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.

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