29 January 2012

How to Pass a Piano Exam

Walk round the maze of back streets in Hong Kong or venture inside one of the less glitzy shopping centres and you will almost certainly pass a private music school.  The vast number of these places in Hong Kong bears testament to the value Chinese parents place on their children learning a musical instrument. 

You won’t be able to see in through the windows of these schools because they will be smothered in photocopied sheets of handwritten paper.  Look closer and you will see that these are the report forms from ABRSM examiners and Hong Kong Schools’ Music Festival adjudicators.  Even closer inspection will reveal that these reports – some going back years – show students from the school achieving wonderful results; Distinctions and First Places by the dozen, a handful of Merits, but not a single mere pass or even a failure.  The intention is clear; Send your child to us, they are guaranteed a really good result.  Chinese parents may be willing to spend a large amount of money on getting their children to learn a musical instrument, but they don’t invest an equal amount of thought in selecting the best school, and in the absence of a critical analysis of what’s on offer, they are clearly swayed by these bits of paper stuck to the outside window.

Of course, anybody who stops to think for a moment will realise that these reports are highly selective and that the school will have had its crop of mere passes and failures.  For nobody can absolutely guarantee that a student will get a Distinction in an exam or be first in a Competition; they may deserve it, but they may not get it.  The best one can do is guarantee a pass but, funnily enough, I’ve never seen one of these schools make that claim. 

I can, though!  I guarantee that any pupil of mine will pass a music exam.

Nonsense, you will be saying, if you could really do that you would be making a fortune teaching in Hong Kong. 

I stand by my guarantee, but there are two very clear reasons why this won’t wash with Chinese parents.  Firstly, while I can guarantee my students pass, the guarantee can only be made on the proviso that I decide which exam the student is to take and when it is to be taken.  This flies in the face of Hong Kong parental desires, which is, in a nutshell, one grade up every year, the whole aim being to reach the diploma at the youngest imaginable age. 

I frequently tell the story of a diploma guidance course I ran in Hong Kong when the subject of pedalling came up.  I suggested that too many students had no real understanding of the function or use of the piano pedals.  A question came from a lady in the audience who was a teacher.  “What if the student can’t reach the pedals?”  My advice was that they should chose repertory which did not call for pedals.  “The student is playing a Chopin Nocturne” I was told.  In which case, was my response, she must change her programme.  “She can’t”, came the retort, “the exam is next week”!  It turned out the student in question was aged 10 and was doing an ATCL.  When I learnt that the lady was not just the teacher but the mother as well, I turned on her and berated her angrily for destroying any musical future her daughter might have had.  At 10 to have done nothing except work for exams is bad enough, but what was to happen next?  “Once she’s done her FTCL at 14 she can concentrate on her schoolwork”.  In which case all the money and time spent on her musical tuition has been wasted since she will surely never go back to the piano which she will have been taught to regard merely as an examination vehicle.  (A nice postscript to this is that, whenever I have given a talk in Hong Kong since, the mother and daughter have always been in the audience and usually come up afterwards for a chat.  My words hit home, the girl never sat the ATCL, and is enjoying playing for fun, planning to tackle the diploma when she’s finished her school exams.)

The second obstacle to my making my fortune teaching in Hong Kong is that I regard assimilating musical experiences as a vital part of the learning process.  So my lessons include a lot of listening, a lot of discussing and a lot of repertory half learnt.  Parents do not like to pay for lessons if their child is not complaining about all the hard work they have to do; pupils go back from my lessons saying they enjoyed listening and talking and never played a note, and parents decide to send them to a teacher who makes them “work”.

So, how can we bridge the gap between musically ignorant parents’ demands and the demands of giving students a worthwhile educational experience?

The obvious thing is to educate the parents, but when I have tried to organise parents’ meetings to tell them what is involved in true music training, they never turn up.  By paying the teacher, they feel they are absolved from further involvement other than what they regard as their right as paymasters to dictate the exam schedule.  Young teachers, in need of money and trying to establish a solid teaching base, cannot allow ethics to enter into their life and they meekly submit to these parents’ demands.  The result is generations of youngsters who feel that Classical Music is not fun but merely a competitive sport which, once having passed all the hurdles, ceases to have any relevance.  That is why, despite candidate numbers in their tens of thousands in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, professional concerts attract very few music students.

So, to get back to the issue, how can I, or any other teacher, guarantee a pass at a music exam while the pupil derives some meaningful and lasting benefit beyond bits of parchment stuck on bedroom walls or hand-written reports used as publicaity materials for commercial ventures?

Firstly, a lot of time must be devoted to teaching the student to listen.  This has two benefits.  It immeasurably enriches their own performances by expanding their aural capacity to differentiate between the playing right notes and performing a good interpretation.  If you play Bach at Grade 6 but have never heard the Brandenburgs, the solo Cello Suites, the Magnificat or Goldberg Variations you’re clearly under-prepared.  If you play Debussy at Grade 8 and have never heard a professional pianist do the Préludes or Children’s Corner you’re never going to do it well.  Listening also opens up the ears so that the aural tests come as second nature.  Any teacher who has to “teach” the aural tests before an exam is a bad teacher – they should have been doing it at every lesson.

Secondly, a lot of non-examination music has to be learnt before the exam pieces are even attempted.  This develops two more skills; an increased familiarity with the geography of the keyboard which is not just learnt in relation to a specific piece or two, and an ability to grasp a musical concept quickly.  In relation to the exam, this makes learning the pieces so much easier, and immeasurably enhances sight reading skills – which are uniformly abysmal amongst Hong Kong students.

Thirdly, talking and discussing the music gives the student “ownership” of their performances and makes them determined to present them convincingly to the examiner or adjudicator.  It also makes the Musical Knowledge aspects of the Trinity exams – an area which is incredibly badly done by the vast majority of Asian candidates – second nature.  How often at Grade 4, for example, when you ask a candidate how they identify the key of a piece, they cannot answer.  They have been told it’s in F minor but have not been told why.

Fourthly, you devote some time every lesson to basic technical exercises.  Not hours and hours of sterile scales and arpeggios which teach a kind of mechanical sequence of fingering, but genuine exercises which develop supple fingers and establish correct hand positions.

Students fail exams because they are underprepared, because they have no understanding of the musical content of what they play and because they can’t listen.  My students are taught to do all of those things, so they can’t fail.

[I will be running a series of seminars in Hong Kong and Singapore during March and April about How to Pass Exams.  Contact me via this blog for more details.]

27 January 2012

Artists' Agent's Asininity

After the umpteenth visiting artist had arrived at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in Kuala Lumpur carrying the baggage of an agent’s publicity materials, I began to tire of reading vast quantities of pointlessly adulatory “biography”.

Any concert goer knows the sort of thing.  The bio - which, if it includes any genuine biography at all, adds it as a minor afterthought at the very end where it is most likely to be ignored - begins with a paragraph saying how brilliant the artist is.  If the words “outstanding”, “mesmerizing”, “breathtaking” or “dazzling” don’t appear here, we can assume it is a mistake and refers to one of the office cleaners. 
There then follows a tortuous and exhaustive list of the places the artist has performed, the orchestras with which the artist has performed, and the conductors or soloists alongside whom the artist has performed.  These lists invariably include every concert hall and recital room (in the case of singers and conductors, every opera house too) in the world, as well as every known orchestra, conductor and soloist  (with preferential treatment given to those represented by the same agent as the artist). Short bios simply list these as “xxx has performed with such orchestras as… and under/alongside such conductors/soloists as…”, while longer ones expand into a season by season breakdown, always with the same venues, orchestras, conductors/soloists in each season.  The terms “return visit” and “immediate re-invitation” are obligatory in this section.

Then comes a paragraph listing the works the artist has performed.  They all seem to have done the same thing.  No Soprano has not sung Carmen or Mahler 4, no baritone has eschewed Carmina Burana or Elijah, every cellist has performed Dvořák, Elgar and Bach, while pianists and violinist have done all the concertos known to man (or at least the semi-literate unmusical imbecile whom the agency has employed to write this crap).  If recordings are mentioned, they come here, but must have won every single prize from a Gramophone Award to a Diapason d’or, and we must know that their recordings number in their dozen.
After a choir visited DFP along with four soloists whose biographies were, in every respect, identical, I began to smell a rat.  Then a young instrumentalist appeared who I knew had only made her professional début the previous year.  Once again, she had apparently performed in every concert hall, with every orchestra and under every conductor in the world (including one conductor who had actually died before the artist was born), and so I knew something was wrong.  True, she could have put the records on at home and played along, but I suspected this was just a cut-and-paste job from the agents.  So I took to checking facts and realised that few of these claims in any bio ever hold water.

When a world famous conductor came with a young, hitherto unheard-of pianist, I realised something had to be done.  The conductor’s bio was a terse paragraph; the soloist’s three pages of close-typed script.  It would have been a nonsense to allow this through, so I edited it heavily to ensure both bios were identical in length.  The problem is these agent-supplied biographies carry the warning “Not to be altered or changed in any way without permission”, and concert-hall managers live in dread of upsetting agents.  I insisted that the changes were made and, miracle of miracles, the hall remained open and no lightning bolt came from the sky.  Emboldened, I then set about revising all bios, reducing them to a standard length and cutting out all the unverifiable material.  It was a huge and time-consuming job – getting 3500 words down to 250 was the norm – but not only freed up our programme books to include more information about the concert itself and to add more substantial photos making it all the more attractive, it gave the audience a much clearer picture of what the artist had really achieved. 
Not a single agent commented, and while one artist wrote to complain, several more wrote and asked if they could use my edited bio in their own materials.

Agents send these biographies to concert promoters in the hope that they will read them and hire the artist.  Concert promoters tend not to know much about music, so such adulatory guff is excusable.  Unfortunately by adding that suffix about “not changing” the text, concert promoters then allow these bios to go out to the audiences, and in the end,  they are counterproductive,  It is accepted by most that the longer the bio and the more name-dropping it contains, the lesser the stature of the artist.
Raum Klang RKap10110 - Is this one of the best CDs ever?
However, it doesn’t always work that way.  A CD sent for review included vast pages of biographical detail about the artists on it.  I read that “Amarcord’s hallmarks include a unique tone, breathtaking homogeneity, musical authenticity, and a good dose of charm and humour”; ingredients almost guaranteed to signify a mediocre group.  But on this occasion the agent got it wrong.  They are infinitely better than this, and having now listened through their new CD a dozen times, I am absolutely smitten by it.  When my review is published, I’ll copy it here for you all to read, but in the meantime I venture to suggest it is not just the finest CD of early music to have been released for several years, but it is in the running, in my book, to be one of the great CDs of all time.  Now doesn’t that sounds like typical agency guff?

25 January 2012

The Importance of Aural

Conductor Jason Lai caught me during the interval of an SSO concert last week and asked me about aural training.  He was worried that so many students in Singapore seem not to be able to hear music.  They can play it, they can read it, they can even analyse it.  But they don’t seem to be able to hear it.

I know exactly what he means.  There is an emphasis on teaching the techniques of playing an instrument and on the mechanics of musical theory which rather overlooks the fundamental fact that music is an art form which communicates by sound; there is, in short, no purpose in music if you can’t hear it.  Of course, unless you are impaired in your hearing you can hear music, you can even, with a lot of concentration, listen to it.  But what Jason meant was the ability to link what you know and understand with what you hear. 
I have spent a lot of my recent life working on a book which addresses this very point, and yet I have neither the time nor the funds to devote myself sufficiently to the task to get it completed and out into the public arena.  Until then my suggested solutions to Jason’s dilemma must remain somewhat half-baked, but it is a matter of great concern to those of us who, recognising the supreme achievements of so many Asian musicians, still worry that they find it so difficult to cross the threshold between being a superlative executant and becoming a brilliant communicator.

One solution lies in the graded music exams which most students in south east Asia undertake on an annual basis but rarely seem to benefit musically from.
Among the unsung glories of the Trinity syllabus is its aural tests.  For those unacquainted with this excellent aspect of the graded music exam syllabus, here is a rough outline:  From Initial (pre-Grade 1) to Grade 8, candidates are played a single, grade-specific piece of music, and as they move up the grades so they are asked more and more detailed questions about it until, with grade 8, they are simply expected to describe exactly what they have heard.  To put into words, as it were, what they have been listening to in such a way as to be describing it as a unique piece of music.

Naturally, when these tests first entered the syllabus, teachers were horrified.  The tests signalled a fundamental change from everything that had gone before, and certainly few teachers had any idea how to train students for them.  In the earlier grades it is quite straightforward since the aspects the candidate needed to identify were specified (time signature, tonality, articulation, dynamics), but from around grade 6 onwards the net is cast rather more widely and the examiner's wording much looser; “Please comment on any significant features you might hear in the piece”.  The key word there is “significant”, but few pick up on this.
To help teachers grapple with these tests, in the first year of their existence it was suggested they might begin by working through a check-list of musical features mentally discounting or expanding them as the piece was played; things like tempo, texture, dynamics, articulation, pulse, character, style, period.  Unfortunately, teachers still work this way with the result that their students do not listen to the totality of the piece but only to certain pre-determined specifics.  So it is that we examiners experience this sort of thing with tiresome regularity –  
A piece of Debussy at his most impressionistic.  The candidate describes “Simple quadruple. Begins mezzo-forte, crescendo to forte, diminuendo to piano. Mixture of legato and staccato.  Homophonic texture.” 
Each might be applicable to the piece (although I despair at the “homophonic texture” phrase; ask the candidate what they mean and they have no idea, added to which many accidentally describe it as “homophobic texture”  – is that a synonym for a dislike of Britten?) but such a response doesn’t begin to describe the piece they have heard in its uniqueness. 

Students simply are not taught to listen in such a way as to recognise the individuality of a work.  Do teachers get their students to immerse themselves totally for a month or two in a single composer’s output?  It’s the only effective way to learn not only the art of recognising instantly a composer’s individual hallmarks, but also of listening to music analytically, which is what all practising musicians need to do.
The Trinity aural tests are the ideal first step to training students to hear music to the level Jason, I, and many other musicians regard as an absolute pre-requisite to a career as a musician.  It’s not the only solution, but if it is taught properly, it’s a valuable educational tool.

Audience Responsibilities

Writing to the Ask Dr Marc column on the MPO website to praise a concert she had attended, a correspondent used the wonderful phrase; “It was a privilege to participate in this concert as a member of the audience”.
How I wish everyone in an audience saw their role as participants rather than mere spectators.  An audience is essential to any live performance. Every musician will tell you that they are conscious of an audience’s mood, and react accordingly.  An audience can lift a performance, and they can destroy it.  The sad thing is audience members too often shirk, or simply do not appreciate, their participatory role in a performance.

The result of this is an uncomfortable experience, not so much for the musicians on stage, as for those members of the audience who do appreciate what their obligations are.  A ringing mobile phone, a flashing camera, an illuminated blue screen from an incoming (or, worse still, outgoing) message are the most obvious audience solecisms, but let’s not forget the nasty habit, endemic in south east Asia, of loud, unmuffled coughing, as well as the noises of crumpling sweet papers and hard-heeled shoes on wooden floors which have become almost de rigueur in the concert hall. 
And then there is, of course, the untimely applause.

“I don’t go to classical music concerts since I don’t want to make a fool of myself by applauding at the wrong moment”, is a common plaint.  While I would argue that for applause to have any validity it must be an instinctive response rather than a prepared moment so cannot be untimely, it is a fact that some people either applaud unthinkingly or are so adamant that others should not applaud at certain times, they will wreck the whole thing by angrily turning round and uttering that loudest of all sibilants, “Shhh!”.
The solution to all these problems comes by audience members realising they have certain obligations as participants.  There is no need to spend the hours of preparation the musicians on stage undergo – although I know many conscientious concert-goers who listen to recordings and read scores of the music before they hear it in the concert hall – but some preparation is vital if the audience member is not going to spoil the performance.  I detest that the habit of turning up to a concert as if by accident, bursting into the hall at the last minute, looking as if you have just finished a day cleaning the sewers, and torn between finishing a meal and continuing a phone conversation.  A responsible member of the audience turns up in advance to prepare. 

Audience preparation includes not just getting into a mental state whereby you can concentrate wholly on what is being performed, but also getting to know what it is you are going to hear.  Good concert halls and orchestras employ professionals to write concert programme notes which are intended for that express purpose.  A proper concert note writer knows both the music and the audience, and knows what is needed - no point making comments about a particular theme from The Planets being an English hymn to an audience of Malay Muslims, for example.  By reading the concert notes in the run up to a concert audiences members know not only what to expect, but when to applaud and when to keep silent.   My notes, for example, when talking of a Chopin Concerto mention that the composer originally wrote it in the full knowledge that other works would intervene between the first and second movements, so applause at that point is wholly justified.  On the other hand, this is a comment I invariably include in my note for Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony ; “Audiences who understandably burst into spontaneous applause after the exciting 3rd movement miss one of the Symphony’s most dramatic moments; indeed one of the most amazing twists of mood in all music.  Even as the echoes of the triumphant march die away, the 4th movement’s grief-stricken opening pours out of the violins like a flood of tears.”  Read that, and you won’t commit the solecism of mis-timed applause.

One would think that I am chasing an impossible dream in expecting audiences to prepare thoroughly for a concert, but I have experienced it.  And moreover, I have experienced it in south East Asia where audiences are more badly behaved and irresponsible than most.

Attending the glorious “Dreams and Reality” festival at the National Museum of Singapore last weekend, I was amazed at just how wonderful the audience was.  Not a phone, not a message, not a cough, not a sweet-wrapper, not even a fidget (and there were some quite young children there too).  True, an Indian man in the front row appeared to fall asleep, but who can blame him in a programme of intensely delivered Impressionism?  Why was this audience so good? 

Perhaps it was Albert Tiu’s playing which had them literally mesmerized.  He does have a solid and enthusiastic fan club in Singapore and he is, unquestionably, a wonderfully precise, clean and polished performer, even on a piano which has given up all hope of producing a decent sound in its bottom two octaves.  I did find his playing a little too intense and introspective, and it certainly lacked the light touch; he played that ridiculous version of The Swan by Godowsky, a piece I usually think of as The Swan in a Blizzard, but, sitting almost on top of the piano which had its entire lid removed, it came across more as Swan in a Hailstorm.  Not a flicker of a smile or any hint that he took the work anything other than deadly seriously.  Come off it.  Godowsky was having a mega-joke here!  So I’m not sure that it was this which had cowed the audience into silence.

Perhaps it was having the recital in a museum, where one instinctively talks in hushed whispers.  Yet, as a student at Cardiff, I attended weekly term-time chamber recital in the National Museum of Wales, and I don’t recall especially good audience behaviour in that environment. 

Was it that the gallery was housing some great works of art which, by their very presence, plunged those there into an awed silence?  My mother, working at the heart of the British government during the Second World War, used to tell me how she would walk across Trafalgar Square every Monday lunchtime from her office in Admiralty Arch to hear the lunch time recital (usually given by Myra Hess) given at the National Gallery.  Admittedly the greatest works of art had been locked away in caves in the north Wales mountains for the duration of the War, but there were still plenty on show, I gather.  My mother tells how the audience would eat their lunch while Dame Myra strutted her stuff, so it doesn’t sound as if they were particularly a well-behaved lot.

No, I am sure the answer lies in the fact that the audience in Singapore all came early and progressed leisurely through the gallery to the recital hall.  During that time they were able to get mentally prepared while, once seated (and I noticed no latecomers except for Tiu himself – and he was allowed to turn up late) they were able to absorb all they needed to know from the outstanding programme issued for the Festival.

The key must lie in preparation and if more people took the trouble to prepare, concerts would be more enjoyable for all of us.

17 January 2012

The Perils of Hotel Music

In the old E & O Hotel in Penang during the middle years of the 1980s was a rather fine restaurant in which my colleagues and I would spend our evenings during those seemingly endless ABRSM examining tours.  It wasn’t just that we were apprehensive about trying the hawker food outside – although Penang then did not have the culinary reputation it has now – but rather we usually spent so long over our pre-prandial G&T’s that there simply wasn’t time to go wandering the streets in search of a meal.  The restaurant featured a trio – violin, double bass and piano – played by three elderly Chinese men whose musical heyday, if ever, was long gone.  But they tried gallantly to provide a suitable atmosphere and over the weeks we were there we began to test them by sending in ever more challenging requests, none of which they refused but with many of which they struggled.  It made a lovely change to the kind of tense and note-perfect (ha!) music we heard on a daily basis, and we’d usually buy them a drink and truthfully tell them, at the end of the evening, how much we had enjoyed their playing.  Unfortunately, one evening the maître d’ inadvertently let slip that we were the ABRSM music examiners and, without a word, the trio got up from their stage and stalked out, refusing to play again if we were in the restaurant.

On another 1980s Malaysian examining tour I found myself for several months at the Hilton in Petaling Jaya; then, as now, the last word in grim anonymous, impersonal, corporate hotels.  In a bid to get out of the place, one weekend I braved the terrifying pink minibus ride into KL and spent a night in the individual splendour of the Ming Court Hotel (today evocatively renamed, I think, the Corus).  Here, in the lobby, a surprisingly youthful piano trio performed, but with considerably less expertise than their Penang seniors. They smiled and waved at me, which was a bit of surprise, until I noticed the cellist.  She had done her grade 5 with me the previous week; something I remembered distinctly since she was the only cello examined in the whole of Malaysia that year and she had failed spectacularly – as had the violinist and pianist, both of whom had also done their exams with me, as they gleefully pointed out when they joined me over the break.  They spoke enthusiastically about their plans for the future, hoping to go to Australia and become professional musicians; with the Twin Towers construction project not even started, none of us dreamed then that one day there would be a fully professional orchestra playing just across the road from them.  If any of them ever achieved their dreams I would be surprised; I saw no glimmer in either the examining room or the hotel lobby of musical ability.

Then, of course, there was the infamous trio in the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.  Sitting having afternoon tea in the lobby with colleagues on our weekly splurge of funds, I happened to notice in a small balcony high above us the violinist, and realised that he was doing something peculiar; he held his bow absolutely static and instead moved the violin energetically underneath it. This feat exerted such a magnetic pull on me that I sat transfixed, and soon my colleagues were equally mesmerised by something we all thought impossible.  We told others, and soon every ABRSM examiner in Hong Kong was beating a path to the tea lobby at the Peninsula to view this musical marvel.  One of our number, a well-known violinist himself, spent the next few weeks mastering the skill and, shortly before the tour came to an end, gave us a wonderful demonstration of the exam pieces played with static bow but mobile violin.

So many hotels try to project a cultured and sophisticated image by employing live musicians, but they don’t always get it right.  As the manager of the Taj Vivandi in Pune told me, hotel managers don’t get any training in how to tell good musicians from bad ones, so it’s all very much hit and miss.  Most play safe and opt for a pianist dribbling out soppy versions of vaguely recognisable standards: in the Vineyard in Cape Town they elevate this by having a harpist rather than a pianist – and what a magical effect it makes too.  And a growing number dispenses with the pianist altogether and fit a self-playing device to their grand piano.  That’s what they have done at the quaint Wienglakor Hotel in the charming northern Thai town of Lampang, but unfortunately their Yamaha grand is in desperate need of both a tune and a service, and whoever performed the programme which has been committed to its self-playing device, not only got most of it wrong, but frequently broke down and moved, abruptly, into something else.

It is a sad aspect of life as a music examiner that you cannot hear a live band without inadvertently listening and criticising.  Visiting Payap University in Chiang Mai to do some exams recently, I was tactfully put up in a hotel where no music whatsoever was heard.  It wasn’t long before the silence got to me and, on the recommendation of one of the music department staff, I repaired to the Gallery Restaurant where, I had been reliably informed, a group of “ethnic” musicians played.  Now I’m not into ethnic music and know absolute nothing about it, so that would have seemed a safe bet – I can’t criticise something I know nothing about.  But, discreet as they were, I soon realised that, while they were certainly playing ethnic instruments, the musicians were actually playing over and over again the first five notes of a major scale.  After a while, they tried to break out and after several abortive journeys beyond the five notes, they struck up a version of that 1960s song; “Wouldn’t you agree/Baby you and Me/We’ve got a groovy kind of love”.  And that’s not ethnic, I’m sure.

I’m beginning to understand what it was that provoked a memorable response from an old and much-revered colleague, and a man whose name was synonymous with great music-making in post-war England.  Asking the manager of the long-demolished Cockpit Hotel in Singapore if he would be kind enough to lower the volume of the in-house music, he received the response; “What’s the matter.  Don’t you like music?”  To which he instantly replied, “No!”. 

14 January 2012

The Baroque Fade

From Ahmadabad to Zhuhai, from Norway to New Zealand, from London to Limbang, there is a disease sweeping the piano-playing community.  It has infected just about every pianist the world over who plays a piece of Baroque music in an examination, at a diploma recital or in a competition.  I call it the Baroque Fade.

It seems to have started around the turn of the millennium and its presence first hit me between the eyes when I was examining a Fellowship candidate in Kuala Lumpur about 10 years ago.  He gave a splendid account of the Goldberg Variations until, a few bars before the end, the tone began to decline and the volume fade ignominiously away until, with the final cadence, it reached an insipid pianissimo.  Appalled by such a misjudgement I asked him in the viva voce why he had done that.  His response was “Did I?”, which astonished me since everything else about the performance seemed to have been painstakingly thought out.  After he had left I turned to my fellow examiner (in those days Fellowship diplomas were done with two live examiners rather than as it mostly is now, with one live and the other listening to a recording) and expressed my amazement at what had happened.  “Oh they all do that”, my colleague told me, “I think it’s because they are so indoctrinated with the idea that you play the Baroque piece first that they see all Baroque music as being merely an appetizer.  The musical equivalent of a Prawn Cocktail!”

(I don’t know what restaurants he used to frequent but, in a straight choice between a vile diminuendo at the close of a Bach Fugue and strips of chewy lettuce and watery shrimps doused in lurid pink treacle, I’d go for the former every time.)

Of course, there is a real issue with student pianists (and their teachers) who, with consummate laziness, plan programmes according to composer chronology rather musical logic.  At school alongside Michael Overbury, who was then (and still is, I gather) an avid advocate of Bach, I recall a heated argument about where to place Bach in an organ recital programme.  Michael was all for putting it at the end, on the grounds that it was the intellectual and artistic climax of any recital so the whole performance needed to feel that it was working up to that moment.  I never accepted this and when I attended a recital when this did happen (I don’t think it was one of Michael’s) I found that, after Mulet’s Tu es Petra, Franck’s Grande Piece Symphonique and assorted other bon-bons, Bach’s great Prelude & Fugue in A minor came as something of a damp squib. My experience has since shown that a big Bach piece tends to work best towards the middle of a programme, but the important thing is, every programme and every work needs to be planned afresh, and hard and fast rules never work.

But I digress! The fact is just about every pianist I hear in the examination room ends whatever Baroque music they are playing with a diminuendo.  It can be gentle and subtle over a couple of bars or a dramatic and extensive affair infecting almost the entire final page.  But it’s there and, for the life of me, I can see no musical argument to support it. Instinct suggests that most music finishes on a strong note unless the composer specifically demands otherwise; and just because diminuendo markings were alien to most Baroque composers doesn’t mean one is at liberty to throw them around at random.  Baroque composers didn’t use such things possibly because they didn’t see the need for them.

An old organ teacher of mine used to rail against the habit of organists adding stops and opening the swell pedal as they approached the finishing line of a Bach Fugue.  His argument was that it was something Bach could never have done and so to do so went against all the rules of authenticity.  I have to confess, though, that, performing to an audience unencumbered by the niceties of authentic performance and on an organ where playing aids make such things possible, I am as bad as anyone in adding a mighty crescendo to the closing bars of a Bach Fugue.  It may not be authentic and may even be in dubious taste, but it thrills the audience and I can justify it on musical grounds as reflecting the cumulative effect of fugal voices emerging over the course of the piece.  In many ways a Fugue is a textural crescendo, so why not add a dynamic one to underline this aspect of it?

Whatever it is that induces these pianists to spoil the end of their Baroque performances by imposing a gentle fade of dynamics just at the point all musical instincts would drive a normal thinking pianist to get louder, I have no idea.  Perhaps, somewhere in the zillion bytes of dross on YouTube there is some spotty 10th-rate egotist who plays all the 48 and ends them all with a soothing pianissimo or, perhaps, modern-day concentration levels are so short that these pianists’ brains begin to shut down just as the final double bar is in sight.  Or, maybe, my colleague’s Prawn Cocktail thesis is correct.  The fact remains that it is now a global disease. 

At grade 6 in the Trinity syllabus there is a fine work by Telemann, Fantasia in F (TWV33:F5).  There is an unequivocal perfect cadence at the end and a pause marking over the last note.  This would seem to be Telemann’s way of saying “Please make this ending BIG!”  And what do the vast majority of Trinity Grade 6 candidates do?  They rattle through the Vivace with crisp and clean articulation, adding some stylish echo effects for good measure, but then screw it all up with a final fade leaving this piece to wilt on the vine – the last note sometimes so soft that it does not even sound.  I heard this happen countless of times in South Africa during October, and again in Botswana in November, in India in December and, just yesterday, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I have no doubt I will hear it again multitudinous times in the coming months.  I’d love to fail candidates who do this, but that would be quite unethical, so I’ll content myself with metaphorically wringing their necks.

I say, Ban the Baroque Fade; Bring back the Big Baroque Bang.

11 January 2012

Valueless criticism

What makes a good critic?  In the case of a music critic who is expected is to offer an informed opinion about a performance, the answer would seem to be pretty straightforward. 

To be able to offer an opinion in the first place, the music critic must be experienced in the art of listening.  Everyone can hear, but there is an art in listening which develops only with experience.  For the opinion to have any validity, the music critic needs to have an understanding of what the performer is setting out to achieve and what the expected standard is within the context of the performance.  And for the opinion to be informed, the music critic must have knowledge of the music performed or of the creator’s (rather than the performer’s) original intentions, as well as of the instrumental or vocal techniques expected of the performer. 
A music critic certainly does not need to be a trained musician; many respected critics are not practising musicians, and most would probably describe themselves more as writers than musicians.  I seem to be unusual in that I pursue a fairly active performing career alongside my writing one, but I regard my performances as a useful tool in my critic’s armoury rather than my critical work as having any bearing on my performances.  I know excellent critics who are politicians, doctors, school-teachers, train drivers and labourers, many of whom could never muster enough practical skill to perform any musical work in public.  What matters most is an ability to listen supported by a deep fund of associated experience and knowledge. 

No critic can offer any worthwhile comments from the basis of complete ignorance.  I know nothing about the game of golf so would not dare venture any sort of opinion about golfing matters.  I may watch golf on television and I may possess the gift of words to express what I see, but I have no knowledge of the necessary technical terms nor the breadth of experience which can judge what is good and what is bad (let alone the myriad shades of opinion in between) in the game.
When I was on the staff at Universiti Putra Malaysia I prepared a course on music criticism which covered these issues in greater detail, but the pressures of work with the opening of the concert hall in Kuala Lumpur meant that I never stayed at the university long enough to deliver the lectures; I live in hope that some other university or college might hire me to run this course – it was potentially a good one!  But the real reason I am pondering this matter now is because, holed up in a dire hotel in northern Thailand, I am acutely aware of the problems created by unreliable criticism.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s when I spent between 200 and 250 nights a year in hotels, I was invited to contribute to a leading annual hotel guide.  It was a painstaking process which involved a very comprehensive survey to be completed as a paying guest, the hotel had no idea I was doing such a thing and I was sworn to absolute secrecy.  My report was then followed up by a trained inspector, who, after checking out of the hotel announced his presence and then returned a few weeks later to check on certain specific facts with the full support of the hotel.  The Guide eventually went bust, pushed out of the market by the plethora of free online reviews on various travel and hotel sites.  The problem is that most of these review sites encourage readers to write the reviews and then post them, with no real attempt to verify their authenticity or, indeed, their independence – and it’s well known that hoteliers often swamp such sites with their own excessively generous reviews while disgruntled travellers expecting everything for nothing frequently offer powerful denunciations of good hotels simply because they didn’t get an upgrade or felt that they were, in some way, hard done by. 
So when I was told I had been booked into this particular hotel, I had no reliable way of checking quite what sort of hotel it was.  Trusting the people who booked the hotel to have found somewhere suitable, I was appalled at what I found.  Expressing my concerns, I was told that the hotel had scored a “Fantastic” 9/10 approval rating in its online reviews on agoda.com.  That really puzzled me and I wondered what I was missing.  But when I did a basic search I came up with very different views. Hotelclub.com offered it 0/10 while a reviewer on tripadvisor.co.uk wrote “Our room was very dark and the window looked out onto a brick wall. We were booked for 4 nights but checked out after the first night” while another commented “Staff is the worst I ever saw: no one at the reception desk, a boy helplessly running around”. 

Which of these can you believe?  In my opinion, none properly reflects the hotel, but they are all the prospective traveller has to go on since there are no published authoritative guides which include it in their pages.  So, in effect, the reviews are as good as useless, reflecting a diverse range of opinions with no evidence of supporting knowledge, experience or understanding.  Music critics frequently differ in their opinions quite widely too, but at least you can gauge from the reviewer’s easily-accessible track record how relevant what is written is to your circumstance.  With reviews contributed either anonymously or by people who have no easily-traceable record of reviews, there can be no way of assessing their quality.

You can argue that by using customers to write reviews you are actually cutting down costs and making reviews accessible to all.  I’m not at all sure that holds water; one magazine for which I have been writing for decades has not changed its fee for over 20 years, another hasn’t paid me for over five years and a third publication has never paid me a penny (despite requesting monthly invoices) since I started writing for them three years ago. But with this greater accessibility comes the sacrifice of the legitimacy and consistency which comes from having reviews written by those who know and understand the business and which are vetted and probed by an editorial team.  In the end, the value of such online hotel reviews is merely to fill space on a web-site.

Luckily we haven’t fully descended to those depths in the world of music criticism, and those who are stupid enough to click on the “customer reviews” section on sites like amazon.com have only themselves to blame if the reviews turn out to be utterly misleading.  But we should always be on the watch to ensure music criticism doesn’t go down the same plug hole as hotel criticism (and none of the hotel reviews point out that the sinks here have no plugs and the water from the taps is a mere dribble).

07 January 2012

OMM's OMG Mahler

In the first few seasons of regular professional orchestral concerts in Kuala Lumpur it often seemed that if you did not like the tone poems of Richard Strauss you were stuck.  Unfortunately, I was not great fan of them but, since having the MPO perform every week was such a vast improvement over the total nothingness that had gone before, I persevered.  As it was, the MPO was such a fantastic orchestra it was sheer bliss to hear them irrespective of repertoire and, added to that the fact that Kees Bakels, who directed most of those Strauss performances, had such an ear for orchestral colour and so clearly relished the gorgeous sounds Strauss evoked, I was quickly converted.

For the past few seasons Singaporeans have had a similar problem; if they don't care for Mahler symphonies, they must feel hard done by.  With the SSO seemingly on a mission to get into the record books as the orchestra who has performed the most number of complete Mahler cycles, and the city itself already in contention as presenting the greatest number of Mahler symphony performances in a single year, my early enthusiasm for this music has quickly evaporated.  After hearing the SSO churn out yet another routine account of Symphony 5 last year (not a bad performance in any way – simply one which had nothing exceptional to say) I promised myself that I would only attend future Mahler performances if I were professionally bound to do so.

The tide, though, is turning. 

Last month the Singapore National Youth Orchestra gave such a splendid account of Mahler 1 that I decided I did, after all, quite like the piece, and last night an even more remarkable thing happened.  The Orchestra of the Music Makers, one of Singapore's greatest musical glories, gave what was, for me, a totally absorbing and at times electrifying performance of Mahler 5.  They may only be an amateur orchestra whose playing has that rawness which is inevitable when players do not spend every moment of their waking hours practising and fine-tuning their instrumental techniques, and their performances are few and far between, with the result that they can throw themselves into what they do without worrying about preserving themselves for tomorrow's rehearsal or next week's concert.  But that doesn't stop them coming up with some pretty remarkable performances.  And last night's was about as remarkable as it gets.

OMM is in danger of becoming an Orchestra of Mainly Mahler, but they are rightly proud of their ground-breaking Mahler 2; a performance which, released on CD, has quite literally gone around the world.  But their Mahler 5 was infinitely better; more assured, more alert and more absorbing.  Sitting in the auditorium relishing every moment of it, Beecham's comment about the English and music sprang to mind; the players of the OMM might not necessarily like Mahler, but they clearly love the sound it makes, and the strength of this performance was in conductor Chan Tze Law's willingness to let the players indulge in the luxury of Mahler's sound without imposing any personal agenda on the interpretation. 

Thus it was that Mahler's typical orchestral sounds – those screeching woodwind, those perky bassoons, those funereal drum beats, those whooping horns – were given full reign without having to subvert themselves to a supporting role in a contrived formal design.  Architecturally Mahler 5 is complex, to put it mildly, and so many conductors superimpose their view of its structure which all too often results in something rambling and incoherent.  In contrast, Chan made no attempt to paper over the structural cracks.  Rather he did what I suspect was Mahler's intention all along; presented it as a celebration of orchestral sound rather than as something profound.  So it was that the famous Adagietto floated along ethereally, completely devoid of excess pathos and, for the first time that I can remember, simply presented as an unwavering expression of pure love.  I've never once heard the movement played with such unaffected affection before – and among the more memorable live performances I have attended in my time have been those from Horenstein and Bernstein, neither of which, I can honestly say, quite matched what Chan produced with his dedicated bunch of amateurs.

So many conductors seem to adopt the over-the-top approach characterised by Bernstein; emotionalising the emotion, passionating the passion, jubilating the jubilation, everything grotesquely overstated, everything presented as if on a high tension cable at any moment ready to burst into flames.  Over the 80 minutes of the work that approach quickly palls, although it certainly brings out its fair share of memorable moments.  Chan is the complete antithesis.  He merely keeps his players together through a clear and undemonstrative beat, tidies up the loose ends, draws in the more wayward threads and through subtle and intuitive listening, keeps it all on the rails without demonstratively leading from the front or pushing from behind.  His mere presence seems to inspire the orchestral players to drive the work along.  The emotional peaks may not be quite so breathtaking, but the overall landscape is infinitely more attractive.

When an orchestra is on top form, as OMM certainly was last night, it is quite invidious to single out individual players or sections.  After all, it is an orchestra, not a collection of individuals, and the results it achieves are due to cumulative effort rather than individual excellence.  But I could not let last night's concert pass without singing the praises of Alan Kartik, whose solo horn in the Scherzo was nothing short of spectacular.  He produced the most amazing tone; fiery, assertive, soothing and embracing. He rose above the orchestral texture and absorbed himself within it instinctively and, all in all, gave a vivid demonstration of what brilliant horn playing is all about.  He may, as most of the members of the OMM are, be heading to a career in business, commerce or politics but, on the strength of last night's performance, he could walk into any orchestral position anywhere in the world.

It doesn't quite end there.  The latest issue of Gramophone magazine ran an article on the world's newest concert halls in which the Esplanade was highly praised; "The sophisticated acoustic technology is all the more impressive for its seamless integration into the hall's circular design", wrote Charlotte Smith.  For those of us who spend time on both sides of the stage, the unqualified praising of the Esplanade's acoustics often seems ill-judged, and when I hear people describe its acoustics as "world class", I immediately want to argue.  The Esplanade's acoustics are not naturally world-class (in a way that, say Dewan Filharmonik Petronas's are), they have to be painstakingly nurtured to reach that standard.  It needs a conductor willing to listen to the sound, and able to take advice on seating musicians and placing instruments, and it needs a member of the hall's staff who understands both music and acoustics to sit in and be prepared to tweak the sound during rehearsals to get it just right.  Last night, that all came true and, during the Mahler Symphony I was conscious that the hall was responding to the orchestra in a way which was unquestionably world-class.  By putting his violas on front of the stage, placing the harp forward and generally moving the orchestra to where it suited the acoustics best, Chan got the most out of the hall, while the attentive presence of the Esplanade staff ensured that the hall did its bit to make this a memorable occasion. 

So rarely do such things come together and work so well that I wonder whether, when 2012 draws to an end, Singapore will have heard anything quite as good as this again.  For the first orchestral concert of the year it's set a standard which will be hard, if not impossible to beat.

06 January 2012

National Pride from the Organ Stool

In those heady days when the Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS organ used to get its frequent moment in the spotlight, we called in some pretty varied organists.  In the first couple of seasons all the usual British suspects were there; Gillian Weir, Simon Preston, Thomas Trotter, Wayne Marshall, all gave it a whirl with varying degrees of success.  Sadly, an audience completely unacquainted with these "stars" all gave it a miss too, and we had to rethink the whole organ programme. 

Someone hit on the bright idea of offering various embassies and consulates in KL – after all DFP is on the edge of the city's diplomatic quarter – the chance to host an organ recital at the hall featuring one of their national organists.  The idea was that the embassy would fly in and accommodate the organist and we would throw the hall doors open to their guests who could then attend an embassy-hosted function.  We also opened the doors to the public for these recitals, who were treated to some names as alien to me as Weir, Preston, Trotter and Marshall were to the average Malaysian. 

First up came the Embassy of the Republic of Croatia who brought in Ljerka Očić.  She included, amidst a plethora of such warhorses as Toccata & Fugue in D minor and Widor's Toccata, a piece by a Croatian composer, Franjo Dugan.  The following May the Italian Embassy brought in Francesco Finotti who showed his national pride by avoiding Italian composers like the plague in a programme of classics by Bach, Schumann, Franck and Liszt (true one of the Bach works was a transcription of a Vivaldi Concerto).  A few other immemorable names came along, but the idea fizzled out within a season.
The chance to hear organists whose reputation had never previously reached me was one I relished, but how disappointed I was that they were so reluctant to showcase music from their motherlands; it seemed a wasted opportunity and I was surprised that, in events tagged as presentations from foreign embassies, more encouragement was not given to include the works of native composers.  In Asia, Malaysia and Singapore are never slow to promote their own composers (even when their music barely warrants serious attention), but clearly in central and eastern Europe things are very different.  However the visiting organists usually presented me with a CD or two, and in the case of Ms Očić one of these was something of a curiosity. 

Recorded in 1998 on the organ of the church of St Mary Magdalena in Čazma, one of her CDs included pieces by Motovunjanin (1480-1539), Gherardeschi (1759-1815) and Bajamonn (1744-1800) as well as a collection of pieces by anonymous Croatian composers.  Sadly the scrappy booklet gives no information whatsoever about these composers, concentrating more on the history of the town and on the organ, which was built in 1767.  But I can't even enlighten you on these matters since my Croatian is non-existent and the English translation is equally incomprehensible to me;

Leading to the quotation and investigations of the late professor Ladislav Saban, the organ in Čazma takes a special placement in the cultural Croatian history. Under the maintained organs from the 18 century this one is one of the finest arts that has remained fascinating with its original polichromy, rich with gilding decorative elements and nice sculptures of musicating angels one of the rare instruments that was acquired in Vienna.  
The organ was delivered in 1767 to Čazma but on them there was not noticed the constructor. With the method of comparison it was established that it has been deposited posthumously of for the piece of work of the famous Viennese constructor ]ohann Hencke (1697 - 1766), in spring 1767 in Čazma by his son-in-law and inheritor Anton Pflieger.
The organ has a medium magnitude, it has 14 registers, two mannuels and a self-standing musical performer. This instrument is nearly completely authentic preserved.
Translations don't get any better than that!  I wonder if I can qualify as a "self-standing musical performer"?

The disc itself hardly impresses.  The organ has a harsh and unforgiving quality which is only exacerbated by the pungent temperament, and Očić's playing is sound but uninviting.  Clearly there is organ music in Croatia and clearly there are Croatian composers other than Suppé, but it appears national pride doesn't extend to letting them loose on the outside world.