31 January 2016

A Congregation of Concertos

Three different concertos with three different soloists in a single concert is not something you experience every day - usually a single soloist embedded in a concert of other things is enough for those who relish the prospect of a single artist battling against the massed forces of a symphony orchestra.  Such a congregation of concertos doesn’t happen very often, and when it does it signifies something very special.  In this case, it was billed as the “Grand Finals” of the Concerto Competition held at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore.

To have passed through the rigours of the preliminary rounds and heats, given the extraordinary amount of solo talent amongst conservatory students, was no mean achievement, and it was well said that, simply being on stage and performing in the Grand Final was indication in itself of all three soloists being a winner.  The rules of competitions are such that an adjudicator is obliged to select a winner, and one was duly selected, but so far as the audience was concerned, the simple pleasure of hearing and seeing so much incredible musical talent was what the evening was all about.  And, as many said to me before the concert, the programme itself was enticing enough to draw in people for whom the idea of a musical completion is anathema (and my next blog post will look a little into that phenomenon). 

The three works were from three composers who were contemporaries of each other, yet whose music is stylistically poles apart.  I was profoundly impressed by how all three of the soloists had thoroughly immersed themselves in the stylistic world of these composers and come out with performances which were convincingly idiomatic.

The most compelling performance, from an interpretative point of view, was that of the Ukrainian violinist Korniev Oleksandr who produced an account of the Sibelius Concerto of rare perceptiveness.  He showed an innate understanding of the work and of the composer’s unique idiom, but more than that he seemed to reveal a level of insight which few, even at the very height of their professional careers, ever achieve. It had that icy bleakness which characterises so much of the music, and, through tiny, subtle touches, revealed a performer for whom the concerto was not so much a vehicle to express his – unquestionably magnificent – technique, but to reveal his deep musical personality.  There was a sense that he associated himself with the very essence of the work; which may, to an extent, have counted against him in that, with a performance so polished and accomplished, one felt that he had nothing more to say.

It was an inspired choice that Singaporean pianist Mervyn Lee made in electing to play Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto.  This was a concerto written for a 19-year-old, and its youthful vigour and high spirits were so fully attuned with Lee’s own 17-year-old psyche, that, as with Oleksandr and Sibelius, it seemed to fit him like a glove.  Lee also made the most impressive visual display on stage.  By wearing a scarlet Chinese tunic he at once showed himself as a performer willing to stand out from the crowd (which is what any concerto soloist must do).  This was certainly a dazzling display of pianistic virtuosity, but more than that, it was an exciting and thrilling delivery of a work which clearly suited the teenage Lee’s entire approach.  His interaction with the orchestra as well as his profound understanding of the work’s character, shone through every bar.  Which, again, may have counted a little against him.  When a young soloist shows such empathy with a work written for a young soloist, there is a slight question hanging over those who hear it; would he do as well in the more mature repertory? 

Singaporean mezzo-soprano Jade Tan Shi Yu faced an uphill struggle from the outset.  There is very limited repertory available for a mezzo-soprano to present in a concerto setting, and in selecting Elgar’s Sea Pictures she was not only moving into musical (and literary) territory to which I suspect she is not instinctively drawn, but she was performing something originally written for the contralto.  This was voice much more popular (and common) in Elgar’s time than it is today. (I wonder whether the social stigma given to smoking may not have something to do with this; the few true contraltos I have ever known have all smoked like chimneys; as have the true basses I’ve worked with – that’s another voice which has fallen out of fashion.) As a result, Tan’s voice lacked the resonance in the lower register which would have afforded her the range of expression and colour Elgar sought.  Yet in compensating for that, she showed a spectacular grasp of the idiom and a hugely intelligent approach to the music which was based more on a consciously artistic approach than an innate empathy with the music itself.  Like the Engineering Professor seated beside me in the concert hall last evening, I find it impossible to hear Sea Pictures without recalling the magical voice of Janet Baker.  Yet Tan revisited the work afresh, put her own take on it, and as such delivered what was, certainly in the adjudicator’s view, the most rewarding performance of the evening, even if it was neither the most perceptive or the most dazzlingly virtuoso.

It’s easy to forget, in the admiration for these three outstanding soloists, that what really made them play so well (apart, that is, form their superlative teachers) was the unfailingly outstanding support from the Conservatory Orchestra which, faced with three quite demanding works, showed a level of professionalism and all-round awareness, which made you forget they were there.  There was no hint of strain or struggle about the orchestral playing – it did what it needed to do brilliantly, and added much of real worth to the overall performance.

And for that, one cannot over-praise the superlative Jason Lai, who reveals in every concert he conducts, a level of musical insight and integrity which never ceases to astonish.  Here, his stylistic perceptiveness was never in doubt, and it was delivered in the calm, unflustered manner by which you just know that he is in total control and that, should anything go amiss, he’ll handle it without breaking into a sweat.  He showed himself an innate Elgarian, blending with infinite precision the various orchestral hues Elgar writes in his opulent score (let’s hear Lai do an Enigma Variations or a 1st Symphony – he’ll be more than a match for the Andrew Davis’s of this world, I have no doubt).  He showed himself to be a thoroughly idiomatic Shostakovichian, gently prodding the touches of satire and pathos in the Concerto and driving it onwards with that persistent, unflagging momentum which characterises everything Shostakovich wrote (something I trace back to his days accompanying silent movies, where you could not stop once the film had started).  And he showed himself an instinctive Sibeliusian, deeply conscious of the sparse harmonic and melodic idiom which calls for an expansive, long-term view which so many other conductors find elusive.

It was a concert of winners, certainly, the biggest of whom was the audience who sat entranced and enthralled throughout an absolutely sumptuous musical banquet.

28 January 2016

Jaap's New Yorker

It is not really the preserve of this blog to follow the movement of personnel in orchestras outside Asia, but the announcement yesterday that Jaap van Zweden has been appointed the New Music Director of the New York Philharmonic does have some implications for the musical life of South East Asia.

Jaap had been Music Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic for the past three seasons and is contracted to remain there until 2019.  There is no hint that he intends to curtail that contract in the light of the New York appointment.

On top of that, he is  half way through a major project to perform and record all four parts of the Wagner Ring cycle in Hong Kong over four years, and if the outstanding quality of Walkure last week is anything to go by, he is not going to drop that at this stage; as one extremely enthusiastic North American critic spluttered afterwards, "On the strength of that performance, he must be the best Wagner conductor in the world!"  An exaggeration, perhaps, and based on the flimsiest of evidence, but one I am in no way inclined to dispute the assertion.

The most significant implication for Asia of Jaap's appointment is the reflected glory and inevitable additional international scrutiny the Hong Kong orchestra is going to experience as a result.  That he has so quickly established himself as one of the foremost conductors in the world speaks volumes for the Hogn Kong Philharmonic's foresight in appointing him in the first place, and if other budding maestros see the Asian orchestras as, not so much a useful stepping stone, as possessing  star-making quality, then it can only be good for the orchestral scene here.

It would be nice to think that orchestras in Singapore, Bangkok and other regional centres might catch some of the kudos Hong Kong has brought on itself.  A succession of worthy but, in all honesty, past-their-prime visiting conductors along with Music Directors who, while growing with their respective orchestras, have minimal international exposure and attract little attention outside the region, is the best most orchestras achieve here.  How nice to be able to say that at least one of them has recognised and, to a small extent nurtured, true star potential.

21 January 2016

Unlocking Mendelssohn

Last night I attended a concert.  Nothing noteworthy about that; indeed, it would be more unusual for me to write that I had NOT attended a concert.

The difference was that I attended this concert not for professional reasons, nor yet because of a sense of duty. None of the performers was familiar to me as a friend, student, colleague or musician, and there was nothing in the programme which particularly enticed me.  I did not go because somebody had asked me or because I was going to be in someone else’s company, and, in truth, being an amateur, student concert, it was the sort of thing I might usually have avoided, especially as it came at the end of a long work day and I was quite keen to go home.  The fact was, though, that having spent my day up to my eyes in music and music-making of considerable professional intensity, I just thought it would be the best way to unwind.  At home I have no television, which would be my customary method of relaxing after a hard day, and my useless internet provider (a company called MyRepublic which I urge all Singaporeans to avoid like the plague) does not offer me sufficient bandwidth (despite their claims to the contrary) to listen to radio online (forget any notion of watching any video content).  A concert of uninspiring trifles played by amateurs seemed the nearest thing I could think of for mindless entertainment.  There was a chance I could just sit down and let the sounds wash harmlessly over me.

Performances were notable for the dedication the student players had put into them, and if the end results ranged from the amusingly bad to the earnestly careful, that was not to belittle the obvious sense of achievement each player showed as they left the stage.  The amateurishness of the event was heightened not only by a programme booklet, which was so full of basic errors as to be a source of great mirth, and a Master (or rather Mistress) of Ceremonies who performed an utterly pointless role.  Why is it that amateur concert promoters in south-east Asia feel the need to call on the services of an MC?  Invariably the MC knows nothing about the event, reads a script with no understanding of the words it contains nor any ability to pronounce them, wholly misunderstands the purpose of the function and generally obstructs the proceedings to the extent that it seems to run on interminably.  Last night’s MC seemed there purely to show off a pretty spectacular blue dress, but with crass phrases like “Let us put our hands together for the players” (replace an L with and R in that sentence, and you have what was always told to us children in church) she had obviously read the Bluffers Guide to Saying Stupid Things In Public.  Fortunately the packed audience of students and friends were far more clued-up than the presence of an MC implied, and they ignored most of her entreaties and listened to the music with rapt attention, supporting the performances with genuine applause. 

It impressed me how much hard work had obviously gone into preparing the performances, and the clear level of concentration every one of the student performers showed and their obvious satisfaction in having achieved their objective of performing on stage to the best of their ability more than amply compensated for the many and obvious musical shortcomings in the performances.  Amateur music making is not about high-level technical delivery or intuitive interpretations, but about effort, determination and commitment, and these all succeeded magnificently, even if I did have a good (private) laugh at some of the more blatant errors.  It all served to make me profoundly glad that I had gone and to regret the fact that I had approached it in a slightly negative frame of mind.

The highlight of the evening was when a group of eight string players did the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet.  It got a deservedly warm round of applause and some genuine cheers  from the audience who, it has to be said, behaved impeccably throughout (as opposed to the ushers who decided that walking around and loudly telling people off for taking photographs during the performance was more important than allowing the rest of us to enjoy the music).  There was a wonderful look of triumph on the faces of the players when they reached the final cadence – as well there should have been.  They did really well.

The thing is, no performance of the Mendelssohn Octet can ever leave me unwound or relaxed.  It stirs something deep inside me which churns my stomach and makes me restless.  On the bus going home after the concert I fidgeted and hummed to myself, much to the irritation of the young lady seated beside me who appeared to be attempting to text the entire contents of the Old Testament in the space of a 20-minute bus ride.  And despite a hefty whisky (or two) back home, any hope of relaxing had gone.  I spent a restless night going over the Mendelssohn time and time again in my head. 

I would never suggest it was one of my favourite pieces, yet I love it in a very deep and intimate way.  And I suppose that love comes from the fact that it is one of a handful of pieces which has, in the past, unlocked internal musical doors for me.  Mendelssohn’s music was among the first I got to know.  As a piano student I played many of his simple piano pieces and his Songs Without Words, while as a young organist I had his Sixth Organ Sonata firmly embedded in my repertory (not to mention the Wedding March and the War March of the Priests ). Yet somehow Mendelssohn was just another composer, pleasant and harmless, occasionally predictable and worthy, but never inspiring, and when I first performed Elijah as a tenor in the university choir, I enjoyed the experience but never really felt affinity with the musical idiom.

But that changed dramatically one Saturday morning when, listening to the Record Review on BBC Radio 3, I heard the reviewer recommend the Nash Ensemble recording of the Mendelssohn Octet.  So persuasive was the reviewer (surely it wasn’t Lionel Salter, but I hear his voice in my inner ear uttering the words) that I went out and bought that record.  On one hearing I was transfixed.  This was the key to understanding Mendelssohn for me.  I listened to it over and over again, and from that moment onwards in every piece of Mendelssohn I came across, I saw a new and inspiring light.  Every composer has his distinct voice, and sometimes you need a work to act as the trigger to unlock your access to that voice.  For me, it was the Octet which opened my ears to Mendelssohn.

It has happened with a few other composers.  Hindemith came alive for me only after hearing the Mathis der Maler Symphony, and for Franck it was the Violin Sonata which opened my ears to what he genuinely had to say.  Other composers – Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Rachmaninov, Messiaen – I locked on to straight away, while for others – Chopin. Liszt, Verdi – I have yet to find that key; and there’s a lot of fun in looking for it.

But the message I take away from this is that, for each individual listener, true access to a composer is often to be found only in one work which, for some inexplicable reason, triggers a reaction deep in their psyche.  We should never say we “don’t like” a composer’s music; instead we should suggest that we have yet to find the work which unlocks that composer for us.  We can’t really dismiss a composer’s music until we have heard everything he has to say.