18 March 2016

Standing Music

There may have been other occasions.

 I have been racking my brains to think of others, but I can recall only three occasions in a concert-going career spanning well over half a century when I have stood spontaneously at the end of a performance.

The standing ovation has become de rigueur among some audiences.  I have been equally racking my brains, but cannot remember a single occasion in the last couple of years when somebody has not stood up after a performance in Singapore’s Esplanade concert hall.  It seems that, standing up to show appreciation is, in many people, the rule rather than the exception.

Our response to a musical performance is intriguing.  As Kevin Thomson, contributing to this blog some years back observed, it is strange that we show our appreciation of a profound artistic event by violently banging our hands together.  Yet how else are we to show it?  We could all sagely nod our heads or sit in stunned silence – which some do.  We could holler and shout, make ear-splitting cat-calls or excrete the kind of whistles tight, short skirts intimately applied to the young female form used to attract when they strutted past active building sites – as seems to be the wont among Chinese students. We could wave our arms in the air – standard practice in Singapore.  Or we could stand up.

But the usual convention is to remain seated, applaud with enthusiasm appropriate to the level of our appreciation (occasionally calling out “bravo” when it was particularly good, or “boo” when it was particularly bad) and leave it at that.  For me, the standing ovation signifies not something good, or even very good, or even excellent, or even outstanding; it signifies a life-changing, unforgettable experience the like of which one is rarely likely to witness again.  As audiences, we must have something in reserve for that extremely rare occasion when the performance transcends all our previous experiences; and for me that final piece of appreciative armoury is to stand up spontaneously.

Spontaneity is the thing.  If you wait and look around to see if someone else has stood up first, if you wait until the artist on stage seems to be looking your way, or if you wait until you feel you just can’t sit down any longer, that signifies some level of appreciation, but it is not a genuine, spontaneous standing ovation.  I recall attending a performance of Mahler 2 conducted by an aged and infirm Otto Klemperer in London.  It was not a great performance and, magnificent as the work was, it was not difficult to imagine something more magnificent.  But the presence of Klemperer, one of the great conductors of the age whose very presence lent distinction to the event, and the fact that nearly all of us knew (and could see) that he was unlikely to step on to the London stage again, warranted a respectful ovation.  We did not stand spontaneously; we stood when it was clear that our standing was indicative of respect to a great musician rather than a great musical occasion.  There are a few artists whose very presence on stage ensures a segment of the audience will be on their feet,. If only to show that they have enjoyed other performances by that artist; and I must confess that I’ve done that a few times.

When a standing ovation is spontaneous, you know it.  You somehow leap to your feet regardless of what is going on around you, so enthralled have you been by the performance.  It first happened to me in, I think, 1974, when Olivier Messiaen came to Cardiff and gave a spell-binding performance of his own Visions de l’Amen with his wife Yvonne Loriod.  I was hugely attracted to the music and the person of Messiaen, who had been in attendance at the university for a few days previously, but aware that my own professor, Alun Hoddinott, was not so enamoured of him, I was wary of making too passionate a display of enthusiasm (after all I was yet to graduate).  Yet so utterly taken was I by the performance, that I leapt to my feet and cheered.  The performance and the occasion have never faded from my memory.

The next came a year or two later at a concert in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall when Witold
Lutosławski was present (I really can’t remember whether he was one of the pianists, but I rather imagine he was) at  a performance of his Variations on a Theme of Paganini for two pianos.  Again, I found myself so utterly engrossed in the music – which I found (and continue to find to this day) disturbingly exciting – as well as in a spellbinding performance that I, once again, leapt to my feet in a spontaneous display of gratitude.  Every performance of the work I have sought out since has been a disappointment; the yardstick was set out then, and in my mind, has never been reached since.

The third was last night when I found myself so totally absorbed by a riveting performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians that, as the final silence faded away, I found myself on my feet, exultant that I had experienced one of those rare musical occasions which you just know will never fade from the memory.  It was not a flawless performance.  The members of the London Sinfonietta are too seasoned a bunch of professionals ever to look panic-stricken, but one was conscious of occasional looks of consternation when various musicians, possibly mesmerized by the incessant repetition of small figures, suddenly realized they had no idea how many statements of the motiv were left.  Such was the  superlative teamwork of the band that, it only needed a glance from one player for another to subtly indicate what was happening and, to all outward appearances, the performance flowed seamlessly, its endless stream of hypnotic music uninterrupted by human intervention. 

The fact that Reich was there in person, one of the five pianists involved, certainly lent the concert a tangible sense of occasion, but the standing ovation was not so much for him as for the musical experience we had all just shared. 

A concert devoted to Reich and his music had begun with the man himself involved in a performance of his iconic Clapping Music and the true highlight of the first half was an electrifying performance of his 1987 work for electric guitar and pre-recorded tape Electric Counterpoint.  This was the work which first made me fall in love with the music of Reich – that famous 1989 Elektra disc which also included the fabulous Different Trains had been sent to me for review and I reckon I had played it pretty continuously for much of the next year – and to hear it again, live, was a wonderful experience.  Mats Bergström was the soloist on this occasion, and while he occasionally looked a little awkward there on the big stage all alone playing, somewhat incestuously, with pre-recorded tracks of himself, the sound was astonishing; the advances in amplification and the superlative work done at the mixing desk in the hall giving this “live” performance a fabulous sense of realism.  When I heard the work “live” back in the 1980s, one was painfully conscious of what was real and what was pre-recorded; here, even looking at the lone guitarist on stage, you just did not know quite where the sound was coming from, so well did the sound worlds coalesce.

The big disappointment of the evening (for me) was Radio Rewrite of 2012.  Musically it felt uninspired, rehearsing familiar ideas in a manner which seemed dangerously routine.  The performance was impressive for its tight ensemble and clarity of detail, yet it never took off.  Interval discussions with a variety of people harvested a variety of suggestions as to why this might have been so weak.  For what it’s worth, my feeling is that the problem lay with the conductor, Andrew Gourlay.  He did what had to be done – kept the ensemble very tightly together and kept the performance focused on its passage through the music – but I could not escape the feeling that by his very presence he was obstructing the performance rather than constructing it.  The musicians seemed constrained by his presence; as if, left to their own devices, they could have played the music out with a little more freedom and personality.  But I suspect the real issue is that this is simply not Reich’s greatest achievement.

That greatest achievement is not Music for 18 Musicians but it ranks high on the list of near-masterpieces.  It is an extraordinary work, lasting 60 minutes according to the publicity (but, in reality, this performance was nearer 55) and requiring intense concentration and stamina from all the players (and vocalists), many of whom are obliged to move between instruments, to play small musical motivs identically over dozens of repetitions, and at times seamlessly take over command of an instrument already in full flood.  I wondered why this seemed so much more of a virtuoso tour-de-force than, say, a Bruckner or Mahler symphony, but I realized what the answer was. With Reich it never stops, its changes are imperceptible and it has none of the contours which allow the interpretative brain its peaks and troughs.  The complete absence of silence, of repose or even of relaxation combine to create a gloriously hypnotic effect on the audience, but how human beings can possibly cope with its performing demands almost defies belief. 

Perhaps this is why this performance warranted a standing ovation.  Few of us are likely to experience its equal again.

And I have one final question.  Messiaen, Lutosławski, now Reich.  Who (if anyone) will be next?

08 March 2016

Symphony Fantastique - Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Although reviews I contribute to various outlets do not usually get reprinted on my blog, I have been asked to reprint two I contributed to the Straits Times in Singapore this weekend in order to give them a wider audience.  If you wish to make use of these in some way, you must seek permission from the copyright holders - Singapore Press Holdings.  Otherwise, I hope you enjoy this little glimpse of the hugely active musical environment which is reflected through the pages of the ST Life supplement on a daily basis.

Symphonie Fantastique
Saturday evening (5th March)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Jean-Claude Casadeus: Valeriy Sokolov (violin)

Sex. Drugs. Decapitation. Debauchery.  Not the sort of thing you would expect at an average Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert.
But this was by no means an average Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert.  For a start, the orchestra produced such compelling music-making, played with such vibrant colours and generally exuded such complete self-assurance that one wondered what had come over them.

The answer was Jean-Claude Casadeus, who, with characteristic Gallic flair and elegance, coaxed them to do amazing things in front of the Singapore public.

The sex, drugs, decapitation and debauchery are part and parcel of Berlioz’s extraordinary Symphonie Fantastique, a musical picture of a drug-crazed artist, erotically imaging his beloved in a variety of situations ranging from the stylish – the second movement ball was the most compelling waltz you could imagine – to the downright violent – rarely has the guillotine blade fallen with such aplomb as in the fourth movement’s march to the scaffold.

Casadeus re-interpreted what were, when the Symphony was premiered, outrageous orchestral effects, creating the same vividly compelling images of shock and horror which had so appalled the Parisian first night audience back in 1830.  21st century Singaporeans are, however, rather more sturdy folk than 19th century Parisians, and far from appalled mutterings, there were unabashed cheers.  The audience loved it to bits.

There were few hints of the amazing things to come with the concert opener.  The Brahms Violin Concerto started in a very strait-laced manner, Ukrainian star violinist Valeriy Sokolov the epitome of undemonstrative elegance – even down to the sober grey suit (shame he forgot the tie).  Perhaps his clean-shaven approach was not fully matched by a certain muddiness in the SSO; but we can put that down to the inevitable unease which always goes with the start of a big concert.

How it transformed itself during the first movement cadenza.  The master of the subtle nuance, Sokolov drew us into a world of profound intimacy and deep discretion, and when the orchestra soothingly re-emerged from its lengthy slumber, it was to produce playing of the most divine delicacy.

In the deeply lovely slow movement, Casadeus moulded and caressed the music as if with the seasoned hands of an expert masseur, and all too soon we found ourselves led out of the massage parlour by Sokolov and into the invigorating atmosphere of a Hungarian dance hall for the finale.  Brick, crisp and exhilarating, he led us on in a scintillating dance right up to the work’s ultimate climax.

This, alone, would have been well worth the cost of the ticket.  The sex, drugs, decapitation and debauchery which followed were just very welcome add-on benefits.

OMM Beethoven 9

Although reviews I contribute to various outlets do not usually get reprinted on my blog, I have been asked to reprint two I contributed to the Straits Times in Singapore this weekend in order to give them a wider audience.  If you wish to make use of these in some way, you must seek permission from the copyright holders - Singapore Press Holdings.  Otherwise, I hope you enjoy this little glimpse of the hugely active musical environment which is reflected through the pages of the ST Life supplement on a daily basis.

Beethoven 9
Friday evening (4th March)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Orchestra of the Music Makers, Maior Chorus, Queensland Festival Chorus/Chan Tze Law

Poor old Beethoven. He was not to know the problems he would cause  200 years later by making his Ninth Symphony too short to fill a concert programme yet too monumental to sit beside another work without eclipsing it.

Chan Tze Law addressed the problem ingeniously, opening the programme with a short but mighty work for choir and orchestra by the contemporary Estonian composer, Eriks Esenvalds.  Lakes Awake at Dawn was  heavy on atmosphere, but otherwise pretty static, and once the ravishing sound of massed choir and orchestra had made their impact, it had little more to say. 

That left room for the last 20 minutes or so of Wagner’s unabashedly joyful Mastersingers.  In a performance unusually fresh and vigorous – after all, the performers hadn’t had to plough through the three hours of music which usually precedes this – Chan kept things light and brisk, avoiding all but the merest hint that the ending, designed as the summation of a massive operatic undertaking, was in any way overblown.

Daniel Sumegi proved a natural Wagnerian with his delivery of the magisterial words of Hans Sachs, and an instinctive Beethovenian with his stentorian admonitions before the climactic statement of the “Ode to Joy”.  But he was most impressive as an impromptu compere, genially inviting the capacity audience to take a mass selfie before the Beethoven began.  What palpitations this must have caused the Esplanade’s anti-camera politburo can only be imagined, but it was a lot of fun.

If, in the Beethoven, the Orchestra of the Music Makers occasionally teetered on the edge (they were living very dangerously in the third movement) they more than compensated with some crisp, clear and engagingly committed playing.  Purists concerned at the presence of a tuba on stage (an instrument not even invented when Beethoven was around) can rest easy in the knowledge that this was an authentic performance of Mahler’s revised orchestration of Beethoven’s original where, had he had a kitchen sink to hand, he would surely have added that to the mix.

And with these bulky forces, the performance had rare strength and vibrancy; which might also be because this was the first performance of the Ninth Symphony by the orchestra and the combined forces of Singapore’s Maior Chorus and Brisbane’s Queensland Festival Chorus.  The choral tone was wonderful, the overall balance impeccable, and the inner detail crystal clear.  As an interpretation it was genuinely awe-inspiring. 

An immensely life-affirming performance was crowned by a magnificent quartet of soloists.  In addition to Sumegi, these included tenor Virgilio Marino, whose angular delivery of the Turkish-style variation in the choral finale was exquisite, the richly resonant contralto Fiona Campbell, and soprano Janani Sridhar who floated effortlessly up to the impossibly high registers demanded by Beethoven yet still managed to exude that sense of joy which permeated the entire concert.