14 February 2015

Musicians Against Love

That seemingly dwindling group of Christians who call themselves Catholics believe in the power of saints. To touch their remains, to visit their shrine or simply to invoke their name in prayer is said to bring great rewards to the faithful.  Little wonder, then, that the homage Catholics throughout the ages have performed in the names of various saints has led to a certain distribution of labour between them.  Instead of all these poor dead saints being barraged on all sides with requests for this, that and the other, the practice of assigning each human need or activity a Patron Saint has evolved.  Thus we have a Patron Saint of Music (St Cecilia) who, if you pay due respect and homage to her, especially on her assigned feast day (22nd November), will bless your endeavours with success.  And, of course, there is a Patron Saint of Love who is said to perform similar miracles for those who approach him with due reverence and unquestioning faith.  That saint is St Valentine who was beheaded in the year 270 for refusing to denounce his faith.  In 496 Pope Gelasius decreed that he would be Patron Saint of “affianced couples, bee keepers, engaged couples, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, love, lovers, plague, travellers, young people”, and that February 14th, the day on which it is said he was beheaded, should be his feast day.

While most Catholics no longer pay much heed to St Valentine (they generally have bigger sanctified fish to fry), the rest of the world does, and February 14th sees vast numbers of people - including those for whom religious devotion begins and ends with beheading other people and refusing to eat bacon sandwiches - buying an over-priced red rose and forking out on an horrendously expensive dinner at a table adorned with a single candle stuttering out of an old Chianti bottle in the name of a long-dead saint in whom few believe.  The marketing people have got hold of it and now no February 14th is complete without lurid red heart-shaped balloons, re-packaged chocolates, special hair-dos and “romantic getaways”.  Even orchestras have got in on the act and, with St Valentine’s Day this year falling on a Saturday – a pretty standard concert day for most orchestras – there was no shortage of “Valentine’s Day Concerts” marketed to serve as an alternative to going to church and invoking the martyred man’s name in prayer.  Naturally enough, in a place where St Valentine’s Day is treated as being just about on a par with Chinese New Year or Christmas, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra got in on the act with a “Valentine’s Day Concert”.

Dozens of young couples, him grasping his mobile phone (nothing special about that – he’s not let go of it since he was 8), her grasping a single red rose in a plastic sheath, took the opportunity to have joint selfies taken with the undeniably gorgeous Victoria Hall as a backdrop, before settling down for a couple of hours of romantic music.

At least, that was the plan.

As it was, the programme they were treated to was about as vehemently anti-love as you could get.   Whether by accident (which I suspect) or design (which I’m quite happy to believe was the intent ion all along), the SSO had programmed three works which did not have an ounce of romance in them and which, either because of the composer’s background or the music’s origins, served more as a warning against deep human relationships.

When it comes to love Tchaikovsky is about the worst role-model you could select.  When a young girl became so besotted with him that she demanded they get married, he agreed: the experience of married life so appalled him that within weeks he had run away, sought psychological help and gone so far as to contemplate suicide.  Deciding, once the shock of that had died down, to take another tack, as it were, Tchaikovsky then had an affair with a young man, only to be accused by his peers of endangering the reputation of his old school and, if credible recent scholarship is to be believed, handed a jar of arsenic and told to do the “decent thing”.  On this occasion suicide was not so much considered as successfully accomplished and, because of love, a great composer’s life was cut short.

The rest of the programme was devoted to the Tango; a dance which involves a man and a woman getting about as close to each other as they can without actual physical contact, and performing a series of suggestive movements.  The Tango’s origins lay deep in the seedy bars of Buenos Aires where, if the woman ever allowed the man to come closer in private than he did on the dance floor, it was usually at the point of a knife or the exchange of cash.  Again, not a particularly wholesome notion to set before Singapore’s young lovers.

Nevertheless love was in the air during this concert, although we all had to wait a jolly long time to find it; the opening work, delayed by some 10 minutes and further extended by an inordinately long gap between the first and second movements while a goodly chunk of the audience decided to come into the hall and take their appointed seats.  If there is love in Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence it is that of a Russian composer well into his 50s taking a liking to a certain Italian town, and I’m not sure St Valentine would ever have regarded that as falling within his ambit, despite the unusually broad-range of his patron saintly portfolio.  There was certainly no love in the performance we experienced.  Possibly taking the message from the composer and keeping each other very much at bow’s length both physically and musically, the six string players led by Chan Yoong-Han played away largely regardless of each other.  The result was some horribly straggly ensemble and such persistently bad tuning that one wondered how long before the concert started most of them had actually tuned their instruments; they certainly didn’t bother to do it on stage.  Only with the pulsating rhythms of the third movement did the performance start to feel a little committed, but such was the poor communication within the ensemble that those lovely little moments where Tchaikovsky passes a figure between the instruments, were almost wholly lost. 

Love came after the interval when Jin Ta and Kevin Loh took to the stage with Piazzolla’s History of the Tango.  Producing an extraordinary, disproportionately hefty tone from his golden flute, Jin Ta left us in no doubt who wore the trousers in this relationship, but through his marvellously empathetic guitar playing, Kevin Loh was the one who attracted our attention.  Both musicians clearly loved what they were doing; eye contact, every bit as much as the wonderful musical results, showed that.  As the music progressed, however, I became almost hypnotised by the effortless fluency of Loh’s playing, the lovely clarity of his tone and, perhaps more than anything, the instinctive feel he had for this music and for the antics of his performing partner.  The programme booklet told us he was just 14; if he were twice that age I would still be amazed and deeply in love with his immaculate guitar playing.  I suspect he is destined to become the next star in the guitar world, and I pray that he maintains his discreet and subtle virtuosity; it’s just the sort of antidote the musical world needs to safeguard its future credibility.

The final work, Mike Mower’s Sonata Latino, saw Jin Ta joined on stage with a motley collection of saxophones, brass and percussion, with a piano and bass guitar thrown into the mix.  More tangos and Latin-American dances, but this time delivered as a simple piece of fun.  Our young lovers may not have left the hall with their hearts intertwined, but by the end of the concert, the music would certainly have given them a real lift.

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