27 July 2012

An Organist's Lot

Visiting a concert hall earlier this week I was shown into the auditorium.  The organist was practising for a concert that evening, but my guide continued to talk and walk about the hall as if it was unoccupied.  “Let me show you on to the stage”, she told me, but, in a whisper, I declined, indicating that I felt we should keep a little quiet out of respect for the musician at work there.  Far from taking the hint, my guide called up to the organist; “I’m just showing someone around – could you just give us five minutes?”  In his favour, the organist did stop and graciously remove himself from the hall, but that was enough for me.  I have no time for a hall where such gross discourtesy is shown to those whose job it is to attract paying audiences through their performances.  I walked out without a word leaving my guide both bemused and, I suspect, greatly offended.  I do not care.  Anyone with such attitudes deserves all the opprobrium she receives.

Would she have behaved the same way if a pianist, a violinist, a string quartet or even a full orchestra was rehearsing?  Of course not.  It is the sad lot of organists that nobody takes them seriously and, if people assume anything, it is that organists either do not practice seriously or, because they sit with their backs to the hall, they are in some way unable to hear what is going on behind them. 

The old console at Bangor Cathedral was behind the choir stalls and partitioned off by means of a curtain.  Visitors used to come in and inspect the carvings on the choir stalls and, if I was practising, they would often simply pull the curtains aside and stare.  One hideous American even started to climb through so that his wife could photograph him at the organ.  I soon put a stop to that with language which should never be heard in a place of worship, even if Americans are brought up with it on movie screens.  But, invariably, the errant visitors were offended.  Surely the organist was part of the furniture, just like the choir stalls; after all they had pretended to drop a coin in the gift box at the back of the cathedral and felt they were entitled to part-ownership of the place and all its fixtures and fittings.

I well recall the years at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur when, as Resident Organist, I was not only contractually obliged to play the organ for several hours each week, but had sufficient concerts in a month to necessitate considerable amount of practice.  As the only working pipe organ available to me, I had no choice but to use the hall, and always arranged rehearsal times with the hall bookings department (they used to have such a thing before the imbeciles came in and took over with their confirmed belief that all music making was as easy as pressing the play icon on their i-Pods).  That didn’t stop the idiots in the office marching in to hold impromptu meetings away from the prying ears of their juniors, or the daft ignoramuses from the Business Development department marching in with prospective clients in tow.  More than once I was asked to stop while a guided tour was given, and it was almost standard practice to come in, call up to me and ask me to “play something” to show off the organ to the visiting groups. (What did they think I was doing?) 

And it didn’t stop with stupid office staff.  Musicians were equally insensitive to the situation.  Often my rehearsing was interrupted by an errant horn player or trumpeter marching on to stage and trying out various finger combinations for a single passage to be played at an audition elsewhere sometime in the distant future.  I even had a recital interrupted by a chamber ensemble walking on to the stage unaware of an organist high in the gallery and an audience low in the stalls.  Did they apologise?  Not a bit of it.  They waited off stage and when I finally came backstage after the recital all they had to say was an impatient “Are you finished yet?”

Indeed, it was the utter disregard for an organist’s work which finally drove me away from the instrument.  Invited to perform the Saint-Saëns Third with the Singapore Symphony, the conductor asked during rehearsal for a different registration in one of the movements.  The organ of the Esplanade, being computerised and therefore pretty inflexible, needed to be completely re-set and I used the 15 minute break to do this.  Yet a moronic trombonist decided that was the time he wanted to rehearse a passage from a piece not even in that week’s concert.  “Will you shut up?”, was his comment when I tried to test a re-registration.  I explained that I had no option but to do this at that point, at which he came over, threatened physical abuse, swore profligately and then stormed off to the Orchestral Manager to demand I be removed.  The complete refusal of the Orchestral Manager to get involved and the pointed hostility directed towards me throughout the subsequent rehearsal from the trombone, eventually decided me that I was too old for such things and have withdrawn from serious organ playing ever since.  Thin skinned?  No, just tired of the contempt heaped on organists by all and sundry.

Dame Gillian Weir used to have a reputation for intolerance of interruptions while practising, and I used this to ensure that, when she was rehearsing in DFP, the security staff kept everyone out of the hall.  I also recall Jane Parker-Smith becoming quite angry when musicians walked into the auditorium during her practice session.  Perhaps because they are women people listen to them, but they certainly don’t listen to us men, and  both musicians and general public alike seem to think that, because the organ is static it is not a credible musical instrument.  Organists are treated much as workmen painting the wall, and it is assumed they are able to get on with their work regardless.

Any musical practice is hard intellectual and physical work which is seriously disturbed by any interruption no matter how well meant; and that applies every bit as much to an organist as to a full symphony orchestra.

23 July 2012

Notes from an Artist

There is an increasing trend towards performers writing their own CD liner notes.  Indeed, so much has the ability to write programme notes become part of the soloist’s armoury that students at diploma and degree level are expected to write programme notes as part of their final assessment.  Unfortunately, qualified and able teaching in this field is just about non-existent, with the result is that most students make a desperately bad job of it. In a way, though, they should not need to be taught this skill, for any serious student will, as a matter of course, have attended plenty of professional recitals and listened to countless CDs and will have read the notes supplied which provide an ideal guide to what is required. The trouble is, neither students nor teachers generally attend concerts or buy CDs, erroneously believing that the drivel available on YouTube is an adequate substitute (which it manifestly is not).

It’s their loss, for while professionally-written notes bulge with worthwhile information and illuminating facts, the real gems come when artists write their own programme notes.  True, most of them re-write musical history, adapt established facts to suit their own ends and issue a stream of wholly baseless justifications for their interpretastions, but with very few exceptions, what an artist writes to accompany their performance is both revealing and profoundly interesting.  I have long urged students to include in their programme notes something which explains their particular approach to a performance.  (I suspect that most Asian students, if forced, could do no better than something along these lines; “I use my fifth finger to play the E flat in bar 56 because my teacher told me to”.)  When a diploma student asks me about the wisdom of pedalling Bach on the piano, or using just the toes when pedalling Bach on the organ, I advise them against trying to second guess what the examiner’s personal preference might be, and justify their own decision in the programme notes.  A student who presented me with a diploma note which explained her ornamentation by saying that she had “listened to recordings by Joshua Bell and Yehudi Menuhin and decided that their ornamentation made no musical sense” immediately got me on her side, even if it did not always accord with my personal views on the matter.
If only students tried to emulate some of the style found in artists’ notes, how much more entertaining the examining day might be.  I’ve just read this glorious rant in the notes pianist Alexander Melnikov wrote to accompany his latest recording of the Shostakovich Piano Concertos on Harmonia Mundi (HMC902104); “The second movement of the Second Concerto is routinely included in ‘light classics’ compilations, broadcast by radio stations of dubious credibility and played through headphones to airline passengers or CAT patients to ‘make them feel good’.” (For my aprt, I have to confess I’ve never come across it once in this context, but that’s besuide the point!)  Needless to say, having read that I find his performance (accompanied by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Teodro Currentzis) more thought-provoking than easy-listening.

Pianists are particularly prone to writing their own notes, with Angela Hewitt giving ample rein to her belief in Bach’s viability on the piano and Stephen Hough doing his damndest to expunge any hint of criticism from those composers with whom he feels a particular empathy.   Yuja Wang was alarmingly revealing with her assertion that Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto was really bad because it was hard for the soloist to make herself heard above the orchestra.  Melvyn Tan’s wonderful comment that he wears certain expensive perfumes when playing certain composers’ music was far more insightful than a hundred words from a worthy musicologist.  And one wonders how long it will be before Lang Lang pronounces to the world that he wears a Rolex for Chopin as it reminds him not to stray too far from the beat.  All very interesting stuff which only an artist could get away with.

The big regret with this growing tendency for soloists to write their own programme notes is that it has not yet passed on to conductors.  Most conductors have a greater and more profound insight into the music they play than any humble instrumentalist; a minute spent discussing Shostakovich with Kees Bakels was worth a thousand words, the slurred utterances about Elgar from the late Richard Hickox in a Cornish pub after countless pints and glasses of wine were more valuable than a whole volume of Grove, and a two sentence email from David Atherton on Stravinsky were more revealing than all the volumes Stephen Walsh has turned out covering the finest details of the composer’s output. 

However, a wonderful double disc set on Warner Classics (2564 67946-5) of Glazunov Concertos - which has introduced me to the fantastic First Piano Concerto (1911), complete with its heavy re-working of the clarinet theme from Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony (1908), and an astonishingly Elgarian Cello Concerto (1931) - includes a compelling essay from conductor José Serebrier.  We wander off the subject of the concertos rather a lot, but it’s well worth the detours; “Glazunov wrote his first symphony at 16: I wrote my first symphony at the same age and had it premiered by Leopold Stokowski the following year”, and “Neither Stokowski nor [Mischa] Elman was willing to travel across Manhattan for a private rehearsal of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto prior to that with the orchestra in Carnegie Hall.  The maestro asked me to go to Elman’s home and annotate on his score how Elman played it”.  None of which has any direct relevance to the music on the discs, but is both deeply fascinating and exudes a powerful sense that Serebrier is deeply rooted in the music he is directing.
From anyone else such public riding of personal hobby-horses and blatant name dropping would be completely out of order, but coming from the artist they not only give us a feeling of the person behind the playing, but give an intriguing insight into the background to the performance itself.  I’ m not sure students should ever carry things that far in their notes, but it certainly beata the “Shostakovich-is-a-modern-composer-who-writes-music-in-a-modern-style” school of thing we usually get to see.

08 July 2012

Singapore in Cheltenham


For the past week the British press has been dominated by stories about dishonest practices in the banking industry.  Indeed, the press has managed to whip the British public up into such a lather of anti-bank sentiment that merely to be seen passing through the doors of a bank is to prompt sneers and angry glances from passers-by, while bankers are now firmly established as Public Enemy Number One.  So it was an act of some bravery from Donna Renney, CEO of the Cheltenham Music Festival in the west of England, to stand up before Friday evening’s concert and lavish praise on a bank.  True, HSBC itself has not been directly implicated in the current scandal about illegal interest rate fixing, but the praise lavished on them was generous by any standards.  But it was thoroughly deserved, for not only are HSBC the main sponsors of the Cheltenham Festival, one of the most respected of all British summer music festivals, but it was through them that musical history was made and a seismic change effected in the musical relationship between the UK and Singapore. 

For decades, British orchestras have seen Singapore as a kind of staging post on the international touring circuit; a former colonial possession deserving the occasional cultural shot in the arm in the shape of a programme of popular classical standards.  With Friday’s concert by Singapore’s Orchestra of the Music Makers, that relationship underwent a fundamental sea-change.  Not only was a Singapore orchestra performing in front of what Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK, Mr T Jasudasen, rightly described as “a notoriously discerning audience”, but they were treading extremely dangerous ground by playing British music on British soil - Delius in front of a large party of members of the Delius Trust, and Holst in the town in which he was born and before an audience some of whom had known the composer in person.  “Gustav would have loved this”, one very elderly gentleman sighed after hearing conductor Chan Tze Law inspire his players to the very apogee of mock-Oriental impressionism in the colourful Beni Mora Suite.  Full praise, here, to the wind players who added so much oriental spice to this dream of a performance.

The Orchestra of the Music Makers had an uphill task to perform.  Playing before a packed – and rapt – audience in Cheltenham Town Hall within 36 hours of stepping off the plane at Heathrow, they also had to contend with the wettest July day England has experienced for decades (a whole month’s supply of rain fell during the day), an acoustic which was not much different from playing on a soggy football field,  a stage which was never designed to accommodate one musician let alone a hundred of them, stage hands who had no idea what was going on (at one point five of them clustered around the conductor’s rostrum scratching their collective heads over which way up the music had to be placed) and an audience still reeling from the shock of Andy Murray’s Wimbledon semi-final victory.  As if that wasn’t enough, they also had to open their programme with Delius’s Paris, a work which, if it does have any charms, keeps them hidden from all but the most passionate Delius fan. 

Remarkably, the Orchestra of the Music Makers brought it off with considerable precision and if their realisation of Delius’s evocation of the city’s nightlife seemed a touch turgid, this did not upset  the members of the Delius Society who sat behind me and were overheard expressing considerable satisfaction amongst themselves (“I say”, one was heard to mutter, “that wasn’t half bad” – a rare compliment from an Englishman).  Much more rewarding for the rest of us was a richly detailed and eloquently poised account of Debussy’s La Mer.  The beauty of this performance lay in the subtle reflections and translucent textures which Chan summoned from his players, who gave no hint of tiredness or even youthful inexperience.  This was a polished and rewarding performance which fully deserved the warm, extended and, at times, vocal applause from an audience to whom the work was clearly no stranger.

For many in the audience, however, the high point of the concert was Melvyn Tan’s endearing approach to both the piano – perched perilously close to the edge of the platform – and Ravel’s G Major Concerto.  The weird stage layout which meant that the orchestra could neither hear nor see each other caused obvious problems in the first movement, but with Tan’s oddly idiosyncratic reading of the second movement, injecting Ravel’s naïve, simplistic theme with palpitating rubatos and finding in it some remarkably complex and finger-twisting rhythmic twists and turns, the orchestra suddenly found its feet and went on to bring the Concerto to a truly scintillating close.  The eruption of cheers – not a common thing at Cheltenham – was by no means just for Tan, and when the panicky stage management pushed him back on while Chan was still bringing individual soloists in the orchestra to their feet, nobody knew (or cared) whether the latest upsurge of bravos were for pianist, percussionist, oboe, bassoon, or, indeed, any single member of the orchestra; all were equally deserving of this fulsome praise. 

The English audience are not known for their generous reception of strangers but clearly they took the Singapore musicians very much to heart.  In a country where youth orchestras are dominated by female musicians, many in the audience expressed astonishment that there were, as one put it, “so many lads” on stage, while others could not believe that the players all looked “so very much at ease” in the faded splendour of Cheltenham’s Town Hall (something which may well be down to the fact that the Hall is of a similar vintage, design and character to Singapore’s own Victoria Hall).   But perhaps the common feeling was expressed in the words of one local dignitary who observed; “They’re really good.  I’m so glad I was able to hear them”.

This was a weekend of near-miracles in the UK - a bank being praised, an Englishman in the Wimbledon finals, rainfall of tropical proportions - but perhaps the greatest was an amateur Singapore orchestra melting the hearts and minds of a die-hard English audience.