08 December 2014

Rutterless At Christmas

Pinned to the notice board in an office where I once worked was an old yellowing cartoon apparently torn from a newspaper.  It must have been up there for years and, by virtue of having other notices pinned over it at various times, had somehow survived the passage of time.  When visitors to the office did happen upon it, it invariably induced a wry smile from those in the know, and sometimes even a hearty laugh.  Even now, I can still picture it in my mind’s eye and have a chuckle whenever I think of it.  It was not particularly well drawn or eye-catching, but the humour was in the six words which came out of the mouth of one of the cartoon characters.  It depicted a church choir singing away lustily in what was obviously a Christmas service.  As most of them sung, one chorister was clearly whispering to another as he eyed the music in his hands; “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rutter”.  (I rooted out a copy of the cartoon on the internet and reproduce it below...until such time as the copyright holders - whom I cannot identify - tell me to take it down!)

(Even the more musical readers in some countries may not get the joke, so perhaps some explanation (and an image) are necessary.  There was once a heavily marketed spread which, by use of a concoction of unpleasant sounding chemicals and a lurid yellow dye, sold itself on looking and – apparently - tasting so much like butter that even the most accomplish gourmands could not tell the difference.)

Like all really good jokes, this had more than a hint of truth about it;  Since the 1970s when he started issuing his carol arrangements to the world through the follow-up volumes to the iconic green Carols for Choirs book, the name of John Rutter has become so synonymous with Christmas that, like the cartoon choir boy, few of us could conceive of any Christmas carol concert or service without the ubiquitous Rutter carol arrangement with its saccharine harmonies and gracefully oozing instrumental descant (preferably an oboe or flute when an orchestra is present, or a sweet 8 foot flute stop when it’s just an organ).  And as the years have passed and his stranglehold on Christmas tightened, so Rutter has added more to the repertoire than just mere arrangements; now we also sing his innocuous melodies and his own sweet words.  Christmas without Rutter seems as likely as Sea without Water.

Or at least it did until this year.

Having attended no less than five Christmas Carol events in the last week alone (in a Roman Catholic cathedral, an Anglican church, a school, on a beach and, most spectacularly, in Sydney Opera House) I feel as if reality is slipping from my grasp; for not one of these has presented even the merest whiff of Rutter.  No saccharine harmonies, no gracefully oozing descants, no innocuous melodies or sweet words; at least, not of the John Rutter variety.  David Willcocks (one of the original Carols for Choirs editors) has been represented in force, as have all the old favourites in their original versions (the ones choirs were quite happy to sing before the Advent of Carols for Choirs).  On top of that there have been some novelties, some of which (Jan Sandström’s magical arrangement of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen magically sung by the massed voices of the Sydney Philharmonia Choir, Vox and the Festival Chorus dotted around a concert hall lit only by the atmospheric blue lights attached the choirs’ music folders, and  Ben Parry’s arrangement of the Coventry Carol sung with lusty enthusiasm by the adolescent tenors and basses of the King’s School choir) will live in the memory long after Christmas has past, while others (Lin Marsh’s Diamond Bright and the almost frighteningly dreary Abigail’s Song by Murray Gold) I am desperately hoping will have faded from memory long before the first Christmas tree needles have begun to drop.  But of Rutter?  Not a hint.

The Sydney Opera House managed to find almost three hours of Christmas
music without even a whiff of John Rutter 
As conductor Brett Weymark put it during his extended pep talk to the audience at last night’s marathon (almost 3 hours) Sydney Opera House Carol concert, it is not the decorations, the tinsel, the cards or the window displays in the shops which put you in the Christmas mood, it is the sound of Christmas music.  How right he is.  With most stores putting up Christmas decorations months before the event, and Christmas cards now all too often sent electronically in that easy-come easy-go manner of all internet communication, these visual things have lost any meaning.  But a choirboy singing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” -  a fulsome-toned lad by the name of Mack Holz is the best I’ve heard so far this year - a brass band playing “Silent Night” (with waves breaking on the beach and the noise of passing traffic and several fire sirens forming a distinctly un-Christmassy backdrop) and a robed choir intoning “Veni Emmanuel” as incense is wafted over an Advent wreath, has the goose bumps popping up as, once again, the magic of Christmas makes itself manifest, not through my eyes but through those more direct channels to the heart, my ears.

Strangely, though, Christmas does not seem right without a “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol”, a “Donkey Carol” or a delicate arrangement of the “Sans Day Carol”, and much as all Rutter sounds so alike that after a while it all merges together like the ingredients of a particularly sickly Christmas Pudding, I really do miss it when it’s not there.  Whether we like it or not, Rutter has become an integral part of Christmas and without his music, some of the magic seems to have gone.  You can have too much of it, but like butter, Rutter used sparingly does no harm at all and actually makes a very welcome Christmas treat.

28 November 2014

A Pleasing Music

“In every known culture, the ordering of sound in ways that please the ear has been used extensively to improve the quality of life.”  These words appear in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, The Psychology of Happiness.  Prof. Csikszentmihalyi has devoted much of his life to studying the psychology of happiness and creativity, so we should expect this to be a true statement.  Certainly it sounds as if it could be true, and the notion is an enticing one for anybody who wants academic support for an argument promoting the value of music in human existence.  But is it true and, more importantly, does it properly reflect the function of music?

(As it stands, this statement does not refer specifically to music, but as it comes at the very start of section in the book headed “The Flow of Music” and is followed by a statement that “one of the most ancient and popular functions of music is to focus the listeners’ attention on patterns appropriate to a desired mood”, it is certainly to music, rather than the organisation of sounds into a spoken language, that Prof. Csikszentmihalyi is addressing his comments.)

My few and feeble ventures into the realms of ethnomusicology have taught me that in many cultures music is functional rather than enriching.  Music intended to ward off spirits, to scare birds at sewing time, to mourn the dead or to accompany a sacred rite was never intended to please the ear, and in many cultures that is the only music which has been created.  Audience reactions at “world music” festivals when the functional music of differing cultures is performed, rarely touch on how the sound pleases the ear; “fascinating”, “exciting” and (I regret to say as often as not in my case) “troubling” and “incomprehensible” are the usual responses, and on those occasions where words like “beautiful” and “enchanting” crop up, it is tinged with surprise; as if nobody actually expects world music is to be immediately pleasing to the ears.  I know of many cultures in which the struggle for daily existence leaves no room for the idle and time-consuming search for something which merely pleases the ears. 

The matter of whether or not music written deliberately to please the ear is found in “every known culture” is certainly open to debate.  I am sure it is an incorrect statement, but Prof. Csikszentmihalyi (and his editors) would certainly have checked his facts thoroughly, so I am open to persuasion.  That, though, is not the real concern I have with his original statement.  What offends me most is his failure to grasp the true function and purpose of western classical music; a music certainly born of a “known culture”, even if it has now become essentially multi-cultural in both its creation and dissemination.

Western classical music can exist without sound.  It uses sound as its medium of transmission, the means by which it is communicated to the listener, but for those who create, and for a great many who are involved in it, sound is not essential to its appreciation.  On the most obvious level, how else can one explain the significant involvement in the creation of music by the deaf (Beethoven and Smetana were by no means the only composers who created great music while completely unable to hear sound)?  Logically, therefore, music must have some more important driving force behind its creation than merely to “please the ear”. 

I would suggest that only in our own time has music been written with the express purpose of pleasing the ear.  I may be wrong, but I suspect that this a (if not the) primary objective behind the music of such composers as Eric Whitacre, whose music is lovely to hear but does not stand up to closer scrutiny.  Making beautiful sounds is clearly a 21st-century thing in music; hence the proliferation of best-selling albums and high-earning artists who promote their concerts with the word “beautiful” prominent in the publicity.  But where beauty - or at least “pleasing the ear” - occurs in earlier music, I would suggest is by accident rather than design.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is deemed beautiful. It is, but I cannot accept that it was composed with that aspect in mind. I am certain that much of Bach’s music was specifically designed not to please the ear, but to satisfy the intellect and, to a certain extent, confuse the ear into feeling that the music was beyond the full appreciation of ordinary mortal man; appreciated and understood only by God, for whom it was written as an act of homage.  Hence the emphasis on complex textures – polyphony and counterpoint – which cannot be properly grasped by any human ear in one sitting.

Mozart is frequently proclaimed as the penner of beautiful tunes, audiences sit attentive in concert halls lapping up the gorgeous tunes of Johann Strauss, Berlioz is cited as a composer whose music is lovely to hear and people lap up the soothing tones of John Tavener and Arvo Pärt.  But not one of them wrote music simply to please the ears of passive listeners.  Mozart was writing for performers, aware that as often as not few people were actually listening to his music.  Berlioz had profound and burning ideas to express, and stretched the bounds of what was acceptable in order to express them; more than any other composer before the 20th century he deliberately set out not to please the ear but to shock it.  Strauss wrote his music to accompany dancing, while the music of both Tavener and Pärt is a manifestation of their deep religious convictions – music intended to express the inconceivable rather than titillate the conceived.

Different audiences take different things from performances of Western classical music, often driven by their particular cultural background, and the very universality of music, the huge variety of responses it produces, is testament to the fact that it is appreciated on a multitude of different levels.  Some listeners, certainly, enjoy it merely for pleasing the ear; these, presumably, are the shallow creatures who glibly dismiss music which does not have nice sounds as “noise”, and write off the works of some of the 20th century’s more adventurous composers as “not music”.  But enticing as it is to accept Prof. Csikszentmihalyi’s statement at face value, it is not only wrong, but represents a dangerous misconception of what music really is.  He belittles the culture which developed music to stimulate the senses, fire the imagination, focus the emotions and, in short, not just enhance the quality of life with its pleasing sounds, but to affect the very purpose of existence

16 November 2014

Musical Irresponsibility Australian-style

“It’s very irresponsible of me, I know, but I can’t resist playing this to you.  So my apologies as, for the next 13 minutes, office productivity drops and those heading for work arrive late.”  The lady presenting the breakfast show on ABC Classic FM in Australia was very certain of the power of the music she was about to play.  “Our researches show that whenever we play this, there is a marked reduction of productivity in factories and offices and our listening figures rocket.”  Even a manic radiophile such as myself finds this difficult to believe; and, if true, it only goes to show how much more involved in listening to “classical” music the Australians are than any other race on the face of the earth.  (But there again the same lady – or a different one with a very similar voice – told us on yesterday’s programme that “staying with Baroque music, here’s an aria by Mozart”, which may imply a casualness in correctitude amongst the presenters of ABC Classic FM.) Taking the statement at face value - that there is a single piece of music which, when played over the air, brings Australia to a standstill - it might tell us even more about Australian musical sensitivities when we discover what that piece of music is.

Even as I sat, with bated breath, waiting for the rambling preamble to give way to the music, I started guessing what it could be.  Knowing the amazing parochialism of ABC Classic FM (every performance involving an Australian player – even if it’s just third flute in a foreign orchestra – is associated with words like “brilliant”, “dazzling”, “wonderful”, while aged recordings of unexceptional music by long-forgotten Aussie composers are heralded as “gorgeous”, “lovely”, “amazing”) I guessed it might be some Malcolm Williamson, Don Banks maybe even Percy Grainger.  That, though, might be stretching a point even for ABC Classic FM; so perhaps more likely contenders would be Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Pachelbel’s Canon or the slow movement of the Mozart “Elvira Madigan” Concerto (although that last one gets so much airing on Australian TV where it accompanies a nasty little advert for Lexus cars, I doubt even it has the power to stop a nation any more).  Tchaikovsky, Bach and Grieg could all be relied on for potential nation-stopping moments, and, for my part, there are chunks of Stravinsky (the “Alleluias” from Symphony of Psalms), Mendelssohn (the “Baal choruses” from Elijah) and Monteverdi (the opening of Orfeo) which never fail to stop me in my tracks. 

Perhaps, though, the most likely contender would be the “Adagio” from Schubert’s String Quintet; a movement which always seems to catch you unawares with its instant ascent into the realms of the ecstatic.  I remember when it cropped up playing in the background of an episode of that wonderful UK TV series, Inspector Morse it suddenly became everyone’s favourite piece of “classical” music, in much the same way that the “Adagio” from Khachaturian’s Spartacus was when it provided the signature tune for the TV series The Onedin Line and Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela in an earlier era captured the hearts of viewers to Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night.

Oddly, though, the piece which stops Australia – or at least measurably reduces productivity – is a Schubert Trio.  Odd, because while it is certainly pleasant enough, it certainly does not have the kind of “grab” factor which makes you stop what ever you are doing to listen.  Some music has that “grab” factor, but I don’t recognise it in the Schubert Trio.  For the record, I think it was the E flat D929 they played but, frankly, I had other things to do and was not sufficiently taken by the recorded performance played over the air to listen through to the end and hear precisely which one had been played to us so irresponsibly.

I accept totally that playing certain pieces of music over the air can verge on the irresponsible.  The connection between certain pieces of music played whilst one is involved in potentially dangerous activities (notably driving) and the ability of the listener to carry out those functions safely is well researched and documented, and programme planners should (they certainly used to in my days of broadcasting) bear such things in mind when setting out playlists.  It was certainly a clever piece of presentation for the announcer to build up the Schubert in that way, but I can’t really believe it was anything more than that.

24 October 2014

Live Once and Go

The opening of the Klais organ of the Esplanade concert hall in Singapore in 2000 was marked by a series of imaginative and exciting events which did much to promote the organ in Singapore.  How sad, then, that the organ programme there seems to have run out of steam; not, I hasten to add, for want of imagination or care in planning, but because it would seem that higher management felt that the organ was too much of a niche market for the resources and energy involved in running a recital series. (Although can there be any sane person in arts’ management who does not realise that all areas of classical music – if not the arts in general – is very much a niche market?)  The actual inaugural recital for the organ was given by Thomas Trotter; and a pretty phenomenal performance it was too, with a superb programme dazzlingly played and brilliantly presented.  The next morning, a local organist was scheduled to show off the organ’s various features in another informal recital.  While Trotter’s programme had been announced well in advance, the local organist had not listed a programme, and so it caused a certain amount of bemusement amongst the gaggle of organists who attended both when, for the morning recital, it transpired that the local organist was to play some of the music Trotter had performed at his recital the previous evening.

Sadly, the local organist was no match for Trotter in terms of technique, musicianship or presentation skills, and those who had been there the previous evening found it difficult to take the morning performance seriously.  Why, we asked ourselves, would any half-intelligent organist willingly embark on a head-to-head with one of the undisputed giants of the genre?  The only logical answer we could find was that the local organist had felt that it might be interesting to hear two different performances of the same music on the same organ.  Unfortunately, so different was the latter player’s attempt from the former’s that, far from being illuminating, it was downright embarrassing.

I am reminded of that strange occurrence because a course I have been running for university students which involved comparing several different recorded performances of the same work has, because of my extended absence, been taken over by another lecturer who has suggested that, rather than compare recorded performances, it might be a good idea for the students to compare different live performances.  Initially, I could see no reason why not, but then, on deeper reflection, I now see a great many reasons why it would be an exceptionally bad idea.

Performances on record – be they studio recordings or recordings made from “live” performances – do work to the same goals.  They are performing to an individual, listening in the clinical environment of an electronic playback device.  The atmosphere, occasion and environment in which the performance is heard is identical on every occasion (and as the audience chooses the date, time and place of the performance, we can assume the circumstances are pretty much the same each time), so the different performances are, in effect, presented on a level playing field.  By comparing like with like one can come up with a coherent argument as to why one is better than the other.

Such is not the case with a live performance where the atmosphere, occasion and environment are very different each time.  Orchestras who present the same programme on consecutive occasions in the same building will be the first to acknowledge that there is a wealth of difference between these performances, largely governed by the atmosphere in the hall which is, in itself, dictated not by the music but by the audience, who may be eager, restless, be sitting in silent anticipation or noisy distraction.  A gaggle of noisy children in the front row on the Friday may unsettle the audience, while a half-empty hall on the Saturday will depress the performers.  The performance itself will be affected by perceived responses from the audience as the music progresses, and a great performance on a Friday night can become a dismal one on the Saturday not because of any change in the quality of music-making, but by the way in which the audience’s reaction colours the commitment or otherwise of the individual players. 

On top of that, as recorded performances are intended to be played over and over again, small passing errors have to be expunged; in so-called “live” recordings, those corrections are made in subsequent patching sessions which are usually done without an audience present.  I’ve recently had for review one of the few discs I know where the recording is of a genuine live performance which has not been subjected to subsequent patching; and pretty odd it is too, with wrong notes, coughs, traffic noise and a few technical blemishes from the engineers becoming disproportionately obstructive to enjoyment on each occasion the disc is played.  I’m sure those who were at the deeply impressive live performance find the recording a heart-warming souvenir reinforcing their memories of a marvellous concert; those who were not there can only wonder what all the fuss is about as an errant clarinet squawks harshly during a general pianissimo and a recalcitrant audience member coughs heartily beneath a microphone.  The music’s there, somewhere, but it’s as if you are trying to reach it through a fog of ancillary noises.

The problem with setting out to compare live performances is that they can never be assessed in the same, virtually identical circumstances as a recorded performance.  Asking my replacement lecturer how the live assessments were to be made, she suggested that three or four students should each play the same work, on the same piano, in the same auditorium and to the same audience in immediate succession.  There are huge problems with this.  If the music is not generally known to the listener, then the very first performance they hear will seriously affect their judgements of all the subsequent ones.  The first performance may be poor – full of wrong notes and errors of judgement – but it will be the one the audience uses to establish the yardstick by which the subsequent performances are measured, and if those performances are better, the audience could well think them worse, because they sound different from the first they heard.  On top of that, an audience tires of hearing the same work played repeatedly, and the last performance is likely to receive a less sympathetic hearing than, say, the second.  There is simply no way anyone can fairly compare live performances.

But, when all is said and done, what is the point?  The live performance is geared to a certain occasion and wins or loses on its own merits; interpretation of the music is only a part of the totality.  Much as we may nostalgically look back on live performances we have enjoyed – “I much preferred Andrew Davis’s performance of Walton’s First Symphony at the Proms in 1990 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to Abdul Omar with the Malaysian Symphony in Kuala Lumpur in 2009” – the distance, geographical, chronological and experiential, negates anything other than an emotional response.  By their very nature, live performances are transitory, and attempting to preserve them by comparing them with others is to fundamentally misunderstand the whole point of a live musical performance.

Our Singaporean organist may be an excellent player, be possessed of a superb technique and incisive musicianship, but I can never recognise these qualities because my judgement has been so seriously clouded by the unfair comparison I was forced to make all those years ago. 

22 September 2014

Music in the Mind

At the age of 60 I still do not know whether a condition I have experienced since my earliest childhood is a problem for me or a benefit.  Indeed, until a few years ago I assumed it was common to anyone who enjoyed music, and my suspicions that it might not be only arose when I noticed people had stopped reading newspapers on trains.

There was a time when any railway carriage was full of people so deeply immersed in their daily newspapers that silence ruled.  Conversations were virtually non-existent, whispered comments to neighbours occasioned a mass shuffling of papers as angry faces looked round to see who had broken the unwritten rule of silence, and only the intermittent cough was tolerated.  I rather naively assumed the world was deeply absorbed in the affairs of the day; the political intrigues, the commercial gossip and the woeful deeds on far distant shores.  Yet, almost without my noticing it, newspapers have gone.  In those places where free-sheets are thrust at erstwhile commuters there is a choking mass of discarded paper littering the seats and luggage racks where they have been curiosity glanced and immediately discarded, but I cannot remember when I last saw anyone on a train reading a newspaper which they had actually paid for. 

The newspapers have gone, and railway carriages are no longer silent, but people still do not look at each other or communicate with their neighbours in anything more than an embarrassed whisper.  Today’s commute is accompanied by the irritating beeping of text tones on mobile phones and the wheezing of noise-leaking earphones (not to mention the incessant on-board announcements) while, in place of newspapers, just about every passenger is wholly absorbed by the miniature screens of their electronic devices while their ears are filled with small speakers attached, usually by means of thin white leads, to a tiny device which seems to constitute the entire focus of their active attention.  I realise that, far from nourishing a keen interest in world affairs, the newspaper was merely a means by which commuters could occupy their minds; as soon as something more entertaining came along, the newspapers went out of the window.  This has made me realise that my condition is rare for, while I took (and continue to take) a keen interest in world affairs, I have never felt the need for any external stimulus to help pass the time on a journey. My condition is one in which my mind remains so fully occupied that far from craving some artificial means to keep it active, I positively resent distractions.

I once mentioned my condition to some colleagues and, as if to confirm my suspicions, most could not begin to understand what it was I was experiencing.  But one later conspiratorially took me aside to confess that he, too, suffered the same condition; “I was really worried”, he told me, “I always assumed I was a little abnormal”.  The very fact that this condition affects so few people has led me to question what effect it is having on me.  I am beginning to think that my chronic shyness, my inability to sustain conversations, my tendency to be dismissive in my comments and my total lack of small-talk are not the result of a badly flawed personality (which I had always assumed I had) but the side-effects of my life-long condition.

And what is this condition?  If it has a medical term, I do not know it (although it is perhaps related to synaesthesia), but the symptoms are easily described.  From the moment I wake each day to the moment I fall asleep my life is accompanied by music.  At any given moment during my conscious existence, there is music playing vividly in my head.  The same piece rolls over and over again, not in its entirety but in little snippets which I can edit and replay at will, until another suddenly and unbidden takes over.  On the few occasions when I wake in the night (I am a very good sleeper) the music is there, and in most cases its comforting presence helps rather than hinders me fall back into sleep.  Often I have no idea what triggers off any particular piece of music; recently I have had Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Elgar’s Chanson de Matin, and regular visitors to the Rochester head concert are Franck’s Violin Sonata and Bach’s Double Violin Concerto.  Sometimes I do not even know what the music which plays in my head is, and I can, with an act of extreme mental pressure, draw in any piece at will to take over what is already there.  Usually, though, I just let the music play until its time is up. 

The Trigger for a
worrying condition
The matter has come to a head (if you will pardon the pun) since, for the last few days I have been totally unable to expunge the Duruflé Requiem from my head.  I was at a conference in London over the weekend during which much music was played and much discussion about it pursued.  I listened intently to the music and joined in enthusiastically in the discussions, but as soon as there any kind of lapse in proceedings, up popped the good old Duruflé Requiem and off I went into my strange inner world.  Coffee breaks saw me hiding in a corner dreading the attention of even my closest friends; so unwilling was I to let go of which ever movement had taken residence in my consciousness at the time; and when someone did come to talk to me just after the Agnus Dei had begun, I did rather brush him aside; which has ever since mortified me.  I see him once a year; the Duruflé is with me all the time.

I know what sparked the Duruflé off in my head.  It was a new recording sent for review from the choir of Westminster Abbey and the Britten Sinfonia conducted by James O’Donnell.  Not the best performance I have ever heard, but an exquisite interpretation of a work I have loved deeply ever since a revelatory performance of it my parents took me to in Guildford Cathedral way back in 1969.  But while the new recording is truly lovely – I think it is among the most deeply beautiful recordings I have ever heard – what runs in my head is neither this recording nor the Barry Rose-directed performance of 1969.  It is the work performed by the greatest choir and orchestra imaginable, in the most sumptuous sound and directed and interpreted as I want it; the music in my head is effectively my imagined interpretations rather than a mere echo of those I have heard before.

The sad fact is, however, that while the Duruflé is playing away in my head and occupying so much of my conscious existence, I find myself becoming dangerously introverted, dreading the company of others and restricting my utterances to gruff and terse comments which say what has to be said in as short a time as possible. My face reflects the inner turmoil, passion, grief and joy of the music (thereby sending out entirely the wrong signals to those around me) and I’m not at all sure, from the strange looks I was getting from fellow-passengers on the Heathrow Express as I headed away from my London conference, that I wasn’t occasionally muttering the sombre phrase “Requiem aeternam” out loud, like some morbidly-obsessed deranged escapee from a secure institution.

I know that a widely varied group of people read this blog.  I hope that, among them, there will be a psychiatrist or two who can advise whether I need medical attention to rid me of this crippling ailment, or whether I am one in a million blessed with a priceless mental gift.  At the age of 60, should I finally start to worry?

03 September 2014

Singapore Prom Time

The first time I heard Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony at the Proms, it got rather a frosty reception.  Indeed, I recall the Proms Marshalls, as I labelled that handful of seasoned Prommers who populated the front of the arena and issued instructions as to what and when we were to shout out, urging us all not to applaud when the Symphony came to an end.  It certainly was not the orchestral playing which upset us; we were hearing the Leningrad Phil, then one of the world’s truly great orchestras, and they were everything they were cracked up to be.  What annoyed so many of the audience was the fact that not only were they playing the version with its wholesale cuts, but that it was driven along in an urgent, businesslike manner which seemed to imply the orchestra had no interest in the music and were only playing it under duress.  They got the whole thing over and done with in under 40 minutes.

Prommers at that time (it was the very early 1970s) had recently been introduced to the Symphony without cuts and in an expansive performance milking every last drop of emotion from it by a landmark recording from the LSO conducted by André Previn, who proved that there was more than enough great material from Rachmaninov to stretch out for 59 minutes and still leave us wanting more.  If the Soviets couldn’t be bothered to treat the work properly, they didn’t deserve our applause.  Since then the British audience has felt a certain ownership for Rach 2 and woe betide the conductor who makes cuts or glosses over its emotional significance.

No such hostility was ever going to face the Singapore Symphony Orchestra who performed the same Symphony last night at the Proms.  For a start they were going to give us the whole, uncut version.  And then Lan Shui, whose over-indulgent approach to the work I have often found mildly cloying, went to town on the over-indulgence managing to stretch the work out to a near record-breaking 65 minutes.  As an orchestra the Singapore Symphony wasn’t a patch on the Leningrad team, their ensemble was persistently ragged (hardly a single entry found all players together), at times the violins seemed in something approaching disarray and wind intonation was not all it might have been.  But music is not about right notes, seamless blend or perfect coordination; it is about communication and this was as vividly a communicative performance as anybody could wish for.  It seethed passion, pathos and power, it oozed emotion, empathy and excitement and it spoke in compelling, if sometimes cloudy, accents.

From the very outset Lan Shui was determined to milk the score for all he could get.  A prolonged silence prefaced the rumbling basses of the opening figure, setting off like some heavily laden super-tanker leaving harbour under its own steam, and we had reached the end of the Largo introduction at around the same time many conductors would have had most of the first movement over and done with.  Even into the Allegro moderato, we still were battling against the current, rubato piled on not so much by the shovel full as by the JCB bucket load, pauses stretched out to heart stopping length and a general licence with the pulse which seemed the musical equivalent of atrial fibrillation.  With the second movement things began to settle down, even if occasional bursts of energy were quickly stifled by the blanket of rubato, but by the time the matchless third came along, Lan Shui had got the excess out of his system and was allowing the music to flow at its own pace.  I often describe the third movement clarinet theme as “seeming to hover on the very brink of eternity”, and here it did just that.  We did not so much glimpse heaven as look lingeringly and lovingly over it.  The Prommers have heard better; but they have heard a lot, lot worse and, as one colleague put it afterwards, you would need to go half way around the world to hear such a compelling performance again.

The orchestral untidiness was, unfortunately, rather too pronounced for comfort in the opening piece, Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila where a frenetic pace made it seem exciting but, whether from nerves, the unaccustomed acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall or simple carelessness, the SSO did not do proper justice to this popular showpiece of orchestral virtuosity.  We heard the noise the music made, but missed out on the detail.

The orchestra were on top of their game in the new work by Zhou Long, a piano concerto in all but name (its actual name was Postures).  Soloist Andreas Haefliger was superb in this somewhat hyper-active but often exceedingly arresting work, but the real strength lay in the orchestral playing.  Zhou Long’s use of blocks of orchestral sound rather than carefully dovetailed musical ideas (it was the piano which provided the connecting thread through these various orchestral effects) suited the Singapore players well and their command of what seemed quite a daunting score was deeply impressive.

However, as with most of the “world orchestras” who have performed thus far at the Proms, the SSO reserved their most dazzling playing for their encore.  Not part of their repertoire and learnt especially for this concert, they (and especially Lan Shui) astounded us all with their Waltonian credentials in the rarely-heard March A History of the English Speaking Peoples.  The blazing brass, the perky woodwind and the rich strings, not to mention the incisive percussion, all combined to create a simply stunning conclusion which made one wish that they might in future look towards Walton 1; they have the feel for this music and it certainly appealed to the Prommers who, perhaps even more so than Rachmaninov, feel a powerful sense of ownership for this music.

29 August 2014

Composer Interpreters

On one occasion I attended one of those Book Club/Meet the Author sessions where everyone reads a particular book in advance and then meets up to discuss it with the author, who also reads extracts from it.  It taught me two things.  The first was that, even where we all share a common language and come from largely similar cultural backgrounds, our responses to what we read are remarkably diverse.  A book I had read as a joyful celebration of the fundamental goodness of humanity, others saw as a commentary on the oppression of women, on the failure of Christianity to engage in modern society and as an indictment on the entire democratic system.  Characters I had seen as peripheral to the basic thrust of the story were regarded by others as significant, plot lines which I had felt drove the book along were regarded by others as distractions to the main thrust of the author’s argument and references to time and place which I had felt to be irrelevant clouded the entire perception of others.  The author, sometimes puzzled by lines of questioning and at other times apparently taken aback by the perceptiveness of his readers, gave every impression of accepting different opinions of his motives while acknowledging more than once that he “had not thought of it in that light”.

The second thing this meeting taught me was that authors are not always the best readers of their own work.  Beyond this occasion, I have heard poets on the radio deliver their lines in a totally impersonal and unconvincing manner, as well as authors stumble awkwardly over their own syntax.
Simply put, once the job of creation is done, the author’s involvement in the work is finished and the work is only enriched by subsequent interpretations made from a range of personal standpoints.  From what I can gather, that seems a pretty widespread view in the literary arts.  So why is it not the same in music?

There is, of course, one basic difference.  Unlike in literature, where the consumer (in this case the reader) is the interpreter, in music, because the language is inaccessible to the majority of consumers, the interpreter effectively adds a middle layer to the process.  Perhaps we can best see the role of the interpreter in music (the performer) as akin to that of a translator, bound by the original text, but free to communicate it in a way perceived to be most readily accessible to the consumer.  Certainly there is no parallel in the arts for the creator to be the ideal interpreter?  It is historically interesting to hear old recordings of, say, Rachmaninov performing his own music or Elgar directing his own scores, but does it in any way help us understand the music better?  I fervently believe that one of the things which makes art (or classical) music so infinitely rewarding to the listener is the very multi-layered path between creation and consumption.  By allowing the composer to perform his own music, we are missing out on a whole world of nuances introduced by the various interpreters of the original truth.
Which begs the question; Is there any artistic value in a composer performing his own music on disc?  A lot of them do it and, I have to admit, in many cases if the composer were not to record his own music, nobody else would.  There are instances where composers perform music which is neither published nor available to any other performer, while some use the CD to promote their music by suggesting that, if we like what we hear, we can purchase a download of the music from the composer’s own website.  Beyond that, however, some established composers devote much of their life to performing their own music on disc. Sent for review this week has been just such a disc, bearing the title “Hakim plays Hakim” and featuring some seven recent works by the Lebanese/Parisian organist/composer Naji Hakim. (Strangely, this is the third disc released on the Signum Classics label so entitled, yet this third one bears the suffix “Vol.1”.  Never mind; I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.)  My personal collection includes 14 CDs containing music by Hakim and performed by different organists, and I doubt there is anyone even loosely connected with the world of organ music who would argue that Hakim’s music is not of the very finest quality and deserving of interpretation by a wide variety of organists.

Naji Hakim is a brilliant organist, and his performances of music by others reveal an intense and searching interpretative mind supported by a superb technique.  But when it comes to his own music, I find his performances create a barrier rather than open a door to his musical intentions.  That barrier is part psychological; does he record it so much because he feels he cannot trust others to interpret it?  If so, surely that diminishes the artistic value of his music.  But it is also part physical; he is such a brilliant player that it is difficult to imagine anyone else performing his music so well, which rather negates the value of those who do.

I am very exercised in these thoughts because, were it anyone else playing these works, I would find fault in what sounds often like poorly controlled articulation and a tendency to let speed override technical constraints.  In some of the passagework, I detect uneven rhythmic articulation and smudgy detail; and were it any other player I would not be afraid to suggest this.  But because it is the composer, we tend to assume this is what he intended and, therefore, we cannot criticise the performance without implicitly criticising the music which, despite the fact that this disc inhabits an undiluted territory of fast and jolly music, I would not wish to do.  How better it would have been to hear someone else play this music so that we could the more easily distinguish between compositional weakness and performance weakness.  It strikes me Hakim is in danger of over-exposing himself on two fronts, and the result might be to diminish his stature on both.

Among my favourite historical recordings are several of Rachmaninov performing his own music.  But when I heard a young player attempt to emulate the lurching rubato and heart-stopping pauses the composer added to his playing (but not to his written-out scores), I was horrified and said so; to which the young pianist replied; “I was only doing what the composer himself did, and surely he knows what he wanted and we cannot argue with that?”  We can argue with it.  When it comes to performing their own music, composers no longer have exclusive interpretative rights and we should regard their performances as no more legitimate than anyone else’s.  

22 August 2014

Pointless Promotions

At what point should we draw the line when describing somebody as “one of the finest” ?  There has to be a finite number of people whose skills exceed the average sufficiently to place them in the implied elite group of “the finest”.  Is that panoply of “finest” measured in the tens, hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands?  Is it a percentage of all those who claim to possess that skill, and if so, what is a realistic percentage; 5%, 10%, 20%, 50%?  Judging from musicians’ biographies, it seems as if just about anyone who can touch a musical instrument can join the ranks of “finest”, and when I read in a new disc sent to me for review that the performer is “one of the finest organists of our time”, while among his repertoire he performs music by “one of Britain’s leading composers”, I recoil in horror.  The sad fact is that, not entirely unacquainted as I am with the names of the great and the good in the organ and composition worlds, I had never heard of either.  I’ll keep you guessing, but warn you that if you are thinking Olivier Latry, Cameron Carpenter, Thomas Trotter, Naji Hakim or even Gillian Weir as the former, or Peter Maxwell Davies, Oliver Knussen, John Rutter, James MacMillan or even Judith Weir as the latter, you are not so much barking up the wrong tree as in entirely the wrong forest.
The sad fact is that, when it comes to promoting musicians, agents (and, increasingly, the musicians themselves) seem terrified of standing out from the crowd. As soon as one of them pops their head over the parapet and declare unequivocally that “x is the finest”, they lay themselves open to all and sundry to take pot shots, rubbishing the claim and putting up their own contenders.  Of course, “finest”, “best”, “most outstanding” and the like are subjective assessments and, correspondingly, open to debate.  To describe in a biography a musician as any of these seems a daft thing to do, and watering it down to the utterly meaningless “one of the…” simply diminishes the artist’s stature.  What no artist or agent seems prepared to do when promoting a musician is to find and promote a Unique Selling Point.  For a reason which defies all logic, their intention seems to be to show that said musician is just like everyone else.  Why otherwise lump them together in the vast heard of “one of the…”?  And certainly the vast swathes of standard repertoire, concert venues and other comparable or better artists listed in biographies seems only to reinforce the notion that the musician is one of the crowd rather than an individual artist with something special to offer.
Read this real biography from a singer.  The sad thing is, I have expunged his name but left the entire biography intact.  I bet you nobody can guess who he is.  Worse than that, I wonder whether if he were to read it himself he might not be too sure whether it refers to him or someone else, so totally anonymous is it with its long lists of standard repertoire and famous concert halls/conductors added to legitimise an artist who would seem to be, on the strength of his biography, nothing very special:
“Xx has appeared at many of the world’s leading international opera houses including the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Glyndebourne Festival, Opera Bastille Paris, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, La Monnaie Brussels, Teatro Comunale Florence, Theatre du Capitole Toulouse, Staatstheater Stuttgart, Teatro Real de Madrid and Teatro La Fenice. He has also sung leading roles with all the British companies including ENO, Scottish Opera, WNO and Opera North. Operatic roles have included Alberich Der Ring des Nibelungen, Scarpia Tosca and Paolo Simon Boccanegra for Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Falstaff and Pizarro Fidelio for Scottish Opera, The Traveller Death in Venice in Lyon, Bregenz and Aldeburgh, Klingsor Parsifal in Nice, Faninal Der Rosenkavalier in San Francisco and Chicago and Balstrode Peter Grimes at the Bastille and in Geneva. Equally at home on the concert platform, he has appeared in all the major UK concert halls and appears frequently at the BBC Proms. Conductors he has worked with include Richard Armstrong, David Atherton, Martyn Brabbins, Paul Daniel, Andrew Davis, Christoph von Dohnányi, Mark Elder, Bernard Haitink, Richard Hickox, Oliver Knussen, Sir Charles Mackerras, Antonio Pappano, Carlo Rizzi and Edo de Waart.”
Each year I set my performance students the task of creating their own biography to promote themselves to concert promoters.  They are told to confine it to 200 words and to make it read as if they have something special to offer; to make them stand out from the crowd.  Almost without exception, far from trying to stand out from the crowd, they seem intent on burying themselves in it with the customary lists of repertoire and associated artists and the inevitable “one of the finest…” assessments.  Only once has one of my students come up with a biography which would make me think about hiring him.  An otherwise inoffensive young Indian student added a photograph of him as a baby and began the biography, “Since screaming louder than any of the other kids in his nursery, xxx has been set on a career as a rock drummer”.  I’d book him for a gig on that alone; irrespective of his true musical talents.
I am drawn to ponder on all these matters after a week spending revising, checking and editing artists’ biographies for the forthcoming concert season.  With the demand to keep all artist biographies to under 250 words, I find myself expunging pages of lists of “orchestras he has performed alongside include”, “prestigious venues she has graced with her playing include”, “conductors with whom he has appeared include” or, worst of all, “her repertoire includes such concertos as” (as if music was just one homogenous lump and none of it has any distinguishing features).  But I have also tried to farm out the ubiquitous “one of the finest”, be it “in the world”, “of today’s” or “of their generation”.  Too often several thousand words boil down to less than 10 when I do this, so thin are the unique selling points in any artist biography.  And worse still, so intent is the artist on listing one-off achievements that they forget all about telling us what they do.  How about this:
“XXX has won numerous prizes and awards in international piano competitions including the ‘ 28th Alessandro Casagrande International Piano Competition’ in Italy in 2008; the Fifth Prize at the ‘16th Leeds International Piano Competition’; a semi-finalist at the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, and the Georges Leibenson Prize in the 67th Geneva International Piano Competition.  She was awarded numerous scholarships including ‘The Robert H.N.Ho Family Foundation Scholarship’, ‘The Coutts Bank Scholarship’, ‘Lee Shuk Chee Memorial Scholarship’ , ‘Hong Kong Music Scholarship’ and was sponsored by the ‘Simon K.Y. Lee Foundation’ . In 2011, she was awarded the ‘ Hong Kong Jockey Club Music and Dance Fund Scholarship’, ‘Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation Scholarship’, ‘Bernard van Zuidan Music Fund Scholarship’ and ‘School of Music Staff Prize Scholarship’. As a recognition for making outstanding achievements in the promotion of arts and culture in Hong Kong, she was awarded the ‘Certificate of Commendation’ by the Hong Kong Government in 2004. In May 2010, she received the ‘Award for Young Artist 2009’ presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. She was also invited to take part in many prestigious international music festivals including the 9th Musical Olympus International Festival in Russia ,The International Chopin Festival in Duszniki, Poland, Virtuosos of Planet 2006 in Kiev, Ukraine, The Festival Transeuropéennes in Rouen, France, Miami International Piano Festival and the Golandsky Institute International Piano Festival”.  Does this performer do anything other than enter for competitions and win scholarships.  Is there any evidence here that she has given a public performance before a ticket-buying audience?.
Would any self-respecting advertising agency survive in the commercial world spouting such drivel.  Imagine a similar sort of promotion for a chocolate bar:
“Cadbury’s Dairy Milk is one of the finest chocolate bars currently available in the market place.  It can be found in shops such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s, W H Smith’s, John Menzies, Waitrose, Cold Storage, Jason’s, Giant, Fairprice, Carrefour, Woolworths and Coles, and on shelves alongside Belgian, Swiss, American, Australian and Malaysian chocolate bars.  It can be found at airports where flights take off and land to such places as Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Americas, and has been bought by members of the governments of the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore and by CEOs of the such companies as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, the Boeing Aircraft Corporation, Ninja Plastics and China Waste Management and the like.”  Is there anything in that which would make you prefer it over, say, a similar bar of Hershey’s?  I cannot imagine that any advertising agency presenting that to Cadbury’s would keep their contract; yet this is exactly the kind of mediocre drivel we use to sell musicians. 
So when I read of the organist who “is renowned in the UK and abroad for virtuosic, intelligent and engaging repertoire from the 14th to the 21st centuries” and stands as “one of the finest organists of our time”, I am profoundly unimpressed.  I am even less impressed by the fact that he “performs throughout the UK, Europe, Australia and Singapore” (how can any organist “perform throughout Singapore”? – but that’s by the by).  Which is all a bit of a shame since, on the evidence of his CD, Daniel Moult is quite a good player and, ironically, far better than his over-inflated biography suggests.  I do, however, remain unconvinced that there is any substantial cohort of composers who would happily feel led by Graham Fitkin, despite his claim to be “one of Britain’s leading composers”.  His six-minute organ piece Wedding despite claiming to be “frequently complex” rehearses so much familiar territory that it loses all sense of identity (the composer categorises himself as “post-minimalist”, which I take to assume he studied composition by means of a very short mail-order correspondence course).
While I wish all musicians and their agents would spend a few months learning the real art of writing promotional literature in a proper advertising agency, it can go a bit too far.  I wonder if anyone could ever take this psycho-babble seriously?:
“If one word applies to Lang Lang, to the musician, to the man, to his worldview, to those who come into contact with him, it is “inspiration”. It resounds like a musical motif through his life and career. He inspires millions with open-hearted, emotive playing, whether it be in intimate recitals or on the grandest of stages –such as the 2014 World Cup concert in Rio, with Placido Domingo, to celebrate the final game; the 56thGRAMMY Award, where he played with Metallica; the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where more than four billion people around the world viewed his performance, the Last Night of the Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall, or the Liszt 200thbirthday concert broadcast live to more than 500 cinemas around the US and Europe. He forms enduring musical partnerships with the world’s greatest artists, from conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel and Sir Simon Rattle, to artists from outside of classical music –among them dubstep dancer Marquese “nonstop” Scott and jazz titan Herbie Hancock. As he inspires, he is inspired. As he is inspired, he inspires others. It is this quality, perhaps, that led the New Yorker to call him “the world’s ambassador of the keyboard”.  And the child Lang Lang was and who, perhaps, is always with him, would surely have approved of the way he gives back to youth.”  As a famous editor of the Sunday Express newspaper used to be so fond of writing; “Pass the sick bag, Alice”.

22 July 2014

Serving Queen and Country?

Congratulations to Judith Weir on being appointed Master of the Queen’s Music.  The first female holder of the post and the first, I think I’m correct in saying, to have been appointed while her predecessor is still alive - two more fundamental changes to a post which itself changed beyond all recognition over the previous decades.

It would be lovely to say that Judith Weir is the ideal choice for this post.  But is she?  And, frankly, what does the post entail that would allow anyone to define what “the ideal choice” would be?

Perhaps the best way to show the real significance of this post during the reign of the current monarch is to ask how many people can tell you the name of Weir’s predecessor?  What impact did Peter Maxwell Davies make while holding the role? We thought his predecessor, Malcolm Williamson, was a pretty inactive Master of the Queen’s Music; especially coming after Arthur Bliss whose fanfares and ceremonial marches defined the early part of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.  But who can list what Max has done in the role?  There was a royal wedding (William and Kate) – memorable pieces by John Rutter and Paul Maelor – and a fair crop of state visits, royal occasions, important national occasions, all of which passed by without any obvious contribution from the man honoured as being a major figure in British music. He did write a Christmas carol, which was privately performed to the Queen, and both Charles and Camilla and William and Kate asked for one of his (pre-Master of the Kings Music) compositions to be played during their respective weddings, but that is hardly in the same league as, say, Purcell’s Birthday Ode for Queen Mary or Elgar’s Nursery Suite.  Will Judith Weir, who for many people is still best known for her Christmas carol, Illuminare, Jerusalem, do anything to bring music once again into the arena of major state events, or will she see it merely as a badge of honour in recognition of past achievements?

I hold out little hope, not least because music no longer matters to the mass of people.  Saturated with musical sounds the very ubiquitousness of which breeds a comfortable and comforting familiarity, the general public has lost its ability to be stirred by new music.  When every tiny journey, every visit to a shop, every meal or drink taken and every piece of visual and aural entertainment is done accompanied by music (I watched TV footage of the grisly aftermath of the crash of MH17 and was almost as upset by the faint but inevitable background music added by a producer convinced that reality can only exist with a musical accompaniment as I was by the horrors of that reality), what purpose is there in adding music to a major national event?  And when for most people music is confined to “playlists” comprising familiar “songs” they have, through continued exposure, come to regard as quite nice, there is no market for something new beyond a few fringe weirdoes, like myself, who use rather than abuse their ears. We have almost reached that point where, to mark some very special event, we need silence as being the exception to our daily life
The promise of a Musical Monarch?

In her public life, at least, music is not something which Queen Elizabeth puts high up on her agenda of genuine interests; but her successor does have a reasonable musical pedigree and has shown an alert interest in music.  Criticised as he is for his interventions in matters of environment and social inequality, I wish the Prince of Wales could intervene on the issue of music?  He would be shot down in flames by those who choose to criticise any utterance from a member of the royal family, but at least he would have sparked a debate which might, just might, give some credence to a post which has become grotesquely devalued and seems largely redundant today.
Explore Judith Weir's choral music with this excellent disc from Delphian (DCD34095)

20 July 2014

An English Ring

There is a certain religious undercurrent in Wagner’s Ring, but at heart these four connected operas tell a story which is based on mythology and legend rather than either historical fact or religious belief.  However, less than 25 years after The Ring, another major composer embarked on an interrelated series of substantial works telling one of the most epic stories of all time - the founding of the Christian church - giving the Kingdom of Heaven and the work of the Disciples every bit as much musical stature as was afforded Valhalla and the resident Gods.  Sitting through last night’s opening of the Proms, there were times when memories of The Ring flooded in; not least in the extreme length of the work and the almost endless stream of wonderful musical moments, both orchestral and vocal.  We were experiencing the second of what Elgar had intended as a trilogy of oratorios, The Kingdom.

Stephen Johnson has written about the origins of Elgar’s projected oratorio trilogy; “Elgar remembered the event that first set his imagination working towards this exalted goal. A teacher at his Worcester school, Francis Reeve, told Elgar’s class: ‘The Apostles were very young men and very poor. Perhaps, before the descent of the Holy Ghost, they were no cleverer than some of you here.’ Gradually, the young Elgar began to think in terms of a religious work about those lowly, uneducated men who had laid the foundations of modern Christianity. The idea stayed with him into adulthood – the first sketches date from the early 1880s – but by the time he sat down to compose in earnest, it had become clear that one work, however ambitious, could hardly contain all he wanted to say. And so Elgar arrived at the idea of the trilogy: three full-length oratorios depicting the calling of the twelve young men (The Apostles), the beginning of their evangelical mission on earth (The Kingdom) and – most ambitious of all – the outcome at the end of time (The Last Judgement). Wagner’s monumental operatic Ring cycle would at last have found its religious counterpart”.

The first oratorio in the projected trilogy is The Apostles.  About 20 years ago I was involved in a performance in Bangor, North Wales, and became so utterly captivated by this that I have since spent much of my time pursuing performances and recordings of what I regard as a truly epic choral work, with some of the most spine-tingling moments you would find in all of music.  I have never had quite such a feeling about the second instalment – the “slow movement of the choral symphony” as some of the publicity for last night’s performance put it – and despite Andrew Davis’s inspired and inspirational direction, I’m not entirely sure I have been won over to The Kingdom in the way I was with The Apostles.  It is certainly, and deliberately, a more subdued work, although there are some truly exciting moments, and I have to say in the Albert Hall and with the vast numbers of performers involved in last night’s concert, these had a shattering (if not always really clearly audible) impact.  Despite a voice which seemed once or twice to be suffering in the heat, you would have to go a very long way to find as good a baritone soloist as Christopher Purves; the baritone carrying the bulk of the solo work in The Kingdom.  Focused and pitch perfect, his sparkling diction and complete conviction of delivery contrasted very favourably with the two female soloists – Erin Wall and Catherine Wyn-Rogers - both of whom seemed a little too reminiscent for my taste of those days when both vocally and visually female soloists felt they were the most important part of any performance (in much the same way as did tenors in Italy).  The tenor in this performance was Andrew Staples, a very impressive voice but a little too transparent always to be wholly convincing.

But to get back to the work itself, it is one of music’s most tantalizing “what ifs”.  What if Elgar had completed the third part?  Would we have had an English “Ring” presenting to the world the image of England (and its Colonial possessions, at their most numerous around the time Elgar was working on these three oratorios) as the symbolic recreation of Heaven on Earth, just as Wagner’s Germany was the actual embodiment of the mythical Valhalla complete with heroic deeds and a world-beating attitude?  If the belief that “God is an Englishman” (a sentiment sometimes expressed – and not always tongue-in-cheek – in the early decades of the 20th century) allowed the English to believe that their church was the only true avenue by which Christian faith could be channelled, then Elgar’s projected trilogy was to be a work which also celebrated England itself.  What would the world have made of that?  Might not it have led to the re-evaluation of English composers in the pantheon of great composers, and re-written the Classical Canon to dilute the overwhelming Germanic flavour?    

So the question is why, with two parts already completed, did Elgar never complete the third?  He certainly continued working on it for most of the rest of his life, but the completion of The Kingdom coincided with (or maybe caused) a marked deterioration in Elgar’s health.  Johnson suggests that as the work neared completion “he began to suffer seriously from anxiety and depression”.  In Elgar’s own time, the influential critic Ernest Newman understood and voiced the concerns Elgar had about tackling such a huge project:  “He has seen fit to fasten upon his own back the burden of an unwieldy, impossible scheme for three oratorios on the subject of the founding of the Church; and until that scheme is done with, and Elgar seeks inspiration in a subject of another type, the most sanguine of us cannot expect much from him in the way of fresh or really vital music.”

Another problem which Elgar faced and which may well have prevented him from completing what more than one commentator has described as “An English Ring”, was the lack of musically intelligent English singers.  As he wrote in a letter shortly before the first performance of The Apostles, “Oh these singers – where are their brains?”  He described English voices as “too white”, and hankered after some of the darker voices of Dutch and German singers he had heard on his European travels.  Given the fact that the first performance of The Apostles in Birmingham in 1903 was met with muted response caused, in the words of the critic Arthur Johnstone, because it is “austere and difficult to understand”, one is led to the conclusion that neither English musicians nor English audiences were intellectually, spiritually or musically ready for such a work.  And if the English could not perform it or appreciate it, what value was there in Elgar ever completing it?

15 July 2014

A Grumpy Auld Composer

A few months ago, Gramophone magazine asked me to prepare a profile of the Scottish composer James MacMillan, who celebrates his 55th birthday this year.  Knowing his output from my work reviewing church and choral music, I thoroughly enjoyed delving deeper into this highly imaginative and accessible voice, so reprint my article here, not quite as it appeared in Gramophone.  Since then, however, I have been seeking out MacMillan's music and have taken a great liking to everything I have heard.  Might I recommend readers of this to head towards this disc when it appears later this month?  I've reviewed it for  September's Gramophone, so my lips are sealed; let's just say, I loved it!

This is going to be Scotland’s Year in the limelight.  September sees the historic referendum to determine whether or not, 700 years after the Battle of Bannockburn effectively consolidated Scottish Independence, and after 307 years of union, Scotland breaks away from the United Kingdom to become a fully independent state.  Meanwhile, the eyes of the sporting world will focus on Glasgow in July when the city hosts the 20th Commonwealth Games. Receiving rather less coverage in the global media, but nonetheless significant in its own small way, October will see the launch of a brand new Scottish music festival, the Cumnock Tryst, which will welcome some significant artists to the country attracted not so much by the architectural gems or gentle climate of this small Ayrshire town, as by the festival’s Artistic Director, James MacMillan, the doyen of the current breed of Scottish composers, for whom 2014 is also something of a landmark; he turns 55 this year.

James MacMillan
Having past the half-century mark, MacMillan can be excused his periodic splenetic outbursts as he fends off what he sees as attacks on his native land, his profound Roman Catholic faith and, of course, music, in his Daily Telegraph blog (one outburst against the perceived anti-Englishness of the Scottish National Party prompting a reader to describe MacMillan as “the self righteous, self appointed spokesman for extreme Catholicism in Scotland”).  But if he looks to be moving into the ranks of Grumpy Old Men, as a composer MacMillan’s utter conviction in his firmly-held beliefs only serves to ignite a creative spark which blazes today with as much energy and self-confidence as it did back in 1990 when he first established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the British music scene with the première of The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie at that year’s Proms. 

MacMillan’s own commentary on The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie reveals his abiding interest in the church’s often stormy progress through Scottish history, as well as his desire to tell epic tales through music (it is also evidence of his long-held hatred of both social injustice and religious bigotry); “Between 1560 and 1707 as many as 4,500 Scots perished because their contemporaries thought they were witches. The persecution of witches was a phenomenon known to Catholic and Protestant Europe at this time but the Reformation in Scotland gave an impetus to the attack on ‘witches’ which became a popular and powerful crusade”.  Musically, this dark episode in Scotland’s religious past has inspired something both extraordinarily vivid and deeply moving, which clearly resonated with a non-Scottish audience in 1990 and continues to do so to this day; as the critic for the Daily Telegraph put it, “MacMillan brilliantly demonstrated in Isobel Gowdie that accessibility need not necessarily involve compromise... all its various musical elements - be they Scottish folk tune, Gregorian chant or pure MacMillan - are by no means merely illustrative but emanate from a powerful, all-embracing and unifying emotional impulse”. 

Those “various musical elements” are certainly diverse, and reveal MacMillan to be a true catholic in the full sense of the word - as meaning inclusive and all-embracing.  So confident is he in his own stylistic voice, that while elements which would seem violently contradictory rub up against each other with almost disarming directness, his music comes across not just as coherent, but immediately accessible.   That stylistic self-confidence has not come with age, but was there from the very start .  The Scotsman, reviewing the première this January of Symphonic Study, a work written back in 1981 but which (in his own words) the composer “kind of forgot about”, suggested the young Macmillan had borrowed “mercilessly from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring”.  (The review added, however, that the work also revealed “the mystical harmonic shrouds that, even today, weave a spectral miasma around MacMillan’s centrally binding melodic threads”.)  MacMillan himself acknowledges influences in his music from a great many 20th century composers, singling out those who “have been shaped by religious quests in our time - Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Harvey, Tavener, Pärt, Górecki”.  But he also recognises influences from much further back; “From antiquity I have been taught much by the great contrapuntalists from Palestrina and Victoria to Bach. They inspire modern composers on the need to explore complexity in whatever music is being created”.

Clearly, a deep-seated Catholic faith is at the very core of MacMillan’s writing; his sacred music includes a congregational setting of the Mass (Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman) composed in 2010 for the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain – although MacMillan has since declared that “I have decided to stop writing congregational music for the Catholic Church... there is too much music being created, at the same time as the vast repository of tradition is ignored and willfully forgotten”.  It remains to be seen how true he will be to his word, but he admits that his secular music “can on many occasions be inspired by some reflection on theology or another aspect of religion. This is inevitable, I suppose, for a believer and a Catholic. For example I have now composed two Passion settings; a St John and a St Luke. There are also many purely instrumental works which hover around similar territory - my piano trio Fourteen Little Pictures (based on the Stations of the Cross) and the triptych of orchestral works Triduum (based on the three days before the Resurrection)”. 

However, the most constant musical influence in his writing is drawn from his Scottish heritage; “Along with a number of Scottish composers like Judith Weir, Edward McGuire and others I developed a keen interest in Scottish traditional music. Some of us have absorbed this experience into our own music in different ways. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes sub-conscious. With me, I think it is there in a certain modality that appears from time to time, and a degree of ornamentation that can be traced back to bagpipe music like pibrochd, and other sources. All this has been drawn in to a wider mix, so it is not always immediately observed in all my pieces, but it is certainly there as a subliminal ingredient. It has cropped up a lot in my most recent choral music.” 

Beyond choral music, MacMillan’s latest works give a vivid demonstration of the extraordinary range of this amazingly versatile composer.  January saw the première (in London) of the Viola Concerto, the latest in a series of concertos conceived along traditional lines which so far have included works for piano, violin and oboe.  Last November an organ piece, St Andrews Suite composed for the 600th celebrations of the founding of the University of St Andrews, was premièred by Thomas Wilkinson in the University’s ancient St Salvator’s Chapel, scene of some of Scotland’s more extreme religious conflicts.  July saw the première in Stuttgart of an orchestral poem, The Death of Oscar, inspired by a monumental Scottish sculpture by Alexander Stoddardt, while in February 2013 his sixth opera, Clemency, based on the Old Testament tale of Abraham and Sarah, was staged in the US after its successful première at the Royal Opera House. And earlier this year MacMillan personally promoted musical Scotland abroad when he directed the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on tour in India.  

When the referendum votes have been counted and the sporting medals all been given out, James MacMillan seems set to keep at least one aspect of Scottish life at the forefront of international consciousness.