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. 

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