23 September 2013

Chopin for a Winner

Typhoon Usagi effectively denied me the anticipated musical highlight of my week when the Hong Kong Observatory announced that the typhoon was due to hit at around the same time that Alina Ibraginova and Cédric Tiberghien were due to hit the stage of the City Hall.  However, in a way I’m glad it didn’t happen, because I suspect it would only have been an anticlimax after what came out of the blue as the most riveting musical experience for quite some time.

That riveting musical experience did not come, however, from the early evening organ recital at the Cultural Centre.  Polish organist Gedymin Grubba was a new name to me – perhaps surprisingly since, according to his biography, he has performed an average of 100 concerts a year for the last decade or so – and he certainly has some pretty agile fingers and toes.  But he has no idea how to build a programme which is going to keep 900 or so young Hong Kongers absorbed and while, on their own terms, Buxtehude and Bruhns can make scintillating listening (especially that wonderfully eccentric Fugue subject in the Bruhns E minor Praeludium) putting them both together with one of Bach’s more obtuse chorale preludes (An Wasserflüssen Babylon – I have to confess I much prefer Boney M’s take on Psalm 137) does rather weigh things down. This superfluity of North German Baroque might have been balanced by a set of chorale variations by Grubba’s compatriot Jan Janca, but despite a succession of nice chords, this turned out to be a very watered down imitation of Flor Peeters’ Op.20 Variations (which is, itself, a very watered down version of Dupré’s Op.20 Variations) which was so stop-start in its progress it never had a chance to bed down in the consciousness.  Even the Guilmant at the end of the recital failed to raise the spirits.  It was the first movement of the Fifth Sonata, and why anyone would end a recital with a first movement defies all logic; is it that the player thinks the composer is so bad he begins a major work with something which should really end it?  Personally, much as I admire and love Guilmant’s music, I’m not sure he should even have begun his Fifth Sonata; this was not a piece which showed him off in a good light, its saving grace, so far as Grubba was concerned, was that it included – like just about everything else in the recital – a fugue.

More fugues came in John Estacio’s Brio which the Hong Kong Philharmonic played later in the evening at the same venue.  True, the work outlived its usefulness by a good five minutes (it stretched to around 13), but it had lots of pulsating rhythmic drive which the HKPhil violins articulated with impeccable crispness.  Canadian conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni kept it all tightly under control, and it proved to be a good test of the newly adjusted Cultural Centre acoustics (achieved, it would seem, mostly by placing Perspex screens around the stage canopy – which I have to confess I find immensely distracting because they offer a high-level reflection of part of the orchestra.  When I first saw it at the Asian Youth Orchestra concert last month, I wasted time when I should have been listening to the music staring at the screens trying to work out which section of the orchestra I could see playing upside down in them).  Nevertheless, the acoustic changes have brought the sound right into the middle of the stage, coagulating it into a homogenous whole which takes off some of the edge, but balances things much better.  The real test will come, of course, when a solo violinist takes to the stage – has the acoustic change got rid of that awful blind spot  where the soloist stands? – but in the meantime it’s a definite improvement.

The acoustics took quite hammering later in the concert with a tremendously exciting account of the original (1911) version of Petrushka.  Ever since I saw Stravinsky himself conduct it in London, I’ve been convinced that the 19i11 is the best way to hear Petrushka and that the subsequent orchestral suite is a sadly desiccated version . The Hong Kong performance – bringing an orchestra of around 100 on to (and off) the stage – was no neat, tidy or polished affair by any means, but it had raw energy and was greatly enhanced by some tremendous off-stage drumming between acts. (What a shame nobody thought to open the door on the other side of the stage – as it was we heard the drums funnelled out of one door, sent across the stage to hit a solid wall and then bounce back to create something not dissimilar to a tap dance training session held in an echo chamber).  There was some gorgeous flute playing and wonderful sounds coming out of the brass, and while Zeitouni had his work cut out to keep everybody more or less going at the same speed, it worked splendidly.  But even this arresting and absorbing performance was not the highlight of my musical week.  That came with some Chopin.

Regular followers of this blog will know that Chopin and I do not see eye to eye, and that the First Piano Concerto is a work the point of which I have consistently failed to grasp.  I won’t say I had a Damascene moment, but Louis Lortie had me so enamoured that when the Concerto ended I turned to the lady beside me, who had spent the entire Concerto coughing, and declared “Wasn’t that lovely!” (She misunderstood me to mean her coughing, and carried on all the way through the Stravinsky.) It was an enchanting performance; graceful, poised and, above all, utterly, utterly lovely.  What made it work for me was the attitude of both Lortie and Zeitouni who clearly were not investing it with any great emotional or spiritual depth but merely relishing the sounds it made.  Lortie metaphorically ground his teeth while the orchestra drifted through their long and pointless preamble, but then burst on to the scene with a relish, and before long was taking all the credit, floating up and down the keys, adding some lovely touches of dynamic light and shade (how rarely we get those in Chopin where most pianists seem to feel rubato is the prime means of expressiveness) and throwing in the odd gesture – like a left hand waving while the right does some arpeggios or a right hand ending an upward sweep with a kind of karate chop off the end of the keyboard.  It was a delight to watch and delight to hear, and if Lortie followed it up with a shameless outburst of virtuosity in an encore (which might have been by Chopin but I suspect was by Liszt) of such vacuity that afterwards I wondered whether I had actually heard it, who cared?  Chopin won the day for me this weekend in Hong Kong.

15 September 2013

Music and Politics

I have had a dream.  Nothing so elevated as Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s, nor prompted by some vision of a distant nirvana; merely brought on by watching BBC World News too late into the night.  In my dream I am lecturing to a class of students (I recognise it as being Middlesex University for the students there are an argumentative bunch) and, for some inexplicable reason, I pick on one of them and ask him if he knows the name of the American President.  He tells me he does not and I am astonished.  I press him, believing that it is impossible not to know his name, and even go so far as to give broad hints.  Yet still the student professes ignorance.  In desperation I say, “but you MUST know who the President of the United States is!”, to which he replies “Why?”.  And I wake up.

How I wish I had dreamt on just another few seconds, for I’d love to know what my answer was.  In the cold light of day, I am not sure that I can answer his question.  Is it important that music students, perhaps more than those in other disciplines, know the name of major world figures?  On the surface of it, it certainly does not seem a really vital piece of information for musicians to possess.
However, music – like all the arts – is intended to be consumed by society.  If society is your market place, then it is pretty obvious that you need to know about society, and one of the important things to do, if you are keeping in tune with society, is to follow closely its trends and developments, and to keep in touch with its thinking.  Companies who have attempted to do business in China without first understanding the Chinese psyche, business ethic and language, invariably get their fingers burnt.  (I knew of one which sailed in expecting the English model of business to be accepted and did not so much get its fingers burnt as have them all chopped up and served on a bed of rice with Soy Sauce – “Wah! Taste like Chicken!”)  So how can a composer, a performer or even a critic address a market of which they have no understanding of their recent trends?

We tend to be blinded by the elevated position in which we place the composers of the Classical Era; we even redefine the whole genre as “Classical”, a sure sign of the disproportionate stature we give this short period of musical history.  Regarding Haydn and Mozart to be non-political animals – little more than humble servants in courtly houses – we tend to open our mouths in awe at Beethoven who appeared to have some political thoughts of his own.  “Beethoven believed in Democracy” is a hackneyed phrase used to explain why he changed the course of musical history; but in truth all self-respecting musicians should hold strong political views.  How else can they communicate with and reflect on the society from which they are drawn.
Notwithstanding the musicians who worked for the church – and, frankly, has there ever been a more blatantly political organisation than the church? – most of those who worked during the Renaissance period were heavily involved in politics.  They combined their composing and performing with working as government agents, spies, ambassadors and emissaries.  Even in the Baroque era musicians had political lives.  Bach and Telemann, for example, sat on town councils, I read a compelling hypothesis about how Handel, far from absconding from the court in Hanover, had actually been secretly sent to London by the Elector of Hanover’s chamberlain to report back on the likely English reaction to the Elector’s claim on the British throne, and I find it incredible to think that Domenico Scarlatti’s only involvement in the court of King Philip of Spain was as the Queen’s keyboard instructor. 

The popular view is that musicians of the Romantic era had their heads so far up in the clouds that normal, daily things like politics did not concern them.  But look at the political posturings of Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin and, of course, Wagner (whose political outlook has been so distorted by politically-coloured historians that it is quite common to find students writing that he “was a member of the Nazi Party” and “admired Adolf Hitler” – forget the six years which elapsed between the death of Wagner and the birth of Hitler).  The 19th century was awash with political activity, and few musicians seemed to ignore it.
In more recent times there have been politician musicians.  Paderewski was a famous pianist and Prime Minister of Poland, while the British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, largely abandoned a promising career in music to take up politics.  In our own time many musicians have espoused political campaigns, not always with total success – Michael Berkeley’s anti-nuclear cantata or shall we die?... has mercifully sunk into oblivion, while Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony is often the butt of musical jokes – but sometimes so glitteringly successful that we almost forget their political overtones – audiences need reminding of the political message behind Britten’s War Requiem while the adoration heaped on Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs these days conveniently forgets the political issues which were at the heart of the work when it was written back in 1976. 

Unambiguously political works – The Death of Klinghoffer and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima – have found a firm place in the repertoire, while even American politics, at home and abroad, have been celebrated.  What is Porgy and Bess if not a statement against racism, and Nixon in China makes no bones about celebrating the activities of an American president.

There is no obligation for musicians to know the name of the American President (unless, that is, they are saxophonists living during the Bill Clinton era) but not to know it today would imply that one has ignored the saturation news coverage of contemporary events.  If you can turn on TV, the radio, open a newspaper and check latest news stories online (for goodness’ sake, Windows 8 even puts the headlines up on that ghastly opening screen) and not know who the US president is, you have to be inhabiting the world of dreams.

I suspect that no music student at Middlesex, or anywhere else, is ignorant of such key facts about the political issues affecting society, but just to be on the safe side, my students are warned; I have not yet worked out how it will fit into any of the syllabuses I teach, but a few weeks into the next semester, and you can be sure that there is going to be an essay on Music and Politics.

13 September 2013

Criminal Activity and Graded Music Exams

Today’s edition of The Standard in Hong Kong carries on page 12 a report on a court case involving Helen Yu, a university teaching assistant – ironically in the Law faculty – who has been remanded in custody pending sentencing after threatening a colleague.  It seems she told the colleague she was going to push her off the top of a tall building and cut off both her and her father’s sexual organs and “feed it to the dog”.  It certainly sounds as if Helen is a nasty piece of work, but it is reported that she issued these threats through dozens of voicemail messages; so it presumably required no great detective work to identify her or to establish her guilt.  To have used that particular method to commit these crimes also seems to imply that she was not, perhaps, fully in command of her mental faculties at the time, and, sure enough, psychological reports are being considered before sentence is passed.  Among the mitigating factors that the magistrate drew to the court’s attention was the fact that Helen had been severely disturbed by the 11th September attacks in New York, where she was living in 2001, and that she “achieved grade eight in piano when she was 15”.

This must, surely, be the only time that the carnage of the World Trade Center attacks and a graded musical examination have been linked in a single news story.  While I would have thought that there is an almost unbridgeable chasm of thought between the two, clearly this Hong Kong magistrate has other ideas and will, presumably, give them similar weighting when deciding on Helen’s sentence.

From the information in the news story, I realise that Helen Yu did her grade 8 piano exam in Hong Kong in 1993.  Looking at my diary, I note that I was examining for the ABRSM in Hong Kong in 1993, and although I do not retain these records, it is not impossible that I was the person responsible for passing her grade 8 piano. 

Am I, then, partially responsible for her subsequent crime?  Had I failed her, might she not have stayed in Hong Kong an extra year to attempt the exam again and, perhaps, never headed off to New York and so would not have experienced at first hand the horrors of 9/11?  By passing her when she was at such an impressionable age, might I not have unwittingly given her confidence that kind of arrogant boost which led her, in later life, to feel she could issue such appalling threats against another human being with impunity?  All these questions we humble music examiners must ask ourselves if, as here, the consequences of our actions are going to determine whether or not someone serves a prison sentence maybe decades ahead.  The implications of our actions are clearly not confined to signing off an exam report after 30 minutes of intensive listening. 

About the same time that our poor, tragic Helen was preparing for her Grade 8 (in those days she would have had to play a complete Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven Sonata, so that is another possible contributing factor to her subsequent mental decline) a survey was being carried out amongst the great and good of British society to see how many of them had sat graded music exams.  It revealed that a disproportionate number of people who subsequently became leading politicians, company CEOs, captains of industry, media figures and influential intellectuals had been through the graded exam mill.  This research has often been used to support claims that learning music enhances communication, intellectual and management skills; as it surely does. 

To my knowledge no research has ever been carried out into the correlation between criminal activity and graded music exams.  We know, of course, that music exams are used to help prepare prisoners in UK jails to rehabilitate into society.  (ABRSM examiners used to - perhaps still do - examine inmates in British prisons, and it was on one such prison visit that I encountered an examiner colleague, serving time for some unmentionable offence and hoping to rehabilitate himself through grade 3 flute.)  But has anyone ever investigated whether there is a decreased likelihood of, say, someone who has done a graded music exam committing a crime?  Has some statistician calculated whether the percentage of prison inmates who have done a graded music exam is smaller (or larger) than in the population as a whole? Perhaps, more realistically, has anyone studied the effect on judicial sentencing of an accused’s record of graded music exams?  Indeed, how widespread is the practice of taking evidence of musical ability into consideration in sentencing?

The music examination boards should be following Helen Yu’s case with interest (sentencing is due on 26th September).  If she escapes a custodial sentence because she passed Grade 8 piano 20 years ago, what a wonderful promotional tool that should make.  Not to use it to boost candidate numbers would surely be, for want of a better word, criminal.

12 September 2013

Music in Microcosm

“Music is life in microcosm”.  So begins a student’s essay submitted to a written English language competition.  We are told that it is written by a girl of 11 whose first language is Cantonese, so we might forgive the fact that the whole essay seems to be made up of bite-sized aphorisms which rehearse rather a lot of clichéd ideas but clearly express some emotional longing buried beneath a mixture of linguistic impotence and youthful inexperience.  Reading on, the first sentence seems to lead nowhere and, to be frank, I quickly lose the plot amidst a dazzling assortment of stock phrases and half-baked ideas.  However, there is no doubting the ability of this girl to summon up a good range of English phrases and pad them out with some nicely-constructed sentences, and the fact that the competition is seeking good written English rather than coherent intellectual thought warrants the essay’s selection as one chosen to be put on public display in a shopping centre.

How, though, I yearn to engage in discussion both the author and those around me reading her enlarged essay.  What does she mean?  Can this terse statement be justified?  Can music ever be described as a microcosm of anything? Can life itself exist in microcosm?  So many questions from so little a sentence.  Much as we might bandy about that old cliché about “not being able to live without music” (yes, it appeared in the essay), we can and we do.  I could survive quite comfortably on a diet of carrots, water, bread and Pinotage and never hear a note of music; I would quickly die on an undiluted diet of Chopin, Wagner, Bach and Poulenc.  Music can no more replace basic human needs as be “life in microcosm”.  Music can certainly enrich some lives; but for nobody can it be the be-all and end-all of existence.  Perhaps the essay writer meant that music could be A Small Part of Some Peoples’ Lives in Microcosm, but that doesn’t have the same pithy ring to it.

There again, what does the essayist (or might not the correct word be essayess – that has a certain aggressive tinge to it, don’t you think?) mean by “music”?  If she is referring to the lyrics of the popular songs of the day, she is probably thinking somewhere along the right lines; these lyrics do seem to encompass most basic human needs. (I’m sure someone could do a PhD on why those who write rap songs seem intent on human reproduction while opera composers are more concerned with nutrition.)  But even then, how can this be a “microcosm” rather than a reflection of life?

The problem I have with this seemingly innocuous phrase is that to describe anything as a “microcosm” is to imply it is small.  One definition given in my dictionary is; “a miniature representation of something, especially a unit, group, or place regarded as a copy of a larger one”.  While other definitions vary, the essence of the word seems to be that it is a miniature representation.  If music is, to cite a favourite definition of mine, something which expresses thoughts which words cannot, then far from being miniature, music is actually something which expands human thought, opens perceptions to an altogether wider consciousness and, not to put too fine a point on it, enlarges life.  In short, music is anything but a miniaturisation, even if it does not encompass every aspect of our daily lives.

It is unfair, and probably a little unkind, to castigate an 11-year-old girl for one (presumably) thoughtless sentence in an essay intended simply to impress her teachers with her command of English.  But, there again, are you ever too young to learn that it is wrong to belittle one of the great civilizing influences over mankind?  Music can never be life in microcosm. 

Now, had she written “Life is music in microcosm”, we might have a more valid topic to discuss.

08 September 2013

Cassette Comeback

Comeback Kid

The BBC reports on a record shop in London which has started stocking cassettes again. The question is asked; is this simply a gimmick, a trick to capture the market for nostalgia?  The answer comes as a surprise for, while acknowledging that this is certainly an aspect of it, there is a serious market for cassettes on their own terms.

My initial reaction is one of part disbelief, part horror.  Of all the multifarious media developed during my lifetime for the transmission of recorded music, the cassette has to have been one of the least loved and its demise one of the least lamented.  It had the value of portability in an age when recorded music, other than on a radio, simply was not portable, but as soon as the CD emerged with its almost comparable portability, the cassette died a rapid death.  Let's face it; it offered the serious music lover nothing.  Impossible to identify individual tracks or passages on it, prone to jamming and twisting (every road verge in the world seemed to be littered with long strands of unwound cassette tape thrown, in frustration, from car windows once the mangled tape had been forcibly ejected from the player) and accompanied by a horrible, pervasive hiss which largely disfigured the music on it, it's amazing we accepted its horrors for so many years.

We can now take a lot more music with us when we travel (if that's your idea of fun), we can hear it in better quality sound, we can access it much more directly, and it generally withstands considerably more punishment than was ver meted out to the cassette.  So why, when it had just about disappeared off the face of the earth (and its dramatic drop in production over the space of a couple of years bears testament to its fundamental weaknesses, all of which have been conclusively eradicated by the replacement media) should it be making a comeback?

Ah!  The 78 - Happy Days!

I look back on a veritable plethora of recording media.  My first encounters with recorded music were on 78 rpm shellac records on my parents' wind-up gramophone.  I can still feel that soft felt cover on the turntable and feel the well-oiled, sublimely smooth wind-up mechanism, the dumpy spindle and the thick, black record with its concise central label and its paper sleeve.  Ah!  The 78!  It not only generated a whole genre of music (pop music owes its origins to the playing time of a single-side of a 78 - around 2 and a half minutes), but so defined people's listening that even today many of us feel it has a place in modern-day listening experience.  For my part, I love the Andrews Sisters, but only on 78: put them on CD and they leave me cold.
7 wasted inches

Then came the 45 rpm.  Little 7-inch non-breakable vinyl discs with the same playing time as the 78 but much more durable and played on electronically operated machines; no more winding those up.  I remember those records which did not have a central spindle hole but the entire central core was missing (they were designed for juke box use) and how, when you bought a record player, you also bought a plastic device to click into the hole so that you could play it on a domestic player.  I have a sentimental attachment to these - my first records were 45s (including Barbirolli conducting The Wasps Overture, the Melanchrino Orchestra playing heavily edited "highlights" of Ravel's Bolero and, of course, Fernando Germani on Selby Abbey playing Widor's Toccata).  But it is just sentimentality that makes my memory linger lovingly over 45s; they were pretty hopeless for carrying music as I wanted to hear it.

It's not dead
It most certainly is dead!
(The Cartridge, for those who have never seen one)

Then for me came the 33 (chronologically, of course, I've got it wrong - but this is the sequence in which I came across them) and, with its 25 minute playing side, its stupendous sound, its wonderful covers with copious sleeve notes (from which I learnt much of what I still know about music) and, of course, its durability, it seemed the acme of recorded music.  For many it still is, and it is a fact that sales of vinyl 33s outstrip sales of CDs in some markets and that the production of vinyl LPs is growing worldwide.  That tells us that there are aspects of the LP which have yet to be superseded by new technologies.

Then came quite a crop of short-lived media for dissemination of recorded music.  We all had a domestic reel-to-reel tape-recorder, but who now remembers the pre-recorded tapes you used to be able to buy to play on these?  The chunky and ungainly cartridge (I had a factory-fitted cartridge player in my old Mark II Ford Cortina back in the 1970s), and a whole host of variants of the magnetic tape.  It was the Cassette (or Compact Cassette to give it its proper title) which won over all of these purely because of its portability; something emphasised when Sony brought out the Walkman and thus made real the dream (nightmare?) many people had had of music being able to be with them anywhere, anytime.

With the CD, the demise of the cassette was inevitable.  Early versions of the Sony Discman (the CD playing brother of the Walkman) suffered from a tendency for discs to jump when the player moved, but this was quickly and effectively solved, making it every bit as portable as the cassette, and a darn sight more useful because, in my experience, a CD has never got stuck, damaged or destroyed in a player.  Of course, that didn't stop people looking further.  Remember the mini-disc?  Probably the shortest-lived recorded music media in history, which came and went within a time frame measured more in months than years.

Who now remembers the Minidsic?
For some, the CD is dying; but as yet nobody has come up with a suitable replacement and nobody will for a few more years yet.  You can have portability, accessibility, reliability and quality in lots of new media, but none yet brings all four characteristics together in a single device. 

So is this move to resurrect the cassette an attempt to fulfil something which is missing from the CD?  As I say, the answer given by those interviewed on the BBC surprised me.  The great value of the cassette above those media which have replaced it is, apparently, two-fold.  Firstly, as one aficionado put it; "You can't carry too many cassettes around with you so you are forced to make decisions about what you want to hear and then you hear it over and over again", and secondly, as a die-hard cassette fan confessed; "You have to listen all the way through it.  You can't jump from track to track or item to item.  So you get to hear the whole music, not just little bits".

I would never have thought that, but how right it is.  With CDs we can jump past bits we don't like, replay bits we do, and with the pocket devices which carry vast numbers of "songs" I wonder whether the sheer amount of material available to the "listeners" means they never actually listen to any of it, and merely hop from one favoured morsel to another.

I once had several hundred cassettes and threw them all away only when I sold my last car; which had a cassette player in it (a clever Volvo thing which had a cassette player, CD player and USB port all in the one machine).  My last domestic cassette player, which I had bought quite literally off a trading dhow in Sri Lanka - the packaging indicating that it had been intended for an altogther different market and probably had been transferred to a Colombo-bound vessel somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean - having given up the ghost many years previously.  It never occurred to me that I would ever regret this, but I wish I still had one or two cassettes and the means to play them; I suddenly realise it's a very long time since I've actually sat down and listened to a recording for pleasure from beginning to end.  Perhaps only the cassette forces us to do this and, if so, is its reappearance something to be welcomed?