02 May 2016

Who Needs Good Music When You Can Have Bad?

Over the weekend I went to a concert.  Nothing unusual about that, of course, nor, sadly, about the fact that the concert was embarrassingly poor with bad arrangements of second-rate music in monumentally mediocre performances.  And, almost inevitably, it got a rapturous response from the capacity audience.  I have to say that, cringing in my seat with acute embarrassment as the performance teetered on the brink of a total collapse I did ask myself why I had given up a satisfying career as a bus driver – where a single act of carelessness can kill dozens - to devote my life to something where multiple acts of carelessness normally receive praise and admiration.

The audience in the concert hall clearly loved every moment of it and applauded with unbridled enthusiasm.  Are my standards too high and my expectations unrealistic, or does the public accept really bad music and music making because they neither expect nor want anything better?

The casual reader should immediately pounce on my assessment of the concert as “bad arrangements of second-rate music in monumentally mediocre performances” and castigate me for assuming my standards are right and other people’s wrong; for implying my taste is good and everyone else’s bad.  Yet while the casual reader should do this, those who think and ponder about such matters must, surely, reach much the same conclusion as mine. 
1.      Bad arrangements.  When the original work is arranged in such a way that it is distorted, that its original character and mood is lost and that the instrumentation causes an aural imbalance and obscures the principal themes and harmonies of the original, then I am absolutely convinced that the arrangement is bad.  The finest players in the world could not produce good results from such bad arrangements.
2.      Second-rate music. The finest music is original, distinctive, compelling, emotionally and/or intellectually stimulating and prompts a desire to hear it again.  Very little music really falls into this category, and while much music can fulfil one or two of these elements, only the first-rate can fulfil three or more.  The music played in this concert was certainly attractive, possibly well worth hearing again, but was neither original nor stimulating and certainly did not offer anything sufficiently compelling for the bulk of the audience to put down their phones and concentrate on what was being played to them.
3.      Monumental mediocrity. When the ensemble went through the motions of tuning, it was obvious that they remained steadfastly out of tune.  Playing a note several times over does not tune an instrument; this is such a basic skill that, to get it wrong, signifies a basic musical mediocrity.  On top of that, frequent places where the ensemble broke down, the players made mistakes and the conductor did nothing to shape, express or mould the music into some coherent whole implies not just individual mediocrity in the players but a level of mediocrity which encompassed the entire performing body.

A free concert on a Sunday afternoon should, possibly, not prompt the same level of expectation as, say, a pricey one on a Friday evening.  Yet the very professional marketing, under the umbrella of a highly-reputable professional musical organisation, had certainly drawn me to the concert on the assumption that it would be, if nothing more, an entertaining hour or so of undemanding but acceptable music making.  On top of that, the programme booklet gave long and lavish biographies of the artists which did everything to promote them as high-ranking professionals.  The conductor, attired curiously for an afternoon free concert in white tie and tails, was keen to promote his academic and musical credentials by pointing to the doctorate he had obtained from an institution in the USA (why are so many American doctorates based on the flimsiest of academic and musical skills?) and had even written brief programme notes which were so incomprehensible (and full of basic factual errors) that one expected he had found an institution offering Doctorates in Musical Obfuscation.  His performances showed no evidence of musical understanding nor interpretative thought, and the fact that he announced the encore as “something beautiful”, when, in fact, it was something utterly dreary and insignificant, indicated a failure to understand the words he used.

While I can justify my statements about the dreadfulness of the concert, I have to accept that, on all the evidence, I was in a minority of almost one. (True, the lady beside me complained after the second inconsequential piece that she was hoping for something more substantial – but when a longer piece did turn up, she promptly fell asleep; although I confess to having kept my own eyes firmly shut for fear of giving visible manifestation for the inner horror I was feeling at such a musical travesty.) 

Should I accept that my expectations and standards are out of line with the mass of the music-going public?  Yes, I should and I do.  But I must fight to preserve the few remaining shreds of musical credibility in the face of such widespread apathy towards excellence, and the general satisfaction with the second and third rate in an art form which, virtually by definition, should elevate us way beyond the first-rate.

There was a time when music was unknown and inaccessible to the vast mass of the population.  If you were exposed to music at all, it was because you were a member of an elite for whom music was an enriching adjunct to daily life.  You demanded the very best in your life, and music was part of it.  Then along came the gramophone and suddenly music was available to all.  With the mobile device music has not just become available to all, but considered as basic a human activity as breathing, eating and going to the toilet. 

And just as we have ruined our atmosphere, our dietary intake and our physical environment through treating air, food and waste products carelessly, so we are ruining music by taking it for granted.  By accepting the mediocre and the mundane when we should be striving to care for the excellent and exceptional, I see music going the same way as the environment.  While people care about airborne pollution, deforestation, chemicals in agriculture and landfill sites, how many people really care about music?  


  1. Bach is second-rate??

    1. Your feedback is always welcome, even if you are too embarrassed to provide your name. However, why do you think Bach is second rate?

  2. Dr Marc, indeed you are entitled to your opinion and no doubt your take great pains to write a great volume about important issues.

    However I speak for every musician who has suffered the misfortune of coming across your blog and meeting you in person, when I say that yes we do wish you had kept that job as a bus driver. After all, the worst you could do as a bus driver is crash your bus, hopefully with you in it. That worst outcome metaphorically, really pales in comparison to the misfortune of being exposed to your drivel.

    Here's a thought, how about you take all the energy you so passionately put into your blog, and use your 'expertise' to actually make a difference in Singapore's music society, instead of sitting from your ivory tower and pretending that you actually add any value... at all.

  3. Oh come on, do give Dr Rochester a break! Of course he is making a difference in Singapore's moribund but strangely self-congratulatory classical music society by shaking it out of its complacency. His critique of the May 1 VCH concert is one of the most frank, delightfully amusing and courageous pieces of writing i have read in a long while. And it certainly makes for a refreshing change to reviewer Chang Tou Liang's sickly sacharine reviews of SSO concerts and every other concert for that matter. In his reviews, musicians can do no wrong! It is time that classical musicians in Singapore stop thinking of themselves as demigods. Singapore is too small a pond for alleged demigods.

    1. Courage is not writing a blog post.

      Whatever you perceive classical musicians in Singapore to be, it's really up to you shake your fists and think that all are arrogant. But Singapore really is a 'little guy' in the classical music world, we do not have the cultural nor political support. Young musicians in Singapore are not helped by Marc Rochester going to NUS Symphony Orchestra Concerts and quite honestly, insulting them for being exactly what they are, an amateur orchestra. Young musicians in Singapore need all the encouragement and support they can get because despite the perception that they are arrogant, they really are insecure, owing to a pragmatic society that doesn't hold classical music as important.

      Why should MR Rochester be given a break, he has given none. Mr Rochester you say you fight for musical credibility but where is your skin in the game? You take hate mail and spread it to your colleagues and have a good laugh about it, where is the fight?

      "Your feedback is always welcome, even if you are too embarrassed to provide your name. However, why do you think Bach is second rate?"

      You call this fighting? You can't even defend your own opinion without trying to put down your critic.

      Courage my ass. If you're so 'passionate' about making music in Singapore better, go down into the trenches and actually understand the problems musicians in Singapore face, instead of hiding behind your 'intellect' and your blog.

  4. you said they played second rate music, but they played bach.

  5. I have found it immensely amusing reading all these anonymous comments. However, the blog post which seems to have got all these oddbods so worked up is NOT a review, and certainly had no connection with any concert in Singapore. But, if the cap fits wear it! I must find out which group was playing in VCH that weekend and make a point never to hear them; if they believe they are bad, they must be! Dr Marc

  6. I am writing this under the heading of Anonymous simply because I do not have an account with Google or Live Journal or WordPress or any of the other options, and Anonymous allows me to make this comment without the tedious process of signing up.

    Having said that, I get the feeling (despite limited evidence) that while Anonymity might encourage some people to write things they would be ashamed to put their name to, it also avoids some of the personal attacks and name calling that you often see in blogs – maybe we can focus on what is being said, rather than who is saying it.

  7. On the “moribund and strangely self-congratulatory” music scene in Singapore. I would strongly disagree with the first of those descriptions – the music scene has been growing wonderfully for 2 decades, and I would say that more people are involved in more diverse music than ever before. Long may this continue !

    But I do agree that there is an overwhelming feeling of self-congratulation – the mediocre spending effort on promoting the image of success, and fighting to keep others down, rather than challenging themselves to improve.

    It is not all like that, among a mass of complacent mediocrity, Singapore has some outstanding musicians and groups. And the irony is that the brilliant and inspirational are typically modest and self-critical, while the second-raters blindly continue to pat themselves on the back, as they have always done.