15 February 2013

An Organist's Lot


Throughout 2012 I never so much as touched a pipe organ.  A year off seemed a good opportunity to re-assess an approach to the instrument which had become, after decades of use and abuse, not so much jaded as ambivalent.  As 2012 ground on and I found myself completely unaffected by my self-imposed organ exile, I began to suspect that my organless state would become permanent.  However, a happy hour sat listening to organ records with an old friend finally got the juices running again, and I decided to give it another try.  The first opportunity came, significantly, on 1st January 2013 when I played at a midday service at St Margaret’s Church in Aberdeen.  Not having so much as sat at a console since December 2011, I was not at all sure how it would work out, but with the high liturgical intensity of the Very  Revd. Dr. Fr. Nimmo and a congregation possibly subdued by the preceding night’s Hogmanay celebrations, I found that, unlike riding a bicycle, I did not so much as wobble, but was straight back into the stride of it all and, finishing with the deeply simple but brilliantly effective Postlude of William Mathias, even got a smattering of people who, over the post-service whiskies, genuinely seemed to have enjoyed it.

Next up was a wedding in a tiny chapel deep in the heart of rural Rutland.  I’d taken the opportunity to practice – after  all The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba does not play itself, even after a lifetime’s familiarity – but was startled when I first looked into the chapel to realise not only how tiny it was but how delicate (for want of a better word) the  organ was.   With a choir of 40 made up from various professional groups from Surrey, London, Rutland and Cambridge and an eminent choral conductor trying to keep them all in shape (not helped by the fact that the chapel was broader than it was long, which meant the choir had to stretch from side-to-side and effectively blocked out any view of anything from the weirdly-placed organ) it could have been a nerve-wracking experience.  As it was it was pure, unadulterated, fun despite my having to accompany some of the most dreary and boring hymns (sorry, songs) known to mankind as well as a dreadfully monotonous dirge arranged from the singing of Enya.  To me, it was just an absolute pleasure to be pulling out stops, pushing them in, waving the swell pedal about and running up and down the pedal-board.  I regret to say that, much to the horror of my musician friends, I find myself more than happy to be back on the organ stool and will be grabbing every opportunity to indulge myself with renewed passion.  Roll on the concerts in China and Hong Kong (April), Scotland (May) and Ireland (June).  Hopefully there will be more! 

But for all my joy I was strongly reminded while playing for the Rutland wedding of why playing the organ had caused me such unease in the past. 

Largely inured from the grotesqueries of playing in church by 30 years in Malaysia (no churches with serviceable organs to talk of) and by the Very Revd. Dr. Fr. Nimmo’s refusal to accept that music in a church service is anything other than a solemn means of paying homage to God through the highest level of artistic endeavour, I had quite forgotten that for most churches, music needs to be utterly mundane, an obstruction to sincere thought and an excuse to give respectability to the kind of drivelling nonsense that usually goes on behind heavily stained curtains in karaoke lounges.  I had a hint with the masses of photocopied sheets sent to me beforehand bearing the smudged imprint of “celebration songs” and with the unending stream of D major chord symbols above an unedifying melodic line which, if spiced up with electronic wizardry and recording technology, makes Enya sound rather special.  I know that for a lot of people, this is “easy listening” which, by its association with certain events in their life, takes on a symbolic significance way beyond its meagre artistic value, but I deeply resent that dismal and mundane has been allowed to displace distinguished and magnificent, and that the awesome has been replaced by the awful.  With such horrible stuff to play, is it any wonder that church organists are a dying breed and that pipe organs, designed and built for better things, are decaying in favour of the ubiquitous “keyboard” where, with the right banana on the right dial, even a chimpanzee should be able to produce a good sound?  There’s a wonderful hymn which lists the great gifts humanity presents to God as including “Craftsman’s art and music’s measure”; perhaps they now sing “Inexpensive plastic moulding and miniscule computer microchips” instead.

Church congregations have obviously become so well used to this rubbish being churned out for them that it has become not so much aural wallpaper as aural graffiti, a slight nuisance which is best covered up in polite society.  So it is that as soon as the organ starts they start talking loudly and animatedly, terrified lest a note escapes into the silence and comes to the notice of sensitive ears.  So, despite my carefully planned programme of Leighton, Handel, Mendelssohn, Mulet, Bach, Franck, C S Lang and Guilmant, all I heard was the frantic yakity-yak of church folk.  Whatever happened to quiet meditation or contemplative thought?  I tried all the organist’s tricks; repeated B flats (making them believe the bride had arrived 20 minutes early), subito pianissimos, molto crescendos and interrupted cadences, but all to no avail.  They only shut up when the organ stopped playing.  It was like another stop; instead of “Open Diapason 8 foot’” we had “Open Mouths 160 feet”.

I do not blame congregations for obliterating from their consciousness as much of the pseudo-musical drivel as they can, but it means that when musical substance is offered to them, they can never get the benefit.  Such is the organist’s lot and if nobody is going to appreciate me, then a year off has taught me how to appreciate myself.  (Plus, of course, there is always the vague off-chance that God himself might also be listening!)

04 February 2013

Famous Composers

Thirty people, randomly selected, were stopped in the street and asked to name three composers of classical music.  The three names which were most commonly suggested were Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss (which one was not specified).  Another thirty people, randomly selected - possibly in a different street - were then given these three names and asked what they meant to the interviewees.  The responses were, in order, a dog, a kind of chocolate and a brand of jeans. 
Whether that story is apocryphal or actually true (I heard it related during a discussion among concert promoters) is beside the point; it seems entirely credible.  We live in a society where fame is measured in monetary wealth and press coverage, not in individual achievement or enduring legacy.  Composers may be famous names among music lovers, but unless their names are associated with individuals or products which have made lots of money and receive regular column inches in the popular press, they are ignored by the vast mass of population.  Ask thirty people in the street who Englebert Humperdinck is, for example, and few will suggest the orchestrator of Parsifal or the composer of Hansel und Gretel.  Instead they will refer to an aging crooner, who earns a lot of money and can afford his own personal PR consultant.
Mozart, for all the familiarity of his name, will never be famous in the minds of contemporary society not only because he is dead but, more particularly, because he was famously not rich.  His claim to contemporary fame is further diminished by the fact that the PR people have mercilessly promoted a brand of chocolate which bears his name and has become a must-have souvenir for those who visit Salzburg.  (As for the city of Mozart’s birth, this too has been taken over by the PR people to the extent that when I used to drive coach parties to Salzburg, the buzz was “This is where they filmed The Sound of Music”, rather than “This is the place where one of the greatest composers of all time was born”.)
It was the movie PR people who also hi-jacked Beethoven’s name, giving it to an utterly unbelievable fictional dog immortalised on a series of mind-numbingly banal films.  The trouble is a dog is more media-friendly than a dead, deaf and demented composer.  And the fact that one Strauss was, for a time, associated with Hitler and Nazi Party and another part of such a huge family that few can tell one from another, the name lacks the kind of bland accessibility it gets when it is stitched on to an elaborate leather label proudly displayed (along with waist and inside leg measurements) on a brand of jeans which happily avoids any hint of anti-Semitism by linking Strauss with an archetypically Jewish name.
Composers of classical music have rarely been wealthy and, even when they were (think Mendelssohn) lacked either the ability or the desire to manipulate the media to suit their own ends.  They are, at best, peripheral figures, slightly weird in the minds of contemporary society in that they pursue careers which do not bring vast wealth and they pay no heed to their image.  But there was one composer who bucked this stereotype.  He was not only one of the richest men in Europe, but he also was an absolute master in manipulating the press.  He it was, in the words of his biographer, who invented “the modern press conference with refreshments”. (As a journalist I’ve been to plenty of press conferences with refreshments and can tell you, they invariably work, leaving the assembled hacks feeling deeply enamoured of whoever has lavished such fine hospitality on them.)  So who was this early model for the likes of, say, Richard Branson?  The name was Jakob Beer.
How many readers of this blog will have heard of a German composer called Jakob Beer?  Perhaps if I point out that he moved to Italy where, in a remarkably media-savvy bid to ingratiate himself with the Italian public , he changed his forename to Giacomo, some will hear bells ringing in their heads.  And when I recount how he linked the last two of his names together and settled in Paris, then quite a few will recognise Giacomo Meyerbeer as a vaguely familiar name in the annals of opera.  Organists will know of him only because Liszt used a melody from one of his operas in his greatest organ work, the Fantasia & Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, but I doubt whether concert-goers will know a note of his music.
So what went wrong?  Why has a man, who by all the standards of contemporary society should be among the most famous composers of them all, been all but forgotten by all except a handful of aficionados of Grand Opera?

The Most Famous Composer of All Time?

In every way, Meyerbeer was living in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He focussed so much on the spectacular operatic performance popular in early 19th century France, that when it fell out of fashion, denounced as vulgar exhibitionism by its subsequent detractors and financially unsustainable, his reputation fell along with it and, far from being seen as a famous personality, loaded with moolah and high in the PR canon, he is regarded as a miserable remnant of a discredited society where outward appearance took precedence over inner substance.
Might there be some lesson to be learnt from Meyerbeer’s sorry demise?

01 February 2013

Such Orchestras As...


It began with Viagra.  Then came a sheath of medications of dubious value, to be followed by miracle cures for my excessive weight, hair loss and failing eye-sight.  Next, a Nigerian gentleman with extraordinarily generous philanthropic tendencies who only needed me to furnish him with a small sum to cover administrative costs before he would transfer vast sums  into my bank account (full details of which he urged me to pass on to him).  Then came the offers of free petrol for a year, gift vouchers for stores of which, if I had heard of any of them, I would never have ventured inside and, latest of all, free membership of casinos and assorted gaming dens.  Luckily my email Spam filter has long since worked out how to discard these, and I only know of their continued existence when I periodically check the Junk Mailbox to make sure a genuine offer of fulsomely paid employment has not passed me by.
I suppose I could set my Spam filters to add to the huge pile of junk they, I presume, divert from my daily inbox, any material which includes the egregious phrase “such orchestras as…”.  But, despite an earnest desire never to see this phrase again, I have no choice.  It is an inevitable consequence of the life I lead.

For reasons which defy my meagre intelligence, artist agencies assign to the most junior office clerk or unpaid intern the task of writing promotional biographies of artists.  The agencies assume, I imagine, that it is the one area of their work that can most easily be interrupted in mid-course by the need to make the tea, refill the water cooler or replenish the towels in the washroom.  But how wrong they are.  If major artists knew just how despicable they come across in the descriptions their agents send out, they would surely jump ship and take control of their own musical destiny.  If they knew, for example, that there are people like me who immediately assume that the quality and ability of an artist is in inverse proportion to the amount of “mesmerizing renditions”, “garnering accolades” and “recognised worldwide for insightful performances” on their biographies, they surely would realise that their agents, far from extolling their virtues, are turning them into laughing stocks.
If I read any biography that contains the words Mesmerising, Rendition or Garnering, I scream.  When I read that someone has performed with “such orchestras as…” I jump out of the window – luckily I inhabit the ground floor and the windows are too small to accommodate my bulk – but you get the point.

Take this.  “Wong Noat  [not his real name] has performed with such orchestras as The Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and others”.  Now I ask you, what orchestras ARE like the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic?   It can hardly mean; “He has performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Braddell Heights Symphony and the Sarawak State Symphony”.  Somehow it doesn’t quite have the same impact.
In its heyday, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra used to look down its collective nose at any of its players who slummed it on an occasional basis for a modest fee with the Singapore Symphony.  To lump these two together as being alike shows such a fundamental lack of knowledge that even to make the suggestion is to indicate utter musical ignorance.  And if it’s true of two neighbouring Asian orchestras, think how true it is of every other orchestra.  An orchestra, especially a good one, is a unique animal, with its own distinct character and its own distinct personality.  To say they are alike is to reveal a complete lack of musical consciousness.  So when an artist is said to have played with “such orchestras as…” you can be pretty sure that whoever wrote that comment has never heard the orchestra in question.

But here’s another thing.  Those “such orchestras as…” are invariably the famous ones.  I don’t recall reading “he has performed with such orchestras as the Thailand Philharmonic”; no criticism of the TPO – a pretty good bunch of players all things considered.  Neither have I ever seen an artist who has performed with “such orchestras as the Hong Kong Philharmonic” – an orchestra of considerable musical quality.  No, orchestras seem only to be able to be compared with those in Berlin, Vienna, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia or, strangely, the NHK in Japan.  Could it be that, by selecting the great orchestras of the world and suggesting that our artist has played with similar groups, one is trying to hide the fact that our artist spends most of his time playing with the third and fourth rate bands and once, probably by accident, ended up on a platform alongside the Big Boys from Berlin?
Orchestras in Asia (apart from NHK) rarely get a look in.  At best, we can read “he has played with all the major orchestras in Asia” (hmmm? ALL of them?  And does that mean he has never played with any of the minor ones?).  And nobody, but nobody, ever seems to have played a note with an African orchestra.  Yet, the orchestras of Natal, Cape Town and Pretoria have, in their time, been a pretty impressive bunch.

No, I’m afraid the phrase “such orchestras as…” combines musical snobbery of the worst kind with musical ignorance in the extreme.  As one whose job it is to edit artist biographies for inclusion in concert programmes, I have long ago given up rephrasing this detestable utterance.  If an artist agency can’t be bothered to tell us precisely which orchestras the artist has played with, then I can’t be bothered to read about it and this barely illuminating line from the biography gets consigned, along with all those mesmerised renditions, garnered accolades and worldwide recognitions for insightful performances, to such places as the rubbish bin.