21 November 2016

A Soprano to Watch

It is not often that a critic gets to hear a performer who has all the potential to achieve greatness on the world stage.  I have come across three, all of whom, by a curious coincidence, have been singers.  In one case I was wrong - although that particular singer went on to achieve eminence in a rather different field - while the second lived up to every word of praise I offered, and has gone on to exceed all expectations I had.  Let's see what happens to the third, for I only heard her on Friday evening.  This is what I wrote for my Straits Times review.
Singapore Lyric Opera’s annual Gala Concert was noteworthy this year for the presence of Singaporean soprano Felicia Teo Kaixin.
Her easy and effortless delivery, her beautifully controlled projection, her sumptuous voice and her arresting characterisations mark her out as something very special.  Instantly captivating in her opening duet from The Magic Flute, and attracting the biggest cheer of the night for her spectacular Je Veux Vivre from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, Teo has the potential for true operatic greatness. 

Tenor Jeremy Koh is, like Teo, a product of the SLO-Leow Siak Fah Young Artists Programme.  His voice seems less naturally inclined towards opera, and it felt as if he was nearing his limits in Quanto e bella from L’elisir d’amore.  But his is nevertheless a fine, clear voice, and always absolutely pitch-perfect.
Sharing the stage with these two relative newcomers were more established soloists.  William Lim’s usual avuncular manner seemed to have deserted him, and while he was an ideal partner to Teo in the Mozart duet, and sung a solo from I Pagliacci with great warmth, he looked and sounded stiff.
Chinese soprano Wang Bing Bing was far from stiff.  Hers is a big, booming voice – with the doors open and the wind in the right direction, it could probably reach some of the outlying islands - but a forceful voice is not everything (whether you are an opera singer or an American President-elect), and Wang’s delivery was often so extreme that it overwhelmed niceties of pitch and rhythm.

In her duet with Teo - Belle Nuit from the Tales of Hoffmann – Anna Koor’s mezzo-soprano had a brittle edge, but she brought a pleasing warmth and expressiveness to the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana.
Rather than the Esplanade’s own organ, the SLO Orchestra used a nasty electronic thing to lend holiness to the Easter Hymn, and it was probably this machine’s irritating top register which caused the chorus some tuning problems.  Otherwise, they were beyond reproach.  Augmented by two other choirs – Evokx and the Singapore University of Technology & Design – the SLO Chorus was absolutely fabulous.  Their performance of the Triumphal March from Aida, aided and abetted by some electrifying trumpet playing from the SLO Orchestra, was about as exciting as music can get.

The SLO Orchestra, for their part, was on cracking form throughout.  In no small measure this was due to Jason Lai who was making his debut with them.  He worked his way through the inevitable collection of short operatic extracts, giving it all a tremendous feeling of coherence. 
Perhaps Lai’s greatest achievement was in keeping a tight rein on the exuberant SLO Children’s Chorus, even when they seemed about to escape the confines of his direction in the enchanting Evening Hymn from Hansel and Gretel. Totally yet unobtrusively in control, he inspired strong and focused performances from every single performer – child and adult -  in this noteworthy gala concert.

19 November 2016

The Classical Elements

All too rarely do we get the chance to quiz artists about their motives behind making recordings for commercial release.  That’s a pity, for not only do many artists think long and deeply about what they want to record and why they want to record it, but as the people who buy and listen to these recordings, we find these insights deeply helpful to our understanding of the performances we experience.

As it happened,  I attended a discussion last month on the place of recording in today’s musical world, and as Albert Tiu was on the panel, someone in the audience was able to ask him directly, why he had chosen to record this album of diverse piano pieces, most of which are already well represented in the catalogues.

Tiu is an artist who does think deeply about what he records and why, and he gave a detailed explanation of the thinking behind this programme, why he had devised it as four thematic sections – Earth, Air, Water and Fire – and why he had chosen the specific pieces to go into each thematic group.  It was a fascinating insight into how an artist devises a programme, but it also revealed how an interpretation of an old favourite is often adjusted to suit a new context without any loss of integrity.

We have on this disc music by Liszt, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Scriabin and Ravel which you could find with little effort on any number of piano discs.  But juxtaposed as they are, and especially spiced up with less common repertory from the likes of Godowsky, Berio, Messiaen and Griffes, they take on a wholly new dimension.  (By a tantalising coincidence, the programme also includes Ibert’s Le vent dans la ruines which he wrote in response to his wartime work as a stretcher-bearer on the Somme, the centenary of which we are currently marking.)

It is intriguing how, for example, the journey from Debussy to Berio, or from Berio to Mompou, is far less awkward than we might at first think.  Berio’s reflective Wasserklavier merges almost imperceptibly into Mompou’s El Iago which, in turn, moves fluidly into the world of Liszt and his Le jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este. This is an intelligently devised programme, with thematic cohesion, but it is also an intelligently played programme with interpretative insight which is very strongly flavoured by the external elements of the programme.

I first heard much of this programme live when Tiu played it in 2012 at an exhibition of French Impressionist paintings held at the National Museum of Singapore, and on that occasion one was struck by the musical relationship with the visual images.  Those visual images are absent here, and somehow the music takes on an even more potent quality, not so much summoning up visual images as creating whole worlds of imagery which go far beyond the concept of Impressionism and into the realms of psychological perception.

I am a little surprised by Tiu’s very masculine, assertive reading of Debussy’s Le vent dans la plaine – not, for him, the airy, elusive quality of Debussy the so-called Impressionist, but more a composer who sees the wind as something which does not merely pass by, but creates very distinct, almost destructive, physical effects on the landscape it passes across.  And this kind of strong, assertive performance means that the move into the rather more hard-nosed harmonic environment of Charles Griffes’ The Night Winds is fluently achieved, and serves to enhance the underlying message that the wind is something every bit as physical as it is atmospheric.

Taken individually, each performance is technically assured and interpretatively perceptive, but taken as a whole, this programme is elevated by what some might see as the external concept of the Four Elements.  It is for this reason - that even established pieces can be viewed in a totally different light according to the context in which we hear them  - that we do have so many recordings of the same music.  And thank goodness for that.  Albert Tiu’s intelligent and artistically-driven performances certainly shed new light on this music, and also give us performances which stand comparison with the very best in any context.

17 November 2016

Malaysia's Musical Complexities

Few countries have as complex a musical heritage as Malaysia. 

The indigenous people (sometimes described as orang asli) comprise at least 30 linguistic and cultural groups each with their own distinct music.  

For centuries immigrants from South Asia and China have settled there and brought their own music.  And as both South Asia and China themselves comprise innumerable cultural groups, each with their own language and music, the culture they have injected into the fabric of modern Malaysia is every bit as varied as what was originally there. 

The majority population – the Malays – also have their own language, culture and music, much of which is drawn from their ethnic roots in Java and other parts of what is now largely called Indonesia.

To add complication to this already over-flowing cultural melting pot, the so-called bumiputra (literally “sons of the earth”), are not in the main the orang asli but the Malays, and centuries ago they inherited from Arab traders the Islamic religion which, in the particular interpretation of Islam which is followed by a majority in Malaysia, specifically forbids music and singing.

It does not end there.  European presence, dating back at least 600 years, has embedded into Malaysian society an awareness of western classical music.  For most of the past 100 years or so, that presence was limited to piano lessons, graded exams, occasional visiting musicians, and one or two – generally abysmal – orchestras and choirs centred on Chinese-majority towns such as Penang and Kuching.  That all changed in 1998 when the then Prime Minister and the President of the National Oil Company (Petronas) decided the time had come for Malaysia to have its own professional western-style symphony orchestra and concert hall.  The problem was, there was nobody in Malaysia experienced enough to play in it, so its initial membership was almost wholly foreign.  That was all right until the oil price crashed a decade later and, with petrol prices soaring at the pumps, the general population started to question why Petronas was spending money on foreigners indulging in an activity to which their religion forbade them access. A weak and half-hearted management acceded to popular calls for change, and what was once the greatest orchestra in Asia was reduced to a simpering shadow of its former self still capable, I gather, of putting on splendid performances, but living and working in an atmosphere of unease and uncertainty.

This over-simplified history may be interesting, but the main reason for rehearsing it here is to put into context something which is already pretty remarkable; given the complex musical heritage of Malaysia and the very chequered history of western music in particular, it is nothing short of miraculous.  A CD of new music by four Malaysian Women Composers.

Five Little Pieces for Piano by Jessica Cho may have been inspired by György Kurtág, but the harmonic language owes an inescapable debt to Messiaen.  These are tiny but perfectly formed, and I have a particular penchant for the invigorating third.  The performance here is powerfully committed, but it draws attention to one of the weaknesses of this CD - some of the recordings do not stand up to close scrutiny.  Here, for example, the piano is so woefully out of tune that I found myself wondering whether it might not have been a half-hearted attempt at a prepared piano.

The other Cho work on the disc is, at 11’48, the longest on the disc.  Hypnagogic II for chamber orchestra might have one of those obscure titles which so many contemporary composers feel gives their music “cutting edge” credibility, but Cho’s piece is far more interesting than its title.  Again the Messiaen influence is obvious, not least in the evocative clarinet solo around 3’30 (a composer recently suggested to me that it was impossible to write a clarinet solo today without referring to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time), but the strong, over-arching structure of the work and the intricate detail woven into its fabric has a character all of its own. We can detect Malaysian elements, but the language and appeal is truly global.

The performance of this work highlights the really significant weakness with this CD.  We are never told who the performers are.  I see from the website www.malaysiancomposers.com (there are no notes with the CD itself) that this was originally written for the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.  They were an excellent group under their founding conductor, Kevin Field, but this is clearly a piece which would have challenged the most accomplished of orchestras.  I would love to know if this is indeed the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra playing, and if so, when it was recorded; this is clearly a very distinguished performance of very distinguished music. 

Adeline Wong is the most established of these four composers.  She is also represented on this disc by two works.  Chermin is a score she wrote for a Malaysian horror film in 2007, and a short trio of excerpts are included here.  Its film roots are immediately apparent from the haunting vocal opening, with superimposed electronic effects, and the even more evocative rebab – a traditional Malay instrument – all mixed up to paint aural pictures rather than have a clear musical thread.  But in the very easy way Wong juxtaposes these very diffuse elements of Malaysia’s musical heritage, she shows the hand of a highly accomplished composer. 

This is vividly portrayed in her astounding piece for string quartet which, rightly, lends its title to the disc, Interweaves.  Superbly and idiomatically written for the quartet, this is nevertheless a very original and exciting work which, while Wong suggests it was inspired by the Islamic call to prayer, transcends any sense of ersatz-Malaysian/Islamic-ism to offer an inventive and rewarding musical experience which repays repeated listening.  Again the failure of the CD to identify the players is a serious flaw; for this is no amateur string quartet, but obviously a very highly accomplished group of players whose technical ability and obvious commitment to Wong’s score elevates them above the norm and into the realms of outstanding musicians.  Who are they?

During my time teaching at Middlesex University I encountered Isabella Pek.  She had been working as a commercial arranger and composer for the Malaysian broadcaster, RTM, and was at Middlesex to try and move on from simply writing jingles and theme music to expressing herself fully through composition.  I spent many happy and fruitful hours discussing music with her, and felt that here was a composer with genuine integrity and a burning desire to absorb every cultural influence in order to expand her own personal vocabulary.  Where Jambatan Tamparuli fits into her output chronologically, I do not know.  At times it has some of the naivety of the commercial music she was writing before her Middlesex studies, but at others it has the stamp of advanced musical thought which can only have come from the influences she picked up, especially under the guidance of Middlesex’s own iconic composition teacher, Peter Fribbens.  Pek achieves something special here.  It is immediately accessible music, full of attractive sound-effects (there’s some rather blatant bird song effects superimposed onto temple gongs and ethnic flutes at the start) but as it progresses, moving through the syrupy chords of a Ramlee-style movie score and a jazz-infused wind solo, it becomes ever more musically interesting.  It has an easy-going, laid-back feel (some may equate that with the kampong life of the bumiputra) and shows its Malaysian influences clearly, but successfully integrates them into a most coherent and attractive whole.  I wonder who the performers were and when the piece was written.  This CD does leave a lot of questions unanswered.

Jyotsna Prakash wears her Indian heritage so openly that, at times, her Sukhi sounds more like a piece intended to accompany a traditional religious ritual than an entirely original composition.  Possibly, because it is so potently reflective of a specific ethnic culture, from the outside it seems to lack the clarity of structure and logic of musical argument which makes the other works on this disc so absorbing.  It was inspired by a dance, and to a certain extent it is music which needs that visual element to succeed; it is a little like seeing just half of a picture and being left with no clear idea what the other half looks like.  What I hear I find attractive, but also rather elusive, luxuriating a little too languidly in the sound of the instruments and not apparently heading anywhere special.

So here we have a CD of six very distinct works, each confidently written by composers whose self-assurance and musical maturity is clear.  It would be wonderful if this CD could somehow reach the ears of those in the business of producing CDs for the international market, for these four composers could stand proud alongside  the very best in contemporary music;  their musical language transcends the complexities of their musical heritage. They do not need to exploit their gender or their nationality; these composers are clearly very comfortable in their own musical skins.
I think you can get the CD from this site - www.malaysiancomposers.com - and if you can't it makes for some interesting reading all the same

13 November 2016

A Choral Shock

It was a week of shocks, and rather nasty ones at that.  The biggest shock of them all was, of course, the Trump victory in the US.  That rather eclipsed the awful shock of the desperately tragic tram crash in London, which killed seven commuters innocently going about the daily business of getting to work.  And while it seems old news, it is still shocking to see and hear of some of the latest atrocities from Syria and the Middle East.  There were a couple of deeply upsetting professional shocks, and then on Friday afternoon I heard something which shocked me to the core.    

Towards the end of a discussion on music in Singapore, one young man told me how, at school, he had been forced to undertake a “compulsory choir audition”. He resented music for a long time after that.  I was so shocked at the concept of compulsory choir auditions that I never thought to pursue the matter any further, but I gather such things are not entirely unheard of in Singapore schools.

Perhaps I am wrong in finding the concept of compulsory choral auditions for non music pupils repulsive, for there is no doubt that choral singing in schools in Singapore is not only very widespread but also very good. 

Not Donald Trump but a far less shocking
character - Herodorus of Megara
Good, that is, on the basis that the choirs win competitions both at home and overseas. 
There, again, I am perhaps revealing my own prejudice when I criticise choirs for regarding competition above musical performance. 
Let’s not forget that, while I may find the notion of a “Choir Olympics” distasteful, the Ancient Greeks, who did, after all, discover music, incorporated musical competitions in their Olympic Games.  Herodorus of Megara won the trumpet playing contest in 10 consecutive Olympiads between 328 and 292 BC.

Whether any members of the Graduate Singers started their choral singing lives under the duress of compulsory audition, I do not know.  What I do know is that now they sing beautifully, make a lovely, smooth and polished sound and are elegant performers on stage. 
They gave a performance on Saturday evening, and while they displayed the strong characteristics of the American Barbershop which seems to have infected choral singing in recent years – arrangements which focus on close, consonant harmony and on making pleasing sounds, appearing on stage immaculately coiffured and in carefully manicured, uniformly tailored dress, and treating the stage as a place to utilize rather than one from which they can project their music-making – there was also a sense that this is a choir for whom the music matters.  Their concert had plenty of the entertainment factor which seems to attract audiences for this kind of choral show, but it also had musical credibility.

The Graduate Singers - Immaculate in dress and tone
The programme comprised the usual bland arrangements which seem to derive all their ideas from what I label “the Eric Whitacre Book of Nice Chords for Choirs”, but there were one or two things here which really stood out as being original and distinctive.  In preparation for a Japanese tour, the programme had a distinct Japanese feel, and it began with Sakura by Toru Takemitsu, a distinguished 20th century composer whose static, atmospheric music had far more depth to it than most latter-day choral pieces, even if the choir, dotted around the stage like so many fallen leaves, seemed to hold it all at arms’ length. 
The other work which really stood out for me was Zechariah Goh’s Reminiscences of Hainan which certainly had a great deal of originality and real quality at the start, even if the piece ultimately took refuge in smoochy, harmless chords designed more to make a nice sound than sustain a musical argument.  The Graduate Singers performed Goh’s work exquisitely. 

If conductor Adyll Hardy has one weakness, it is the usual choral director’s problem of getting the sound rich and beautiful and forgetting the intonation; often the choir just lost its tuning on some of the multi-part chords, taking the edge off the ultimate effect.  Any orchestral conductor worth their salt would devote time to tuning single chords to prevent this, but in the world of choral singing sound seems to matter more than niceties of pitch.

Another area where the Graduate Singers let themselves down was, ironically, in the matter of dress.  If they do feel the need to move around the stage (and Hardy mercifully kept this down to a minimum), they need to think about shoes.  Hard leather soles sound like Dutch clogs on the wooden stage of the SOTA concert hall, and the lingering effect of a shimmering eight-part chord was undermined by the clod-hopping din of a choir moving from one place to another while a M.C. tried to drown the noise out with her connecting announcements. The Graduate Singers would have done well to take a lesson from the Japanese Cultural Society Choir who shared the stage.  A vision in scarlet cloaks, they floated on and off stage as if in felt slippers – you hardly heard them move. 
I loved particularly the imaginative visual projections above the stage which cleverly filled in pictures as each song progressed.  Such things are occasionally done in concerts, but I’ve never seen them done so effectively and intelligently before. 

Very sadly, a further shock awaited me in the guise of an unwelcome phone call in the interval, and I had to miss the concert’s second half.  I was genuinely upset that I could not hear the remainder of what had turned out to be a really lovely concert and a musically rewarding display of fine choral singing.  This came as one of the week's few genuinely pleasant shocks.

08 November 2016

Anonymous Frank Martin

A poster has appeared in the lobby of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  There are always plenty of posters during term-time advertising concerts in the coming week reflecting the extraordinarily active musical life which exists here.  But this poster is a little different from the others.

In the normal course of events posters adopt the corporate design of YST-organised events – it used to be bland white, but since a rebranding exercise last month, they are now a most distinguished black and orange - but around this stage of the semester, a crop of more colourful and varied posters appears as students promote their own end-of-semester recitals.  This latest poster is one of those and the student has obviously done a good job in creating an eye-catching poster.  The only trouble is, the poster does not tell us who the student is.  What is the name of the performer whose recital we are being urged to attend?  It may be female – the picture is female, although for all we know that could be a stock image taken from a flute website – but there is no other clue as to who will be playing.

But our anonymous student has done something in her (or his) poster which ensures I shall move heaven and earth to be at the recital.   She (or he) has told us what she (or he) is going to play.  The prime function of a performer is to interpret and communicate a musical work to an audience, and we do need to know what that musical work is before we commit ourselves to attending the performance itself.  So here’s a poster which, by listing the works, has ensured an audience of at least one.

(You do not necessarily need a poster to bring in an audience.  Australian cellist Oliver Scott did a lunchtime recital yesterday in the graveyard slot which is labelled “Sound Bites” and traditionally welcomes an audience of three old men, myself included.  Oliver’s audience staggeringly went into double figures.  He confessed that he had gone out into the university and pressed his friends to attend.  Well done Oliver!  You not only got yourself a sizeable audience, but an appreciable one as well following your excellent interpretation of the Brahms Second Sonata!)

I first became involved in Singapore’s music scene in the mid-1980s.  A few years before that I had submitted my doctoral thesis on the concertante works of Frank Martin.  This followed on from my Master’s thesis on Martin’s oratorio Golgotha, and this post-graduate obsession with a little known Swiss composer of the 20th century had been prompted by my tutor who had, when I was accepted to do post-graduate study, advised me to choose a subject about which nobody knew anything and which would have an anniversary coming up shortly after completing my work.  The former idea was that, since nobody knew more about the subject than me, I could sail through the post-thesis viva voce comfortable in the knowledge that none of my inquisitors could challenge me on its contents.  The latter was to ensure that I was well placed to get something published in the usual upsurge of interest which accompanies any anniversary.

Having, as an undergraduate, attended a concert in the Royal Festival Hall where Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante for piano, harpsichord, harp and double string orchestra had been performed, and having liked the work so much that I had gone and bought an LP of it, I noticed, as I was thinking over my tutor’s words, that his centenary was to fall in 1990 – about a decade after I intended to submit my thesis, and allowing me plenty of time to get the books and record sleeves written.  In the event, Martin remains virtually unknown and his centenary passed almost without notice.  I did receive a request from MacMillan’s to re-write my PhD thesis as the basis of a book on Martin, but I turned the offer down: having spent seven years of my life on a composer whose music I admired but felt I had studied to exhaustion and beyond, I had no wish to commit myself to a further period going back over the same old ground but this time with even more words.  The only commercial benefit I got from my thesis was a request some years later from Hyperion to write the notes for a CD recording of Martin’s Mass; luckily the CD turned out to be a prize-winner and my notes earned several accolades which brought me no money but a lot of personal pride.

In all that time I have never heard a note of Martin’s music performed in Singapore.  So to see his Ballade for flute programmed at this anonymous recital was a real thrill.  Martin wrote a series of Ballades for various solo instruments and orchestra/piano; in fact after Chopin, who invented the genre, Martin is the most prolific composer of instrumental ballades.

The ballades were considered extensively in my doctoral thesis, and I worked exhaustively on Martin’s use of the minor third interval in them, which I opined represented his deep religious faith and signified the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion in his compositional ethos.  As with all academic writing, I look back on it now with horror, appalled at the dry, technical writing which studies the detail of the score and makes no attempt to scratch under the artistic and emotional message of the music.  Were I afforded the chance to write my PhD thesis again, or, better still, get a renewed offer from MacMillan’s, I would devote many thousand words to what the ballads behind the Ballades really were.  They tell a story – Martin was a great wordsmith who believed in the power of music to express literary ideas – but what that story is, I have never bothered to find out.  Perhaps our anonymous flautist has done this and will provide revelatory interpretations of the work.  Whatever she (or he) does, it will be a revelation to hear, at long last, Martin’s music in Singapore.

07 November 2016

Singapore's Opera Scene

There were two operatic productions in Singapore over the weekend.  Add to this the two big operas staged over the past two months, and you get the picture that the place is awash with opera.

But there are problems.  Big operas of the Italian/German/French tradition have been imported into Singapore along with the baggage that comes with them.  Audiences feel alienated by the excesses, the opulence, the lavish stages and costumes, the big orchestras, the powerful voices, and have adopted the idea, prevalent in European and US communities, that opera is for the elite – both the ersatz-intellectual elite and the wealthy elite; people who dress up, sit avidly through hours of foreign-language unrealism, discuss the minutiae of technicalities over champagne in the interval and seem to have the whole heritage of operatic productions at their fingertips.

So the triple bill staged by L'arietta over the weekend, under the generic title “Operacalypse Now!” was a most welcome attempt to address the issue of audience alienation.  A bar, an informal setting (the Aliwal Arts Centre) and plenty of Halloween-themed furnishings all helped create a relaxed atmosphere, if not a downright rowdy one, while the three short operas they staged all were designed to bring the fun back into opera. (It’s been there all along, it’s just that too many of us feel opera is such a high-end activity that we need to invest it with something rather more weighty than just good old belly laughs.) 

Belly laughs were the stuff of L’arietta’s production.  Many of these were extremely contrived – the use of video inserts, especially featuring local scenes and people, served no operatic or artistic purpose but gave the locals plenty to laugh about – but there’s nothing wrong with that if it gets the audience feeling even more relaxed and responsive than they do after consuming the wine and beer on tap at the back. 

Belly laughs were also contrived by American composer Patrick Soluri whose 2013 mini-opera for Fort Worth, Figaro and the Zombie Apocalypse - was remodelled to form the opening and closing numbers of this operatic triptych.  On this occasion the belly laughs were quotations from big traditional operas.  It was interesting to note how quickly and how fully the audience picked these up; this was not an audience of operatic virgins (something which Leslie Tay found out to his cost when he tried to whip the audience up during the scene shifts for the third opera by running a kind of Grand Opera quiz). 

The first of Soluri’s operas, given the title Figaro’s Last Hangover found Tay in the role of an inexplicably be-cloaked alcoholic by the name of Figaro Montague, drinking away the last few minutes of earth’s existence (an asteroid was on its way to make a catastrophic impact) and attempting to rekindle his childhood love for Carmen Capulet.  (Note the Romeo and Juliet sub-text.)  Of course Barber of Seville and Carmen popped up as the obvious musical references, but the humour was a little too contrived to be entirely without embarrassment.  When this scene was replayed at the end, the humour had worn very thin and only the erratic appearance from the back of the room of a number of sexy young girls pretending to be the living dead but looking awfully like the sort of things you see every evening staggering out of Orchard Towers, gave us all a good belly laugh to end with. (I’m not sure how Zombies fit in to it all when the earth is about to be destroyed – but then my interest in science fiction ends with page 1987 of Lord of the Rings so I’m sure I’m missing something here.)

Leslie Tay seemed miscast.  I've met plenty of drunks in bars in my time (I may even have been one myself) and he lacked credibility; he was too stable and upright, and the only tight thing about him was his voice, which while laser-precise in its pitching, had a certain strained quality to it.  As a character he was neither pathetic nor contemptible, and as a singer he lacked presence.

In the role of Carmen, Kristin Symes also failed to impress.  Perhaps because of the somewhat static production which did not give her the space to flaunt her sexual charms.  The character was unconvincing, while her voice was too neat and restrained to give off any real aura of sensuousness.

The centrepiece of the triptych was not only musically the most distinguished but operatically the most fully worked out of the three pieces.  I have to express an interest here.  Michael Hurd, whose The Widow of Ephesus was that central opera, used to live near my old school and would frequently come in and work with us on his opera-in-school projects.  We were involved in first and early performances of such classics as Jonah-Man Jazz and Mr Punch and I was thrilled when, a year or so ago, Naxos released a CD of his music which brought it to a wider audience than just English schoolchildren.  Hurd’s genius (and I would put it as strongly as that) was his ability to write accessible yet interesting music, to convey genuinely human emotions which transcend the limitations of time and place, and to deliver that wonderfully English subtlety of humour which means that the jokes are there on so many different levels few can fail to identify them.  Certainly the audience at Saturday’s show caught nearly all of the gags and responded enthusiastically; audience participation should be roundly encouraged in all opera, and it was a joy to have it so fulsome here.

L’arietta’s masterstroke was to stage this short, amusing, one-act opera.  If only Singapore would realise that you need to nurture an audience through gradually working them up to the big ones, and not just throw Verdi, Puccini and Wagner at them and expect them to respond like good Europeans.  It is, to me, a scandal that we have yet to have productions of such one-act masterpieces as Walton’s The Bear, Holst’s Savitri (which, with its strong Asian story, surely is a natural for Singapore) and, most especially, Menotti’s The Telephone which is utterly tailor-made to appeal to a young Singaporean audience. Hopefully L’arietta will go there soon. 

But back to the immediate past.

The Widow of Ephesus was composed in 1971 and is based on an episode from the Satyricon of Gaius Petronius written sometime in the 1st century AD.  This might look like one of those classic stories of heroes and gods which is what puts so many people off traditional opera, but Hurd's own libretto and fantastic music, provides 45 minutes of utterly entertaining stuff which can be adapted to suit any time and place.  L’arietta chose a tomb in some kind of Transylvanian setting – and it all worked very well indeed.

Angela Hodgins was outstanding as the Widow.  Gloriously over-the-top in her widow's mourning and wailing, wonderfully seductive when she encountered the Soldier, and tremendously patronising in her dealings with her Maid.  Subtle movement of the eyes and outrageously extravagant posturing in the doorway of the tomb all combined to create quite the most arresting operatic character; a parody of traditional opera heroines but warmly human as well.  We laughed at the mockery of opera conventions yet fell in love with the humour of the situation.  And her voice was strong, clear and focused enough to be entirely comfortable even to the most untutored of ears.

Reuben Lai was also outstanding as the Soldier.  Only slightly less vocally assertive than Hodgins, but equally strong and precise.  Not the kind of tenor who would make much of an impact in Dutchman or Turandot but absolutely right for this setting, and as an actor he was peerless, knowing exactly how to get the audience worked up when he lustfully dived into the tomb after the Widow, and getting all the laughs he wanted when he re-emerged from it somewhat dishevelled.  His acting had also been particularly impressive as the bartender in the two Soluri pieces, even if neither had called much upon his vocal skills.

Kristin Symes was the maid and she shone in this role in a way she did not as Carmen.  Again, the production did not help her convey a credible character; why did she appear with a suitcase and coat, and then seem to forget about them when her mistress came out to speak with her?  Was she genuinely hungry, cold and fed up or were these analogous expressions?  The words were there, but nothing seemed to support this in the way she strolled seductively around the front of the set cosying up to the Soldier.  Vocally, however, she was excellent and brought about some of the most entertaining moments in the whole opera when she infused her voice with contempt, amusement and gullible naivety.  Her asides were delivered with tremendous bitchiness.

The real star of the show was not a voice, however, but the phenomenally astute pianist/music director Aloysius Foong who kept it all flowing even when the production seemed to stagnate and when the scene shifts seemed to take a little longer than expected.

It was, unquestionably, a fun-filled and hugely entertaining production, but it was something more than that.  It was a demonstration that at least some people in Singapore know how to woo an audience for opera both through good programming and exquisite performing.

Dredging a Channel for opera

(This review appeared in the Straits Times on Monday 7th Noevmber 2016)

Singapore seems to be awash with opera at the moment.  We had Turandot a couple of months ago, The Flying Dutchman last month, and this weekend sees L’arietta’s production of Operacalypse Now! 
Welcome as such an upsurge in operatic activity is, none of it has quite captured the classic image of Italian operatic grandeur as powerfully as did a recital held in Singapore School of the Arts Concert Hall last Friday evening.
The Belgian company Dredging International Asia Pacific marked its 20th year of operations in Singapore by inviting two Belgian musicians and their American guest to present a programme celebrating, in the first half, the great Italian tradition of Bel Canto in excerpts from operas by Bellini and Donizetti.  The second half offered more popular fare in the guise of famous arias and duets excerpts from Verdi.
Belgian coloratura soprano Elise Caluwaerts and the American tenor Franco Farina send out such strong operatic vibes that you can’t imagine them doing anything else.  If you saw them on the top deck of a no.65 bus you would still know they were opera singers. 
For her part Caluwaerts has one of those gloriously flexible voices which can simper like the most innocently naïve young girl, ooze tenderness like the most seductive of lovers, spit venom with all the passion of a wronged wife and shake with murderous rage at the behaviour of errant husbands.  She did not hit all her top notes successfully, but missed them with such self-assurance you could not be certain she was not doing it on purpose.  Her vivid personality and the drama she brought to her performances totally swept aside any tiny vocal imperfections.
Farina is a huge stage presence both physically and vocally.  Indeed, so powerful and far-reaching was his voice that even when he was deep in the wings behind a solid closed door singing the off-stage part of Verdi’s classic Sempre libera, he still dominated.  As one of the audience, perhaps more used to dredging than opera, suggested over the free Belgian beer in the interval, “How could I sleep with all that noise going on?” 
Using just the piano lid as his prop, Farina brought the whole world of opera to the concert hall platform by means of a twist and turn of the body and wonderfully descriptive facial expressions.  His mischievously delivered La donna e mobile was truly unforgettable.
Discretely accompanying them at the piano and occasionally urging them to keep to the well-dredged channel of tonality, Belgian pianist Kim Van den Brempt chose as his one solo item the nearest thing Chopin wrote to an operatic aria – the Etude Op.25 No.7 (it was incorrectly given in the programme as Op.25 No.5 but as nobody seemed to be reading the programme, that probably did not matter).  This was a delicate and subdued performance which was the perfect foil to what was otherwise an evening of high pressure and high octane Italian opera.

26 October 2016

Musical Hoaxes

It’s funny how these things go.  Only yesterday morning I was lecturing to my students about National Anthems and drawing their attention to the blatant musical hoax which is the Bosnian-Herzegovinian anthem.  And now, today, a disc for review has arrived which includes another unashamedly bare-faced musical hoax, the setting of the Ave Maria passed off by its real composer, Vladimir Vavilov (1925-1973) as the work of Giulio Caccini (1551-1618).

Musical hoaxes and misattributions are the stuff of musical quizzes.  Who wrote Haydn’s “Toy Symphony”? (answer; Leopold Mozart).  Who wrote Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary? (answer; Jeremiah Clarke).  Who wrote Albinoni’s Adagio? (answer; Remo Giazotto).  But for many people, when they learn that they have been duped by a musical hoax or led to believe that a work is by one composer when, in fact, it is by another, they bristle with resentment and end up ignoring music which, up to that point, they had thoroughly enjoyed

One of the great musical hoaxers was Fritz Kreisler who managed to pull sufficient wool over the eyes of sufficient numbers of gullible music lovers to convince them that his own works were really the products of composers ranging from Couperin to Boccherini by way of one of the Bach family and an otherwise forgotten composer called Gaetano Pugnani.  There are plenty of others, too.  Wikipedia delightfully tells us that Vavilov “routinely ascribed his own works to other composers, usually of the Renaissance or Baroque (occasionally from later eras), usually with total disregard of the appropriate style”.  Yet, despite Wikipedia’s assertion that “his works achieved enormous circulation, and some of them achieved true folk-music status, with several poems set to his melodies”, Grove does not deign to give this Soviet-era forger even a passing mention.

In the case of Kreisler, his hoaxes were designed to give credibility to his own performances.  With Vavilov, there was also an element of self-preservation.  Writing at a time and in a society where Christian music was forbidden, he had no choice but to pass his Ave Maria off as the work of someone else; although that does not justify all the other hoaxes he carried out.  As for Dusan Sestic, who stole the theme music from the 1978 movie Animal House to enter a competition for a new national anthem for Bosnia-Herzegovina, his aim was solely financial; he stood to earn over €15,000 for his efforts.

Others seem to have been exercises to test the gullibility of critics like myself.  In the wake of the spoof Mobile for Tape and Percussion by "Piotr Zak" (actually Hans Keller) I was less willing to accept the minimalist music of Arvo Pärt at first sight, and in a Musical Times review went so far as to suggest his Pari Intervalli was a spoof.  Daniel Hill (Musical Forgeries) has written an extensive dissertation on the subject, which makes for stimulating reading – not least his conclusion that “Let us enjoy the forgeries as music”.  He drew attention to the great hoax of recent years, the discovery of eight apparently lost Haydn piano sonatas by the Australian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda and the renowned Haydn scholar H C Robbins Landon.  “A little old lady who `couldn't be disturbed' had `discovered' the completed versions of the sonatas in her home. She in turn passed them to a relatively unknown flautist, Winfried Michel. Michel became the only link between the source of the documents and the Haydn scholar, Robbins Landon”. Both Robbins Landon and Badura-Skoda were totally convinced, and only when someone thought to analyse the paper, the ink and the actual writing did they realise they had been entirely written in the late 20th century.  As Hill points out, having been regarded as the “musical discovery of the century…once proved to be forgeries, the Sonatas vanished from the public domain”.  Which, of course, begs the question; what matters most, the music or the provenance?  Why should we give less credence to the Ave Maria once we know it is by a 20th century Soviet composer than when we thought it was by a 16th century Italian one?

In these days of Photoshop, digital re-alignment and total belief in the truth of whatever is published on the internet, we cannot really know what is real and what is fake, but perhaps this does not matter?  Surely if we like the music, who wrote it, when it was written and the motives behind its composition should not concern us.  I can understand why the Bosnians want their prize money back from Sestic, but I really cannot understand why fake Haydn is any less enjoyable than real Haydn or why spoof Zak should be regarded as a joke while real Cage is taken so seriously.

25 October 2016

Farts, Phones and Aficionados

One of my Straits Times fellow-reviewers, Mervin Beng, railed against the applause with which the audience greeted the individual movements in a performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony given by the Dresden Philharmonic recently.  Most music aficionados and critics would have done the same and, although I was somewhere in Arabia at the time. I expect that I, too, would have been annoyed at the interruption to the flow of the Symphony created by such applause.

Yet neither Mervin nor myself, nor even the music aficionados in the audience, have any justification for our irritation other than pure selfishness.  Certainly Brahms, and just about every other composer in history, would not have expected his music to be heard in silence.  Richard Strauss famously railed against the silence which greeted the movements of a concerto, while others – Chopin springs immediately to mind – actually wrote into their multi-movement works an explicit acknowledgement that they would not be heard in their entirety in silence.

Whether Brahms wanted his Second Symphony to be heard in silence is open to debate, but the fact is, he knew it would not be.  And I wonder what he would think if he were to come and hear it performed today with each movement met with total silence.  The audience for the Dresden Philharmonic concert was responding as they were intended to do and in the spirit of the music; who are we to criticise that?

Understanding how music was originally received is every bit as relevant to our understanding of it as understanding how it was originally conceived.  It amuses me that so-called period-performance musicians spend so much time tuning their instruments and retuning them between pieces and movements.  When Bach assembled his band in the organ loft at St Thomas’s Leipzig, did he interrupt the service to get every instrument perfectly in tune?  I suggest he did not.  18th century ears were more amenable to imperfections than our 21st century ones – I like to think they were more discerning in being able to extract the musical message from the surrounding sound than ours are today.  We like to have our music delivered to us in “authentic” performances, but we do not like to listen to our music in “authentic” situations.

The London-based Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment is taking steps to address this issue, while, at the same time, hoping to spread its message beyond the 4 million people in Britain who claim to attend classical music concerts in a year.  They have started performing in pubs (follow the link below).  The George Tavern in Whitechapel has become the home of their “Night Shift” performances, in which pub-goers sit, drink, chat and possibly play with their phones while Mozart and Haydn are being performed.  As one of the orchestra’s members commented, “This is how the music was intended to be heard.  Not in silence, but
with a glass in one hand, a friend at the table and a relaxed, informal atmosphere in the room”.  You have to hear Haydn that way to begin to understand what Haydn was all about.

Mentioning this to a colleague, I was told “but in Haydn’s day there were no mobile phones, and the mobile phone is the scourge of concert-going today”.  That’s true, but there were other socially unacceptable audience habits instead.  One of these was a penchant to break wind loudly and aromatically.  Given the straight choice between a bright blue screen and a snatch of electronic sound and a noisy and noisome fart, I’d choose the former any day.  The lovely thing is, in a pub setting you can fart and phone to your heart’s content and not disturb the music.  Whether that is an attraction is not for me to say, but in my experience, we enjoy music most when we are not hide-bound by superimposed conventions and the selfish preferences of critics, no matter how well-intentioned.
OAE at The George Tavern

10 October 2016

The Music Examiners Are On The March

It’s that time of year again. 

In houses the length and breadth of Britain (as well as one or two further afield) suitcases are being packed, books of tests dusted off, instruction papers rooted out, calculators primed, packets of post-it notes, new pens and refills replenished and batteries checked and new ones bought.  Hotel and flight bookings are being confirmed, passports are being retrieved, taxis booked to the airport, train tickets purchased and Satnavs primed.  Yes; the music examiners are on the march!

The period between October and December has traditionally been the busiest for the music examining industry, and while the huge growth in candidate numbers and ancillary services, especially in south and southeast Asia, has substantially increased the examiner’s workload over the year, this period is still the biggie; the time when even the most reluctant examiners, fulfilling their obligation to “offer a minimum of three weeks”, have no choice but to get down and dirty in the examination circus.

I no longer examine for either of the big exam boards and I have to confess I miss it dreadfully.  I used to love that moment, just as summer was ending, when the letter would drop through the door (in later years it became an email) detailing the places and dates of my autumn examining tour.  I never asked to go anywhere nor expressed any sort of preference – indeed rumour had it that if you did, you were guaranteed never to go there – and I was thrilled when the list came, sometimes even having to get out the map to see where, precisely, I would be heading off to in a few months’ time. 

I enjoyed the travelling, even when, at the height of my examining career, I was doing upwards of 20 long-haul flights and checking into anything up to 50 different hotels a year.  I enjoyed that frisson of excitement arriving at a new hotel wondering whether the room would be palatial with spa bath and ocean view, or cramped with resident cockroaches and a view and whiff of the kitchen waste bins.  I enjoyed sending out the preliminary letter to the local representatives telling them that I liked black coffee with no sugar in the morning and white tea with no sugar in the afternoon, that I never ate when examining and that I would be arriving on such and such a day and would be at such and such a hotel to receive my week’s papers.  I enjoyed meeting the stewards and helpers who worked so hard to ensure the examining day went off smoothly.  I loved being able to go back to the hotel after a seven hour day and know that I had nothing left to do until tomorrow.  But most of all I loved hearing the candidates and using the resources of my professional judgement to offer them worthwhile assessments.

An examining day of almost seven hours continual listening and writing is not everybody’s idea of fun, but I found it so,  I relished the chance I had to make a difference, to inspire and to encourage and, sometimes, to point out faults and problems. Direct feedback was rare, but when an accidental meeting with a teacher resulted in a comment like; “I’m so glad you wrote what you did.  I’ve been trying to get my student to do that for months!  She will probably do it now that the examiner has said it too!” I felt that all the agony of listening to nervous, terrified candidates had been worth it.  Occasionally one made mistakes, but I, like all of my colleagues, had just one goal; to give as fair and balanced assessment of whatever performance was thrown at us, and thereby encourage candidates to improve the standard of their music-making.

That, though, is no longer what is wanted.  Professional judgement is viewed with suspicion in an environment where commercial pressures dominate.  The examination fee is not seen as payment for professional service, but as purchase of a commodity.  That commodity is a result which reflects not reality but aspiration.  The examiner can no longer write a carefully-worded report and issue a supporting mark in the knowledge that it will be accepted as a professional’s considered judgement.  Instead, restrained by increasingly conflicting and unrealistic instructions from an office-based administration with a clerical background largely separate from musical or educational experience, the examiner has to write a bland and largely meaningless report in order to forestall any complaint from those who have to be regarded not as teachers or students, but as clients and customers.

Examination boards have become so focused on avoiding complaints that they are in danger of losing their very raison d’être. Already among teachers in south east Asia it is widely believed that if you do not like the result the examiner has issued, you only need to complain and it is almost automatically revised upwards by a London-based administration, terrified in case, in the hugely competitive environment which is now the music examination landscape of the region, they lose to the rival board that client and the potential customers in its circle of influence.

Seen from the outside, music exams are a strange and wholly unnatural phenomenon.  They serve no obvious musical purpose and stand in the way of artistic development.  Lessons have to be adapted to suit the demands of the examination syllabus, rather than the musical and educational needs of the individual student.  When a teacher told me that she was preparing a student for an examination, I asked her why.  “You need to do examinations”, she eventually told me, having found my question remarkably inane. “That’s the only way students can progress”.  How bitterly Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven must be feeling now; had they taken exams as students, what might they not have achieved as musicians?

For many students and teachers, however, exams are a valuable means of gauging progress and achievement.  But what value does it have when you regard the examiner’s report not as an assessment of achievement but as the opening bid in an extended negotiation to obtain the mark the customer wants.  I pity my former colleagues; what pleasure is there in examining when you know your professional judgement is regarded as immaterial?

09 October 2016

Books, Bestsellers and Bars

If a book’s cover includes the phrase “The No.1 International Bestseller”, I put it straight back on the shelf.  How can a book, fresh off the press be a “bestseller” before it has even been on the market a week?  And how is it possible for it to have been translated into a fraction of the languages which would be needed for its popularity to be realistically regarded as “International”?  Obviously, if it has been snapped off the shelves around the world without anyone having had a chance to read or understand its contents, then that implies that its popularity is due to something other than literary merit.  Perhaps it makes a good doorstop.  Perhaps the cover is particularly eye-catching?  Perhaps the author is famous for something other than literary ability?

Of course we all know that “The No.1 International Bestseller” is a statement of aspiration rather than reality, and the fact that virtually every book in every airport departure lounge book stall is “The No.1 International Bestseller” tells us that the slogan is a desperate marketing cry rather than an unequivocal statement of fact.

Marketing people in book publishing never deal in indefinite articles, nor do they have any vocabulary which allows them to indicate any position other than absolute top.  For them “international” means someone has taken a copy of the book across the border from the USA to Canada, and “Bestseller” is synonymous with “available to buy”.

The book publishing industry has dug itself into this hole of meaningless aspirational claims ever since someone hit on the idea of putting a dust-jacket round a book and using that dust-jacket as a marketing tool.  First they put a picture on the front, then they put a synopsis on the back.  They sent out some advance copies (minus the dust-jacket) to critics whose reviews provided quotes which they could then print on the back of the dust-jacket before sending it out to the book-stores.  But this was not enough.  They needed to imply that sales for the book, even before it was openly available for sale, were so huge that they eclipsed just about everything else.  So they started inventing wholly spurious claims for the book in the hope that potential readership was daft enough to believe them. 

With the advent of the paperback, this use of the book’s cover as a marketing tool has become so established that the idea that a book would appear without lavish quotes of praise and unbelievable claims for popularity has become as inconceivable as Donald Trump coming up with a serious and honest thought.

Luckily the world of Classical Music has not gone down that path, and we still promote our new material by providing evidence of previous success.   True, in the world of opera, there are, very occasionally, press previews; but who has ever heard of a solo recital, a chamber concert, a symphony orchestra performance getting a “press preview” so that legitimate quotes about it can be used to entice audiences to the show proper? And a new work is never promoted before its first performance as “The No.1 International Bestseller”; rather its composer is shown to have a track record of usually modest success.  The implication is, of course, that “he did it once, so he may well have done it again”, but in the music business we fight shy of either predicting success or claiming it before it happens.

But how do new composers and musicians manage to get themselves into the public consciousness if they have no proven track record?  Statements of aspiration and claims of outrageous success just do not wash with the market for classical music, so most do everything they can to get a critic to attend an early performance or hear a debut CD. 

Recently, someone wrote to me about the reviews I write for a daily newspaper, telling me that “Nobody reads the rubbish you write.  Classical music criticism is just used by editors to fill space in their paper”.  They have a point, although the number of times I have suggested reviewing a concert only to be told by the editor that “there is no space to run another review” implies that editors of arts pages do not generally have a problem filling space.  But who does read the criticism in a general newspaper?  I doubt whether many people do, and that does not worry me one iota, for one of its prime purposes is to provide publicity material for musicians.  They need these legitimate and impartial opinions about their music and their performance if they are to survive in this hugely competitive environment.

I used to make a point of reviewing every student performance I could attend and posting that review on a blog.  The purpose was not only to offer a third-party assessment of their performance (students tend to focus their performances on meeting the demands of their own teachers and rarely hear disinterested opinions from their audience) but also to provide some serviceable quotes for them to put on publicity materials aimed at enticing future audiences to their work.  I stopped only because none of the students took advantage of this, preferring the world to think that the limits of their musical horizons were participating in competitions and master-classes and collecting a string of “mentors” as long as their arm.  I still wonder why they should imagine that this is more important than showing that they have experience in performing to an audience; but that’s how they present themselves in their biographies, so they have to live with the consequences.

But those with a more realistic outlook understand the value of getting some critical commentary as soon as possible.  I recently enjoyed a very pleasant evening with the American composer Nick Omiccioli, moving from bar to bar sampling a mixture of whisky, wine and beer (as well as some particularly spicy Indian food).  Nick is new to Singapore and his music unheard by just about everyone here.  How is he to make an impression, to get his name circulated amongst the Asian audiences? 

One of his works is being performed at a concert at the Esplanade Recital Studio on 10th November (which will also mark the inaugural performance of a yet another new - or, to be precise, newly renamed - Singapore orchestra, OpusNovus).  “You will come, I hope?” Nick asked. “Maybe write a review??”  And I will go.  And I will write a review.  I might like his music or I might hate it, or I might be totally indifferent to it.  I will review what I hear as fairly as I can, and it may be that Nick will never speak to me again let alone ply me with whisky, wine, beer or vindaloo.  But at least he will have some quote which he can use to promote his music in Singapore in future, so that attending a performance of it will not be quite the act of faith that going to the one on 10th November will be.

And if he becomes “The No.1 International Best composer”, I will, in my tiny way, have helped him along that path, but neither he nor I will have had the presumption to anticipate it before anyone here has heard a note of his music.