25 November 2015

Castrated Turkey


There is a large grand piano bearing the legend “FEURICH” in the downstairs section of the CIP lounge in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.  You might assume it gets an airing in the evenings with some light jazz and, maybe, the odd tinkle in late afternoon with some innocuous “light classics”.  Not a bit of it. It plays morning, noon and night (or at least when I have been there between 5 and 8am, 11am and 2pm, and 11pm and 1am).  I don’t play it, nor does any living soul.  It is attached to an automatic player device which seems to have an uninterrupted diet of Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.

It is horrific.

The performances seem to have been prepared by a youngster with a couple of years’ tuition under the belt and a sort of pass at Grade 1, so appalling are they.  But it gets even worse.

In order not to disturb the model Formula 1 racetrack, the banks of TV screens showing different soccer matches simultaneously and the war-like computer games nearby, all of which exude an inordinate amount of noise, it is adjusted so that the sound that emanates from this large instrument has been completely castrated.  It seems to do this by moving the action so close to the keys that it prevents any dynamic above a molto pianissimo and causes a great many notes in passages originally marked piano or less, not to sound.  The effect is a bit like those heavily pixelated images of the Mona Lisa; you can tell what it is supposed to be, but the result is so horribly disfigured that it would be better had it never been born.

If the music was something harmless like Andrew Lloyd Webber or ABBA’s greatest hits, it might be bearable, if it was the already wholly-castrated limpness of Richard Clayderman it might even be an improvement.  But Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt?

It has just played me isolated notes from the Pathétique Sonata.  Most of the slow movement was missing, and as, for some reason, middle C has broken, the rest of it sounds simply ghastly.  I have heard better performances in a diploma exam in Hong Kong (which you can’t often say), and even Beethoven in all his deafness could never have imagined his music sounding so utterly hideous.  What kind of tone-deaf lunatic has not only allowed this revolting thing into the so-called “exclusive” area of an airport is one thing, what criminally insane imbecile allows it to carry on with its appalling musical defacements day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year defies imagination.

There's a similar thing as you undertake the long and gloomy walk through Heathrow Airport's Terminal 2, passing all the notices telling refugees and asylum seekers to turn back and battling with the non-functioning automatic doors and chewing gum encrusted travellators.  At least this one creates the kind of atmosphere the Heathrow authorities want to induce; one of unwelcoming resentment to anyone who has the gall to attempt to visit the UK.  And as you are pushed past it by the press of third world immigrants (most of them, inexplicably, clutching UK passports) you never get the chance to know whether this one has been as savagely castrated as its Turkish counterpart.  But I suspect it has.

I’m all for live music, and even though most of them are unspeakably bad, those pianists called into dribble over the keys in “mood” music in public places usually are able to press the notes down (even if they don’t always get the right ones).  But my most earnest wish after subjected to another 2 hours of this ghastly excrescence is that, far from shooting down Russian warplanes, the Turks looked closer to home and destroyed the most offensive and obnoxious thing they possess; the player-piano in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.

20 November 2015

Shameful Programme Notes

Some weeks ago I was invited to a concert by a major orchestra as part of a programme arranged by a local education ministry aimed at secondary school children and their teachers.  Earlier this week I attended another private concert, also by a leading musical ensemble, this one intended as a celebratory gift to bankers.  Both were outstanding musically and I felt immensely privileged to have attended.  The one for schoolchildren was also a lot of fun, with children allowed on to the stage to peer into the instruments and try out playing the tuba (why is it they always head for the tuba?) and a conductor who was a wonderful communicator explaining what to look out for in the music.  The bankers’ one was a lavish affair with boundless hospitality in the guise of liveried flunkeys floating around with trays of champagne and an amazing buffet spread provided by a leading hotel.  But in both concerts, the lasting effect was badly let down by a silly, stupid and totally pointless act of cost-cutting which reflected badly on both the government ministry and the bank.  Both concerts had provided the audience with a lasting souvenir of the event in the shape of a concert programme booklet, but both had completely negated its beneficial effects by using off-the-peg, cut-and-paste programme notes which were as uneven and carelessly put together as the playing had been polished and immaculately prepared.

Why is it that those whose responsibility it is to provide audiences with programme booklets seem so incapable of understanding what it is they are doing?  A concert lasts a couple of hours at most and leaves an impression on its hearers which quickly fades.  The only tangible reminder of it (unless you keep your ticket stub) is the programme booklet, and this can last a lifetime and bring back vivid recollections of a particular concert. (I kept mine from the very first concerts I attended in the early 1960s until they were all lost in my disastrous house move of 2012.)

British programme books are renowned for costing the earth, filling themselves up with glossy ads for things no self-respecting music-lover would ever want, and squeezing in a couple of hundred words by some academic as interested in the sound of the music as he or she is in who came fourth in the 1978 tiddlywinks championship in Sierra Leone.  American programme books, on the other hand, often have such vast reams of tightly-packed text by some critic or other who expounds at his leisure on the music, the composer and the psychological state of musicians in general, that it is impossible to absorb in one sitting. 

Programme notes veer from the indecipherably analytical (how would any audience feel helped by the comment that “the modulation to the remote sub-mediant enharmonic minor represents a dramatic re-alignment of conventional Sonata Form”?) to the blandly pointless (“the nice tune at the end makes your hair stand up”) by way of the embarrassingly naïve (“I used to play a simplified version of this as a child”) and the awkwardly populist (“it’s Bach’s version of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’”).  Too often any available music enthusiast, academic or orchestral member is called in to write the notes, with little regard for the function they fulfil.  That function is as much publicity and souvenir as it is illumination and education; and how many programme notes manage to combine all that?

What was fundamentally at fault with the ones from the two concerts I attended was that, rather than call in a professional (or even an amateur) writer, they simply took isolated notes from a variety of sources (mostly freely available on the internet) and re-printed them without regard for context.  Thus, in one concert we had, apparently, two different composers - Rachmaninov and Rachmaninoff - while in the other we had a lengthy description of six brief folk dances by Bartok against a terse, brief paragraph on Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Asian schoolchildren were told that the “big tune” in Rachmaninov’s famous 2nd Piano Concerto is “well known to us all from David Lean’s Brief Encounter”, while Chinese bankers read of “lush Romanticism enveloping the skeletal traces of Classical style”.  Both statements are quite true, but do they really resonate with the target audiences?
The answer is no simply because there were no target audiences.  In both cases the notes came from (I assume) sources which had no connection with the event.  Huge amounts of money had been lavished on bringing the orchestras across the Pacific, on hiring halls, on arranging hospitality and visits to schools; yet a shoestring budget was devoted to providing the audience with a worthwhile lasting souvenir of the occasion and a valuable educational support to help these non-specialist audiences comprehend this most mysterious of art forms.

The art of programme note writing is just that; an art. It requires an understanding of the music, the audience and the context of the concert.  The best programme notes draw links and connections between the works being performed and even, where relevant, between the music and the environment familiar to the audience.  It requires an immense knowledge of what the music sounds like – not what it reads like – as well as a huge wealth of facts and figures which can be used to illustrate and illuminate the music to an audience who may or may not have a common interest, but certainly has a geographical and temporal commonality.  It has to be both a guide and a reference source, accessible and literate, it has to be informative yet comprehensible to even the most musically illiterate readers, and it has to reflect the length, the style and the mood of the music; programme notes are usually read before the performance, and the best ones set the mood of the audience to one which is most receptive for the music which follows; and if, by reading the nets, the memory of the music and its moods comes flooding back, then they have achieved their purpose.  All programme note writers worth their salt try to describe the music in such a way that their words instantly bring to mind the sound of the particular piece they are writing about.

With an archive of several thousand programme notes to my name, I often thought about making them available on the internet (at a charge, I hasten to add – my words of flawed wisdom only come free in this blog where they have to be taken with a big pinch of salt), but then I realised how wrong this would be.  If someone wanted to use my notes, I could not let them for fear that they would be used inappropriately.  Frequently I am commissioned to write notes on a work I have written about many times before.  Sometimes I can lift whole chunks from my previous notes to use in the commissioned note, but it never quite works out that I can simply re-present the original note in its entirety.  The note is affected by who plays the music, when they play it, to whom they play it and what else they are playing in the same concert and in the concerts before and after.  I’m not the best, by a long chalk, but I’m infinitely better than the cheapskate cut-and-paste jobs with which so many audiences are obliged to accept. 


I enjoyed both these concerts, but my lasting memory of them is in the form of rather nasty little booklets; and that’s a shame.

16 November 2015

Concert Attire


By a stroke of luck, I caught a programme about André Previn’s association with the BBC just hours before the BBC i-Player took it down.  It was a wonderful trip down memory lane, to the days when mainstream television in the UK devoted peak viewing hours to a programme of classical music performed by the greatest musicians of the time. There was a youthful Janet Baker reminding us that hers, surely, was one of the greatest voices of the 20th century, and an even more youthful Anthony Camden leading the oboe section of the matchless LSO.  Sadly neither of those great musicians is still with us and the LSO is a shadow of its former self.  But Previn remains, albeit older and somewhat more bloated - and his comments on these historic clips from the archives were every bit as fascinating as the archives themselves.  He reminded us just how controversial these programmes were at the time, not because they were “serious” music presented as entertainment, but because of Previn’s own relaxed and informal style.  As he said, he wanted to make the viewers feel at ease, and chose to wear roll-neck sweaters and casual trousers; a dress-code which did not seem to have been allowed to members of the orchestra.  At the time I do remember how outrageous this seemed; conductors wore tails and white bow ties - how could anyone take a conductor seriously who dressed like a normal human being?  Of course, 1970s normal is not 2010s normal, and he looked incredibly stiff and dated in his carefully-manicured relax-ness while the orchestra, apart from astonishing hirsute displays, could have been filmed yesterday, so comfortably familiar did they appear in their formal concert attire. 

From that point onwards, the issue of what musicians should wear for concerts and recitals has become ever more problematic; how easier it all was when nobody questioned the need for musicians to dress in the timeless style of a head waiter or butler.  The introduction of women into orchestras certainly created an awareness of the need to formalize a dress code (in Previn’s programmes, female orchestral players were conspicuous by their absence, although an early appearance of Kyung-Wha Chung brought a moment of restrained elegance), and today there are strict guidelines in most professional orchestras about what women players should wear. 

The only trouble is, they are all different, and as for solo recitals and chamber presentations – not even to go down the road of vocal performances which is an issue too thorny even for this brave blog to tackle – there is no consensus at all.  Search the internet and you will find thousands of different dress codes; indeed, it seems that every school, college, conservatory or teaching studio which has an online presence has its own unique dress code.  My favourite came from one in the US (I saw it, moved on and quite forgot to log which one it was) which stated; “backs, shoulders, elbows and knees must be covered”, although I have to say I admired the delicacy of advice from the Eastman School at the University of Rochester that “Too much bare skin anywhere (décolletage, arms, legs) can be very distracting”.  That seems pretty sound advice, yet how few seem to take it.

I attended a concert on Friday evening where the solo violinist wore a backless dress which exposed so much skin (and the hint of what was once euphemistically referred to as a “builders’ cleavage”) that, clearly, she regretted her wardrobe choice and took the first opportunity to slip of stage and change into something less revealing.  I sat in on some student chamber concerts on Saturday and saw into rather more young girls’ armpits than I care to mention (luckily they had all shaved).  And I will never forget the curvaceous violinist at a concert a few weeks ago whose spaghetti straps so persistently fell off her shoulders, I forgot about the music in eager anticipation of a full-scale wardrobe malfunction; it never came, possibly because, in the interval, it had obviously slipped off altogether and she reappeared on stage in something altogether more practical for the occasion.

As the women strive to turn a musical performance into a fashion statement, so , in our age of metro-sexuality, men, too, feel the need to show that it is they, not the music, which is the centre of attention, and find all manner of weird and wonderful things to wear in a bid to outshine the dull and dreary attempts of Bach and Beethoven to capture our full attention.  One eminent pianist, in an act of absolutely appalling narcissism, actually tells us who his “wardrobe designer” is – as if that has any bearing on the music he plays - while another is so anxious to be at the cutting edge of male grooming that his extraordinary tight clothes physically prevent him from the kind of displays of virtuosity of his peers.  Tieless – even shirtless – jackets, shin-length leggings and weird and wonderful displays of neck have become the norm up top, while at the lower end of the body (the bit that everyone in the front rows of the audience sees) things are even more wildly inconsistent.  I have seen bulky running shoes, flat sandals, flamboyant shoes with more strings than a theorbo, and cumbersome boots which would easily do for a climb up Mt Everest.  The most disgusting thing I have seen was at the chamber concerts on Saturday when one violinist wore shoes without socks, and this sight of his bare ankles heading directly into none-too-clean shoes was really more than my stomach could stand. 

Some might argue that they need to feel “comfortable” on stage; yet comfort easily leads to complacency, and that kills performances.  Others, that formal attire creates a barrier and prevents the audience feeling at their ease; as if listening to a Brahms quintet is “easy”.  Yet formal dress serves a very important purpose.  It visually unifies an ensemble of musicians, and presents them, not as the ultimate creator, but as the servant by whom the creator passes his work on to his consumers.  Do waiters in restaurants wear chef’s clothes?  No; in the highest class restaurants the delineation of duties is clearly defined by their dress.  I can think of no more nourishing role model for a concert than a top-flight gastronomic experience; it’s not coincidence that has musicians wearing the same uniform as butlers and head waiters.  In the world of pop and jazz, there are different attitudes; the performer there is very much the creator.  But in the world of classical music, performers are at the mercy of what they have to perform, and they need to show it to create that sense (subliminal as it may be) of serving the music, rather than promoting themselves.

The wonderful recital diplomas of Trinity College London include an element called “Presentation Skills” in which, among other things, attire is considered and both marked and remarked upon.  The syllabus states that “dress should be of the kind considered appropriate for a lunchtime or early evening recital”.  So far so good, except that, as we have seen, there is no accepted dress code for recitals, irrespective of whatever time of day they take place, and in its typical inability to join up its thinking on a potentially excellent product, Trinity gives no advice or guidance whatsoever either to students or, more seriously, examiners.  At examiner meetings we frequently argued interminably over what constituted correct attire.  The older ones felt nothing short of full white tie and black tails would suffice, while others concentrated on shoes and shoulders, some were adamant that a plastic water bottle taken on stage would warrant loss of marks, others that the very fact that the candidate appeared for an examination warranted 100% in the Presentation Skills section.  It really does come down to the luck of the draw; whatever you wear will be marked according to the examiner’s preference, not a clear unequivocal indication of what is expected.  If your examiner is old, quickly nip off and change into formal uniform, if he’s young, stick to the jeans and torn tee shirt.  And, in typical Trinity style, if you don’t like what is said in the report, send it back and complain; you are almost guaranteed to have your mark raised so terrified is Trinity of upsetting its “customer base”.

There was a time when questions of dress were never raised, and musicians could concentrate totally on their performance.  Thanks to Previn and his roll-neck sweaters, the music too often is overshadowed by the dress.  Can that be right?

10 November 2015

Fatherly Tears


I could have cried all night.  The only thing which stopped me was that I was sat next to one of my students, and it’s never good to let them see you sobbing your heart out.  Students should look on you, not so much as a father figure, but more as some kind of mythical hero, the fount of all wisdom, someone far above the mere trivialities of human emotions. (If I can’t fantasise in my own blog, where can I?)  So I held back my tears and put on a brave face, despite the extreme provocation of the concert.

Don’t get me wrong.  The music was pleasant enough, but none of it so deeply moving that it would drive a sensitive soul to lachrymosity.  The performances too, while certainly of variable quality, were never anything like bad enough to warrant tears of despair (or, worse still, mocking laughter).  In fact all the performances were very good and a couple of them quite exceptional.

No, what had me peering into the abyss of unrestrained misery was the celebration of fatherhood which was at the root of this concert of assorted vocal items.  Believe it or not, there is an organisation in Singapore which was set up specifically to “turn the hearts of children towards their fathers by empowering more fathers to be better role models and an enduring inspiration to their children” (to quote from the Centre for Fathering’s mission statement on http.//fathers.com.sg).  Present in the audience were numerous fathers and their children. 

Not my child however. 

My lovely, gorgeous, adorable daughter is 10,000kms away in Scotland and I get to see her for just a few months every year (not because I’m a bad Dad or husband, but just that she’s there with my wife having a wonderful time in a wonderfully happy small village school while I’m in Singapore earning the money to keep them there).  Not long now before the semester ends and I can get back on the plane to Edinburgh and see both her and my equally wonderful wife, but being reminded of the joys of fatherhood and seeing it in practice all around me certainly set the tear ducts in action; and while I restrained myself from giving my adjacent student a fatherly hug, I yearned desperately to share what was a thoroughly enjoyable concert with my wife and daughter.

That there needs to be an organisation established to show Singapore men how to be good fathers is, in itself, quite distressing; but there again, as a child I had a wonderful, loving father (as an old man I still have a wonderful, loving father who, with his 98th birthday on the horizon, is as active mentally, physically and musically as he ever was and is such an example to us children that my brother and I have long since given up any hope of even faintly emulating him in our daily lives).  I appreciate how phenomenally fortunate I was in having such a wonderful father, and I cannot conceive of being anything other than totally devoted and dedicated to my own daughter.  It pains me to realise that other children have not had not such a good deal from their fathers.

Certainly Isaac got a pretty poor deal from his father: in fact, about the worst deal any son could get.  Abraham, in an act of appalling selfishness, accepted a challenge from God to use Isaac as a human sacrifice.  God intervened at the last minute, but there is no doubt in my – nor was there in Isaac’s - mind that Abraham would have gone ahead with the deed.  What kind of father does that sort of thing to their son?  Certainly the retelling of that Biblical example of irresponsible parenting in the guise of Benjamin Britten’s canticle seemed singularly inappropriate for a concert aimed to inspire fathers to be good to their children.  Theo Moolenaar and Shang Zhang were absolutely brilliant in this tense and often harrowing piece. 

Indeed, so compelling was Moolenaar that my tears welled up again; tears of nostalgia.  Both at school and at university I had met Peter Pears, for whom the tenor part was written, worked with him in a masterclass (as an accompanist, not, I hasten to add, a singer) and sat by as he taught, rehearsed and performed.  He was one of the greatest artists I ever met and if, by the time he came to our university, his voice had long since passed its prime (Cliff Bunford, the university’s vocal coach, memorably described Pears’ latter vocal quality as “like gargling in concrete”), there was not a hint of diminution in his supreme artistry and understanding of the art of singing.  To be so powerfully reminded of a great man from my youth – now long since dead – was not merely emotionally upsetting but a wonderful testament to Moolenaar’s own superb vocal qualities and intelligent musicianship; this is a voice which deserves to go places once his student days are behind him.  Shang is no Kathleen Ferrier (for whom the part of Isaac was originally conceived) but that’s all to her credit; Ferrier’s voice, when we hear it on record now, seems redolent of a past era of contralto singing which is difficult to accept today.  Instead she has a clear, direct tone supported by a level of poise and control which ensures flawless intonation and beautifully moulded musical phrases.  Together, Moolenaar and Shang more than justified the inclusion in the concert of this anti-fatherhood rant on musical and artistic grounds.

There was less contentious material elsewhere with soothing lullabies by Brahms and Copland, gentle duets by Schumann (himself a famously loving father in an age and place where fathers were not supposed to be loving) and some songs not unconnected with childhood images and dreams by Charles Ives and Hugo Wolf (neither of whom were particularly well-served by their own fathers). 

Totally new to me were the two songs from a collection by Irving Fine curiously entitled Childhood Fables for Grownups (which, I see, were written in the very year that I was born and first came into contact with my own perfect fatherly role-model). He died of a heart-attack in 1962 at the age of 47 - which rather makes ironic a comment by Edward Downes that “Mr. Fine had a heart as well as a mind – a most romantic heart, to judge by some of his music” – and had built up an eminent circle of friends (including Copland and Bernstein) all of whom admired him for the way he combined intellectual integrity with a subtle wit in his music.  That certainly came to the fore in the performance of “Lenny the Leopard” and “The Frog and the Snake” which kept humour at bay by means of some pretty terse and tightly-reined musical language.  If anyone has ever performed these two songs better than the admirable soprano Amelia Hayes, I would be surprised.  She caught their character to absolute perfection.  Standing somewhat austerely and only occasionally allowing the tiniest hint of a smile to cross her face, she was precise, clear, neat and effortless in her delivery, the words were immaculate and when, in the second song, she began (deliberately) to loosen up, it gave real impact to the witty ending.  The same impulse which almost drove me to hug my adjacent student urged me to leap up on stage and congratulate her with a huge, fatherly kiss.  But three things prevented me – 10 people in the row either side of me, a physical bulk which has long since consigned notions of my leaping about to the dark recesses of my own imagination, and the sense of decorum and responsibility which comes with fatherhood.

A real and tangible sense of affection came at the very end of the concert with the 18 Liebeslieder Waltzes by one of music’s most famous bachelors, Johannes Brahms (whose own father was no kind of role model and prompted his son to turn to composing almost as a means of rebellion against his father – which, perhaps, was not a bit of background to be brought out in the context of this concert).  Long as I have known these works – played in the piano duet, sung in the tenor when performed by choirs, and conducted my own choirs in them – I found the performance by the quartet of Suyen Rae, Shi Yu Tan, Fang Zhi and Daegyun Jeong, totally mesmerising.  It was delicate, discrete, buoyant and joyful all in one, and sung just by a quartet (I usually have heard it done by small choral groups) the delicacy of Brahms’s textures was particularly well revealed.  But the best thing of all in the performance was the gorgeous, unspeakably delicious, piano duet of Hye-Seon Choi (who had accompanied just about everything else in the programme) and Clarence Lee.  What a treat this was, a demonstration of duet perfection which brought out every little textural detail with superb clarity and integrated itself wholly into the singing.  I have to say, it helped hugely that they had elected to use the Bösendorfer rather than the Steinway piano; the richness of tone, the warmth of its character and that unspeakably resonant bass make the perfect vehicle for this music.  So lovely was the sound of this piano so tenderly nurtured by these two superlative pianists that, not for the first time, I felt a tear begin to trickle down my cheek. 

08 November 2015

From the New to the New

When Jiří Bělohlávek conducted the newly-formed Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in June 1999 included in his programme was Dvořák’s "New World" Symphony; the first time the MPO had ever been scheduled to play the work.  After the first rehearsal the Maestro was not pleased, complaining that the players had not practised, that they did not know the work and that they acted like a student orchestra.  He may have been simply goading them to up their game or he may genuinely have felt that the orchestra was dolefully unprepared for the performance, but whatever the reason, his comments revealed an awareness of the dangers of complacency in performing a work of such universal popularity.  So well known and loved is Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony -"From the New World" - that most who go to hear it have their own ideal performance firmly implanted in their minds (possibly a recording or an assemblage of half-remembered performances) which they use as a yardstick to measure every other performance they hear.  For a conductor to make his mark with the Symphony he needs to offer something so clear and compelling that audiences are forced to re-evaluate the piece; and for that to happen, an orchestra must be at the top of its game and not merely sitting back comfortably going over well trodden territory.

This was something which clearly preyed on the minds of the players of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra when they performed the Symphony as part of their end of semester concert on Friday night.  Many of them would have been playing the work for the first time, but all of them would have known it as a mainstay of the repertory ever since they first took a liking to orchestral music, and, like the audience, they probably each had an ideal performance in their minds.  Consequently an air of nervous tension pervaded much of the playing which manifest itself in occasional split notes from the brass and some uncomfortable wind intonation.  But this was a performance which also had some spectacularly good points, not the least of which was some phenomenal playing from the strings. 

There is no universally accepted seating plan for orchestras.  In Germany, for example, a tradition grew up of placing a screen of violins along the front of the stage through which the rest of the orchestra was filtered, while in England and the US it was common for the strings to spread from top to bottom as the semicircle went from left to right; this became even more universal with the advent of stereophonic recording when, having a spatial aspect between treble and bass emphasised the stereo spread (something north American recording engineers in the 1950s and 1960s took to extremes by creating recordings which sounded as if the first violins and cellos were separated by a chasm as wide as the Atlantic Ocean).  There are powerful musical arguments to support all the various permutations of string seating, but Jason Lai was wise on Friday to adopt the latter, not least because it gave the violas a chance to shine brightly over the cellos unencumbered by the screen of violins.  Indeed, so clearly and strongly did they project their playing that I realised for the first time just how vital a role Dvořák had given his own instrument in the work.

Lai’s was a compelling yet unpretentious interpretation of the Symphony, wisely avoiding excess of pathos or lingering emotion (alertly snapping off a few chords which seemed in danger through sour intonation) and highlighting the dance elements which flavours so much of Dvořák’s writing.  He clearly inspired these players, and even when the pressure got to them, Lai’s infectious enthusiasm for the work and his firm but genial control, ensured a performance which would have been to just about everybody’s taste.

The concert began with the world premre of Brastri per Celindano by Peter Edwards.  The work may have been written for the Conservatory Orchestra but Edwards made no concessions for the youth and relative inexperience of the players, presenting them with an extremely challenging work which devoted itself to the exploration of orchestral timbre.  The title (an amalgam of the instruments involved; Brass, Strings, Percussion, Celesta and Piano) was much more than an ingenious bit of word-play; it effectively summed up what the piece was all about.  If it was challenging to the orchestra, it was difficult for the audience, especially at the start when jagged lumps of orchestral sound were hurled at them much in the manner of a gang of youths hurling stones from a bridge on to a highway (a not uncommon practice in less civilised countries than Singapore).  But, after a while, these seemingly unrelated lumps of sound began to take form and build to something tangible.  In the end, as Edwards put it in his colourful note, “things fall apart as easily as they form”, and the sound became fragmentary again.  But by this stage the audience had a better perception of what it was all about, and the very generous (verging on the ecstatic) applause the composer received when he went on to stage to congratulate the musicians was not just well-deserved; it was in genuine appreciation of a stimulating new work.

It is, however, as unfair to judge a new work on its first performance as it is to assess the ability of an orchestra to meet the composer’s demands in it.  Suffice it to say that under Lai’s very clear direction – and a direction which not only kept the piece together but moulded it into a vivid artistic interpretation – the orchestra played admirably, showing real commitment and dedication to the task and at times elevating themselves with some very accomplished playing indeed.  Perhaps a lack of discipline in the brass gave a slightly distorted feel to the texture (I can’t really believe this was the composer’s intention), but full praise to celesta and piano who together provided a powerfully secure backbone to the whole performance.

Without a shadow of doubt the very best playing in the concert came with the Copland Clarinet Concerto.  Whether by accident or design the performance was taking place on the very day that Benny Goodman first played the work in public in 1950 – long before anyone on stage (but not in the audience) had been born.  That the Concerto does not get as many outings as it deserves is because Goodman possessed a very special technique which few classically-trained clarinettists have ever fully emulated.  Chinese clarinettist Yue Ziqi has that technique in spades, however, and her performance, full of an innate feel for the jazz style, a gorgeously expressive approach to the blues elements and a level of direct virtuosity that was utterly breathtaking, was about as good  as it gets.  True, one or two of the stratospherically high notes did not quite make it, but who cares?  What came across was a brilliant and persuasive interpretation of a Concerto which this young player showed every sign of making her own.  Possibly having spent much of the last semester studying in the US helped her get so firmly under the skin of this quintessentially American work, but we must not overlook the fact that before then, she had been a student at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, and there was clearly a powerful empathy between her and the orchestra which responded with some genuinely world-class playing.

Even the most querulous and demanding of Maestri could not but have been impressed with this playing from the new generation of orchestral talent.

02 November 2015

Biographical Templates

Many hours are spent each week editing and expunging vast swathes of pointless material from musicians' biographies in a valiant attempt to convince concert audiences that the money they have spent on tickets has been money well spent.  They need to see that the artists on whose fees so much of their ticket money has gone are genuinely unique and not just a name plucked from a crowd all of whom claim in their biographies to do the same things in the same places with the same people and "garnering" the same level of unrestrained adulation from the same critics.  I have written about this before and such is the power of this blog that nothing whatsoever seems to have changed. http://drmarcsblog.marcrochester.com/2014/08/pointless-promotions.html

A typical artist biography begins by telling us how brilliant they are (presumably on the basis that their brilliance is so refined that the concert-going public would not otherwise recognise it) before going on to list in infinite detail the places where they have performed, the artists with whom they have performed and the music they have performed (as if to say that  "you may not like what I am doing here today, but you should have heard what I did somewhere else").  It has always amazed me that, in a profession which survives on cut-throat competition between artists for bookings, these biographies seem focused on making them all seem the same, and far from trying to stand out from the crowd, conformity is the order of the day. 

Of course, many of these biographies are written by earnest interns in artist agencies who have been given a computer, a template and shown how to operate the “Find and Replace” tool.  Earnest interns cannot be expected to know any better.  But the sad thing is that young artists, forced to go out into the hard world of musical reality without the support of an agency, seem hell-bent on emulating the pathetic efforts of these earnest interns.  When every biography reads the same and lists the same things, how in anybody’s wildest imagination is that going to help secure a prospective booking for the artist?  Last week I ploughed through two dozen biographies, all of which were, at their core, identical.  A common blunder is to refer to performances in famous places without realising that anyone can perform anywhere to any audience; only a re-invitation or second appearance implies that the artist is any good. 

So it is with composers, and when I read that student composer Hsu Tzu-Chin’s music “is regularly premiered in concerts”, I cannot help thinking what a pointless statement that is; what matters more is how many second (or third) performances it’s had; that, surely, is the real test of a successful composer?  As it was, Hsu’s work performed at today’s noon recital was of such excellent quality that, if it was a premiere, then I sincerely hope it gets many repeat performances around the globe.  Of course, the impact it made today may well have been the wonderfully effortless way that violinist Orest Smovzh negotiated the manifest technical obstacles in Caprice; he made it sound easy and natural, and brought out much of its inherent beauty.  There is a great deal to commend this work beyond the fact that it seemed indecently short.  Avoiding virtuoso display it lived up to its title by passing rapidly from one character to the next to provide a veritable showcase of technical and musical effects. 

Tenor Fang Zhi gave us a beautifully understated account of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte perfectly matched by his discrete and fluently sympathetic pianist, Melivia Citavani Raharjo.  What the voice lacked in colour, tonal variety or demonstrative display it more than made up for in a laser-sharp sense of pitch, immaculate clarity of diction, a wonderful directness of delivery and a real feel for the idiom.  The ecstatic conclusion was perfectly measured.  Soprano Suyen Chloe Gonzales Rae, accompanied by Nguyen Le Binh Anh, was everything Fang was not.  Demonstrative, dramatic and vividly colourful, her voice had such commanding presence that it demanded your fullest attention.  In her two songs from Berlioz’s Les nuits d’ete there were moments when pitch and intonation wafted out of the window (although there are those who would suggest this is entirely in sympathy with the French style), and the diction, while never really clear, was so utterly idiomatic that the performance had a sense of complete authority.  Here’s a voice which demands to be heard and deserves as wide as possible exposure, irrespective of the limitations of a biography (which, in her case, devoted nearly half its length to a listing of other artists’ names).

Sadly, no amount of biographical tweaking can help a bassoonist intent on a solo career; it’s one of those instruments which is so rarely taken seriously beyond an orchestra that nobody ever thinks to book one as a soloist.  Let me point them in the direction of Liang Geng, a Chinese bassoon player whose biography told us he once won 3rd prize in a Concerto Competition (that may have seemed a big deal at the time, but it does not really make an impressive impact in a biography).  He gave us a performance of Schumann’s Stucke im Volkston which was so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Schumann and so compellingly phrased and shaped that anybody might have thought Schumann intended it for bassoon all along (it was originally scored for cello and piano).  The character of each of these five self-contained miniatures was perfectly captured in playing which was as artistically perceptive as it was technically assured.


Four excellent and distinctive performers (six if you add their astonishingly able accompanists) and a first-rate composer.  Someone needs to tell them that it doesn’t stop there; they have to let the world know how good they are, and they won’t do that by using the Find and Replace tool and a basic musician biography template.

28 October 2015

No Audience - No Music

I had forgotten that audiences could get so small.  Certainly, whenever students appear on stage in Singapore, it has become  customary for large numbers of their peers to sit in the audience hollering and screaming when they appear and generally supporting them with an enthusiasm which clearly lifts the performer in the most positive way.  For some reason (and probably not unconnected with the proximity of exams and assignment deadlines as the semester draws to its close) student audiences have suddenly shrunk and I find myself in a small clique of a dozen or so hardy souls who brave whatever Indonesian forest fires or clashing weather fronts can inflict on us for the sole purpose of experiencing a musical performance and providing the performer with a tangible presence with which to react.

The rot seemed to begin last Thursday when student composer Syafiqah ‘ Adha binte Mohamed Sallehin presented her new work, Rintihan Nadim, as part of her Master’s degree submission.  True, it was a performance which was principally directed towards the examiners whose job it was to assess the work rather than the performance, but it was open to the public who, in effect, served to legitimise the performance and provide the composer with a more direct (and, it has to be said, valid) reaction to the music than the focused and specialised considerations of the examiners.  It mattered at the time to the composer that the work was good enough to get a degree, but in the broader reality of musical experience, what matters most is how an audience responds.  The few hardy souls in the concert hall last Thursday responded well enough; but their numbers were too small to pay full justice to what was, in effect, a very compelling performance of a hugely attractive work.

I have come to like the composer’s style; it has a strange but rather satisfying blend of the innovative, the opulently romantic, the directly expressive and the distinctly Malay.  And while I felt that there was a sense of the music being driven too much by the narration rather than relying on its own impact, the story was well illustrated by the highly imaginative instrumental colour and effectively shaped to make a satisfying concert work. The tale of how the young boy Nadim saved Singapore from an attack by fish (specifically garfish - which seems strange since the modern-day habitat of the garfish is essentially around the waters of northern and western Europe and north west Africa – but there again, I suppose Nadim chased them all away from the South China Seas) is a good one for any audience.  The narration was delivered with a wonderful clarity by Megat Muhammad Firdaus Mohd, and the composer was at hand to ensure that the English translation was visible during the performance for the benefit of the non-Malays speakers.  Best of all was the quite outstanding playing of the student ensemble under the conductor Francis Tan Huan Chun.  It’s a big responsibility directing, not just a premiere performance but one which is being attended by examiners on whose word the young composer’s immediate future depends, and Tan could not have done a better job.  He had a cool and collected command over his seven committed instrumentalists and balanced the texture well, never forgetting to keep a wary eye on the narrator and ensure it all passed along fluently.   Whatever anyone else thought of the work, I very much enjoyed it and I have a feeling that the audience did too; all 20 of them (or so).

Last night, despite the presence on stage of 14 student string players, the audience outnumbered them only by about three to one and, surprisingly, the appearance of the students (the women amongst them beautifully garbed in various rich colours and exuding elegance in a way few orchestras do today), did not trigger a single screech, scream or whistle.  This was an audience there for the music rather than primarily to support their friends.  It was a delightful programme of Mozart, Bartók and Dvořák played with immense enthusiasm and a strength of tone which was most impressive.  It often tended to go rather fast – the finale of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik breathless to a quite staggering degree - and this showed in some shaky intonation and a few untidy corners especially in the Serenade for Strings.  But the inner balance of the string ensemble was excellent and some of the individual playing (one hates to single anyone out, but Yu Ssu-Yang’s cello and Liu Minglun’s violin warrant mention) was absolutely magnificent.  I particularly liked the tightly restrained vibrato which gave the collective tone a very clear and pointed focus.  The humour of the last movement of the Bartók Divertimento was particularly well conveyed; did I detect the merest hint of a snigger from a man 20 rows in front – the joke certainly was not lost on either him or me.

The audience just made it into double figures for this lunchtime’s horn and trombone presentation, and the small numbers clearly did nothing for the morale or confidence of the two protagonists, hornist Yeong Sze Fong and trombonist Kow Kang Yue Don, neither of whom quite rose to the occasion as fully as they might.  Concertos, No.1 for horn by Richard Strauss and the trombone one by Launy Grøndahl, were played with a thoroughly assured level of technical security, and both players were impressive in their attention to the detail in the score. However, as the Strauss progressed, one felt that Yeong had lost heart and was, to an extent, going through the motions rather than vividly delivering one of the truly great concertos of the 20th century (personally, I was deeply disappointed by the – probably necessary – curtailing of the accompaniment, but that magical transformation from the first to the second movements, perhaps one of the greatest moments in all Strauss, seems too important to omit from a performance merely on grounds of convenience).  He produced a clear, ringing tone and embraced the range effortlessly, but this sounded more in the way of a run through for the benefit of a teacher than a distinct interpretation aimed for an attentive audience.  And can we blame him when the public were so conspicuous by their absence?  

Likewise Kow, who gave a great deal of colour and drama to the Grondhal Concerto, but failed to bring it fully to life.  It’s an interesting concerto which uses the trombone to good effect and speaks in a pleasingly direct language to any audience.  Kow was obviously well aware of that; he just seemed to doubt that there was sufficient of an audience to open the work up to.  There is something infinitely depressing about playing to an empty hall and if ever people doubted how essential an audience is for the totality of a performance, these concerts should have provided a powerful counter-argument.


23 October 2015

Questionable Eras


A question posed during a masterclass on the “Wanderer” Fantasy triggered in me an internal burst of anger as unjustified as it was short-lived.
"Do we regard Schubert as a Classical or a Romantic composer?”

Even as the Master was posing his question I was silently screaming an answer; “It doesn’t matter!  Schubert is Schubert!”. 
The question, though, was rhetorical, and the Master himself supplied the answer; “It doesn’t matter", he told us all, " Schubert is Schubert!”  From that point on the Master could do no wrong in my eyes and I lapped up every word this mightily intelligent man subsequently uttered. His question, however, highlighted a serious issue; the dangerous and corrosive emphasis placed by teachers and many performing (and academic) musicians on historical eras.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, towards the end of the 19th century German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music, drew up three basic periods of history during each of which they could identify certain stylistic traits in music.  Never mind that, as German speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music, their vision was bounded by music written by composers from the German-speaking areas of Europe, they laid down pretty convincing arguments that musical style was largely dictated by the time in which a composer lived.  Thus they grouped every composer in whose music they could identify these stylistic commonalities together and then created an artificial historical period to encompass them: any composer working between 1600 and 1750 was labelled “Baroque”, between 1750 and 1820 “Classical”, and from 1820 onwards “Romantic”.  Sadly these German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music had all died before the 19th century had run its course and so never got to witness the demise of Romanticism as a consequence of the First World War.  As a result they neither provided a date for the end of the Romantic era nor a suitable label for what came next.

If those German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music had successors in German-speaking countries, they tended to keep themselves to themselves.  Having been humiliated in a World War, German thinkers probably decided that they were in no position to suggest to the world that Germany was still the pre-eminent musical culture, and it’s surely no coincidence that most German composers after the war seemed intent on distancing themselves from tradition rather than celebrating it.  Others had to take over the task of defining and labelling subsequent musical periods.

Step forward the British examination boards who, having laid down their framework of graded theory exams, had taken the concept of stylistic eras  to their collective bosom.  Not knowing quite what was going to happen to music as the 20th century progressed, they decided to label everything written after 31st December 1899 as “20th century” or “Modern”, and to this day, nobody seems to have thought to create a stylistic label for any music written during the later decades of the 20th century or the opening decades of the 21st.  So we have the ridiculous concept of Debussy and Elgar being lumped, stylistically, together with Messiaen, Stockhausen, Boulez, Glass and Arvo Pärt as “Modern”.

That in itself is daft, but neither dangerous nor corrosive. 

Bounded by the borders of the German-speaking world, the original 19th century philosophers, critics and writers on music, saw no need to include in their stylistic considerations English, French, Spanish or even Italian composers, and their descriptors of stylistic linkages referred almost exclusively to German music.  It was they, for example, who had convinced the world of the existence of a Classical Canon in which the God-like composers were Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – German-speakers to a man.  So in considering the stylistic traits common to those composers of the Baroque era, they looked only at the Germans.  To this day, there is a common belief that the greatest composers in history have all been from the German-speaking world and that composers unfortunate enough to have been born elsewhere are, almost by default, peripheral to the great march of musical history.  And that almost unthinking perception of non-German composers being peripheral to the mainstream of music continues to inform the opinions of many, much to the detriment of music itself.  This is the corrosive, destructive consequence of a view which defines musical style primarily in terms of historical era.

Why is it, do you think, that the descriptors of Baroque style are, in effect, descriptors of the music of J S Bach and others of the North German school?  What of Domenico Scarlatti, who fits neatly into the Baroque era, but is generally held to be lesser than his great contemporary because his music does not inhabit the same stylistic territory?  Virtually none of the descriptors applies to his music – although that hasn’t stopped generations of piano teachers and young pianists trying to fit his free-thinking, stylistically distinctive music into a German Baroque hat.  I read in a student’s diploma programme note that Scarlatti’s Sonatas “have none of the contrapuntal mastery of J S Bach”.  We are indoctrinated with the idea that the Fugue is the “ultimate Baroque musical genre”, and while it may have been for those living in northern Germany, it had no interest for the likes of Albinoni, Byrd, Purcell, Rameau or Alessandro Scarlatti whose collective genius lay stylistically in very different areas.

In seeing style as the almost exclusive consequence of historical period, there is also the grave danger of overlooking technology.  Throughout the 18th century keyboard instruments varied dramatically from country to country; even from city to city.  Bach famously went to Berlin to try out harpsichords which were generally thought to be of an entirely different quality to those in Weimar, Cöthen or Leipzig.  As the piano evolved, instruments made in France were quite different from those in London, Florence or Vienna and prompted different styles of piano writing from local composers.  But none of this is anything to the huge, fundamental differences between organs in different European states.  Even if Handel had wanted to write wonderful organ fugues, he was prevented from doing so by the basic technological character of English organs where the Voluntary was a much more suitable vehicle for the split keyboards and tiny pedalboards characteristic of the English organs of the 18th century.  I have heard otherwise sensible people say that John Stanley was not as good as Bach because he did not write such powerful Preludes and Fugues.  We would surely laugh out of court anyone who suggested that Bach was not as good as Stanley because he could not write a decent Cornet Voluntary. 

If our understanding of music in the 17th and early 18th centuries is distorted by this focus on historical eras, how much more it obscures our view of the later 18th century.  Indeed, so persuasive were those German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music, that to this day, even for quite musically alert people, the “Classical” period ONLY comprised Haydn and Mozart, whose music was so elevated that we now use the term “Classical Music” to define a whole swathe of musical activity.  In an experiment I challenged third year conservatory students to come up with 10 composers of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras.  They struggled to find 10 Baroque men, but did it in the end, produced the names of almost three dozen Romantic composers before I managed to shut them up, but when it came to Classical it was Haydn, Mozart and…Errrrm?  True, one wag did suggest Leopold Mozart and Michael Haydn as alternatives, but I dismissed that as cheating as he didn’t know a single work either had written.  What of Boyce, Arne, Clementi, Balbastre, Cannabich, Dusek, Boccherini, Cimarosa, Vanhal, need I continue? 

Then, with the focus on individual expression which came after the French Revolution, to lump every composer as “Romantic” is just plain daft.  How can we find stylistic linkage between John Field and Franz Liszt, between Hector Berlioz and Johannes Brahms, between Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner?

To return to the original question, if we regard Schubert as being “Romantic” we must interpret him as if he is Wagner or Liszt, whereas if we regard him as “Classical” we approach him as we do Mozart or C P E Bach.  Yet to do so seriously diminishes our appreciation of his true individuality as a composer, and so colours our musical judgement as to obscure it completely.  Yet there are innumerable piano teachers who devote hours to agonizing over just such pointless questions.
And why?

Because, for so many conditioned by the belief that music can ONLY be understood in relation to historical eras, it seems vitally important.  In my examining days I despaired at the countless piano teachers who had told their pupils that when a diploma syllabus asked for a “balanced” programme, that balance was purely and wholly era-based.  Thus the innumerable dreary recitals in which candidates presented no musical or stylistic comprehension in their playing, happy to believe that because they had chosen composers from different historical eras, they were presenting a properly balanced programme.  They did not think to listen to the music; they did not consider varying tonalities, tempi, moods, characters or even nationalities; just look at the dates and that’s enough.  I had no end of recitals stuck firmly in D major and, occasionally, B minor, full of fast and loud music, which varied only when you looked at the composers’ dates and read in the (usually) appalling programme notes that “Bach was a Baroque Composer. Mozart was a Classical Composer.  Chopin was a Romantic composer.  Debussy was a Modern composer”.

A good composer is one whose music stands out from the crowd, who writes in a style which is distinct from that of their contemporaries, and whose music transcends issues of time, place and technology.  Almost by definition, a composer cannot be good if the music simply conforms to the norms of the age.  If we have to judge a composer purely in terms of yardsticks laid down by a bunch of German-speaking philosophers, critics and writers on music who decided amongst themselves what sort of music belonged to their randomly chosen artificial historical eras, then we may as well abandon all ideas of valued judgements and join the ranks of those piano teachers for whom historical era is the sole consideration in all interpretative issues.   For them, whether Schubert was a Classical or a Romantic composer really is a vital question.


22 October 2015

Unvarying Reticence

Variety is something we look for in any piano recital.  Last night German pianist Andreas Henkel offered a certain geographic variety in his programme at Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  There was music celebrating Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Scotland.  True, all of the composers were German (Liszt might have been Hungarian by birth and his Rhapsodie espagnole actually written in Rome, but at heart he was firmly rooted in the German musical tradition) while Henkel himself showed his perception of “international” by listing his personal international credentials as comprising concerts in such varied cities as Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin and Munich.  Actually, a great many more cities in countries other than Germany were mentioned, but there was an unmistakably Germanic feel to the whole thing which went way beyond the repertory choice or the simple window-dressing of a biography.

Opening with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue Henkel took a while to settle into the somewhat impersonal and unresponsive environment of the Conservatory’s Orchestra Hall and for a time, the Bach did not seem to know where it was heading.  Soon, however, it fell on its feet and started running with an assured purposefulness which revealed the greatest characteristic of Henkel’s playing; a lucid and fluent technique which came dramatically into its own in the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata.   The Bach, though, also revealed a certain interpretative unevenness which again surfaced more obviously later in the programme.  In the case of the Bach, there was never a convincing balance between stylistic credibility and interpretative licence.  When he was in strict, texturally precise and stylistically confident mode, Henkel delivered some truly outstanding Bach playing, but it was compromised by occasional bursts of romantic opulence and lavish tone colour.  The pedal – a contentious issue in Bach performances but one which, under the foot of a completely convincing interpreter, never prompts doubts – seemed obtrusive as much because vast tracts of dry, pedalless piano tone were countered by moments when the pedal went down and stayed down. 

Henkel’s transparency of tone created by a wonderfully balanced technique, abutting a seam of rich but almost reticent romanticism, perfectly suited the Beethoven.  Themes were drawn out with the clarity and focus of a high-powered telescope and the inner balance of the texture was so enticingly managed that this was an absolute joy to hear.  On top of that, Henkel’s supreme sense of the overall architecture of the Sonata resulted in a performance of rare cohesion.  It simply unfolded before our ears as if it were a delightful, interesting and wholly absorbing journey by the kind of trains Germany was once famous for; spotlessly clean and running exactly to time.  You knew where you were going and had no doubts that you would get there safely.

It was the three Mendelssohn pieces which showed up more than anywhere else Henkel’s somewhat uneasy grasp of interpretative nuance.  The Capriccio in A minor, as well as the Song Without Words in F sharp minor, were fluently executed and offered a fine glimpse of Henkel’s fluid and immaculately balanced fingerwork, but in the more restful and expressive Venetianisches Gondellied we were not so much gently caressing the waters of the Viennese canals, as thrust out into the Mediterranean and rocking queasily in a vast, swelling sea.  It lurched from bar to bar like a cartoon Rubato, and while Henkel drew the melody out wonderfully clearly from the texture, any singer attempting to sing the line would have ended up dazed and dizzy from the awkward manipulations of rhythm which passed here for romantic expressiveness.

Almost everything about the Liszt, however, was admirable.  Brilliantly delivered from a technical standpoint, it had a lovely sense of organisation and purpose, there was colour and expression and a certain Spanish flair.  Oddly, though, as with everything in the programme, Henkel held back from the ultimate demonstrative gesture.  Just as the Liszt neared the end, Henkel seemed to withdraw into his shell and the dynamic faded to end almost apologetically.  Just once, at the end of this recital, one wished he could have let his hair down enough to give us a true and powerful gesture of expression; it all seemed just a little too tightly reined in.

And what of Scotland?

An encore was offered (when, in a piano recital in Asia, is one ever not?) and, as Henkel explained, he was continuing the (German) tradition of presenting a “transcription”.  The “transcription” itself was of a Scottish melody, the Bunessan Tune which, in Scotland, certainly, is usually sung to the words “Child in a Manger” but Henkel, and many in the audience,  associate more with “Morning has Broken”.  Whatever.  It was not a transcription but a set of variations on a tune which, in all fairness, offers no real scope for variation; it is so firmly rooted in its tonality and its melodic shape that it is best left well alone.  Henkel superimposed a few pianistic gestures, ripples of arpeggios, fluid runs up and down the keyboard, but it never went anywhere or did anything.  It was a lot of effort over nothing.  But this encore did reveal what, possibly, was at the root of Henkel’s approach to performing.  A very obvious Christian faith seems to have persuaded him that personal display and self-aggrandisement is secondary to musical and personal sincerity.  All very good and commendable, but pianists need to be a little more extrovert, a little more egotistic, a little more open with their emotional involvement in the music if they are to be wholly convincing, and much as every moment of this recital was enjoyable, it had an overall sense of restraint and reticence which just blunted the sort of wide variety of moods many of us look for in a piano recital.

18 October 2015

Wiener Wit & Wisdom

Early in 2012 I took up a short-term contract in Abu Dhabi.  My work in Singapore seemed to be stagnating, and I felt in need of a change, so the opportunity to spend time doing something I loved in a city I had never previously visited was an opportunity not to be missed.  We duly gave up our lovely Singapore home, called in the movers and asked them put all our belongings in storage until such time as we decided where we were going to settle next.  The Abu Dhabi work was wonderful but, all too soon, the contract came to an end and my wife decided we should spend the next few years in the UK for the sake of our daughter, then aged four, who needed to get to know her British roots and relatives; my mother and one of my sisters had died while my daughter was still a baby, and we didn’t want the rest of the relatives to peg out before she had got a chance to know them.  So we stayed with my father in the UK while I looked around for something to do and, very soon, an opportunity came up at the University of St Andrews to cover maternity leave.  So, before the year was out, we found ourselves living in one of Scotland’s most beautiful regions.  With a definite new address established, I contacted our Singapore movers and asked them to arrange to ship our belongings to the UK.  And that was when things began to unravel.

The movers contacted a shipping agent who arranged for two containers to be set aside into which our belongings would be loaded prior to shipment to the UK.  At that point I received an urgent call from the shippers saying the movers had packed the containers so badly that they would not survive a journey by sea and I would need to arrange for the containers to be emptied and re-packed.  I instructed the shippers to go ahead and do this, but somewhere along the line this instruction got missed, and the containers were loaded on to the ship still as they were.  A few months down the line I had a message from a cargo handling agent in the ominously named town of Gravesend at the mouth of the Thames telling me that the two containers had arrived in the port and been off-loaded from the ship, but it was “obvious that the contents have been damaged in transit". 

Things began to go completely mad at this point.  I was not allowed to go to the secure area of the docks to inspect the damage for myself, and nobody there was in a position to open the containers and report on their condition, although they were able to tell me that the contents of one had been “destroyed completely” and the other “damaged beyond repair” (I can only assume some kind of X-ray discovered this, although I’m not sure how the two descriptions differ).  If I wanted to take possession of my belongings, I would need to pay for both containers to be removed from the docks, at which point they would be checked by customs and I would then need to arrange for a truck to transport the two containers by road the 1000kms to Scotland.  Requests and pleas for some more tangible proof of the extent of the damage yielded nothing, and I was faced with the stark choice of paying thousands of pounds to find a shed in Scotland where I could have two containers dumped while I sifted through useless shattered fragments for which I would have likely paid a very hefty customs duty, or to instruct the cargo agents to destroy them before passing through the customs shed and into the UK.  

It turned into months of sheer hell, deciding whether to deliberately destroy everything we possessed, or risk opening the containers and finding everything in pieces and then having to add insult to injury by arranging for its disposal.  In the end, after my extended prevaricating, the decision was forced on me by a short phone call.  “We will dispose of these containers tomorrow unless you take possession of them today”. I had no choice but to order the destruction of everything that I had ever possessed; clothes, furniture, photographs, certificates, a safe full of insurance and share certificates, pension and trust fund documents and personal papers charting a lifetime's labours, childhood mementoes, family mementoes, my daughter’s, my wife's and my own birth certificates, our marriage certificate, health records, my own academic records and certificates, my precious piano, my computers, my audio equipment, my vast recorded music collection, my priceless collection of organ music and scores, and a huge library amassed over the course of some 50 years.  To say it was heartbreaking is an understatement, and not a day goes by when I don’t agonise over what I have lost.  The financial loss has been catastrophic, and I doubt I shall ever recover (I have long since resigned myself to sleeping on the streets of London and selling The Big Issue), but more serious has been the psychological effect on me.  I admit that I have thought about suicide more than once when the memory of what has gone – a lifetime of memories and achievements – hits home.  That I still have my lovely wife and gorgeous daughter is certainly enormous compensation; but it doesn’t drive away those dark thoughts about what I have lost which have me waking up most nights in a cold sweat.

This morning, for example, round about 3am I suddenly woke with an urge to look up a reference in one of my lost books.  It was a fascinating biography of Schumann, bought in a second hand bookshop in a seedy suburb of Brisbane many years ago, and so tattered and torn that I never did know who the author was or, indeed, when it had been published or by whom.  Yet it set out in vivid detail the full horror of Schumann’s mental decline and described how his personal problems affected his music.  The psychological damage my loss has caused me prevents me from trying to replace any of my lost goods (what’s the point when I might well lose it all again?), but how I wish I could find this book once more, for it was one of the most compelling portraits of the composer I know and I urgently would like to remind myself what it had to say about the Cello Concerto.  That I should wake up in the God-forsaken moments of a dark Sunday morning thinking of Schumann and his Cello Concerto is not entirely surprising since, over the course of Saturday, I heard the work not once, not twice, but several times.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is in town and, luckily for Conservatory students, several members of the orchestra came over yesterday morning to give masterclasses.  The place was buzzing with bassoonists, clarinettists, flautists, cellists and violists, while others, like me, flitted from room to room picking up the wonderful wit and wisdom of the Wiener wisemen.  It was a tremendously exciting experience, witnessing such intense and valuable teaching to students who lapped up every word, even when the teacher was less than sympathetic to shortcomings.  Every one of these Viennese musicians was in class of their own, but my personal favourite was orchestra’s Principal Cello, Tamás Varga, who pulled no punches in his masterly comments to those students who submitted themselves to his masterful scrutiny.  As with his colleagues, he showed an immense knowledge of the repertory, and I would hope all the students went away with a feeling that they all had a great deal more to learn beyond the considerable emphasis on technique all the masters highlighted.  But they also showed a real understanding of the music – not just a knowledge of it – and nobody moreso than Varga.  Working through a movement of the Schumann Cello Concerto with the excellent student cellist, Yu Ssu-Yang, Varga seemed almost to slip into the shoes of Schumann, not so much saying as recreating that tense and unhappy man in the advanced stages of mental delusion, and conveying more vividly than a hundred words, what the Concerto was saying.  “It seems so happy, but it’s not.  It’s uncomfortable.  It’s uneasy.  There's something wrong”, and so saying, he squirmed in his chair and looked pained in a manner which let you know exactly what was in the heart of this music. 

Wisely, another excellent student cellist, Oliver Randall Scott, had not submitted himself to Varga’s teachings because, that very afternoon, he was performing the Schumann Concerto in the semi-finals of the Conservatory Concerto Competition.  Any words of guidance from a Viennese master would only unsettle any player if, hours before such an important performance, interpretative ideas and technical revisions were questioned and pulled apart.  Scott’s was an admirable performance, beautifully poised and impressively secure.  Technically it flowed effortlessly and it certainly presented the music in an authoritative way.  But even as he was playing, images of Varga squirming in his chair, trying to brush aside images of mental instability but not succeeding, flooded into my mind and I realised what was missing.  Scott, for all his admirable qualities, hadn’t really immersed himself in the psychological depths of the music; it was a lovely performance, a fluent and expressive performance, but not a particularly perceptive one.  And perhaps neither should it have been.  To get into the mind of a man in terminal decline as a consequence of contracting syphilis (an incurable disease at the time), who had seen all his youthful dreams shattered, his ambitions thwarted and his personal life unravelling before his eyes, is more than we should expect of any fresh-faced young conservatory student. 


Yet, as the Viennese masters so vividly revealed, if anyone is to attempt to perform some of the great works in the repertory, there is not just the requirements to have an absolute mastery of the musical text and a finely-honed, constantly evolving technique, but a real understand of the psychology of the composer at the time he wrote it.  Examination students who glibly tell their diploma examiners in their pitiful programme notes that “Schumann was a Romantic composer”, clearly have no idea what Schumann really was, deep down.  And they need it, if they are going to perform his music with any degree of conviction.  I don’t recommend contracting syphilis, nor even losing everything you have ever possessed, but to understand the pain of psychological suffering is something every cellist (pianist, singer, etc.) must do if they are ever going really to play late Schumann.