31 March 2012

Fickle Acoustics

One of the most frequently asked questions on the "Ask Dr Marc" column on the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra website was, "Where's the best place to sit in the hall to hear the orchestra?".  The answer was simple; and having sat, literally, in every single seat (except the royal box) in Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, I was well positioned to know.  Every seat was good, rows X-Z in the stalls suffered from a certain damping of sound due to balcony overhang, and the boxes along the side really suffered the same problem.  In rows A-G in the stalls you could not see very much, while the circles gave stupendous views.  My favourite seat was W22 in the stalls where the sound was good, the view good and the exit handy (I suffer a slight claustrophobia in concert halls, fearful always that the performance might be so awful I need to make a run for the exit).

Such a situation does not exist in Singapore's Esplanade concert hall, and those frequent comments about its "world-class acoustics" strike me as excessively optimistic.  It can sound fantastic, but it is by no means certain, and I've been to concerts where the sound is plain obstructive to the music.  Reviewing a concert there by a visiting orchestra from China, I commented in the Straits Times about certain problems with the hall acoustics, and was met with a great deal of opprobrium from the Esplanade management.  The Director, I was told on several occasions, "was concerned about your comments and would like you to explain them more fully".  What was there to explain beyond the fact that the hall made the orchestra sound muddy and indistinct?  If he was that unnerved by criticism and needed somebody's head to roll, I could offer up no one sacrificial employee; the problem was down to the setting of the acoustic variables, done by the hall staff in conjunction with the orchestra.  I had no doubt that had the orchestra spent more time and become more used to the hall, they would have got the setting right – but these sorts of issues are an inevitable consequence of variable acoustic settings and, if there is a fault it lies in the design, not the people.  Nevertheless, I have detected a considerable amount of hostility from the Esplanade authorities since then and I note that they no longer invite me to write their programme notes.  It's nice to know that the "shoot the messenger, not the message", is still alive in one area of Singapore life.

I was all set to do a review of last night's concert with the SSO at the Esplanade.  It was the legendary Rozhdestvensky in a tantalizing all-Russian programme, and while I had no great hopes for Jan Vogler's account of the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto (I'd heard his recording and come away unimpressed) I was dying to hear the SSO in the Prokofiev Scythian Suite, not least because they had called in the matchless Paul Philbert to do the business on the timpani; and in a work like that, with the Phantastic Philbert Phlailing around, it was almost guaranteed to be Red Hot.

As it was, however, I felt ill-equipped to offer any kind of objective view, simply because the acoustics of the Esplanade completely obscured my aural perception of the concert.  I experienced something I had not experienced before in the hall; an almost total blind spot where the sound was so diffused as to be incoherent.  Gone now, surely, is any chance of ever doing anything for the Esplanade again!  Ah well!  Truth matters more than financial gain (and how un-Singaporean is that!).

It all began very well.  My appointed seat in the circle – BB32 – gave me a stunning view and an absolutely crystal clear, crisp and perfectly proportioned aural experience.  Just as well, for Glazunov's Les Ruses d'Amour was a work I had only ever heard on a less-than-wonderful Naxos CD, and was dying to hear it live.  Full of glorious orchestral colour and some moments of pure aural magic, Rozhdestvensky got every last drop of joy from this wonderfully life-affirming score, and while it warred me slightly that I never really heard the celesta in the delightful Danse des marionettes everything else slotted nicely into place to make it, as Chang Tou Liang put it to me during the interval, "An hour well spent".

Unfortunately, after the interval, I moved seat to be near a colleague, and found myself almost bang in the centre of the circle (if you know what I mean) - BB41, I think it was.  What had been clear and vivid was now a dismembered mesh, with Vogler's cello coming at me from left and right depending on which way he was facing, and a peculiar sensation of everything else coming down from on high rather than up from the stage.  In the Esplanade the major acoustic variables are at the top of the auditorium (in DFP they are around the sides, behind the audience) and I have previously noticed a tendency for the sound to head straight up and wallow around a bit at altitude before scattering itself on the heads of the audience below.  But from this seat (and I blame the seat, not the acoustic setting – with the SSO they invariably get that right) I really could not offer an opinion on the quality of the music making in the Cello Concerto, because the quality of the sound was so obstructive.  (The only observation I feel justified in making on Vogler's playing was that in his utterly inappropriate and, to may way of thinking, unwarranted encore, he presented such a stylized and clichéd Bach movement, that I am not tempted to seek out the recording of the unaccompanied Bach Suites promised in his biography printed in the programme book.)

As for the Prokofiev, with a veritable battery of percussion (10 of them lined up along the back like some Red Army Firing Squad) and the SSO brass clearly relishing every moment of this utterly fantastic and riveting score, it should have been a great experience.  Clearly Rozhdestvensky had the work off to a tee, and squeezed every last drop of drama and excitement from it.  But, from BB41, I heard the glorious strings as vague halo around the hall, the woodwind focused like pinpricks of tracer fire seen at night, and a weird mesh of enfeebled noise coming from the back rows.  In short, I lost the brass and percussion almost wholly.  I never once heard the bass drum, and while Philbert was clearly strutting his stuff like a magnificent peacock, from where I was it lacked any real impact.  The celesta, on the other hand, sounded as if she was sitting in my lap, so close did the sound appear, while the piano next to her on stage, but nearer the back of the platform, sounded as if he was playing somewhere over the other side of the Merlion.

Concert halls are notoriously fickle in their acoustics, and DFP is indeed rare in giving first-rate sound to the vast majority of its seats.  The Esplanade has some pretty impressive acoustic qualities, but it's well worth being careful over the choice of seat.  I'd go for BB32 any time – but I'll avoid BB41 like  the plague.  What a remarkable difference nine seats along a row makes.

28 March 2012

Karaoke or Chopin?

The choice was between an elderly Chinese lady who, on the strength of her weekly visits to the karaoke lounge, felt we shared a common interest in music, and a statuesque Polish lady who told me she was President of the Chopin Society Singapore.  I couldn't see the conversation with the former progressing much beyond a run-through of the lyrics of "My Way", while my well-known and oft-stated dislike of the music of Chopin would seem to present a pretty near insuperable obstacle in talking with the latter.  As it was the President of the Chopin Society Singapore, Ewa Okrucinska, turned out to be a fascinating companion as we sipped wine and munched the nibbles at some reception or other which had brought together an odd assortment of Singapore arts folk.

Biting the bullet straight away I explained to Ms Okrucinska that, while I did not particularly like the music of Chopin, what I objected to most of all was the way pianists – especially in Asia – play it.  I was met with animated and enthusiastic agreement.  "Yes! They play Chopin like Rachmaninov!", was her impassioned response, and we went on to find a lot of common ground in our dismay at the way in which technique and accuracy take the place of artistry and a deep understand of the musical message.

Every major composer has a unique sound, a unique style and a unique voice, and the appreciation of this is vital to the authoritative interpretation of their music.  I know exactly what Ms Okrucinska meant when she said that so many pianists see no difference between Chopin and Rachmaninov, for, if you only see them as exercises in virtuosity and display with a superficial veneer of emotion stuck on top, they are bound to sound the same.  If, however, you understand the political, social, spiritual and emotional story behind not only the two men, but the circumstances of their individual compositions, you will see them as inhabiting totally different worlds and the similarities between their music become so superficial as to be insignificant.  Chopin and Rachmaninov are as similar, if you like, as Idi Amin and Kofi Annan.

There is a real problem in instrumental teaching which, while not unique to Asia, tends to be more widespread here.  And that is an exclusive focus on playing notes, reading the score and following instructions.  In other walks of life this may be a vital skill, but in music it is not.  The great composers, those whose music has that indefinable quality of survivability, use the language of music to communicate thoughts, ideas and emotions.  The very nature of any written language, be it Mandarin, English or musical notation, prevents it from expressing every tiny nuance of inner thought, and that's where musical interpretation comes in.  To deliver convincingly what a composer wants to say one must not merely look at what's on paper; one must look behind it at the circumstances, background and intentions of the original composition.

Many who attended Viktoria Postnikova's stunning Brahms Second Piano Concerto in Singapore last weekend were in appalled by the inaccuracies.  Somebody told me it sounded like a bad student attempt.  That comment reflects on the superficiality of instrumental teaching in Asia, where cleanliness and accuracy become goals in themselves.  The great pianists of the past had no such obsession with accuracy, and I am just old enough to have heard some of them.  When people tell me how great some of these long-dead pianists were, I find myself wondering whether they would say that if they actually heard them.  Opinions are founded on the basis of extant recordings; and as we all know, even a "live" recording reflects in no way the truth of a live performance.  Rubinstein hammering down fistfuls of wrong notes in Rachmaninov 2 was par for the course – he was great because he saw beyond the notes and into the message itself. 

Chopin, as all contemporary reports tell us, was a pretty ropey pianist, but people adored his playing because of the message it brought across.  We only need ponder Schumann's comment that Chopin's music was "Guns in Roses" to realise that when, as so many performances today do, we hear only the roses (or, in the case of some young Chinese pianists, only the rapid repeat of artillery fire) something is seriously amiss.  I have been absolutely spellbound by some Chopin performances, but repelled by the vast majority of them, simply because the pianist has no idea what it was Chopin had to say, and was not even prepared to accept that he did have anything to say beyond what he wrote in the score.

The obvious question is, how do we know what the real message is if it is not to be found on the printed page?  The answer lies in a deep and extensive understanding of the history of the composer, of the society in which he lived and the circumstances under which he wrote the work.  It is in an attempt to convey that to an audience that programme notes are supplied in concerts (let's forget those ghastly fake "programme notes" which merely reinforce the analysis of the music which anybody can realise just by looking at the score), but who conveys that to the performer?  The very best performers – one thinks of Angela Hewitt and Stephen Hough – will write their own programme notes, full of rich and detailed research and well-founded (if sometimes contentious) opinions.  But few conservatories teach their students how to write proper programme notes, and while that skill is left to the professional musicologists, performers all too often live in ignorance of what it is they are playing.

It is pretty obvious that most music teaching in Asia covers only matters of technique and theory and even conservatory students arrive able to play notes and unable to make music.  When, in history lectures, they are taught some of the background, their response is invariably one of totally absorbed fascination.  Students who have given recitals often come to me afterwards to discuss their performance and I present them with the question; What do you think the composer is trying to say?  That usually elicits an awkward silence, for they feel that all the composer is trying to say is that D major first inversion moves to E flat root position, legato, pianissimo and dolce – which anyone knows anyway because that is what is written in the score.  When we discuss the politics, the social situation, the world events, the latest inventions, the news of the day and all manner of other things going on when the piece was written, the students begin to appreciate where their performance missed out. 

I recall a masterclass in which I was a student and had elected to play Hindemith's Second Organ Sonata.  Gillian Weir (the teacher) listened to it and, far from pointing out matters of technique, tempo, registration or a thousand of the matters I was expecting, asked me if I had ever seen a photograph of Hindemith?  I had.  There was one in the inside cover of my score.  She asked me to describe it.  "Bald man", was about all I could say.  She then turned to the picture and spent a good three minutes describing it, as if it was a major work of art to be analysed and contemplated at length.  "You will see that he is smiling with his eyes".  Yes, I saw that.  "There is not a photograph of Hindemith where he is not smiling".  (She is right, although sometimes his smile, like that of the Mona Lisa, is so enigmatic as to be barely discernible.) "Now", she went on, "Play that final Fugue again and remember the composer was smiling when he wrote it".  It sounds daft, but it completely revolutionised the music and I suddenly saw what it was all about.  From that day to this I have been a passionate fan of Hindemith, a composer who, up to that time, I had assumed dry and mechanical.  Knowing just that one thing about Hindemith brought me into his music in a way no extensive study of the score could ever have done.  (Thank you so much, Ms Weir!)

Not so many teachers take that approach in masterclasses, more's the pity.  I sat in on one for wind students recently.  A group of them played André Jolivet's Pastorales de Noël. They played the score very well indeed and showed remarkable technical skill both at the instruments and in ensemble playing.  The teacher giving the class, somewhat stumped for things to say, commented loosely on dynamics, on articulation and on starting and ending each movement.  Yet there was one glaring problem with the performance which he did not address and which, I strongly suspect, the students themselves were unaware.  The third movement is entitled "La Vierge et l'Enfant".  I was not convinced that these students realised that this was a lullaby for Mary and her new-born baby, oozing love, adoration, tranquillity and amazement, as reading the relevant passages from The Bible would have revealed.  On top of that, it was composed in 1943 when Jolivet's native Paris was being cruelly suppressed by the Nazis and he, himself, had virtually given up composition unable to work in the stifling political climate of the time.  Clearly his deep religious faith and his early training as an organist and church musician helped him through, and in this movement one detects rather more than a simple lullaby – there is hope and aspiration from the depths of despair all wrapped up in it too.  Did any of this come across?  Not a bit – yet the notes were all right and the detail in the score neatly executed.

Some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had about music have been with major conductors who have really looked into and understood the music they perform.  Conductors seem to be taught to understand that the music they perform is far more than pages in a printed score, yet it seems that this is not something which instrumental teachers feel necessary, especially in Asia.  But it is fundamental to any half-decent interpretation of a musical work.  I know a lot about the background which drove Chopin to compose the music he did; it is a shame that those who perform it do not seem to possess that knowledge.   Perhaps, when all was said and done, the karaoke lady had more in common with those who perform music in this region than the Polish lady with a passion for Chopin.

27 March 2012

Music Radio

Attending a function yesterday to witness the gift of a cheque for $500,000 from the family of the Singaporean composer Leong Yoon Pin (who died last year) and the creation of a music fund named in his honour at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, I walked into the Lee Foundation Theatre just as a video was playing of an interview Leong himself gave in 2007.

In it he railed against local radio stations for not promoting the music of Singaporean composers.  Even in 2007, though, I fear he was wide of the mark; the sole attempt in Singapore to offer a radio station devoted to classical music is so unutterably dreadful that its commitment to music at all has to be seriously questioned.  Certainly live music is way off its agenda, and any hope Singaporean composers might get of an airing is totally forlorn.

Returning, momentarily, to the purpose of last night's event, it was an act of incredible foresight on behalf of the Leong family to create the fund and kick start it with such a generous donation, especially since its purpose is to encourage composition within the Academy.  Training and supporting local composers is essential if the music scene in Singapore is to flourish, and while competitions and showcases might draw attention once-in-a-while to what is going on on the creative front, what is really needed is good, solid, behind-the-scenes support to those who are steadily developing their skills as composers.  We had, at the function, examples of seven of Nanyang's student composers' works, and while these were very much works in progress – indeed, only two of them had been given proper titles – and probably will embarrass those composers when, in the years ahead, they look back on their early efforts, it showed that good, solid and worthwhile work is being done.  The pieces may not all have had the ability to absorb an audience, but they all showed a high level of craft and, in some cases, a certain flair which, given careful nurturing, will grow into something worthwhile.  For my money Muhamad Muhsin's String Quartet movement and Wee Ni Swen's Masquerade showed the most promise. 

The thing is, as Leong said in his interview, composers "work in the background". But Singapore culture is all about up front sexy images, and few are willing to recognise, let alone support, the essential background work of composers in providing the environment in which the Vanessa-Maes and the Min Lees of this world can go on to become role models for today's aspiring musicians.

What is even less recognised here in Singapore is the importance of radio as a means of promoting classical music.  My background is in radio and I have long been a passionate advocate of it.  In Hong Kong I was involved in one of the great classical music radio stations of the world – RTHK Radio 4 – and I have no doubt the thriving and world-renowned status of Hong Kong as a classical music force is in large part fired by what the radio station does.  As for my native UK, I am proud that it still boasts, in BBC Radio 3, a dedicated classical music channel which is the envy of the world - a trawl through local music blogs the other day found one claiming that BBC Radio 3 was "awesome – the greatest classical music radio channel on the planet" – and the commercial station Classic FM is about the most successful broadcaster in the UK at the moment.  The classical music scene in the UK is certainly thriving, but rather than merely reflecting it, BBC Radio 3 positively feeds it – the BBC is the largest sponsor of classical music in the world and their list of works commissioned by British composers alone reads like a catalogue of every great British composition of the 20th century and beyond.

There is no argument.  A dedicated classical music radio station is still essential in the development of a nation's classical music environment.  The argument that "I can download all the music I want from You Tube", or, "I can access all the classical music radio stations of the world from the internet" is plain daft.  The prime function of a local broadcaster is to cater for a local audience, even if those on the other side of the world can hear it too.  People in Singapore know a disproportionate amount about what goes on in the UK classical music scene because they access the BBC online.  People in the UK know absolutely nothing about what goes on in the Singaporean music scene because there is nothing to be found about it online.  (True, the UK ranks second only to Singapore in readership of this blog – 1329 hits there, to be precise, yesterday - but I am hardly the ultimate resource for anyone looking to see what the state of musical life is here.) Radio stations serve two functions; serving the needs of the local community by providing both entertainment and education, and promoting a country to listeners overseas.  Might I suggest that if you access Symphony 92.4 neither of those functions are being addressed in any way?

I spent some hours at the studios of Symphony 92.4 last month and was pretty appalled at what I saw.  When I asked the long-suffering Programme Director what amount of live coverage she handled, the answer was an unequivocal "none".  It was, I was told, "too expensive".  In any other radio station, that would be a ridiculous answer, but to say Symphoyn 92.4 functions on a shoestring is to understate the case.  They don't even have more than a handful of CDs, virtually all their playlists are bought in from an internet company on which they periodically superimpose presentation.  But that presentation is horribly misguided.  "We don't go in for that sterile and old-fashioned 'That piece was…Now we are going to play…", I was told.  Instead they get "celebrities"' to chat every so often, "which is what the Singapore audience wants".

I seriously doubt that the Singapore audience really wants that, but even if they do, is it merely the function of a station dedicated to classical music to provide entertainment?  Is there not both an educational and a promotional role to be played?  I have suggested a series of programmes to Symphony 92.4 which would be both entertaining and educational, and have prepared some ideas for programmes which would serve as both an outlet and a showcase for young Singaporean composers.  It would be cheap – because the composers themselves would produce the recordings and allow them to be played on air – but would it be popular?  Probably not, but there comes a time when service to a community has to take precedence over pandering to their desires.

Clearly the state of classical music broadcasting in Singapore is pretty desperate, but the late Leong Yoon Pin could well do it a lot of good through his words than through his cheque book.  The question is, will Singaporeans ever listen to him or do they only ever pay attention to written figures beginning with $ and ending with copious quantities of 000s?

24 March 2012

Worthy Distinctions

Responding to my rant against unsolicited "Pass Exam Quick" schemes ("Training Geniuses") a correspondent asks a good question; "Do you mean that the ABRSM distinction holders really aren't worthy of their distinctions?".  Another suggests; "Judging by the sheer numbers of distinctions given to Singapore students, I guess it's easier to get one here".  I must not let either comment pass unremarked since they voice common misconceptions about the music exam system.

Standards in the major UK examining boards - ABSRM and Trinity – are absolute.  That is to say that there is neither a requirement to come up with a fixed percentage of fails/passes in each category nor any pressure on examiners to award or withhold distinctions in certain grades.  It is perfectly possible for an examining tour to pass in which no distinctions are awarded, just as it is possible for one to pass where an overwhelming number of candidates receives distinction.  I know this to be true because both have happened to me on more than one occasion.  Unlike some other qualifications, while statistics are kept (and, in the case of Trinity passed on to individual examiners) these are purely for interest's sake; there is absolutely no question that examiners are encouraged to slew their results to meet certain statistical criteria.

Neither is it easier or more difficult to get a distinction, a merit, a pass or a fail in some territories than in others.  When a candidate gets 135 in Botswana, that candidate would have got 135 in Brooklyn, Birmingham, Bangkok or Bangladesh; when a candidate fails in Singapore, an identical result would have been given were the exam to have been held in Seoul, Stevenage, Sri Lanka or Surin.  This international consistency is the simple result of the practice both boards have of sending examiners around the world rather than retaining examiners for use only in one region.  When the ABRSM actively recruited examiners to be based in New Zealand, there was strong opposition from local teachers who felt that there was too much risk of these examiners adopting different standards from those based overseas.  In the event, while the ABRSM do maintain a pool of examiners resident in New Zealand, they only examine there in emergencies, and are every bit as likely to be found assessing a grade 1 in Newcastle, Australia, as in Newcastle, UK.  Trinity, too, has examiners situated across the globe – I'm one – and while we might be called on to go somewhere nearby in an emergency, we do not examine, as it were, in our own backyard or, indeed, on our own front doorstep.  This ensures consistency across international borders.

Of course, examiners are human (to an extent) and other factors might seem to influence their thinking.  A month in some horrible hole in Hyderabad, complete with cockroach infested bed, continual gastric unease and terrifying taxi trips to the exam venue might seem to make the examiner less prone to handing out distinctions than a week in warm Weymouth where a comfortable hotel, a soft bed and delicious food surely encourage a more generous frame of mind.  But, again, I know this not to be true from personal experience.  An unforgettable week of sheer bliss in a divine resort hotel in Noosa, on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, barely compensated for three days of incredibly ghastly failures, while a grim and miserable week in the coastal English resort of Bournemouth at the height of winter, complete with being thrown out of the hotel (for complaining about the filthy state of the rooms) and holing up in a leaking caravan with nothing but a single gas burner to heat cans of soup, surprisingly yielded some of the highest marks I ever gave in my ABRSM days.

The reason that music examiners seem immune to the kind of feelings that affect the rest of humanity is entirely down to training and experience.  Working under the intense pressures that we do, when the candidate walks in the door, the training kicks in and, irrespective of personal situation, the routines of administering and marking take over and, almost as if it's someone else, we find ourselves writing the same sort of report and giving the same marks as we would anywhere in the world and under any circumstances.

None of which addresses the first comment, that distinction holders are not worthy of their distinctions.  The direct answer is yes, if you get a distinction (wherever and whenever and from whomever) you have thoroughly deserved it.  The background to it is less straightforward, and goes to the root of the music examination culture and of my original rant. 

In terms of music exams, a distinction is always a valuable and rightly treasured result.  In terms of real life, of musical life of artistic and emotional development, it's not worth a fig.  All a distinction shows is that you can pass an exam well.  In cultures where passing exams is seen as the be all and end all of education, that's all well and good, and it explains why there is such an urge to get distinctions especially in developing countries where parents and teachers have no other yardsticks by which to measure educational progress.  But in the harsh realities of life, while exams are a useful sign of educational progress, they hardly equip one for the realities of career or, indeed, daily existence. 

Years of sitting on audition panels has taught me that having distinction at Grade 8 is often more of a stigma than a support.  It raises expectations in the minds of the audience which are rarely met, especially by those who have studied only to pass exams. Probably having the distinction in the first place has earned you a place in the audition, but those who assume distinction to be the ultimate sign of musical ability are sadly misguided.  A distinction should be regarded only as a starting point to greater development of skills which are not assessed in an examination, and while it is perhaps a rung further up the ladder than the student who earned a mere pass, it is nothing more than that.  Being a worthy distinction holder does not mean that the distinction itself is worthy; what matters is what you do with it once you have it.

23 March 2012

Living Legends

Some years ago part of my work involved presenting live commentaries for broadcast public concerts.  A nerve-wracking occupation, certainly, but I became quite adept at handling occasional crises, and we certainly had our fair share of these. 

On one occasion I was given the cue that the conductor was about to go on stage and I duly announced;  "We welcome back on stage to conduct the second half of this evening's concert…".  Incredibly, he lost his way and instead of going on stage he entered the labyrinthine corridors which hide all manner of dark secrets behind and under the stages of famous concert halls.  While scouts were sent out, I used up every bit of information I had gathered on the conductor, and then some, waffling until he was located and sent out on to the stage.  Just as well.  I was on the point of speculating over his breakfast menu and pondering whether a laundry, his wife or he himself ironed his own shirts.

Then there was the conductor who, having been exceptionally vitriolic in rehearsal to the principal trumpet, had encountered same in the backstage toilet during the interval.  Brass players are a little prone to physical violence, and this one was no exception.  He punched the conductor who collapsed unconscious into the urinal.  As the light went on and I resumed the commentary for the concert's second half, a frantic search was on for both trumpeter (who had left the building) and conductor.  It was another five minutes (a lifetime) of aimless chatter before the decision was made to abandon the concert and return to the studio.

And then there was the horror of all horrors. A short overture (I think it was Nielsen's Helios) passed uneventfully before the pianist came on stage for Brahms's Second Piano Concerto.  From the start it was plain that he was not on top form (allegations of excessive pre-concert refreshment were subsequently made), and as the notes became increasingly wayward and the tone decidedly more desperate, things started to take a troubled turn.  Suddenly, following a solo passage with which Brahms would have been totally unacquainted, the pianist slammed down the piano lid, uttered the immortal words, "Sod this for a lark.  I can't play this ******* thing.  **** it all.  I'm giving this ****** game up", and stormed off stage.  As the orchestra petered out and the audience gasped in astonishment, my producer, instead of doing the decent thing and immediately switching back to the duty announcer in the studio,  turned my microphone on and indicated I should explain to the listeners what was happening.  Since the listening public had heard all those asterisks in glorious stereo, it seemed almost farcical to utter that stock phrase, "I'm afraid we appear to be experiencing some technical problems" when the only technical problems lay in the cavities between the pianist's brain and his fingers, but that is what I did.

Ever since that ghastly experience, any live performance of Brahms's Second Piano Concerto has caused me to break out into a cold sweat, and if a pianist so much as grunts or touches a wrong note, my heart misses several beats.  The heart was steady and the sweat glands dormant last night when I heard it live in Singapore, even though there were wrong notes a-plenty and passages where, if truth be told, Brahms had long since been forgotten.  And the reason for my utter confidence that the performance would make it to a triumphant conclusion?  Seated at the piano was one of the living legends of the musical world, Viktoria Postnikova.

Hers was no pristine performance, every note neatly in place, every big chord comprising the requisite numbers of notes, no more, no less.  There were huge swathes of clusters where chords should have been, diminished and augmented arpeggios where they should have been simple major or minor ones, and notes which Brahms never would have written even in his early drafts.  Some entries only made it on time, others came so quickly they had to wait for the orchestra to catch up.  But music is not about playing the right notes, it's about communicating a message, a sensation, a world of emotions, and if Viktoria Postnikova chose to convey the spirit of Brahms over the letter of Brahms, it did not matter one jot.  It's a bit like the number 10 bus going along Haig Road instead of Tanjong Katong Road – it still gets to the right destination on time, just gets there a slightly different way.

This was a powerful performance in every sense of the word.  Seated four square at the piano, Postnikova's hands possessed such enormous strength one wondered if the piano could take all she was giving it.  And when, as it did with great frequency, one hand would move off the keys to turn the pages of the score she was so assiduously following, there was no let up in the sheer weight of tone.  It was also powerfully emotional, bringing to the fore the great drama which unfolds in this Concerto, and if the speeds were astonishingly slow – it took a good ten minutes longer than most recordings – we never felt it for the moment, so magnetically did she draw us into her grandiloquent reading of this gargantuan work. 

I recall a performance of Rachmaninov 2 given in London by Artur Rubinstein which warranted a standing ovation (very rare in London), despite one wag suggesting loudly as he got to his feet, "Spot the right note!".  True, there were almost as many wrong ones as right ones, but, boy, was it a performance to get the adrenalin flowing.  Thrilling, passionate, intensely moving.  What Rachmaninov wanted we most certainly got; what he wrote, given the limitations of western notation, we most certainly did not.  The problem with music is that its written language gives only a basic guide to what the composer wishes to say, and too many get so absorbed in the superficiality of  the written note that they forget the spirit behind them.  With living legends like Postnikova, you have every confidence that you will be given the message clear and convincingly, even if you don't always get the finer points of the detail.

The other reason we just knew the performance would never falter was the presence – I would say on the podium, but he prefers to stand on the floor where he does not obscure the audience's view of the orchestra – of her husband, Gennady Rozhdestvensky.  Another unquestionable living legend.  I flocked to his performances with the BBC SO in the 1980s, and still get the same thrill even when he's doing bog standard repertoire with a bog standard orchestra.

Indeed, during the interval I imbibed a glass or two with a couple of former players from the BBC Symphony Orchestra who had been in Singapore for a few weeks and have heard the SSO on all their recent outings.  They were unstinting in their praise.  "It sounds like a different orchestra.  You can't believe it's the same bunch who gave us those dismal Sibelius concerts a few weeks back.  It just shows what a great conductor can do".  (For the record, I thought the Sibelius concerts were pretty good, but I recognise immediately the difference with the orchestra last night.)

And what does the great conductor do to turn the SSO into such a brilliant ensemble with just a few hours of rehearsals? 

The SSO are capable of great things.  Sadly, they rarely achieve them on their home soil and with their regular conductor.  But those who marvel at the almost inconceivably extravagant claims for the orchestra's greatness reprinted week after week in the programme books, would have seen the light here.  If there was a rough edge, a split note or an intonation issue, it was smothered by the opulence and sheer magnificence of the orchestra's tone throughout both the Concerto and the Second Symphony which formed the second half of this all-Brahms concert.  And all that can be put down to Rozhdestvensky's magic touch.

The most obvious thing is his total immersion in the music.  While other conductors strut on stage in a specially tailored, tight-fitting, tie-less, fashion-driven image-creating wardrobe aimed to draw attention to their importance, and then dance and wave about as if they forgot their pre-concert visit to the washroom, Rozhdestvensky ambles on in white tie and tails, barely moves his body, and through economy of gesture, literally draws the music out of the players.  When you study him close up, you realise why things are never going to go wrong, for he, with the most elegant and clear gestures, literally lives the music with his hands and eyes.  Every entry is graciously indicated, every closing chord precisely finished with a clever little trick with his baton.  On top of that, he not only knows and loves the music intimately, he still finds it enormous fun.  Smiles and humorous gestures remove all tension, leaving the music to shine. 

That is why he is a Living Legend and why, when he appears on stage, hearts beat faster for all the right reasons.

22 March 2012

Training Geniuses

"HOT NEWS!" screams an unsolicited SMS sent to my mobile phone; the penalty, I assume, for buying pay-as-you-go rather than a contract, but I use the damn thing so little I'm blowed if I'm going to give Singapore's appalling and near criminal mobile phone companies any more cash than I must.  The SMS goes on; "My 9yr old scored A in Cambridge exam.  Email/SMS for workshop SECRETS TO HOW EVERY CHILD CAN BE GENIUS".  With literacy of that standard, I can only imagine the 9yr old has had no communication with its parents since birth.  There again, perhaps the Cambridge exam to which reference is made has nothing to do with that famous UK-based qualification-awarding body.

I wonder if any parents are so utterly stupid and devoid of intelligence to follow this up.  If the imbecilic "arthurkoh" who sent the email gets a single response (other than the simple Greek expletive I sent him by return) that will surely justify the low birth rate in Singapore.  If parents are so thick, thank goodness so many young adults choose to avoid parenthood. 

 My intolerance with such blatant lies and unsolicited rubbish may be slightly heightened by the fact I am still getting over a heavy night's carousing in the company of a team of visiting ABRSM music examiners.  Top of their topics of conversation was the complete lack of ability shown by the vast number of candidates they had heard.  Showing them a photograph I had taken of a huge poster outside an HDB block which listed no less than 50 students who had "attained distinction at ABRSM exams" they more-or-less rolled about with laughter; "I don't suppose we have heard 50 between us worthy of distinctions for the past six weeks" was one comment.  The idea that children in Singapore, 9yr old or otherwise, are exceptionally gifted is just plain daft to anyone remotely connected with education here.

 Education in any Chinese dominated society is regarded as important.  And so it is in western countries too.  The difference is in perception of what Education is.  Here, it's seen as the passing of exams with high marks – and it's that mentality which allows the ridiculous "arthurkoh" to splutter out his incoherent recipe for genius and the music tuition centre set amidst the uninspiring wilderness of serried HDB blocks to promote itself on the strength of a similarly serried rank of numbers ranging from 130 to 146. 

In many western countries education is all about amassing knowledge and equipping one for life away from the sheltered confines of an academic institution.  Western students are generally taught to think for themselves, even if they have problems passing exams. 

 Neither is the ideal, and you only need look at the social problems in so many western countries to know that the education systems there are not serving the communities particularly well.  But if anyone is stupid enough to think that unsolicited SMS messages or unsubstantiated claims on large posters in public areas are indicators of a good educational environment, perhaps they, themselves, are sadly lacking in education.

My ABRSM friends leave Singapore, as they always do, exhausted from the sheer number of indifferent and downright bad performances they have heard.  As one put it; "Why do they insist on subjecting us to these ghastly attempts to play music.  Have they no idea what it's all about?"  Music teaching in Singapore is not good by any standards, and while there are one or two gifted and inspirational teachers, there are vastly more sub-standard and incapable ones.  How to tell one from the other?  Well, an unsolicited SMS or a huge banner would lead to the pretty safe assumption that the teacher responsible falls very firmly into the latter category.

18 March 2012

HK CD Paradise

Just as I was about to head off to the airport last weekend I was assailed in the streets of Hong Kong by someone who had attended one of my pre-concert talks with the HKPO and knew of my interest in buying CDs.  Did I know, he asked, about a fantastic new CD shop in Mongkok?  Yes, I answered, Prelude is Top Dog in my book (having taken over that position from the self-styled Top Dog and Gramophone of the Lock Road/Peking Road/Nathan Road bit of Tsimshatsui), and I have referred to its excellence more than once in this blog.

But no, my assailant was on about an altogether new place called Clazz Music which is apparently in Shantung Street, which runs off Nathan Road very close to the Bank Centre which houses the fantastic Shung Cheong Records.

The need to get to the airport and catch the flight back to Singapore prevented my paying a visit - but that's top priority when I'm back in Hong Kong for my next talk and Edo De Waart's farewell concert on 20th April.  So expect both a review of the concert and of an exciting-sounding CD store around this time next month.  I can't wait - can you?

Someone (either my assailant or another CD fanatic) has given me the link - check it out  http://clazzmusic.com/

Three Singapore Composers

The golden rule for any critic is never get on too friendly terms with those whose work you assess professionally.  If you befriend composers and artists, they (and others) will either dismiss your gushing praise as being driven by personal rather than artistic considerations or, if you say something detrimental about them, they will take it personally and a good friendship will be severed.  Bumping into the conductor Stephen Layton in a bar and finding ourselves getting on famously, he voiced his concern; "Every time I get friendly with a critic, he turns round and trashes my work".  A few weeks later a disc directed by Layton arrived for review and I seriously considered sending it back; it was worthy of great praise (as all his work is) but I had to convince myself that the praise was fired by the performance and not by my knowing he was a fine fellow.  It is difficult in the best of circumstances to avoid such friendships arising – the classical music world is too small for people to avoid each other for long – in Singapore it is just about impossible.

Luckily, though, I am sufficient of a newcomer to have yet to strike up even nodding acquaintances with the growing band of Singaporean composers, and I have been careful to distance myself from those occasions where we might be thrown together in informal social gatherings.  As a result, when I hear music by a living, breathing composer here, I feel I can say what I feel without worrying about being accused of following a hidden agenda.  How much longer such an idyllic state of affairs will continue, I don't know, so it's good to grab the chance while it's there. 

From my student days when, working on my PhD thesis in the university library, I was sandwiched between two postgraduate students pursuing doctorates in composition, I have had a powerful interest in new music.  I understand the problems facing new composers; do they acknowledge their debt to the centuries of tradition behind them or do they go out of their way to avoid it?  The former course leaves them open to accusations of unadventurousness and ultra-conservatism, while the latter alienates them from just about all their potential audience.  A couple of weeks ago at the Monday lunchtime student recitals at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory we heard a student composition which was decidedly original, being scored for cello and timpani, and showed some singularly good ideas.  It gave off the impression of a work in progress, where those ideas were tried out rather than developed, and as such it was well worth hearing in that setting, but had I paid money to hear it performed in a professional concert, I would doubtless have asked for my money back.  Too much new music hits the public before the composer is really ready, and it is that which gives contemporary music a bad name in some circles.

Kevin Field at the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra tried to encourage Malaysian composing talent in a series of pretty bleak concerts.  At first, audiences were enthusiastic about the fact that Malaysians were endeavouring to make a voice for themselves on the new music scene, but the concerts soon fell into the formulaic pattern familiar to anyone who goes to student composition recitals; lots of attempts to be different, with everybody ending up sounding the same.  The mantra is, make it inaccessible and people will think you clever because they don't understand.  Very few of those works ever appealed to anyone in the audience except the composers' immediate friends and those who didn't really like conventional western music anyway, and the series disintegrated.  The most valuable critics of new music are those who have to perform it, and very few of the MPO felt that the enormous amount of work they put into learning the new scores was in any way worthwhile.  The problem, so far as I saw it, was that the new music was thrown into a ghetto where the composers were assessed against their peers rather than as part of the totality of the musical experience.  How much better it would have been if these new works could have been integrated into mainstream concerts – but the sad fact was that few, if any, were of sufficient quality to stand alongside even the most dismal offerings from the likes of Grieg, Goldmark or Gounod.

A vocal recital in Singapore over the weekend introduced me to the work of three Singaporean composers within the context of a programme which ranged from Fauré and Vaughan Williams to Messiaen and Cole Porter, and I have to say they stood up very well indeed.  True, Kelly Tang's (b.1961) setting of Blake's The Tyger seemed to consist of a cut-and-paste selection of mid-20th century devices on the piano above which a disjunct vocal line had been awkwardly juxtaposed, while Zechariah Goh's (b.1970) Flower rather went in one ear and out the other.  But neither was in any way lacking in quality and both stood up very well against many of the other songs in the programme.

It was Tsao Chieh's (1953-1996) Old House at Ang Siang Hill which I thought worked the best and which I really hankered to hear again.  It avoided the "clever" tricks with which new composers try to impress the more academic minded of their audience and if someone were to turn round and accuse it of being derivative or conventional, I would not argue against them.  But despite the obvious borrowings and the fondness for rather syrupy harmonies from the early 20th century, it had enough about it to make it both distinctive and musical satisfying.  Clearly his death at the age of 42 was a major blow to Singapore's musical life, and although I was not around at the time to read the assessments of his work written by locals who would have known him personally, on the evidence of this song, I would make a point of rooting out more of his meagre output. 

It helped, of course, that tenor Adrian Poon delivered the words of Tsao's song with such obvious relish – he showed a very impressive command of diction here – and I would like to say that Shane Thio performed wonders at the piano; but I know him well, so perhaps I cannot consider myself an unbiased observer.

16 March 2012

A Forgotten Composer

Just before I set off to Thailand for an examining tour in January I received through the post an unsolicited CD.  I took it with me fully intending to listen to it but, as things built up, so it never got played and with pressure to review so many other discs, this one rather got overlooked.  My relegating the CD was as much due to my expectation that he was just another early 20th century German composer who would, in all probability, inhabit a world of ideas more academic than emotionally communicative and, at best, likely to be unmemorable.

I finally sat down to listen to it this week and am now struck with horror at my ignorance and foolish preconceptions, for the disc is of quite remarkable music.

Volkmar Andreae (1879-1962) was a Swiss conductor whose reputation was so good that he was invited to replace Mahler as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.  He, however, chose to remain in Switzerland where he was Director of the Zurich Conservatoire and conductor of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, a position he held for 43 years.  He was also permanent guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and a noted champion of the works of Bruckner.  His entry in Grove tends to downplay his achievements as a composer; "As most of his compositions arose from his conducting associations, male choruses form a large part of his output. During his career he gradually reduced his creative work until he gave up composing altogether. Earlier works are rooted in the Romantic tradition, with Straussian orchestration, while the later music, still tonal, has a refined, transparent sound".

I was aware of some of his choral and chamber music from earlier Guild CDs which had come my way, but nothing really prepared me for the incredible richness and scope of his orchestral writing.  True, Richard Strauss is very obviously an influence in the Symphony, where the second movement in particular, is a fine example of lavish, opulent orchestration and glorious harmonic riches, and I detect quite a bit of Sibelius in the gloriously exuberant final movement of the Kleine Suite, but with things like the strangely questing Music for Orchestra there is something much more original and distinctive.  I am not surprised to learn from Robert Matthew-Walker's very extensive booklet note that this work was much admired by such conductors as Fritz Busch, Felix Weingartner and Herman Abendroth.  My puzzle is why it, along with everything else on this disc, has fallen so completely into obscurity.

The disc is promised as part of a project to "make available to music lovers worldwide the range of this great musician's achievements" and is actually the first commercial recording of Andreae's orchestral works.  Too often on disc in the past great music has been resurrected to great enthusiasm and lavish critical acclaim, which has never translated into concert performances.  I am sufficiently convinced by the music on this disc that this is a composer well worth exploring and I will be recommending it to just about anyone who listens to me.

 It helps, of course, that these are such compelling performances from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  Whether or not the conductor, Marc Andreae, is in any way related to the composer I cannot tell; he was born in 1939 but no biography goes further than to suggest he was born "into a family long prominent on the Swiss music scene".  Family connection or not, these are powerfully committed performances which do not so much show a determined advocacy of the composer as an utterly convinced appreciation of the supreme quality of this music.  Guild CDs are terribly easy to buy from their website www.guildmusic.com, and I suggest you do just that.

13 March 2012

Goode Organ Music

Recently, I felt compelled to write to one of my editors requesting that he stopped sending me discs of organ music to review.  It wasn't that I had run out of shelving space - and, anyway, with a probable international move only weeks away I should be trying not to add more stock to the already huge amount which has to be shipped off - but because I felt I had just about had my fill of discs of organ music.

Signum Classics SIGCD261

For months I seem to have had only negative things to say about the plethora of young and tired (and there's a contradiction) organists who commit their every party piece to disc.  While YouTube provides an outlet for the talentless and egotistical meanderings of those in other musical disciplines, organists seem to prefer to embarrass themselves on CD format.  So rarely did I find anything positive to say that I began to fear that I had lost my critical powers and was in danger of slipping into that Grumpy Old Man syndrome which affects tired old critics unless they are very careful.  As usual, of course, the editor ignored my appeal and has kept sending organ discs by the basketload. 

However, I am eternally grateful to him for ignoring my appeal, for the latest that's come my way is a truly inspiring disc of Bach.  This is what organ discs should be; great music intelligently interpreted by someone who, while not trying to be clever or original, sees Bach as a living, breathing organism and is quite comfortable employing phrasing, ornamentation, tempi and dramatic gestures which might not always accord with more scholarly ideas of authentic Bach interpretation.  Blow them, I say!  This is Bach how I like it – colourful, interesting, absorbing and, most of all, entertaining.

On top of that David Goode is playing on a truly magnificent organ built by Gottfried Silbermann between 1711 and 1714 in the Freiberg Cathedral.  And it makes a sound which I can only describe as ravishing.  It might look ravishing too, but the Signum Classics photographer has clearly been unable to find a decent angle and all we get in the slim booklet are some oblique shots of pipes and stop-knobs.  Who cares?  Music is all about listening and this disc - stunningly recorded, I should add -  offers a feast for ears and a wonderfully re-invigorating experience for those of us who had just about given up hope of ever hearing a really good organ CD again.

11 March 2012

Hamelin's Asian Adventure

Five concerts, eleven different works (not counting the encores), three countries and all in the space of ten days. Those eleven works ranged from Haydn to Berg and included three concertos.  Most audiences imagine, I guess, that when a solo pianist arrives to give a performance, he has spent the past week practising and will then spend another week practising for his next appearance.  That's not how it works, especially when the pianist is Marc-André Hamelin, who has just completed a short tour of three Asian cities.

The most astonishing thing about him is the enormous scope of his repertoire.  As you can see, for his Hong Kong recital (and, for the benefit of those students and teachers who have no idea how to plan a recital programme, this seems to be a pretty good example) he leapt from Haydn to Stockhausen with barely a pause for breath.  I find it difficult to re-adjust my musical sensitivities between these two with the music in front of me; it almost defies comprehension how he managed it entirely – as with every work he played – from memory.  He is truly a phenomenal musician.

He is also a remarkable pianist, able to communicate the soul of the works he plays with an intensity which makes for utterly compelling listening.  Technically superb, with fabulously fluent and flexible fingers and always marvellously in command of the music, it is pure joy just to watch him play.  Add to all that his extraordinarily intuitive musicianship and you have one of the musical wonders of our age.

The question I ask myself, however, is, with a repertoire so wide-ranging, can he really be equally at ease and assured with it all?  Where, I wanted to know, were his strengths and weaknesses?

For my mind, unquestionably the best performance was the Beethoven Fourth Concerto he gave with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on 3rd March.  As I wrote in my Straits Times review, he "brought a whole new dimension" to this, through his deeply contemplative approach to the second movement, as well as through his two self-composed cadenzas (which the Straits Times's sub-editor highlighted in the clever headline, "Bizarre, Eccentirc, Absorbing").

And the weakness?  Surprisingly, the performance which I found least rewarding was that of the Franck Symphonic Variations which he did with the Hong Kong Philharmonic on Friday 9th March.  I register surprise at this because this middle-Romantic French idiom would seem to suit him perfectly.  But the performance, while full of brilliant moments and passages of great sensitivity, just did not hold together.  For the first time in my long acquaintance with the work, I found it surprisingly incoherent and rambling.

My suspicion is, however, that the fault did not lie with Hamelin but with the conductor.  While Okko Kamu in Singapore had been the perfect partner, neither leading nor following but showing an instinctive understanding of what Hamelin wanted to say, Shao-Chia Lü in Hong Kong seemed to be following his own agenda.  He got some fine playing out of the orchestra, and the work's manifest charms were fittingly projected with great aplomb.  But he seems to be a conductor who chases the big effect and doesn't always grasp the music's fundamental architecture.

Lü is a conductor who likes his orchestra to see what he wants through a lively podium presence.  He leaps and dances, swoops and swoons in a manner which would certainly inspire any youth orchestra but which probably serves only as an irritant to the seasoned professionals of the HKPO.  They would rather be left to play the music as they want, the conductor's role to keep them in time and to draw the various strands together.  That was vividly displayed in the concert opener, Ravel's La Valse, where Lü emphasised the weird and the grotesque at the expense of the magical and haunting.  He certainly danced the music, but from where I sat his dance was more in the nature of a polka schnell than a valse.

Conductors who really understand how to handle concertos are rare.  For all his shortcomings in other areas, Kees Bakels, the founding Music Director of the Malaysian Philharmonic, is one of the most intuitive concerto conductors of our time.  It was fortunate that at least once during his whistle-stop tour of Asia, Marc-André Hamelin came up alongside another.

10 March 2012

Digitally Destroyed Music

Back in Bangkok on other business, I received some unsolicited feedback from the examining tour I had completed there just a fortnight earlier.  It will make me hugely unpopular with my examiner colleagues, but I must confess that I wish we were able to get more direct feedback like this from candidates, teachers and parents. 

As examiners we sit in judgement in the examining room, writing our reports and issuing our marks, and we never get questioned (except on administrative issues by our far distant superiors) nor hear and see the reactions to our work.  I can’t help feeling it would do us all a lot of good if we had to answer to our customers rather than, as the process is currently structured, only get to hear negative feedback after it’s been filtered through a lengthy complaints procedure.  If we knew there was every possibility we would have to defend our actions face to face with those directly concerned, I think it would sharpen our minds considerably. 

Certainly such meetings can be awkward.  I remember the perfectly splendid Paul Sturman recounting a tricky incident in a remote outpost of India where the previous examiner had caused much offence through stern marking.  The teachers and their assorted supporters were determined to prevent Paul from doing the same.  Desperate to get their hands on his reports while he was still around to be challenged, an angry mob followed him to the airport.  Only as the final call for the flight was made did Paul thrust his sheath of reports into the hands of the representative before leaping up the stairs and on to the place. 

Mostly, though, we have nothing to be afraid of and I, for one, have absolute confidence in my results.  In the heat of the moment, and under the pressure of work, I’m sure I don’t always justify my marks as clearly as I should and it would be lovely to explain to the people concerned issues that puzzle them.  But, of course, that’s impossible, not least because, by the time any such meeting is arranged, we will have long forgotten what it was that occasioned the original comment.

Or is it?  The days of a single examiner closeted in a room with a single candidate passing unquestioned judgement surely can’t go on much longer.  Luckily we’re all upright, honest and deeply conscientious people; but society finds it increasingly difficult to appreciate that such people do exist and assume nobody is capable of operating without some kind of hidden, and usually malicious, agenda. 

So a chance encounter in Bangkok with the teacher of a grade 6 pianist who had played the Telemann Fantasia in F was a rare pleasure.  I’ve mentioned this piece before in this blog, complaining about the habit candidates have of ending it with a long drawn-out diminuendo.  On this occasion, though, the problem lay in the fact that the piece comprises two separate movements and I had passed comment about the speed of the second one (marked “Vivace”).  In short, I had, apparently, given a lower than expected mark and justified it with the comment that the “Vivace” was much too slow.

I wish exam boards would avoid two-movements as a single piece in the exam. It is not so common in the piano lists as in the woodwind, where it’s endemic, but it makes twice the work for an examiner who, effectively, has to examine two different pieces in place of one.   And before anyone complains that music exams are not run for the convenience of the examiner, I should say that it also causes twice the work for the candidates who need to address the problem of playing two different pieces as if they were one. 

The drawbacks of this practice were vividly shown a few years back when the ATCL syllabus included what was, for my money, the most unutterably ghastly repertoire selection any board has ever set in any exam anywhere.  It was by Benjamin Britten and was called Moderato and Nocturne.  It was such grim music that even Britten had thrown it away; it was only in print because some money-grabbing academic had, with an eye to pocketing some royalties, resurrected it and claimed it as a significant addition to the piano repertoire.  Just about every ATCL candidate chose it probably because, technically, it looked easy.  But, as with everything that looks easy, it was not, and virtually every ATCL candidate failed it.  Where they went so disastrously wrong was in failing to recognise that the two movements ran at almost identical speeds.  In a commendable attempt to bring in contrast (where, in truth, there was not much) they turned “Moderato” into “Presto” and “Nocturne” into “Somnabulantissimo” and the whole thing became an incoherent  musical nightmare.

Grade 6 students tend to think differently from ATCL ones and, far from recognising the duality of movements, they regard the two movements as a single continuous piece.  It doesn’t help that the first movement of the Telemann takes up two lines while the second goes on for pages, so it looks as if the first is a simple introduction to the second.  But the two are marked with radically contrasting tempo markings, and I have lost count of the number of times I have drawn attention in a report form to the fact that the first movement (“Largo”) is too fast or the second movement too slow; in short most candidates seem to play both Largo and Vivace as if they were identical in speed. On top of that, candidates often run the two together, one famously turning the last chord of the first movement into the first chord of the second.  The Bangkok teacher was adamant that I must have made a mistake, “We were meticulous in following the Metronome markings”, I was told.  And at that point alarm bells rang.

I hate Metronomes.  Years of having to play with one ticking away relentlessly during lessons put me off them for life.  True, they help you keep in time, but in so doing they also stifle just about every other musical aspect of a performance.  For almost 200 years Metronomes worked on a clockwork mechanism.  There were always problems.  If it wasn’t wound up properly, it ran slowly and eventually clicked its way to a stop.  If it was made in Hong Kong (as many in my youth were) you were lucky if the clicks were evenly spaced; more often it limped along unevenly.  And then unless your eyes were very good, they were damnably difficult to set properly.  Vierne (who was blind) famously set his Metronome with the block in the wrong place so that his markings were invariably considerably faster than he intended, while Schumann was notoriously unable to master the thing, despite valiantly adding Metronome markings to his music. 

Recently Metronomes have gone, as has everything else in life, Digital.  That may mean more reliability but not necessarily infallibility and, as it still has to be set by a human being, mistakes are made.  Yet some in music education still regard the Metronome as a demi-God whose very addictive clicking or blinking is an unwavering truth.  I remember accompanying a student in an exam and noticing that the examiner frequently checked our speeds against the Metronome he had on his desk.  Do examiners still do this?  I hope not…but I suspect some still do.  And what happens?  Instead of judging the choice of speed with human ears and intellect, one relies on the digital device to decide what’s right and what’s wrong – “It says half note equals 60 yet this speed was nearer 50, so it’s a bad performance”.  Surely we all know what Largo and Vivace are and don’t need a machine to tell us?

On top of that most Metronome markings are added by editors who have their own opinions as to the numerical value of a composer’s tempo marking.  Thus they have no real validity beyond being a loose guide, yet once it’s there in print teachers often regard it as sacrosanct.  And as it’s a policy with all examining boards to include a suggested Metronome mark for all piano pieces, teachers come to rely on Metronomes rather than their own common sense.  From my memory of the Bangkok candidate (which was still quite vivid) I was convinced that she had misread the Metronome marking and instead of setting it to click at 76-84 every quarter note, set it to click every eighth note, which is why the Vivace was considerably slower than the Largo.  It certainly doesn’t help that the musical moron who added the metronome marks to this piece gave a Metronome mark for every eighth note in a 6/8 time-signature, thereby demolishing the essential fact that there are only two beats and not six to a bar in this time signature.  How Telemann, who died long before the Metronome was invented, would have been rolling in his grave.

The over-reliance on digital devices to support a musical performance doesn’t stop with the Metronome.  Increasingly troubled by the fact that when I hear student, amateur and (occasionally) professional orchestras tuning on stage, nobody seems to try and match to oboe’s A, I raised my concern with a conductor friend.  “Ah!”, he exclaimed, “That’s because they are all using their digital tuners and instead of listening, they are looking at the wave pattern.”  He went on to relate how an oboe in his orchestra had adjusted the A for tuning with his lip to bring it into line with the digital tuner, only, when the performance got underway, to revert to his normal lip.  The result – appalling wind intonation.  “I have banned digital tuners from my orchestras”, he told me, “and we no longer have serious tuning issues”.

It’s wonderful to have these digital devices, but over-reliance on them leads to a loss of aural consciousness.  Surely tuning, like speed, is something you hear rather than see, and the best equipment for judging such things are human ears.

07 March 2012

Butterfly Lovers Piano Concerto

When a concert review for the Straits Times appeared with the word piano inserted before the final word in the title Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto, a great amount of comment ensued.  The phone rang first of all at 6.30 in the morning on the day the review appeared and it continued relentlessly for the next 24 hours.  Comments were made to me in person and on this blog, many accompanied by a surprising level of venom.  It seemed that, despite the fact this was a simple typographic error, many regarded it as a deliberate slight on a bastion of Chinese music.  Never mind the old cliché that “music is the international language”; I was accused of “not understanding” Chinese music, of dismissing Chinese culture and, even, of being an “arrogant colonialist”.

Reading the review again, with its one erroneous insertion but its frequent mention of the violin soloist, I am amazed just what offence it caused.  Any critic is bound to cause offence from time to time – it’s part and parcel of the job – and to be told you don’t know what you’re talking about and don’t understand the music, is pretty commonplace.  However, to imply, as my vociferous correspondents did, that I could not understand or appreciate Chinese music because I am not Chinese is utterly extraordinary. 

I don’t recall Poles slamming me for not liking Chopin, Hungarians for not liking Liszt or Estonians because I once – and I admit this was a bad misjudgement on my behalf – suggested that Arvo Pärt was “a fraud”.  It appears that if you don’t get every detail of the Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto absolutely correct you are anti-Chinese.  What rot!

Now those xenophobes who saw in the use of the word piano a manifestation of my utter musical ignorance, can choke on their chop suey.  An email from Naxos in Hong Kong tells me that the Butterfly Lovers’ Piano Cconcerto has just been released on the Marco Polo label.

Yes, Piano Concerto.  The Butterfly Lovers’ has moved off the violin and on to that most ubiquitous of Chinese instruments, the piano. I can’t wait to get hold of a copy and review it.  I am even quite excited at the prospect of attending the Press Preview in Hong Kong next week. 

The trouble is, in my concert review I mentioned that I found the work rather unadventurous and naïve.  This, of course, brought down a Great Wall of Bile on to my head.  What would I feel, someone wrote, if a Chinese critic criticised Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance?  The answer is simple.  I’d feel great pleasure that a Chinese critic was so much in sympathy with my own views on Elgar’s uncomfortably jingoistic music.  How would I react, it was suggested, if someone called The Lark Ascending naïve?  The answer – happy.  I regard it as tedious in the extreme.

Personal likes and dislikes have nothing to do with national pride when it comes to music.  If the Chinese like to regard Butterfly Lovers as the apogee of their musical culture, I can only pity them.  It’s got its charms, I agree, but for me they wear very thin after a couple of airings.  Which is why I can’t wait to get hold of the Butterfly Lovers’ Piano Concerto and get a whole new and refreshing outlook on a work which, for me, has become tired and over-played in its original guise.