31 March 2013

A Hong Kong Messiah


The Messiah gets to be performed so often that audiences take it for granted and conductors endeavour to bring something different to the work in a bid to get us to see it in a new light.  Brett Weymark certainly wanted to bring something distinctive to his performance with the Hong Kong Philharmonic on Saturday evening; he only half succeeded.

He was, it has to be said, starting on the back foot for, even before the solemn Sinfonia started the inexorable path to the final, great Amen, the publicity supporting the concert rather clouded the issue.  Not that there were any false claims; merely a number of confusing half-truths.

Half truth Number One was the claim that this marked a “resurrection” of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus.  In that the Chorus has not sung in public since 2010 that was true, but as any half-decent chorus refreshes a large proportion of its membership through auditions every two or three years, there was nothing particularly new about the 160 singers ranging across the width of the Cultural Centre Concert Hall’s auditorium.  What was not up for debate was just how good this Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus was, drilled to an extraordinary level of excellence by Philip Chu.  Messiah is quite a sing for any chorus, yet this one never flagged or showed signs of weakness.  They sang with tremendous verve and precision, pitching and ensemble were flawless, diction and articulation magnificent and the sopranos, in particular, searing in the intensity of their tone.  It might all have reached a shattering climax with the Hallelujah Chorus, but this was largely drowned out by the sound of seats thumping shut, programme books (and their multiplicity of enclosures) dropped to the floor and joints creaking as, in a mark of respect to British Colonial Power, the Hong Kong audience, almost to a man, staggered to their feet in the time-honoured tradition of acknowledging a long-dead monarch who, in an early performance of the work, decided enough was enough and got up to leave, causing, in the act, a major disruption to the performance (as such, that would seem to make King George II a true icon to Hong Kong audiences).

Half truth number two was the description of Xiao Ma as a “Countertenor”.  He was not; he was a falsettist and while he possessed a fairly solid tenor register and could produce a reasonably hearty hoot on the top notes, between the two was not just a very obvious break, but one which Xiao manifestly was unable to negotiate.  On top of that he delivered some weird diction; at the point where The Messiah reaches its most intense sorrow we heard the odd comment that “He was despy-Sid and acquainted with glee”.

Chen Yong was a true tenor, his voice light but sharply focused, and while at times he had problems riding over the top of what was a very large orchestra (I reckon there were almost 40 strings on stage, only a handful of which were placed on the reserve benches while Chen sang), he still managed to convey a strong sense of conviction, not least in his buoyant aria “Ev’ry Valley”.  (Why did the programme book insist on calling all the arias “Songs”, which is something very different?)

Eclipsing all the other soloists in terms of sheer vocal presence was Brian Montgomery whose magisterial bass, delivered with wonderful aplomb and an almost operatic physicality, was an object-lesson in effortless projection and masterly delivery.  He had no difficulty at all in overwhelming the massed orchestral forces sent to support him, even when he reverted to a bare whisper (“Behold I tell you a Mystery” was almost having a closely-guarded secret divulged), and his big arias were brimming over with latent drama.  Rarely have the “heav’ns and earth” been so violently shaken, while the nations seemed likely to lose off an armed warhead so aggressively did they rage together (was Montgomery thinking of North Korea at this point?).

The most blatantly operatic moment of the whole performance was Yuki Ip’s entry on to the stage.  As the Pastoral Symphony, here pared down to just two oboes and bassoon, bobbed along, she shimmied across the platform to cast her angelic soprano on to the assembled shepherds.  She presented a truly effusive “Rejoice Greatly”, and the icing on the cake came when, as she sang with crystalline purity the worlds “For Christ is Risen”, the bleeping watch of a nearby audience member, drew attention to the fact that Easter Day had just dawned somewhere in Weymark’s native Australia.  Unfortunately, her final appearance almost resulted in disaster when, in what can most kindly be described as a misjudgement, Weymark decided to open the Amen chorus with the four soloists alone.  It was pretty shaky already, oozing with wholly inappropriate smnoochiness, but when Ip mistimed her entry it all fell apart to be rescued, almost farcically, by a peculiar mock-Irish jig from a lone violin, possibly in acknowledgement of the country in which Messiah was first performed.

And that brings us to Half-truth Number Three.  The programme notes claimed that Handel wrote The Messiah in just twenty-four days. That is certainly true insofar that Handel did write enough of the work to be performed in Dublin in that time, but he spent many more years adding to and revising it for various subsequent performances, with the result that what we hear today rarely comprises what Handel wrote in those 24 days.  Weymark had elected to use the Clifford Bartlett performing edition which, in brief, includes just about every bit of music Handel wrote, revised or changed in the work, leaving it to the conductor to decide which bits to include and which to leave out and thereby shaping the performance to his own ends.

Weymark’s choice was to cut lots from the last part, but leave most of the first two parts intact. That still left a great deal of music to get through, and to ensure he was done by 10.30 (in which task he succeeded magnificently) his tempi were, to put it mildly, brisk.  “Let us break their bonds” was chaotic, but no matter how sorely tested the chorus was by Weymark’s breathless tempi, they responded magnificently, barking out “All we like sheep” as if they were a pack of hungry wolves descending in formation on their next feast.  But while, in many ways, this Messiah represented an unequivocal triumph for an outstanding chorus, the real hero of the night was the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra who, despite their numbers, played with a precision and clarity of attack which went a long way towards achieving Weymark’s obvious intention of the giving the performance a crisp, desiccated “Baroque” feel.  The violins showed astonishing uniformity, while the cellos, led by the glorious buoyancy of Richard Bamping, had a lightness which belied their massed ranks.   Perhaps not trusting the chorus to stay in tune, Weymark had the organ doubling their parts throughout, and it is to the undying credit of Marsha Chow (and Ann Other on the organ stool), that this did not seriously impede the music; although the harpsichord did, in the event, seem a trifle superfluous.

This Hong Kong Messiah had lots to commend it, but ultimately it did not seem to know where it wanted to go.  It was neither authentic nor romantic, neither intimate nor expansive, neither scholarly nor populist.  Had Handel heard it he would, I’m sure, have found some of it perplexing, some of it strange and some of it vaguely familiar.  But most of all he would, I suspect, along with everyone in the audience, have found it thoroughly enjoyable.

17 March 2013

Nasty or Nice?

A magazine editor returns some proofs to me for correction along with a comment: “This should elicit a letter or two”.  I do not take that as an admonition, since magazine editors love correspondence - it not only shows that people are reading the magazine, but as everyone likes to see their name in print, a published letter from a reader can result in friends, family and colleagues buying the issue and, possibly, deciding it’s worth taking out a subscription.  For my part, it never occurred to me that the section of my piece which got the editor rubbing her metaphorical hands together in gleeful anticipation was in any way controversial; it seemed such an obvious observation that nobody would think it worth a comment. Perhaps I’m wrong. 

To read the full piece as well as any subsequent correspondence, you will have to buy - or preferably take out a subscription to – International Record Review, but here’s the nub of the matter: “If creators of great music had to be decent human beings …that would pretty well exclude Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and, specially, Wagner (to name just four)”. 
In context, I was writing about a new disc of music by the Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613).  It’s absolutely wonderful choral music, sublimely beautiful and with an intense spirituality.  Harmonically it is alarmingly forward-looking (not for nothing did Stravinsky attempt reconstruction of some of these motets while, according to a colleague, Peter Maxwell Davis devoted the greater part of a public lecture on Gesualdo’s music) and its polyphonic detail is as complex and intricate as the finest Belgian lace.  Presented here in new reconstructions by James Wood from partially surviving part-books, we hear music which has hardly been heard in the past 400 years and, by bringing back into the public arena a substantial part of Gesualdo’s sacred output just in time for the 400th anniversary of the composer’s death, gives us a chance to re-assess the composer.

The face of Murder or a Great Composer?
And reassessment is exactly what Gesualdo needs, for any mention of him generally begins, not with his heavenly music, but with his human notoriety.  If I suggest that his death was hastened by his fervent self-flagellation, and might have occurred a lot earlier had principles of 17th century justice been more in line with principles of 21st century justice, you begin to see that Gesualdo was not, perhaps, everybody’s image of the archetypical composer of divine sacred music.

In 1926 the English music critic, Philip Heseltine (better known as the composer Peter Warlock) wrote a book which ensured that Gesualdo’s name would be brought before the contemporary public for reasons other than his music.  Heseltine (and co-author Cecil Gray) drew attention to the fact that Gesualdo found his wife in bed with another man, murdered them both and got away with it.  He also killed the baby boy which his wife had claimed was his but he believed to have been his wife’s lover’s (James Wood has written that Gesualdo “rocked the child to death while his musicians sang madrigals about the beauty of death”). Various writers have claimed that Gesualdo avoided the consequences of his crime because he was an aristocrat, because he adopted a religious life, because he re-married an influential lady and, amazingly, because killing wives and lovers was “accepted behaviour”.  In the close scrutiny of Gesualdo’s life, fired by a desire to find out how he did get away with murder, other unsavoury facts have come to light.  He indulged in countless affairs while married to his second wife and, most scandalously, got himself tied up with various pagan rituals which involved loaves of bread and menstruating women which are too distasteful even for this blog to relate.
The face of a Devil Worhsipper
or a Fine Song Writer?
Having spent decades delving into the lives of composers in search of some small snippet of human failing or idiosyncrasy which can help draw an otherwise confused public into the music, I am very conscious of the danger of finding so much non-musical interest in a composer that it obscures the music.  In the case of Gesualdo, that has certainly happened, and nobody can mention him without bringing up the murder (I’m as guilty as anyone in this!).  When you make the suggestion that he was a great composer, people are amazed and ask how can a murderer, philanderer, sexual deviant and devil-worshipper be a great composer?

He fought a Duel with pistols and wrote The Messiah
Peter Warlock, himself (and the pseudonym is telling) was heavily into devil worship and pagan rituals – and while he may not have been a great composer, he stands as a peerless writer of English song – while any major composer you care to mention has got something unsavoury in his closet.  Bach was thoroughly unpleasant, was thrown out of his brother’s house due to his malign influence on his brother’s children, languished in prison after being rude to an employer and even lived for a time in a strange kind of ménage à trois with his wife and her sister.  Handel was renowned for the sharpness of his tongue and his fiery temper, once fighting a fellow composer in a duel after a physical altercation in the orchestra pit at Hamburg, while the famous story of his absconding from the Elector of Hanover’s service has recently been undermined by suggestions that he was, in effect, working as a German spy in the English court.  Mozart was unquestionably a social misfit, prompting me to ask those who open up music schools called “Little Mozarts Academy” or some such rubbish, why it is they are encouraging children to be unemployable, disagreeable and dead before they are 40.  Beethoven was horrible - a cantankerous, self-centred hot-tempered brute - and as for Wagner, I do not need to catalogue his faults as a human being; the fact that many still refuse to perform his music indicative of the legacy of hatred he left behind.
What was there to like about him?

Brahms seems to have been a pretty difficult character, Schumann had a nasty streak which came out after his failed suicide bid when he refused to allow his distraught wife to see him in hospital, Schubert, for all his sociability, appears to have been morally dissolute, Prokofiev was spoiled rotten as a child and carried this into his adult life, Saint-Saëns cruelly blamed his wife and left her following the death of their young sons, Stravinsky was notoriously selfish and Shostakovich an habitual liar.  Bruckner, often painted as a harmless old duffer, would surely have been imprisoned for life had he lived in the 21st century because of his penchant for the exclusive company of adolescents and his frequent offers of marriage to underage girls.  

Alun Hoddinott - dyn neu ysgrubl?
Percy Grainger was heavily into sado-masochism, Frederick Delius urged others to abandon their careers in order to promote his, Malcolm Williamson, Alun Hoddinott and Malcolm Arnold, composers I knew personally and for whom I had great affection, could be nice, but a dangerous penchant for the booze turned them all into animals, but those composers I knew who appeared to be unrelievedly nice - Arthur Bliss, Herbert Sumsion and Richard Francis – can hardly be said to be among the greats; Indeed, I am quite sure there are many reading this who have heard of none of them.


So, instead of being surprised that nasty men can produce great music, we should accept the fact that an ordinary human being, who loves his wife and family, never breaks the law, pays his taxes, votes conservatively and would never harm animals can never hope to be a great composer.  I would have thought that history shows us this is a self-evident truth.  What is there to add?
(except pictrues of three NICE men!)

11 March 2013

What Future For Music?

Here is my Norman Lebrecht moment.  I have suddenly become depressed about the future of classical music and am predicting its demise.  Well, to be honest, I'm neither depressed nor convinced its demise is likely, but Lebrecht gets all the kudos for misguided pessimism so why shouldn't I cash in; especially as we have a non-professional connection (one of my students tells me he attends the same synagogue as Norman).

In the office where I occasionally work is a state-of-the-art photocopy machine.  It works day in day out, churning out vast quanitites of paper, transferring scrappy sheets of A4 into neat, folded and stapled booklets, and turning hefty hard-backed tomes into manageable soft-paper leaflets.   There is usually an orderly queue, patiently waiting while the person at the machine oversees its inexorable issuance of ream after ream of paper; and the clarion cry, "the photocopier's run out of paper", usually gets the secretary up from her desk six or seven times a day to tear the packaging of another 500 sheets and slam them into the machine's cavernous belly.

And who are those people for whom photocopying substantial quantities of material is so important that they sacrifice so much of their day for it?  They are performers, choral conductors, singing teachers, orchestral directors, ensemble members - just about anyone involved in music.  Pianists are there copying a single Debussy Prelude from a book of 12, violinists are copying their part from Britten's Young Person's Guide so they can take it home and practice in private, brass players are taking their next week's crop of Arban Studies from the book one brass teacher once labelled "the music-stand-buster",  and, of course, the chapel choir is getting one copy each of Rutter's Christ the Lord is Risen Again from that handy-sized book of anthems with the red and yellow cover.  Mention that they might be contravening copyright laws and they look at you as if you are daft; "I just want to try this out with the choir to see whether they like it", is the usual excuse.  And what if they do like it?  Will you go out and buy 45 copies of the book?  Silly question!

Increasingly these people are making copies of something they have already downloaded free-of-charge from the internet; and if it's there for the public to access, it's got to be legal hasn't it?  With not too much searching around you can usually find a score of what you want free on the internet, and once printed out, you can make unlimited copies.  So much handier than ordering the music from a shop, and certainly much, much cheaper.  Forgetting the environmental resources plundered by all this paper (most of which gets thrown away - if you need it again you can always download some more and photocopy it again), I do wonder how seriously these people take their responsibilities towards their art.

Some years ago a fierce debate raged over the cost of commercial CDs.  You could buy a blank one for a few dollars, record some music on to it and the total cost was a tiny fraction of the cost of purchasing a commercial CD.  Ergo, the record companies were guilty of shameless profiteering adding an (apparent) mark-up of several hundred percent on the real costs.  Of course, the jaw-dropping stupidity of those who propounded this argument meant that they failed to recognise that the cost of a CD includes the cost of hiring the musicians, paying copyright fees for the use of the music, paying engineers, producers and, most importantly, the fellow who writes the booklet notes.  None of these come cheap (except, of course, for the poor fellow who writes the booklet notes) yet, because you can't see them, you assume they don't exist.  There is a substantial part of the population which really does believe that because music is ubiquitous it just magically appears out of thin air.

With the rise of downloads and sharing sites, that old argument has flared up again, and there is shock horror when record companies and musicians start to object.  The loonies come out in their droves whenever an unscrupulous file-sharing site is closed down; and popular opinion seems to be that it is those who expect to be paid for their work who are wrong, not those who steal it.  I worry that with this unregulated mass acquisition of free music now wholly out of control, those who perform music will soon be unable to carry on.  We may love music, but we love money too, and without the latter we can't really perform the former.

And it is clearly going the same way with printed music.  If students, teachers, players and choirs can't afford music, hard luck.  I can't afford a Rolls Royce; that does not give me the right to go and steal one?  Despite what the unthinking say, music is a luxury not a necessity, and if we can't afford it, perhaps we need to re-evaluate our priorities.  Getting it free and distributing it free is only hastening the demise of composers, publishers and performers.  Composers and arrangers will stop composing and arranging if they don't get paid for it, and when the very people who perform their music start to steal it, there seems a very real risk of the whole thing falling apart.  Unless we start buying again and give up expecting to get it free, classical music will certainly die.