competitive sport for decades ahead.
This, though, doesn’t stop westerners churning out the tired platitudes about Asia being the future of music.  Reviewing a recent disc of Lutosławski (a brilliant performance of the Piano Concerto, by the way, on Chandos CHSA5098) by pianist Louis Lortie, who many will remember well for his phenomenal Beethoven performances with the MPO – one of the great achievements of that orchestra’s life – I noted in his biography that one of its highlights was “an historic tour” of the “People’s Republic of China”.  No mention of Malaysia.  Now forgive me if I’m wrong, but has any orchestra in China half the quality of the MPO in its heyday?  Has any concert hall in China half the acoustic and environmental sympathy of Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, in Kuala Lumpur?  Does any concert audience in China possess half the etiquette and understanding of the Malaysian audience?  For as long as western artists believe that the worst of Asian orchestras, concert halls and audiences represents the great future of music, then the elevation of the bad and the mediocre to world-beating status seems inevitable.  In the light of that, who can blame Asian parents for seeing the function of music merely as one where you can earn grades and win competitions.

25 August 2012

One of my Notes is Missing

An examiner colleague calls up to tell me of an incident; “The candidate came into the room and told me; ‘I’m afraid I haven’t been able to practise the Mozart Sonata in D as the D on my piano at home doesn’t work’.  What did he want me to do; tell him not to play it?  And could it really be that every D on the piano wasn’t working?”, she giggled.  Such things are sadly very common; the violin with a string missing (“It broke last week and we haven’t been able to find a new one”), the trumpet case opened in the exam room to reveal no trumpet (“I think I left it at school after my last lesson”), the saxophone with no reed (“My teacher told me you would have one”) and, my personal favourite, the guitar taken from its case and strummed to reveal six strings roughly sounding the same pitch; “My teacher tuned it for me at my last lesson”, “When was that?”, “Oh, I missed last week’s and the week before was a holiday, so it must be three weeks ago”.

From our privileged and comfortable position behind the examiner’s desk, it is easy to find these things amusing but, at heart, we all sympathise with the poor candidate whose exam nerves, stretched almost to breaking point simply by having to do the wretched exam, are put under even more pressure by instrument malfunctions.  And the problem is, as we all suspect, it’s not the poor candidate’s fault.  What teachers think they are doing sending a candidate into the exam room at an early grade without at least someone present to deal with last minute crises involving the instrument defeats me; and how they can call themselves teachers when they have allowed their students to progress up the grades without giving them even the most basic instruction on simple maintenance and tuning procedures, defies belief.  I’ve seen grade 8 clarinettists unable to deal with a broken reed and diploma trumpeters scouring the waiting room for valve oil; simple matters which should have been ingrained into the student years earlier.
Examiners yearn to help when things go wrong, but their hands are tied.  Some years ago the late Geoffrey Smith - an examiner who loved examining in Malaysia so much that he went to live there – was so upset by the tuning of a young violinist’s instrument and by the inept attempt of the accompanist to tune it, that he took matters into his own hands, grabbed the instrument and attempted to tune the recalcitrant string himself.  The result was not just a snapped string but, somehow or other, a collapsed bridge.  An angry parent took matters further, claiming that the word “Stradivarius” printed on the inside of the instrument was an indicator of its great value (happily ignoring the “Made in Hong Kong” label next to it) and it got as far as the courts.  From that day onwards examiners have been forbidden from touching the candidates’ instruments.

The problem is that so much teaching focuses on playing right notes and assumes that nothing else matters.  Yet it is well said that the sign of a great musician is not an inability to play wrong notes but an ability to deal with wrong ones so that you think they were right all along.  So it is with mechanical failures.  All instruments are prone to these, and the ability to cope with them is part and parcel of learning the instrument.
One of the most memorable concerts of my life was a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by David Oistrakh sometime during the late 1960s.  In so many ways this was an electrifying performance, not least because shortly before the end of the first movement a string broke with an explosive snap.  The collective gasp of horror from the audience, dreading the fact that the mesmerising spell Oistrakh had cast over us was about to be broken, soon turned to one of amazement as, apparently without batting an eyelid, he carried on to the end of the movement before slipping off-stage to replace the string.  Which string it was, precisely where it snapped and what the rest of the movement sounded like, I cannot remember simply because I was held in such thrall (as were we all) by the sheer effrontery of the man to carry on regardless. What split-second mental processes were going on in his head to deal with revised fingerings and adjusting the bow defy imagination, but such things are the mark only of the very greatest players on earth.  “Oh!  My string’s broken, what should I do?”, a not uncommon student response to the problem, is clearly indicative of a future of failure as a fiddler.

Then there was the peerless Sabina Pade, for an all-too-brief time Principal Horn of the Malaysian Philharmonic.  I well remember going backstage to congratulate her after she had done an absolutely brilliant job of the horn solo from the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto.  With her customary self-effacing attitude she thanked me for my praise but added, “I was so worried.  My second valve was sticking”.  You would never have thought it!  And, among the great and good of the MPO one cannot ignore the magnificent timpanist Paul Philbert who I once recall seeing let fly a stick during a rehearsal of Pines of Rome.  Undaunted, he merely picked up another from the stand beside him and continued to the next break with two unmatched sticks.  Now that’s professionalism, and Paul has it by the bucket-load.
Of course every instrument has its mechanical problems, but my own, the organ, seems to suffer more than most, not least because it is more of a machine than most.  I have lost count of the ciphering and broken notes which have necessitated last minute changes of key and registration.  Suddenly discovering the solo Tuba had gone drastically out of tune on the note B flat just before a service in which we were to sing Stanford’s Te Deum in that key, I put the whole thing down a semitone to avoid the ghastly note.  I did all right, but the choirmen were none too happy about it; I hadn’t appreciated just how many of them suffered from Perfect Pitch (and it is a sufferance rather than a boon).

Perhaps the best handler of the unexpected organ crisis was Robert (Harry) Joyce, the charismatic organist of Llandaff Cathedral during the 1960s and early 1970s whose antics were as much inspired by his phenomenal musicianship as by his love of the bottle and glass.  Stories were legendary.  Of how, taking a quickie in the Bucher’s Arms between weddings, he suddenly realised that the next wedding was due to start and as he reached the west door of the cathedral was horrified to see the bridal procession already part-way up the aisle.  The Assistant Organist was manfully playing the Wagner, but Harry knew that this couple had ordered the Purcell, and he hadn’t passed the message on.  While they solemnly marched up the main aisle, he darted along the south, bounded up the organ loft stairs, sat next to the puzzled assistant, moved his hands over the keys, motioned the assistant away, and seamlessly moved Wagner into Purcell without so much as a change of key or tempo.
The best Harry Joyce story was the time he inaugurated a new organ at a church in the south Wales valleys. During some monotonous Langlais piece, the siren from the colliery next door (such things existed in the 1970s) started up and drowned out the organ.  Not to be outdone, Harry merely pulled out more stops and as the siren slid up in pitch, so Harry followed it, slid back through the keys and stops as it wound itself down, and jumped off where he had started as if nothing had happened. 

If anyone had the presence of mind to do that in the examination room, they would deserve both our grateful laughter and a fistful of extra marks.