29 April 2012

Hilliard Ensemble Minus 1

One of the highlights of the Singapore musical calendar is for me the annual Tapestry Festival of Sacred Music put on over a weekend in April by the Esplanade.  It covers just about everything from Tibetan prayer wheels to Gregorian Chants and fills the place with its free foyer events and major concert hall performances.  I love the juxtaposition of faiths witnessed through their music and I find it as personally stimulating as I do artistically enriching.

Top of the bill for me this year was the concert by The Hilliard Ensemble who kept a rather paltry audience absorbed for two hours with some superb unaccompanied singing.  The first half, with its glorious mixture of Arvo Part and medieval English items, was a brilliant tour-de force in which the singers never faltered for a moment and seemed mildly embarrassed by the impetuous applause for each individual item earnestly started by a fellow in front of me who wasn't going to risk silence intervening.  Not for him the quiet contemplation of the beauty of sacred music, but I don't begrudge for a moment his clear enthusiasm for the performance, which was from every standpoint, wonderful.  I only baulked at the whoops of joy and testerone-filled ululations at the end which seemed more suited to the soccer stadium than the concert hall.

I was disappointed by two things, however.  The first was the absence of Rogers Covey-Crump from the quartet of singers.  He had been replaced by Monika Maulch at the request of the Esplanade organisers who felt that an all-male line-up was too esoteric for a Singapore audience (or so the Hilliard themselves suggested in an interview given to the Straits Times some while back) .  There is no way that a soprano, even one as discreet and precise as Ms Maulch, will ever fit tonally into an ensemble of such refined male voices and, as a result, the programme was adjusted to avoid intertwining polyphonic lines.  (This despite the very poor concert programme notes which suggested that the programme comprised almost entirely polyphonic music.) This gave rise to my second disappointment.

Much as I love the music of Bach, a whole hour of isolated verses from his chorales, mostly in D minor, sung by four voices, proved to be too much of a good thing and while they were irregularly interspersed with some solo violin pieces in an attempt to show how Bach's unaccompanied Partita in D minor was really an expression of his Lutheran faith, it showed nothing more than that lots of Bach in D minor can sound vaguely similar and that chorales, outside the context of a cantata, don't, in themselves, make for really interesting listening. 

I tire of academics who enjoy nothing more than to seek out hidden references in Bach's music.  In the 60s it was all about numbers; now it seems all about melodic relationships.  It makes for an intriguing, if mildly silly, read in scholarly papers, but when it impinges into a performance, I think it's gone too far.  The German musicologist who "found" references to chorale melodies in the unaccompanied Partitas and then devised a concert programme which attempted to highlight these, merely undermined the stature of Bach's music.  I don't feel that a public concert to an audience who have gathered to hear great singing from a famous ensemble is really the palce to indulge in such pointless pursuits.

(The pictures, by the way, come from the Esplanade - who hold their copyright - and were intended to go with my Straits Times review.  They are too good not to print here as well!)

27 April 2012

End of an Era

This weekend marks the end of an era.  Not a big one concerning large swathes of the population but a tiny, personal one which will pass unnoticed by most.  Which does not for a single moment lessen its impact on those involved and, for once, I am indulging in personal matters in this blog, knowing full well that for most of the time I swim against the tide of bloggers in avoiding mention of family, food or fun activities in which nobody can be the least bit interested but which most bloggers seem to feel sufficiently important to publish on the web.

The first change is the location of this very blog.  It will continue as before but on http://drmarcsblog.marcrochester.com.  The old address should automatically redirect you here, but if not, you now know where to find it.  On top of that readers of the blog keen to contact me privately can now do so on drmarc@marcrochester.com; that's not my private email, and I only check it intermittently.  Friends and colleagues already know how to contact me directly.

On Monday we move out of what has been our wonderful home for the past four-and-a-bit years.  It will be a wrench to move and leave behind a wonderful house, a wonderful garden, a wonderful neighbourhood and such easy access to the beach that Prisca has come to regard it almost as her personal domain.  That, though, is not worthy of mention in any blog in the normal course of events.

A Fourth birthday celebrated in February

But on this occasion we are not moving anywhere else.  Magdelene and Prisca (above) will be staying at the in-laws in Kuching while I am working in the Middle East on a short-term contract.  Sometime in July we will know where we are going to be in the future; it may be Singapore or it may be the UK, but all depends on what work can be found for a writer and broadcaster on music who turns 58 on Saturday.  Possibly the scrap heap calls, but I suspect not! 

What is era-changing about this move is not the personal upset and inconvenience it causes, but the fact that it may well mark the end of an almost 30-year relationship with south east Asia.  From my first visits to Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong as an ABRSM examiner, my involvement with the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, my work with the Sarawak Government in recording the ethnic music of Borneo, my short-lived involvement in the "academic" life of Malaysia in Univesiti Putra Malaysia, my long-term involvement in the creation, setting up, management and presentation of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, right through to my continuing literary work with the Singapore Symphony and Hong Kong Philharmonic orchestras and my involvement in the musical life of Singapore through my work as critic and lecturer at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory (a nice completion of the circle since I examined Yong Siew Toh's personal students during one of my first ABRSM tours to Malaysia in the mid-1980s), I have come to know and understand what is happening to classical music in the region.

The first ever perforamcne at the Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in
Kuala Lumpur was given by the St Petersburg Philharmonic
under Yuri Temirkanov on 19th June 1998. 
It has long been my intention to prepare a history of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra once I am finally out of the region.  I hold back, though as they have already shown how long and poisonous the tentacles of the MPO paymasters are; this blog, for example, started at their request was dramatically shut down when a number of correspondents submitted comments mildly critical of the administration - the young man administering the blog from the MPO office was threatened unless he divulged the confidential credentials by which I accessed the blog and, having done that, was forced to block my access to it and report any incoming adverse comments from members of the MPO itself.  You can still access the original blog up to the point it was summarily stopped on www.drmarcrochester.wordpress.com. All that will wait, but part of the move will entail my throwing away the complete MPO programme books from 1998 through to July 2011, which will be a sad thing, but an inevitable downside of a move which may involve extended periods of materials being kept in store.

I would love, too, to put forward my arguments for the direction Singapore musical life should be taking.  It troubles me that, despite the enormous range and amount of musical performances here, Singapore still has about it an atmosphere of provincial amateurism.  Comment adversely on a local orchestra, violinist or pianist, not to mention the teaching community, and you will ignite no end of comments about "you should have heard it as it was a decade ago".  Musical life here is in danger of stagnating because it is too self-congratulatory and not sufficiently self-critical.  Ironically, of the two groups who seem destined to put Singaporean classical musicians on the international map (excluding, of course, the phenomenal Singapore National Youth Orchestra) - the T'ang Quartet and the Orchestra of the Music Makers - the latter is an entirely amateur group, but with a far more professional attitude than those who guide the progress of the professional groups.  But that's for another time.

Hong Kong, alone, seems to be heading in the right direction with a thoroughly rich, diverse and coherent musical life, even if the provision of a decent concert hall is still a dream.  I put that down, as much as anything, to the existence of a professional and credible classical music broadcaster as well as such organisations as Parsons and Tom Lee, whose all-encompassing involvement in music, from early education to professional concert-promoting, has, in recent years, shown real intelligence.  Neither Malaysia nor Singapore boast anything vaguely matching that.

For all the west likes to regard China as the Great Yellow Hope of the future of music, from where I sit, it is not.  The one or two Chinese superstar musicians are already fading - and they are barely into their 30s - and the Chinese tradition of cheap copies rather than solidly prepared originals will kill their musicians just as it killed their manufacturing industry back in the 1960s and 1970s.  If China emerges as a major player on the music stage, that will be long after I am dead.

Funnily enough, it is in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and, possibly, Burma, that I think the greatest excitement will be generated in classical musical circles in the coming years.  I've seen some amazing things there, and while the picture is clouded by poor communications and a perception in the west that these are "primitive" countries, I think we are all in for a surprise.

In the last decades I've seen some amazing things happening in this region and been privileged to comment on them - even play my small part in them.  Whether I continue to do so from the inside, or from the vantage point of a distant observer, remains to be seen.  It is through such periods of personal uncertainty that life remains deeply interesting and absorbing, even at the age of 58.

To paraphrase one great wireless voice from my youth; "If you have been, thanks for reading".

26 April 2012

Yet another HK CD Emporium

Take the MTR to Mongkok, head down Nathan Road and turn left into Shantung Street.  A couple of buildings on the left is the Chung Kiu Tower.  Go through the unmarked door, head up the stairs until you reach the lift lobby.  Take the first or second lift on the left up to the 15th floor and when you step out, turn to your right, and you will find yourself in Hong Kong's latest centre of attraction for audiophiles.

It's not on a par with Prelude, Shun Cheong or Hong Kong Records at Festival Walk, but that's not its purpose.  What it offers is a very impressive service to the genuine audiophile.  The stock is relatively small and organised according to conductor and artist rather than genre, composer or label, and it has some fantastic vinyl, much of it second-hand but in mint condition and factory-wrapped.  It has as large a jazz section as it does classical, but nothing else, so you are spared the strains of Canto-Pop, Western Pop or the latest noisy DVD blockbuster.  It has lots of high-end playback equipment for sale and good listening facilities. In short it is a place for the serious collector and specialist, and the staff seem to be as interested in talking about the music as in selling it.

My visit on a Thursday afternoon was prolonged because of a heavy rainstorm outside, and the chap in charge then was a mine of information and a model of courtesy.  I clearly interrupted him on his cigarette break, and the reek of tobacco was a bit of a turn-off, but in all other respects this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  To be able to listen before buying and to be able to discuss interests with someone who was clearly an enthusiast himself, made this a very special place, and while its website - and the pictures here are from that (www.clazzmusic.com) - stresses that the business was set up by music enthusiasts, the level of knowledge has a nicely professional edge to it.

It's not a place to go to buy specific recordings - you need to check out their stock before you go if you are after something definite - but as a chance to explore and to listen to well-recorded music on proper playback equipment (what a glorious change from all that fifth-rate computer/iPod/iPhone sound that so-called music-lovers in the rest of Asia seem to find acceptable) it's unmissable.

Who said good recorded music was dead?  

21 April 2012

Edo's Exit

For once the standing ovation was not only justified but it also involved myself, usually the last man sitting when the rest of the audience gets to its feet.  The performance of Beethoven’s Ninth was good, but not in itself justifying the ovation, but the clue to the almost universal expression of admiration – and I saw only one section of a gallery that remained largely seated – came when the conductor came on stage alone.  For this was Edo de Waart’s “Moment of Farewell”, as the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra had so cleverly marketed it.  Six calls were made at the end of the concert, and the biggest cheers were reserved to those two in which de Waart came on stage alone. 

I have never experienced such a send off to an outgoing Music Director in Asia before.   True, much of it had been managed by the HKPO itself who ran a three week mini festival leading up to the final concert, with posters around town and a manufactured sense of climax as the "Moment of Farewell" approached.  But there was real affection shown on Friday night by the audience, revealed by the great cheer that went up when he walked to the back of the stage and tossed his bouquet high into the choir – where it was caught with such a flourish one wondered whether the prospect of a Holland/China cricket test match was entirely inconceivable.

The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra have always tried to sweep their outgoing music directors under the carpet, determined, if possible, to expunge them from history and, one suspects, really preferring to push them out of a plane at high altitude rather than allow them get the kind of reception given to de Waart.  And, although my diary seems to indicate that I was there when Choo Huey made his last stand with the Singapore Symphony, I regret I can’t remember a thing about it.
As Music Directorial terms of office go, Edo de Waart's eight years with the HKPO was a brief stint and would not usually generate quite such a near ecstatic response.  But the transformation the orchestra has undergone in that time, not to mention the huge revival of support from the community at large, has been near miraculous.  He managed to transform the climate for western classical music in Hong Kong from its post-Colonial stupor to something vibrant attracting a wide cross section of Hong Kong society. 

So the standing ovation signalled the Hong Kongers’ gratitude for a man who has opened up social and artistic doors for the local community and has put the city on the international music map.  With that in view, any comment on the performance itself is perhaps irrelevant; this was a national celebration rather than a musical experience.  But, as it happened, some things in the concert were of such outstanding musical quality, that they deserve being highlighted.

The best musical thing was Susan Graham’s powerful account of Berlioz’s La Mort de Cléopâtre.  So obsessed are music historians and commentators with Berlioz’s brilliance as an orchestrator, that it often gets forgotten that he was one of the most original and compelling composers for the human voice.  In fact his output for human voice far outweighs anything he wrote for purely instrumental forces, and while I am not entirely sure he was all that sympathetic to singers, he loved words and in his desire to express words in music he produced some astonishing things.

The trouble is Berlioz’s desire to convey words often exceeded the realities of singers’ limitations and even today, when singers are clearly far more flexible and adaptable than they were in the 19th century, few really can interpret Berlioz effectively.  Susan Graham proved to be one who could, delivering the words of Pierre-Ange Vieillard about the grisly death of the ancient Egyptian queen with such drama that there were times when the blood froze.  As she evoked Cleopatra's death throes, almost in a whisper, it seemed as if she was on the very point of taking out a snake and afixing it to her bosom – certainly her dress accentuated that part of her anatomy with its large cups looking tantalisingly as if they were readily detachable should a passing viper slither by.  But we didn’t need visual stimuli to get the picture.  The simple extended sibilant of her final “Cesar!” hissed with an almost snake-like venom, was all we needed to get the full horror of the picture.  It was a tremendous performance and stands alongside the unforgettable moment when, back in 1989 at the opening of the Cultural Centre, Jessye Norman held the audience in the palm of her hand with an unaccompanied encore of “Amazing Grace” sung pianissimo. 

You could have heard a pin drop then, and you certainly could have heard another on Friday, for the audience was on its best behaviour.  Not a cough, not a rustle of paper, not a little blue screen as a bored executive checked his emails, and not even the usual mass exodus as soon as the final double bar appeared over the horizon.  All this added to the sense of occasion, and while the orchestra itself was not, perhaps, at the top of its form in the Beethoven, this was a highly charged performance which reached a true climax in the finale when the Shanghai Opera House Chorus did their bit.  This was superb choral singing with an excellent balance and a real sense of commitment.  Mark Schnaible delivered the bass admonitions with magisterial authority, while Henry Choo and Lisa Larsson managed Beethoven’s often unpleasantly high tessitura with grace and assurance. 

Friday's concert was not quite “The Moment of Farewell”, since it was repeated on Saturday.  My only hope is that, second time around, the people managing the stage lights would have sobered up.  As the chorus got to its feet at the start of the Beethoven finale a sudden burst of activity from the spotlights looked intiially as if the controls had been passed to those trained in searchlight duty during the Second World War scanning the sky frantically for incoming enemy aircraft.  A while later and the controls were passed to someone clearly under the influence.  The spotlights waved manically around, at one point shining directly into the eyes of a section of the audience, and it began to look like one of those cheap TV shows where excitement is generated by running the spotlights crazily over the audience.  Were we going to get this with Beethoven’s supercharged ending  to the Symphony?  Luckily, someone threw a switch so that the chorus ended partially in darkness, but nothing dimmed either the magnfiicance of their fulsome singing or this dazzling sense of occasion.

17 April 2012

New Music Ghettos

One of the major concert providers in Singapore ceases activity this week, bringing to a close a season which has seen something not far off 200 public concerts, recitals and masterclasses.  Not to worry, though, it all starts up again in August when the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory academic year resumes.  In the meantime, Singaporeans will just have to look elsewhere for their daily fix of serious music- making – not that there will be any shortage of that with the Singapore Arts Festival just over the horizon, not to mention the countless other musical events taking place around the island.

 A major loser when the YST concert season closes is contemporary music.  Certainly there are plenty of concerts of contemporary music around, but with its commitment to encourage and promote the work of its own composition students as well as to offer them an environment in which they can hear live performances of works by living composers, it has given a huge amount of exposure to new music in Singapore.  There has been music by living composers at most of the Monday lunchtime recitals since last August while, in just two typical months we had the New Zealand Chamber soloists performing music by Gareth Farr (b.1968) and John Psathos (b.1966) on 10th January, the Australian Brass Quintet with Aaron Jay Kernis (b,1960), David Sampson (b.1951), Michael Tilson Thomas (b.1944) , Joan Tower (b.1938), Iain Gradage (b.1976) and Anthony Plog (b.1947) on 13th January, the Southern Cross Soloists with music by Paul Stanhope (b.1969) in their concert on the 21st January, while Jason Lai led the Conservatory Orchestra in the Asian première of a double bass concerto by Frank Proto (b.1947) on 31st January.  And in February, the Thai composer Anothai Nitibhon gave a masterclass and seminar on 6th February, a locally-based ensemble, Ang Mo Faux, gave a performance of genuinely "living" music on 8th February, Marques Young, trombonist with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, presented music by himself as well as by Richard Peaslee (b.1930) on the 13th and the concerto chosen by Thai tubist Thunyawat Thangtrakul for his appearance in the Conservatory's Concerto Competition was by James Woodward (b.1978).  Tim Jansa (b.1974) had his Three Miniatures performed on 17th February at a Conservatory lunchtime concert at the Asian Civilizations Museum (interestingly the same work was performed by members of the SSO just yesterday) while American trumpeter Bill Theis gave us Joseph Turrin (b.1947) when he did his recital on 28th February.

An encouraging aspect of nearly all those performances listed above is that works by living composers are integrated into programmes which cast their net across a wider chronological range.  While this sort of programming is fairly recent – until the First World War music by several composers from several different eras of musical history were relatively rare – and first performances have traditionally been presented in concerts made up almost entirely of new music – a great example was the concert in Vienna on the evening of 22nd December 1808 when, over a four-hour programme, every work (including Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto 4 and the Choral Fantasia) were not only being given their world premières, but all were by the same composer, Beethoven – over the last 100 years programmes have tended to cover rather more territory.  Indeed, when you do come across a concert made up almost entirely of new music, it has the feel of a niche event; the uncharitable might suggest it is the ghettoisation of new music. 

The trouble is, a lot of new composers are more comfortable when their music is performed alongside that of their peers, their feeling being that they are working in a field which is hampered rather than enhanced by its long tradition.  It's certainly not realistic to equate an all-Beethoven concert with, say, an all Dimitri Voudouris one - the first was consciously carrying on an established western musical tradition while the latter is deliberately eschewing it – but it is the responsibility of a new composer to be so sure of his own artistic credentials that he can allow it to stand comparison with the giants of the medium.  And an audience, if it is ever to appreciate new music rather than live comfortably in the sounds of bygone eras, needs to have new music programmed in such a way that they cannot realistically avoid it.  (I well remember that for years whenever the Proms programmed Holst's Planets – about the most popular piece of orchestral music in England at the time – they filled the rest of the programme with more esoteric offerings from living composers.)

There was something of that "ghetto" feel about one of the final concerts in the YST season, which took place in the remote, utilitarian and clinically unfriendly surroundings of the Conservatory's Orchestra Hall last Friday.  That it was happening a day after the final major concert of the season – a big orchestral spectacular given in the Esplanade – and on the evening of the last teaching day of the year, certainly did nothing to make it feel mainstream.  Yet it was a very important concert and, moreover, one of considerable musical worth.  The performers – members of Korea's Ensemble TIMF – are specialists in the field of new music, and while three of the works were by YST students, there were some established pieces here, including one by a non-contemporary composer, Isang Yun (1917-1995).  All the same, it was a concert clearly attracting only a specialist audience, and while I managed to persuade Straits Times to run a review, I feel that for once, I should reprint and expand on that review in order to bring some of this music to a wider attention.


Here it is.

It is a sad fact of life for many aspiring composers that if they want their music publicly performed they must write it for small ensembles – cheaper to put on and involving fewer rehearsal man-hours – and accept that it will be performed at a concert devoted to new music and, consequently, attracting miniscule audiences.  As it was, almost all the pieces performed to Friday's audience, which almost made it to 40 – respectable enough for a new music concert – could have happily been programmed alongside established standards which have passed through the cruelly unpredictable filter of long-term public taste. 

Isang Yun
Memory, by the Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, and Man Jang by Mu-Seoh Kim, were calm, evocative tone pictures, the first comprising lots of long sustained overlapping notes, the second adding some ghostly vocalisations from the players to evoke traditional funeral rites.  Isang Yun's Pezzo Fantasioso was a tour de force for the violin of Ho Jin Jeong, the flute of Joo Won Kim and the cello of Joo Eun Oh, in an ingenious piece of triple counterpoint.

It took Young Woo Lee the entire length of the intermission and 10 minutes more to set up her piano for Ji-Young Kang's Schuplatter.  But all those metal rulers and sheets of coloured tissue paper were worth the effort, for this was the most entertaining item in the programme.  Setting off as a traditional Bavarian Ländler, the music gradually disintegrated until it became little more than rhythmic silence with the five players – clarinettist Yong Gen Lee had by now joined in – visibly playing their instruments but without any clear sounds emerging.

The remainder of the concert was given over to music by the Conservatory's composition students.  Chinese Xu Weiwei probably tried too hard to challenge the performers, but Ensemble TIMF are too good for that and not once, as they ploughed through her often dense explorations of instrument-created sound, did the thought surface that the result might not have justified the means.  Malaysian Chow Jun Yan was both more serious and realistic in When Stillness Meets Motion, a tightly-knit piece which was very rewarding as abstract music even if a connection with its title and his own programme note was not readily apparent.

For my money, the most successful work of the whole concert was Joshua Pangilinan's Dumagat Fantasy.  Inspired by tribespeople of his native Philippines, this was no mere evocation of ethnic sights and sounds but a beautifully crafted and wholly coherent piece of writing which showed a keen understanding of instrumental colour.  It may not be one of the classics of our time, but it deserves exposure to a much wider audience than 40 dedicated diehard aficionados of new music.

13 April 2012

Musical Myth-busting

Today, 13th April, marks the 260th anniversary of the first performance in Dublin of Handel's Messiah.  That day was also a Friday but it was not Good Friday, as some have suggested, Easter having fallen three weeks earlier that year.  The myth that the première took place on Good Friday is only one of the many myths that have built up around the Messiah, and my desk diary (which, I have to confess, was what reminded me about this auspicious day) propagates yet another.

Audiences in the UK traditionally stand while the "Hallelujah" Chorus is being sung.  I have always considered this a daft and irritating habit and have tried to stamp it out whenever I have directed a performance.  But it's one of those things that audiences do, and I doubt anyone will ever be able to stop them.  I notice the habit has even spread so that performances way beyond the borders of Britain suffer the same mass interruption.

Why do they do it?  Well the myth is that at a performance in London, King George II stood up at this point in the performance and the entire audience followed suit.  The fact that the King appears not to have been even there when, at the performance on 15th May 1750, an audience first stood is conveniently overlooked, and the legend has grown that he stood because he thought the words referred to him.  That is arrant nonsense.  For a start, the words come from The Bible and, despite his limited knowledge of English, if King George recognised the words at all, he would have known their context.  The story that he stood up because he found the music so exciting is equally ridiculous; Kings just do not do that sort of thing.

I much prefer the (equally unsubstantiated) anecdotes that he stood up because he thought it was the final number and was anxious to get out of the theatre after having sat through over two hours worth of music, that he stood up because he was so bored with the music, he couldn't stand any more, and that he stood up because he needed to go to the lavatory.  I've often used one or other of these stories in my programme notes for the work in a bid to get audiences to see the idiocy of standing up, but all to no avail.  When there's a good myth about, why look for logic?

Not quite myth, but equally contentious, is the practice of performing Messiah with minimal forces.  Some 19th century performances with several thousand participants may have taken things too far, but I'm sure Handel would not really have liked the kind of introspective, desiccated performances so many come up with today in the misguided pursuit of "authenticity".  The most recent recording, from the Cleveland-based Apollo's Fire, continued this trend and I'm afraid my review of it in last month's International Record Review was far from enthusiastic.

There are countless other musical myths floating around which, in the absence of hard facts to disprove them, continue to fly against all logic, and I was sorry to see my eminent colleague at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Craig de Wilde, peddle another of these in his programme notes for yesterday's orchestral concert which featured Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.

With Tchaikovsky dying so suddenly while at the peak of his powers and reputation, speculation has long raged over the exact manner of his death.  Craig revisited that myth first put about by Tchaikovsky's brother, Modest, that the composer had "drunk a glass of unboiled water during the savage cholera epidemic of that year, quickly fell dangerously ill, and died 4 days later".  Although pretty conclusively discredited, not least by medical experts who have undertaken research into the symptoms of ill-health in the medical records of Tchaikovsky's last days, this story was for years an accepted truth, but too much evidence to counter it has surfaced in the past 50 years or so, not least the suggestion that his death seems to have shown far more the symptoms of arsenical poisoning.

For my part I am almost convinced by the theory, first expounded in 1980 the Russian musicologist, Aleksandra Orlova, that he was forced to commit suicide when a letter making allegations about a homosexual relationship between him and a nephew of the Tsar was about to be handed to the Tsar.  Pianist Stephen Hough was pretty robust in his refusal to accept this when he wrote his own notes for a performance of a Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto at the Proms a few years back, but most agreed he was merely trying to downplay the homophobic undercurrents in that prognosis, and few have really supported the "drinking unboiled water" theory in recent times.

Does it matter?  Well, apart from the personal tragedy involved, it does have implications for the interpretation of the Sixth Symphony.  It has always puzzled musicologists that Tchaikovsky chose to end this work with a subdued and emotionally-charged finale, and the fact that he died within a week of the Symphony's first performance, has led to the suggestion that Tchaikovsky knew of his impending death; which puts the cholera story out of the running and barely adds any more weight to the self-admixture arsenic one - the existence of the notorious letter was, apparently, only made known to Tchaikovsky after he had written the Symphony.  But, while there were precedents for ending a Symphony in a subdued manner (I suppose you could say Haydn's "Farewell" was the first), no clear explanation has really been made for this one, especially in the wake of the almost frighteningly up-beat mood of the third movement.

But I had a moment of blinding revelation at last night's concert when conductor Mark Wigglesworth side-stepped any emotional weight in the music by pushing through it in a brisk, business-like manner.  Suddenly it made total sense; this was Tchaikovsky's homage to Parsifal.  It had never struck me before just how closely related to Wagner's last great opera the main themes and the musical language of the Symphony's finale are.

Now the speculation starts up all over again.  Had Tchaikovsky recently come across Parsifal and had his mind full of its music?  Did he feel his own music was seeking its own Holy Grail?  Did he want to replicate the finality of Wagner's final major utterance?  I've got a lot of researching to do over the next few weeks to see if this new vision of mine stands up as more than just another potential musical myth.

07 April 2012

A New Chinese Piano Concerto

Here is the question all parents should ask those to whom they wish to send their children for piano lessons; "Have you attended workshops, talks, seminars or masterclasses for piano students given by musicians from overseas?"  If the answer is no, you can be pretty certain that the teacher will not be any good.  Of course, it does not follow that every teacher who attends such things is good, but at least they will have had some inkling as to what is involved in playing the piano beyond mere physical action from the fingers.

It is no excuse that the teacher may be living and working in a remote area.  All the foreign examination boards, the local colleges, universities and conservatories, not to mention innumerable societies and concert-promoting organisations in south east Asia frequently put on such events even in small towns, and it was talking over with some members of one such society the viability of their running something along those lines that drew attention to the one serious drawback.  Whenever such events take place, the same teachers always attend, and those teachers, because they do attend regularly, are the good ones.  The bad ones, who would benefit most, invariably stay away. 

Ask them why they don't attend and they will usually tell you that they are too busy teaching and, in any case, their candidates pass exams well (the sole purpose, in their eyes, of teaching the piano in the first place) so such events are irrelevant to them.  But, as a Canadian piano teacher fairly new to musical life in this region, asked; "How can they teach when they don't understand the background or the emotions of the music?".  Coming up with the stock answer about Chinese pianists being great technicians but sub-standard interpreters, she was quick to stamp on my mild defence of Chinese pianism; "They are not even good technicians.  For them, technique means playing fast and playing loud.  They have no idea about subtleties of touch and tone control".  And, of course, she was quite right.  She went on; "If they want to play western music, they must accept the western concepts of subtlety and inner meaning, and if they are not prepared to learn that, there is no hope.  Loud and fast might be all right for their own music, but it is not all right for western music". 

 And that led me to think.  What is "their own music"?  Millions of Chinese children learn to play the piano, and many even progress far, but Chinese piano music is a mere drop in the ocean compared with the vast legacy of western music, while Chinese piano concertos, if placed back to back, do not even fill a single CD.  Only the Yellow River Concerto has established itself in the repertoire, and while I have found a few oddities among my CD collection, it remains the only true piano concerto by a Chinese composer (or, rather, by a collective of them).  There is even a research paper available on the web (http://www.legacyweb.rcm.ac.uk/cache/fl0026770.pdf) which attempts to define the characteristics of Chinese piano playing solely through recordings of the Yellow River Concerto. 

When it comes to the Yellow River Piano Concerto Chinese pianists are very much in their element with its grandstanding displays of loud, crashing chords and its bursts of unrestrained virtuosity.  The very few times I have heard it tackled by a western pianist, the results have been pretty abysmal.  They seem to look for something more - they want to find in it an equivalent depth of emotion and psychological intensity to that in Rachmaninov 2 - but its message is more attuned with the Chinese performing psyche than the European or American one.

Nevertheless, Chinese pianists cannot live by the Yellow River Concerto alone, and in a bid to fill up her excellent CD – indeed, I would call it truly outstanding, possibly the best recording of the Yellow River Piano Concerto currently available – released last month on the Marco Polo label (8.225984), twenty-something Chinese pianist, Chen Jie, has made her own arrangement of that other ubiquitous Chinese concerto, the Butterfly Lovers.

As everyone knows, the Butterfly Lovers is a violin concerto and while there is a famous precedent for a violin concerto becoming a hugely successful piano one it is by no means an easy or natural progression.  For a start, the piano is percussive (especially under the ministrations of some Asian pianists) while the violin is lyrical, the piano is chordal while the violin prefers single lines, and the piano covers a large number of notes below the treble clef, which the violin does not.  What delicacy and subtlety the Butterfly Lovers possesses is all down to the virtuoso role of the solo instrument, and we have already learnt that delicacy and subtlety are not natural elements in much Chinese piano playing. 

Chen Jie's response is to completely transform the solo part so that it becomes an idiomatic piece of virtuoso piano writing, the delicacy given to the orchestra leaving the piano to its grandstanding posturing in big chords and rapid figurations.  Possibly because she herself is so clearly gifted in making a big sound and demonstrating rapid fingerwork, Chen's performance it completely convincing, and while it does not stand comparison with Beethoven's piano version of his own violin concerto, it certainly stands proudly alongside the Yellow River Concerto as an ideal vehicle to showcase the undoubted positive characteristics of Chinese pianism.

Chinese pianists now have a second magnificent concertino to display their unique gifts, but for all that, if you want to broaden your repertoire beyond two concertos, some proper insight into the western approach to interpretation is still essential.

[My review of the Chen Jie CD is on www.theclassicalreview.com.]

06 April 2012

Unwelcome Encores

She clearly seemed to be enjoying the concert.  She clapped warmly enough when the performances were good and gave a tolerant laugh and polite applause when they were not, and generally seemed to be enjoying herself.  But suddenly that all changed;  "Oh No!  Please not!!  I want to go home!", were her muttered asides when the Singapore National Youth Sinfonia made it clear they were going for an encore.  All her good will towards them evaporated and not only did she refuse to applaud, but tut-tutted loudly and told her son (I think that's who was sitting the other side of her) to be ready to leave in case they went for another.  Mercifully they didn't, but the damage was done, and one lady in the audience clearly felt she had heard too much for one day.

Barely a week later and a very similar scenario.  The Chamber Players did a tolerable job of a Mendelssohn String Symphony and battled their way quite successfully through the Holberg Suite.  The audience gave them fairly generous applause which soon faded as the concert-master, who had been directing the performance, fled off stage.  Well trained in stage etiquette and knowing that their job was to follow the concert-master's lead, the rest of the orchestra ambled off too, and were still filing through the door when the concert-master hurried back in, took his seat and made it plain he was going for an encore.  Bemused, the  orchestra shambled back to desultory applause and a certain audible amusement and even as the double bass player was walking round the back of the stage fetching his instrument, the concert-master struck up a repeat performance of the Mendelssohn.  What had been tolerable first time round was indifferent now and the audience were out of their seats as soon as it was over in case there were any designs on further embarrassing encores.  On the bus back I overheard some of the audience; "That was OK, but that encore really wasn't necessary", said one, to which another replied, "It rather spoiled the concert, don't you think?"

One can understand why these amateur orchestras wanted to play an encore, even though there was no call for one.  Having spent possibly months working on these performances, just a single go on stage never seems enough and with a captive audience, there is always the temptation to do it all again.  But the lesson has to be learnt; ALWAYS leave your audience wanting more. 

The forcing on an audience of unwarranted encores is now endemic in south east Asia - it's been like that in mainland Europe for years - and it is to be wholly abhorred.  Once in a while a performance is so outstanding that the audience needs to hear more, but the habit of preparing encores and forging ahead with their delivery irrespective of audience reaction is nothing other than contemptuous of the audience.

It always amused me that from day one Kees Bakels programmed an encore or two for every MPO concert.  With no way of knowing whether the audience would even like the music, he was determined to set a precedent in which no concert was complete without an extra piece tacked on the end.  At least he usually had the good sense to choose something which suited the programme (even if we heard a disproportionate number of Brahms Hungarian Dances) and which involved most of the players who remained on stage in the aftermath of the last official item.  Others have not shown such intelligence. 

I well recall a fairly well known German conductor who did a programme of all 18th-century music.  I was involved in the first half, and as I left the organ and made my way back stage I was surprised to see a trio of trombones coming in wearing their concert togs.  "What are you here for?", I asked, "We're in the second encore" I was told.  I joined my wife in the audience for the second half and, true enough, after Beethoven 3, came an encore, and then came a huge influx of brass and percussion.  I prayed and prayed that the audience would  stop clapping, get up and walk out, leaving the conductor with the tricky situation of explaining why a large romantic orchestra had appeared just as everyone was leaving, but the Malaysians were too polite for that and we proceeded to have what the conductor described as a "taster" for next week's show.

Then there are the conductors so determined to give an encore that they literally force one on the audience.  Chean See Ooi was a master at this.  Audiences had a habit of stopping their applause and getting out of the hall as soon as she left the stage, so she simply stayed on stage, bowed, and went straight into the encore.

But at least most conductors try to make the encore fit into the programme.  Such musical sensitivity is rare among soloists who often seem to believe that the audience is as disinterested in the concerto as they are themselves.  Last week cellist Jan Vogler tacked the most ridiculous encore on to an an all-Russian programme (he had just done a decidedly indifferent Shostakovich Cello Concerto 1) with the SSO.  Why on earth did he feel his wayward take on a movement from a Bach Suite would be suitable in this context? Because he had announced in his biography printed in the programme book that he had just recorded the Bach Suites.  Promoting your latest CD should not be the function of an encore, and those who do deserve our contempt.  I hope the SSO don't invite him again, but I am certain Singaporeans won't buy his Bach CD - not because his playing was bad (although it was), but because they don't buy CDs.

And then there are the artists who live solely for the encore and accept the concerto duty only to give them a chance to impress a captive audience with their solo prowess.  Worst of all was the extraordinary Yevgeny Subdin who gave the Singapore audience a pretty miserable Scriabin some years back, and then followed this up with a stream of encores which took the concert well over the two-hour mark.  This is what I wrote in my review;
"Uneasy with the[Concerto's] all-too-frequent calls for delicacy, Sudbin was clearly anxious to get somewhere else. Where that was remained a mystery until the Concerto was over; it certainly wasn’t the work’s ending he was eager to reach, that fell desperately flat. It turned out to be the encores. Clearly a man with a mission – the mission being to fit in as many as he could irrespective of whether they were called for or not – every time Sudbin appeared on stage to accept the applause, he sat down at the piano and rattled his way through a series of pieces (there was Rachmaninov, Scarlatti and something which could have been Shostakovich, but I don’t really care, I’d like not to hear it again) in which dazzling virtuosity was very much to the fore (and truly breathtaking it was in the Scarlatti) and musicianship just about non-existent. He achieved his goal, though. From the very lacklustre response the audience gave him for the Concerto (which was, after all, why he was there), by the end of the third encore, they were on their feet, ready, it would seem, to leap on stage and rip the poor man’s ill-fitting jacket off him in a bid to get him to dazzle them with some more lightning fingerwork"

A good concert has a shape and purpose, a coherence and a logic which makes it appealing to an intelligent audience.  Throw in encores, and all that is swept aside and all we have is one pointless procession of pieces, not a million miles from the aimless stream of "soothing classics" we get on those horrendous "classical" music radio stations; with which Singaporeans are only too familiar.  I am well aware from my experience as a music examiner that nobody teaches students about programme building or programme planning.  Sadly, nobody seems to teach them about the value of sending an audience away wanting more.  What an awful thing, when someone has given up time and money to hear you perform, when they find themseleves wishing while the performance is still on, "I want to go home".


04 April 2012

Bach and Beethoven on the Buses

It is always good to know that I am not alone in my desire to link classical music with bus travel.  Take this item from Monday's edition of The Yorkshire Evening Post;

Classical music to tackle Leeds City Bus Station yobs

Transport bosses are turning to Beethoven and Bach to help keep the peace at Leeds City Bus Station.  West Yorkshire passenger transport authority Metro today confirmed plans to start playing classical music at the station’s York Street entrance.

Metro chiefs think it will create a more harmonious atmosphere for station users.  But they also hope the initiative will be less popular with groups of young people who occasionally loiter at the York Street entrance.

It is thought playing classics rather than pop or easy listening might make them decide to hang around elsewhere.

Composers whose work will be piped through the speakers include Mozart, Vivaldi and Handel as well as Beethoven and Bach.

The move follows a trial of the scheme at Huddersfield Bus Station.  A Metro spokesman said: “Feedback has been very positive, with passengers commenting on the soothing atmosphere. Our surveys have also shown that the initiative has deterred people from gathering at the station entrance.”

The speakers playing the music are currently used for pre-recorded safety and security messages. Staff have a separate sound system for emergency announcements.

Metro’s scheme isn’t the first time the arts have been utilised as a peacekeeping tool.  The Local Government Association said in 2008 that techniques such as the playing of opera, classical or unfashionable music were being used by councils to disperse groups of youths.

Dr Simon Warner, a lecturer in popular music at the University of Leeds, today voiced concern about the deterrent side of the station plan.  He said: “I find the idea of music being used like a weapon a little bit sad. If it is effective, then it might be justified. It has been tried elsewhere and anecdotally it seems it may have worked.  It’s still a shame, though, that something that can be such a positive element of everybody’s lives is being used as a form of social control.”
The Bus equivalent of Beethoven

 This is, of course, by no means the first time classical music has been used to engender public calm and to deter vandals, and there are numerous underpasses both in Europe and Asia where piped classical music plays to keep people away.  For my part, if I enter an Italian restaurant which is playing Mariah Carey at full blast, or a French restaurant attempting to attract me with Vivaldi, I go straight out the door.  If these people have no perception of the depth and marvels of their national culture, how can they hope to cook decent national food?  It doesn't matter what the music is, if it's in the wrong context it can drive people away.

Research has shown – and I've undertaken a lot of this myself, so I know it to be true – that certain types of music encourage certain types of behaviour.  When I ran a company which provided music for hotels, restaurants, airports and airlines we were able to show figures that proved how effective different types of music were at keeping customers in and sending them away.   That research was far more detailed than would appear to have been the case with these Yorkshire transport people.  Certain pieces of Bach were shown to encourage activity while others encouraged passivity (the opening of the Double Violin Concerto did the former, while the Air from the Suite in D did the latter) and it did not really matter whether it was pop, jazz or classical, what affected behaviour was the piece itself rather than the genre. 

So to dismiss Beethoven and Bach as "soothing" shows such appalling ignorance on the part of the authorities that I am tempted to buzz off to Yorkshire simply to vandalise the Leeds bus station in protest.  I'll certainly do that if they are playing the God-awful Beethoven Für Elise.  If, however, I get there, and find that I am hearing the sublime "Erbarm dich mein" from the St Matthew Passion, I will, instead, sit and listen.  If you play music to affect public behaviour without having first done your research, beware, you are opening a dangerous can of worms!

The Rheinberger of the Bus World