23 May 2012

Diplomissimo

Followers of this blog may well be aware that I am quite active as a music examiner and do, occasionally, draw on my examining experiences in blog posts.  I have been asked by those who run the examination bodies to make it clear that what I post are entirely my own thoughts and in no way reflect those of the exam boards themselves.  I am not only happy to do this, but would be horrified to think that anyone might think that my personal views had any official support.  Similarly, I am anxious myself to stress that, aware of the sensitivity of commenting on music exams, I take every effort to ensure that privileged information which comes to me as an examiner and direct experience from specific examinations I conduct, do not find their way into my posts.  If you think you are being offered an insight into how the exams work or if you think you recognise yourself in one of my posts, you are wrong.

That said, I would be a pretty lousy examiner if I did not do all in my power to support and promote what I believe to be an excellent tool in the armoury of music education, and when something comes up which undermines the very basis of a system of which I am as ardent a supporter as you could find, I cannot sit back and let it pass while I have the channel to redress the balance.  So it was that when an Italian tenor of some repute collared me after a rehearsal and asked if I had a few minutes to spare, assuming that he was going to praise me for my perceptive notes for his latest CD or for my informative writing in the booklet accompanying a recent concert he had given, I offered my unwavering attention for as long as long as he required.  As it turned out, he was anxious to vent his wrath on someone and, knowing that I had some connection with the world of music exams, he chose me as the fall guy.
His anger was the result of an audition he had recently given to a young soprano.  Her CV was so impressive he felt he could not but offer her an audition and the clinching thing seemed to have been that she had a “Performing Diploma”.  Assuming her to be a capable, possibly talented, performer, he had called her in with every expectation that she would prove admirably suited to the role he had in mind for her. 

“But my friend”, he wailed, “She could not sing. Puccini, she make-er this noise”. And, much to the bemusement of those around us, he proceeded to do a pretty fair imitation of the sound a goose might emit were it to land inadvertently on an electrified barbed wire fence.  Allowing for the Italian penchant for exaggeration, I nevertheless knew exactly what he meant, and while the organisation awarding the “Performing Diploma” was not known to me, I was painfully aware that it could easily have been one of the legitimate diploma-issuing bodies with which I have been associated.
The problem is, in trying to find a standard which can be maintained across the board for all musical instruments and voices (it makes a nonsense of the system if, for example, and LRSM in singing was palpably more demanding than an LRSM in double bass), exam boards need to draw up a list of criteria to which examiners are duty bound to follow.  Those criteria are in the public domain and are carried by every examiner when they are at work.  The drawback of this is that, while diplomas are awarded in all good faith, they really do not indicate anything more than the ability of the diploma holder to meet those pre-determined criteria. In an effort to address this issue, some years ago Trinity renamed its diplomas so that the “Performing Diploma” – which, by its very title, conferred a certain legitimacy on diploma holders as performers – became a “Recital Diploma”.  The inference is that the diploma candidate is able to present an intimate recital even if a fully-fledged stage performance is beyond their grasp.  But semantics apart, whatever the diplomas are called, an awful lot of people (Italian tenors of some repute notwithstanding) assume it confers total legitimacy on the diploma holder to be up there amongst the great and good of the musical world.

So when singers, unable to produce an Emma Kirkby-like purity of tone but under the rules of the published criteria can show through musical and communicative skills that they have sufficient in them to earn a diploma, are thrust into the spotlight and listened to with unrealistic expectations by others, it is neither their fault, nor that of those who awarded the diploma, that they do not meet expectations.  The failure is with those who assume a diploma is something it is not.
As I told my Italian tenor, a diploma recognises the overall abilities of a candidate in any musical discipline to fulfil all the necessary criteria laid down to achieve examination success.  It does not tell the world that they are great performers.  That recognition comes with experience, not with a piece of paper, no matter how beautifully engraved it is.

Depressing Downloads

Holed up in the Middle East with just myself for company I am suffering from the deepest depression.  That surprises me, for I’ve never before lost my buoyant optimism or my insatiable love of laughter – facets of my personality which I know have irritated others, but have kept me going even when things have seemed really bleak. 

The cause for this might be separation from my wife and daughter.  But, no;  I’m often away from them for months on end on examining tours, and from here I speak to them for a good hour every day by phone.  (We don’t Skype; my daughter can’t take the emotional strain of seeing me but not being able to touch me, and I don’t fare much better.) They are even coming out here next month, so that should not distress me unduly.
Perhaps it’s being on my own amongst strangers that has plunged me into the slough of despond.  But, no; I’ve not only spent most of my life on my own (I married late) but spend a good four or five months every year living in solitary confinement in hotels and apartments while examining in far-off lands.  It’s never troubled me before.

Is it that the place seems so alien?  It can’t be!  In fact I have been hugely surprised at how easy it is to fit in here.  The Arabs I meet are, if not exactly over-friendly, devoid of that subdued hostility I found in west Malaysia, and they certainly don’t have any of that open hostility I encountered in some of the darker corners of west Africa. And if anything I feel right at home when I hear the regular calls of the muezzin, whose excessively amplified call to prayer interrupted life in KL considerably more than here. The Marks and Spencer’s up the road has even more of the good old British produce than the branches in Singapore, while just over the road is a Woolworths where I can buy trousers off the peg and shirts marked XL without  worry that they will fit.  The great thing about buying South African is that my XXXL dimension for Asians is just about the norm for Africans.

Perhaps my depression is the dread I have that I will not be going back to my beloved  Singapore.  The last few years have been the happiest of my life; and I am horrified that I may not be able to find work and return to the one place where I feel really comfortable.  But it can’t be that;  I have only lived there a few years and, as my wife keeps reminding me, going back to live in the UK will have huge benefits, no matter how those ghastly whingeing poms (to quote that absolutely apt Aussie description of the English) like to tell you their country is facing total social annihilation.
And then I realise what it is.  I’m not getting my daily fix of great music.

For as long as I can remember I have never let a day go by without listening to some great performance of some intriguing musical work; usually with a nice glass of Irish whiskey in one hand and the CD-player on full blast.  On long overseas examining tours and in impersonal hotel rooms, my portable CD player and Bose headphones have invariably kept my sanity and sent me off to bed with a great tune in my head. But not here.
Assuming that, as usual, the record companies and review magazines would inundate me with CDs, I sent all of my own off into store in a Singapore warehouse and, sad to say, I have been living here in musical silence ever since.  True, I spend every day in the company of musicians, and a lot of time is given over to listening to short and pithy extracts from various great works.  But, alone in my room with my cheese and grapes (no whiskey here, of course) I am reduced to back-to-back BBC World on the television. And that, surely, is enough to drive even the most optimistic soul into the depths of despair.

It’s not that the CD companies and review magazines have given up on me.  Far from it.  One packed off a dozen CDs to my hotel only to have them impounded at customs in the belief that they were proselytising Christian literature (the top CD was of organ music from a Parisian church and depicted the High Altar on the cover), so I quickly told editors and marketing managers to hold off sending things until I was out of the place.
But I reckoned without the appalling consequences.  Tower Records used to give its staff a sticker which read “No Music; No Life”, which I always assumed to be arrant drivel, especially since most of those wearing it would rather be dead than sat in a concert hall listening to late Beethoven quartets.  Too late I realise my error.  I should have snapped one up when they were all being sold along with the other effects of the bankrupt chain.  It has become my mantra and it’s no exaggeration to say that for me, No Music really does mean No Worthwhile Life.

However, the depression is now lifting.  Amazingly, editors and record companies have decided I can’t be allowed to fall below their radar and, thanks to the sterling efforts of the Gramophone Reviews Editor (whom may God preserve), the companies are now sending me their discs as downloads.
Now, I appreciate I am a dinosaur when it comes to downloads.  I’ve attempted a few in my time and been unfailingly unsuccessful.  This, let me remind you, is a man who, when he received his first CD for review in 1983, spent many hours forlornly looking at it until the CD player arrived.  How I wished it was an LP because, at least, without a gramophone, you could spin it round on your finger and hear snippets of music with a dressmaker’s needle in the grooves – true, you’d wreck the LP, but psychologically you felt it was not totally useless without the player, whereas the CD seemed just so horribly inanimate.  So modern technology is, obviously, slow to catch on with me.

Frankly, though, I am so satisfied with the CD – its convenience, its portability, its exceptional quality and its sheer simplicity – I have never really seen the need to move away.  If something’s as good as you want, why change it?  No point in new technology if it doesn’t make life better, is my motto.
Here, though, I see the value of downloads and am getting first-hand experience of their worth.  Will I be turning to this means for accessing all my music from now on?  You bet your life I will not.  What a dreadful business it all is!

A very nice lady in Hyperion sent me a step-by-step guide and I was able to download their product with ease.  In fact, it was so simple I assumed I’d done it wrong, and erased the whole thing!  She advised me to read the “Short Guide to Downloading Music from Hyperion”; but by paragraph 7 (“Alternatively, you can download directly into your media player 'watch folder'. For example, iTunes users downloading MP3 or ALAC files (not FLAC) could download direct into the 'Automatically add to iTunes' folder (located within the 'iTunes Media' folder) to have iTunes automatically incorporate new downloads (DO NOT download FLAC into iTUNES—see 'How to work with FLAC files' below") I was so perplexed I gave it up.
A couple of other companies put things in a Dropbox for me.  Easy to see that they were there, even if I had to delete the Dropbox since it slowed my computer up so dreadfully.  But I’m now five days into trying to download those files so that I can actually  hear them,  and still my screen reads “57mins 34secs remaining”; and that’s track four of seven tracks, and we’re still just 72% into the track.  What makes this so frustrating is that the work I’m trying to get, the première recording of the Organ Concerto by Carl Rütti, sounds so devastatingly wonderful – and it’s clearly a top-flight recording – that I am seething with impatience.  I am convinced this is going to be the great discovery of the year and I am anxious to share it with others, just as soon as I can listen to the damned thing properly!

But it doesn’t stop there.  As I use my computer for work, I can’t listen to music on it.  If I do it is continually interrupted by the pinging of the email inbox, and the quality is so execrable I may as well go out and buy a cassette (yes, they still sell them here).  So I then have to organise these files, set them up in a special folder to burn them on to a CD, and then listen to it on my portable CD player to hear it in something approaching recognisable quality.  Yes, you will say, you need to buy an i-somethingorother.  But will that give me what a bought CD does?  I’m told not, and I don’t intend spending a fortune on one on the off-chance it might do the trick.
No, I am grateful for the downloads and they have lifted me from my depression.  But as soon as I am out of here and back into somewhere musically civilised – wherever that may be – it’s back to the CD and the lovely feeling of a glass of whiskey in the one hand and a lovely, professionally produced booklet (on glossy paper, properly folded and stapled by a machine) in the other.

18 May 2012

Never Work with Pianists or Singers

That famous old actors’ mantra – never work with children or animals – is founded on simple expediency; both groups will inevitably upstage the professional actor either by their refusal to abide by the conventions of stage etiquette or by their inherent “cute” factor.  Is it, though, equally relevant to musicians?  The subject came up during an informal gathering with concert promoters the other day.

For much of my early career as a cathedral organist, children were my main professional performing force.  I invariably found the boys in a cathedral choir vastly more professional and capable than the men, many of whom were, in their own way, frightful prima donnas.  And as a critic attending several opera performances (notably Aïda) where animals were present, the odd involuntary defecation on stage apart, I never saw any of them behave with anything other than immaculate professionalism; but I never had to work alongside them, so I can’t comment on the problems they created backstage.
However, one of our assembled group told a lovely story about a performance of Carnival of the Animals in which children and animals were combined with catastrophic results.  He had brought in two child star pianists and had filmed the relevant animals which he then projected on to a screen above the pianists.  Unfortunately, having decided to film them all himself (to cut costs) he had not perhaps exercised the same care as a professional film director and as the lavish aquarium of his son’s school was projected in glorious colour on the screen, it was obvious that lying on the bottom of the colourful fish tank was a rubber object, not unconnected with birth control, which some young joker had, at some point, tossed into the aquarium where it lay unnoticed by fish and teachers.  But not by the two pianist children who noticed it and collapsed into such paroxysms of laughter that the performance ground to a halt.  “Work with children and animals? Never again!” was his advice.

However, that was a minority opinion.  Most agreed that children and animals were easy to deal with in comparison with singers and concert pianists.
From my limited experience, I have no doubt that singers are, almost without exception, an absolute headache with their unrealistic demands and their weird neuroses.  A good friend once told me about a concert he put on in a church where the singer, on arrival, demanded that there should be no cucumber in the refreshments.  Having previously ascertained that the singer had no unusual dietary (or other) requests, my friend had, in all good faith, asked the ladies of the church to prepare sandwiches which had, of course, contained cucumber.  He spent the whole of the concert carefully removing the offending fruit (and it is a fruit, rather than a vegetable) from the sandwiches, not having the heart to ask the loyal ladies of the church to remake the whole batch.

Then there was the great singer visiting Malaysia whose demands included the air-conditioning of the concert hall being turned off for the entire duration of her visit.  She came from a notoriously cold country and presumably regarded air-conditioning as an irrelevant luxury; as the hall became hotter and clammier, the instruments became increasingly out of tune as the violinists’ sweaty fingers slid loosely over their fingerboards and as the singer herself began to perspire copiously, one would have thought she would have learnt her lesson, but her parting shot was that the hall’s ventilation was bad and she would never come again.  And there are countless similar stories where singers have forced on poor concert promoters unrealistic demands fuelled by an unrealistic belief in their own elevated position in the pecking order of humanity. I heard of a singer demanding only Israeli oranges while touring an Arab country, one insisting on the national flag in a concert hall being taken down as it clashed with the colour of her dress and another demanding that the front three rows of the auditorium be left empty (the concert had already sold out) as she did not want people to see her from too close quarters.
But concert pianists?  My experience of them is that they are usually pretty odd, but only a handful create real problems.  Not so, it seems.  Every wrong note in rehearsal, every miscounted rest, is never the fault of the pianist, but entirely down to inefficiency on behalf of the concert promoter.  One pianist, apparently, insisted that the organisers had switched pianos in the hour which had elapsed between the rehearsal and the concert, and as the discarded pianos had not been tuned, there was an inordinate delay while the tuner was called to service the replacement piano while the increasingly irate audience waited.  Another, it seemed, objected to the brand of water being offered in his changing room and, despite his preferred brand not being available in the country where he was playing, insisted some was brought in especially for his second concert the following week.  The organiser wryly observed that, when he left, “he had not even touched the stuff”.

And it doesn’t stop there.  For some reason, concert pianists attract a large and often unruly camp following.  A trombone soloist will turn up with his trombone and, perhaps, his motorbike; a pianist turns up, not with his instrument, but with a gaggle of assistants, supporters and friends all of whom are expedited to be accommodated and nourished at the concert promoter’s expense, and all of whom will insist on travel only in luxury limousines and in the first class cabin of aeroplanes.  And some even have their parents tagging along, making the demands for their children which one suspects the pianists themselves would never make.  “I don’t mind xxx”, said one of our group, “it’s his mother that causes the problem and I’ll not have him again simply because of her”.
Give me children and animals every time.

12 May 2012

Clapping Madness

Reviewing a live performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony in Singapore last week, Chang Tou Liang took time to complain about the applause.  It seems that, even before the final strains of this majestic work had died away, there was the usual chorus of impetuous screams and ululations more appropriate to goal-line success on the soccer field than a considered response to an intellectually and emotionally challenging work of art.  Tou Liang considered this to be an example of “crass one-upmanship”; and I know exactly what he means.

One of the reasons I have described Singapore’s classical music scene as Provincially Amateurish is because of the presence in most audiences of a few self-appointed clever people who assume the majority of the audience lives in ignorance and needs to be led to applaud at the right moment.  Their assumption may or may not be correct, but it certainly implies that some Singaporeans, at least, regard their fellows as provincially amateurish and in need of elucidation when it comes to classical music. 
The result, of course, is not only wildly inappropriate applause – standing ovations for mediocre performances, cat-calls and whistles for a sublime clarinet solo in Mozart, tribal ululations for a cultured Viennese symphony – but, in a determination to get in first at all costs (presumably to show the perpetrator is not provincially amateurish) actually interrupting the end of the work with the applause.  Music, we should all know, begins in silence, ends in silence and achieves beauty only by its continual reference to silence.  Get rid of the silence and you destroy the beauty.

Commenting on inappropriate applause in this blog a while back, Kevin Thompson came up with this intriguing observation; “Breaking into a percussive, cacophonous noise seems so wrong in that situation.  It's fine for sporting events and rousing speeches, but isn't there more harmonious way to express ourselves after a sublime and subtle musical performance?” 
Certainly applause can be annoying, especially if you are one of those people (which I am not) who boils with rage whenever a couple of hands meet between movements in a concerto, or one who (as I do) likes to bask in a moment of reflected wonder when a great performance comes to its end.  But when all is said and done, applause is the life-blood of performing musicians who need it to keep their artistic antennae properly honed.  Performing musicians and critics are adept at recognising the hidden agenda behind an audience’s applause.  We can, for example, readily identify the genuine from the polite, the ecstatic from the raucous.  We recognise the screams of those who crave the attention of those on stage – either because they are friends or heroes – and identify the unconscious yell spurred on by sheer admiration.

As ever, that brilliant author Alexander McCall Smith puts it in a beautiful way when describing an audience’s response to a new work in his charming novel The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday. “People could smile with relief at the end of an unsatisfactory piece, and even applause could be provoked by sheer joy at being released from something one does not like”.  More amusingly, Smith makes this wry observation when the new work in question ends on an unresolved chord; “If a composer does not resolve a piece then the applause should be similarly incomplete. One hand would be aimed at the other, but would stop short of actual contact; unresolved clapping”. 
I love the idea!  I’ll try it next time, and while it certainly will not offend my neighbours, it could, I imagine, incur the wrath of those around me who like to feel clever and recognise in a piece of unutterable rubbish the seeds of non-existent greatness.

09 May 2012

Friendships through Music


Barely a week after leaving Singapore I am treated to a welcome dinner in a swanky French restaurant in Abu Dhabi.  It came as a surprise, not least because I have not only never set foot in Abu Dhabi before, but the only person I vaguely know here is one with whom I have been in contact only through email.  So I was expecting an awkward hour or two with a bunch of complete strangers and feeling very much the odd one out.

It was certainly a very mixed bag gathered round the dinner table.  A dermatologist, a chiropractor, a dentist, a corporate lawyer, a man building a water treatment plant and another building ships, a fistful of oil people, a couple from an artists’ agency and three journalists, two from Al-Jazeera and a foreign correspondent from an Indian newspaper.  Along with assorted wives and husbands, that made a table of 20.

Far from feeling the odd man out, however, I was quite the centre of attention for, thanks to my perceptive email contact, the group assembled all knew of me, and several I had either met with or worked with before.  One of the journalists I’d actually lived next door to in KL while another of them had been a colleague with the BBC in Belfast a million years ago (the third had written an article about me when I had been involved in the vain attempt to set up an orchestra in Kochi).  The chiropractor and one of the construction people knew me second hand – we shared mutual good friends – while one of the oil people had been a colleague of my brother’s at Total.  The shipbuilder had helped finance the research I’d undertaken into the ethnic music of Borneo back in the early 1990s and most of the rest had, at some time or another, either been in the audience of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in Kuala Lumpur or had been avid readers of Gramophone magazine.  It struck me that the world of classical music lovers is a small and intimate one which is akin to a club where you can usually find a mutual acquaintance one step away.

When, well into their 50s, my parents moved from the London in which they had lived all their lives to the wilds of the Surrey/Hampshire border (true, just 40 miles from London but a psychological world away), they went with the advice of their London parish priest ringing in their ears.  “Get involved with the local church, and you will soon be a part of the community”.  It worked for them then, but I have long since found that church communities have changed and strangers feel alienated not only by the closed communities churches have become, forced into the defensive by threats from other religions and a growing secularisation of society, but by the fact that forms of worship are no longer standardised.  The Anglican church is terrible in this respect; the one and only time I attended a service at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore, I felt so alien that I had to leave; it was Easter Day but Anglicans in Singapore don’t recognise Easter.  And I abandoned church-going in Malaysia when a mentally-retarded bishop decreed that Ash Wednesday would be put back a week to avoid clashing with Chinese New Year.  The Catholics don’t do any better, and after years of playing the organ at masses in churches and cathedrals the length and breadth of Ireland and never once feeling out of place, a trip to two Catholic churches, one in KL and one in Singapore, left me feeling so utterly alien (not helped by everyone staring at me as if I was some Al-Qaeda operative infiltrating them to commit harm) that I dare not even venture into one of their churches again.  Traditional music, once the great solace of church worship, has, in any case, been sacrificed for the cheep and quick gratification of the masses offered by fifth-rate songs performed by tenth rate “musicians” under the guidance of bottom-of-the-heap ministers who are so ashamed of their calling they refuse to wear clerical garb and insist on being called by their forenames (God forbid such a categorical profession of faith as to describe it as a Christian name).

Now, however, I realise that being a classical musician is the way to make friends and feel accepted by society when in a strange land. At my welcome dinner we did not once talk about music.  So varied were the interests and experiences of our 20 people that the conversation flowed easily, our surroundings encouraging us to discuss at some length the French presidential elections (amazing uniformity – not one of us welcomed the election of Hollande) while, naturally, experiences of Middle Eastern life figured largely.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and friendships were made and renewed.  This, surely is another of the many benefits that music brings us.  Is there no end to its ability to better the lot of mankind?

03 May 2012

Love and Music


A brief visit to the Conservatory to collect some final belongings was delayed when, turning a corner in a high corridor, I encountered one of my students wearing a mask of misery.  Assuming the upcoming exams were worrying him, I tried to inject a little cheer by assuring him that I had every faith that he’d come out near the top of my course, at least.  Rather to my disappointment he responded that he had more serious matters on his mind; his girlfriend had just “dumped” him.

We’ve probably all been there and suffered the same feeling that life is not worth living any more and that the future holds no hope.  It never helps anyone in the slough of despond to be told that what they are suffering is a normal part of life; it only deepens the woe to be given such glib platitudes.  How can anyone know, you think to yourself, the true depth of my loss?

I would like to have told my student that every single one of the many dozen heart-breaking “dumpings” I suffered, more than one of which drove me to thoughts of suicide, was well worth it for, when I married at the age of 44, I had found the best companion imaginable, a lovely wife and a true friend.  She even gave me the most fantastic daughter.  It is inconceivable that the mass of shallow but superficially attractive girls who so cruelly spurned my love in the past could have ever given me the happiness I have found in my wife.  But in my teenage years and beyond, I had no idea what was in store, so rejections cut deep.

There was, however, one consolation I could offer my distraught student.  We are musicians and we have access to something nobody else has; an inexhaustible bunch of keys which opens up the very deepest emotions of the soul and allows us to heal the wounds which others can merely hope to paper over.  That something is our ingrained love of music.

Of course, every rejected teenager will seek solace in some song or other with lyrics which seem to match their current sentiments – and often actually dictate the sentiments which are then taken on as personal sensations.  When you feel that everything has gone wrong, that your love has been rejected and that life isn’t worth living, there is always some relevant 2½ minute ditty into which you immerse yourself in a fit of self-pity.  Musicians aren’t immune.  A rejection sometime in the mid-1970s was so beautifully summed up in the words of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone again (Naturally)”, that I played the record back to back for days on end.  (I still have the 45rpm single and occasionally get it out to enjoy a feature of my record player which never usually gets a work-out these days – and, funnily enough, the song still pulls at my heartstrings and brings back poignant memories.)

These, though, are commercially-driven, mass-produced sentiments which, for all their superficial relevance, barely scratch the surface of the emotional turmoil created by lost love.  For most, it’s all they have, but for musicians there is much more.  Working on the understanding that music expresses thoughts which words cannot (to paraphrase Victor Hugo), musicians can dig deeper into their emotions and find an expression of, and outlet for and a cure to their distress through music. 

I think I was around 12 when my first rejection came.  Her name was Alison (I can’t think of the surname now) and we had been at Primary School together but had then gone our separate ways, me to my boys only secondary school, she to a mixed school.  One summer I saw her at the local open air swimming pool and went up to say hallo and hopefully take our childish friendship a stage further.  A big bruiser of a fellow (he may have been 13) told me to get lost and laid a protective arm around Alison who pointedly laid her head on Ape-Man’s shoulders.  The hurt!  The hurt!

Salvation, though, was at hand.  That self-same evening my parents took me to the Festival Hall for a concert conducted by Sir John Barbirolli which opened with Vaughan Williams’s Wasps Overture.  There’s a lovely passage in the middle featuring a French horn and when that emerged, all my upset and hurt floated away and I was transported into a more luminous Heaven than Alison could ever have provided (certainly at the age of 12).  By the time the concert was over I had forgotten about Alison, but had fallen in love with Vaughan Williams (a short and ultimately unsatisfactory affair, I have to confess) and with the French Horn (we consummated our love only a few weeks later when I started to learn the instrument at school, and our love stayed true until, coincidentally, the year of my marriage; make of that what you will!).

We have the power of music to help heal hearts, and whenever I’ve been really down, the last part of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber is guaranteed (once you’ve negotiated the hurdle of that appalling title) to re-forge even the most broken of hearts.  That piece alone has pulled me through more crises than I care to remember, although in the past 20 years or so I’ve turned to the Variations & Finale from Stanford’s Symphony No.7 (has there ever been a perfect cadence so brim-full of sheer, life-affirming joy as you get at the end of this?).

And for simple, innocent joy to get you over the dark complexities of troubled love, surely the Allegretto of Sullivan’s Irish Symphony or Francaix’s L'Horloge de Flore cannot be bettered.  Need cheering up?  Bach’s Prelude in G (BWV541) never fails.  Need calming down? The middle movements of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto or Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto are certain to get the heart-beat back to normal.  And should we want to, we can wallow in misery to a degree Gilbert O’Sullivan could surely never have begun to imagine.  Put on the slow movement of Rachmaninov 2 (Symphony rather than Piano Concerto, but the PC does the job almost as well) and you instantly get that warm glow of immense self-pity.

It’s dangerous to go too deep, but the music is there for those who feel the need.  I have often said that the central part of Karg-Elert’s Symphonic Chorale Jesu meine Freude is the saddest piece of music I know, although the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez is sad enough for most.

The list in endless, but it reminds us just how powerful music is in affecting our emotions.  A short snippet of pop to reinforce their perceptions of their maladies might serve as a small sticking-plaster to broken hearts for most, but we musicians have at our disposal a resource built up over centuries which can cure the most deep hurt and transform our whole outlook on life.  No tragedy cannot be salved, largely, if not wholly, by music.