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!”.