27 July 2016

A Singapore Singer to See

Singapore has ambitions to be a musical force in the world.  With no less than three excellent tertiary institutons with exciting music programmes (including a conservatory which is making a reputation way beyond the boundaries of south east Asia), a specialist School of the Arts, a tremendously active concert culture, a handful of performance venues which impress by any standards, and a plethora of professional performers including a national orchestra – the Singapore Symphony – which sounds at times almost world class, it seems to be heading firmly in the right direction.  

There is, though, a very long way for Singapore to go along this journey.  This is painfully obvious from the fact that music in schools is still generally regarded as a competitive activity intended to increase corporate prestige rather than an important element in enriching an individual’s artistic sensitivities - something reinforced by the total obsession Singapore music teachers have with the competitive culture inculcated by the graded music examination system.  There are also some very attractive-looking performance venues which suffer from appalling acoustics, hopelessly inadequate pianos and a downright bad environment for the performing of and listening to music, while the vast majority of performing ensembles in Singapore can be cringe-mockingly poor - as, indeed, can the SSO on occasions - and not seem to be aware of it.  

However, the major barrier to overcome on the path to international credibility as a musical hub is the low expectations of audiences and, all too often, of those charged to lead, direct or observe musical performances.  Audiences can’t be blamed; how can they know the difference between bad, mediocre, good and excellent if nobody guides them properly?  I note a sad lack of the kind of Music Appreciation sessions which can so successfully be used to foster a proper perception of quality.  Pre-concert talks, radio broadcasts focused on music, and educational introductions to music (either live or broadcast) are horrendously inconsistent – I’ve heard some fabulous ones, but rather more which are not just bad but fundamentally misguided – and audiences are so often subjected to the mediocre, that they assume it is the norm.  They have no ambition to experience better, simply because they do not know it exists.

As a critic, I take on a responsibility for trying to prompt audiences to recognise the mediocre, to appreciate the good and to seek out the excellent.  While I often get abuse for it (I still chuckle at the memory of a blog post in which I criticised an audience in another country for rapturously applauding a terrible concert; I was inundated with abusive emails from members of a Singapore youth ensemble who assumed that I was referring to them) I also get some appeals for critical guidance from those Singapore musicians genuinely anxious to improve beyond the standards which are still common currency in Singapore.

So I have to apologise to Singaporean countertenor Chan Wei En who asked me to attend a concert he gave last weekend and offer my opinions.  He was hoping I might be able to offer suggestions for improvement.  I made a few enquires beyond Singapore (he has been studying in the USA) and was told that I really had to hear him; that he was a very promising young countertenor.  So I took a gamble and suggested to the Straits Times that his recital warranted a review in a public arena.  They accepted and, in the event, there were no guidance points I could realistically offer him.  I believe he is probably one of Singapore’s best young singers and one who has the potential to make waves on the world stage.  Having said that, he also performed what for me was the most successful new work by any Singaporean composer that I have heard in recent years. 

I mentioned all this in my Straits Times review. Now read on...

Chan Wei En never did tell us what the “Countertenor’s Conundrum” was, nor why he chose it as the title of his recital. Perhaps the conundrum is this – why does the most unnatural of singing voices sound so natural?  Years of intense and strenuous training have brought Chan to the point where his voice sounds remarkably pure and his vocal delivery looks completely effortless.

Technically there were a couple of tiny flaws revealed in this wide-ranging programme.  Ornaments, always stylistically intended, did not always come across with complete delicacy in “Chi scopre al mio pensiero” from Handel’s  Alcina, and the extraordinarily athletic vocal runs in Gluck’s “Addio a Miei Sospiri” (from Orfeo ed Euridice)  had a slightly hard edge to them.  

But in every other respect, this was singing of the very highest technical calibre, superbly poised and magnificently controlled. Another conundrum is why do countertenors, as a breed, show so much more musical and artistic sensitivity than other voice ranges?  Chan posed that conundrum with a vengeance - this was music-making of the most supremely high quality, intelligent, sensitive and powerfully communicative. 

Arias by Mozart (including a sumptuously affectionate An Chloë) showed immense style and poise, while Poulenc’s set of five Banalités were delivered in impeccable French and with bags of interpretative wit and wisdom.  As he leaned casually on the piano in the old parliament debating chamber (now part of a visually lovely Arts centre) he clearly relished the delicious irony of singing the lines, in the very room where Singapore’s uncompromising laws on tobacco were passed and prime ministerial exhortations on the value of hard labour were uttered, “I don’t want to work – I want to smoke!” 

If any of the current generation of Singaporean singers is to make waves on the international platform, I am convinced Chan Wei En will be the one.  But without in any way denigrating the excellence of his performance, this recital would not have been the huge success it was without the sensitive, intelligent and beautifully crafted accompaniments of Jonathan Shin.  His sense of empathy with both song texts and singer was, in itself, a work of art. 

But there was much more to Jonathan Shin than that. 

His own composition, The Other Merlion and Friends, a setting of five poems by Singapore’s Gwee Li Sui, was probably the most compelling and worthwhile new work from any Singaporean composer in recent years.  He mirrored Gwee’s clever imagery, capturing the essential character of Singapore, with intelligent, original and distinctive music.  This was obviously music of our time, but for all its intellectual challenge it possessed that elusive quality of accessibility.

Naturally enough, Shin tackled the extremely virtuoso piano part with wonderful fluency, while Chan’s delivery of the complex vocal lines was nothing less than brilliant. 

19 July 2016

Critical Contrasts

A comment sent in response to a recent post compares my review of a concert with that of another critic.  It suggests that anyone reading both “would be left clueless as to who to believe. The two reviews are as different as night and day! Indeed, I was wondering if both men even attended the same concert!”

Every single music critic will be familiar with those phrases; they are stock-in-trade of the critics’ critics, people who shy away from voicing original opinions but are eager to take pot-shots at those who do.  (And it is a habit which has become ever more prevalent with the easy retreat into anonymity for those populating the internet and social media platforms.) They reveal a widely-held misunderstanding of the function of published criticism.

But common as such comments are, they still deserve a response, and they demand that the critic takes time to revisit the original piece in the light of that of his colleague.  I am a great fan of the duet critique; where two critics review the same thing independently and then have their reviews published side-by-side.  We do it a lot in the record review arena, but logistics prevent it happening too often in the live music field; which is a shame, for it is enlightening for the public, performers and critics alike.  I have hugely enjoyed reading my colleague’s piece in preparing this response; and you can judge for yourself  by reading mine (“Shakespeare comes to Singapore”) and following this link; http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/a-night-of-chopin-and-shakespeare

Critics fulfil a dual function; that of a reporter, reporting on a specific event, and that of commentator, expressing an informed personal opinion about the event.  Since both of us make it clear we are reporting the same thing and the details in both published pieces are identical, I cannot for a moment accept any hint that anyone could be “clueless as to who to believe”.  We both stated a fact and the facts tallied.  End of story!

But what of that second function? 

Of course the reviews are “as different as night and day”; they were written by two very different people from different backgrounds and with different perceptions of what they hear and see.  To put it at its most basic; I might see a certain car in the street and say, “Look at the red Ferrari with the leopard-skin seat covers.  What a hideous thing.  Why waste money on something so useless and impracticable.  I’d never have one of those in a million years?” The other reviewer might see the same car and say “Wow!  Look at that red Ferrari with the leopard-skin seat covers. What a fantastic thing.  I wish I had enough money to splash out on one of those!  I’d buy one tomorrow!”  We are both identifying the same car and both of us have valid opinions of it. Neither is right or wrong; they are just different (as different, if you like, as “night and day”). At no point could anybody be under the impression that we are looking at different cars; we are simply looking at the same car through different eyes, those eyes flavoured by different backgrounds, experiences, attitudes and cultural perceptions.

What made the old, much lamented, Top Gear so eminently watchable was the fact the three car critics so often had radically opposing views of the same thing.  I don’t recall anyone suggesting that Clarkson, May and Hammond were looking at different cars when they voiced conflicting opinions, or that only one of them could possibly be telling the truth.  So why do people insist on responding so differently to music critics.  We are all in the same business and, while some of us prefer music to cars and vice versa, ultimately, the job of the critic remains the same; to report what exists and to comment on it.

Until such time as people can grasp the notion that music criticism is not a scientific analysis with a simple black and white result but a complex series of informed opinions which can never have an ultimate truth, we will continue to receive the comments that “we must have been attending different concerts”.  We ask all our readers to respect that we as critics are voicing personal opinions, albeit opinions governed by knowledge, understanding and due consideration, and whether or not individual readers happen to agree or disagree with us is of monumental unimportance.

As a footnote, I can see no point of disagreement whatsoever between the two reviews which prompted my correspondent.  I can see that one of us highlighted elements the other ignored, and that the other drew attention to facets of the performance the other one chose to omit, but read together they indicate rather more agreement than is customary in the music critical fraternity.

18 July 2016

Fruitful Musical Battles?

The auguries are not good.  Off the top of my head I cannot think of a single work written to commemorate a great battle which could be regarded as anything like a masterpiece.  Indeed, the only one which comes close in my book is Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes; the fact that virtually nobody reading this blog will have ever heard a live performance of it probably undermines my claim that it is something approaching a masterpiece.  More than that, not only did Bliss fight in the Battle of the Somme and lost his brother during the Frist World War, but Morning Heroes commemorates far more battles than just those that took place during the First World War.

Beethoven’s Wellington Victory is certainly a novelty but by no stretch of the imagination a masterpiece; ditto Tchaikovsky’s 1812.  Shostakovich’s symphonies commemorating various of the battles that underpinned the creation of the Soviet State are possibly not among his best, unless you consider them more social statements than celebrations of warfare.  And while there are tremendous battle scenes in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, these depict imaginary rather than real battles.

(On an aside; why do Russian composers seem so open to inspiration from wars and battles?  Is it because Russians are a particularly aggressive people?  I sat next to Russian violinist Alexander Souptel at a concert last night, and a gentler, more harmless man you would be hard-pressed to find in today’s society; unless, that is, he and his compatriots have one personality for public display and another lurking underneath of an altogether more violent bent.  If you read the regular diatribes sent in to this blog under the guise of “comment” by my Russian readers, virtually all of which have to be removed due to their willingness to utter spiteful, offensive and libellous comments about named people, you would begin to suspect that Russians do have a bitter and twisted inner persona which only comes out in their writings.)

Of course there are several memorable works depicting battles from the Second World War; not least by Eric Coates, Vaughan Williams and William Walton.  But these were film scores that supported powerful visual images rather than standing on their own two musical feet.

What all these musical battles have in common is that they were contemporaneous with the composers’ lives; they wrote with close association to the battles they depicted.  True, Walton did write memorable music to go with the Battle of Agincourt scenes from Olivier’s classic film version of Henry V, but outside the cinema and theatre I can think of no significant musical work commemorating one of the great battles from history.  Where are the great musical masterpieces depicting the battles of Hastings, Trafalgar, Waterloo, Gallipoli, Boyne, Bulge, or commemorating the Iranian Revolution or the Malayan Campaign (my wife is in the heart of Borneo right now researching her book on that – but I fear her musical accompaniment is more Sheila Majid than Peter Sculthorpe)?

One battle which has largely escaped musical notice is the Battle of Stamford Bridge.  Rather overshadowed by the Battle of Hastings, which it preceded by precisely 19 days, this was a battle for control of the British crown in which several thousand Vikings landed on the north east coast of England, invaded Yorkshire, captured York and were finally repelled by King Harold, who had rushed up from the south coast where he had been awaiting the invasion of Normans under William.  The battle took place on 25th September 1066, but Harold had only three days to savour his victory before the Normans landed near Hastings and he had to hurry south  to meet his doom.

To mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the modern-day Stamford Bridge Singers are putting on a concert there which features the world première of a new work – Battle Cantata - by their conductor, Stuart Nettleship.  The choir is locking horns with Viking - or, at least, Norwegian - singers, and the concert combines music drawn from the two cultures which collided so dramatically on that day back in 1066.  The text is a setting of a poem by Laurence Binyon.  He is best remembered for his poem For the Fallen, with its haunting second verse;
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them
While several composers have set this text, with varying degrees of success, and Elgar went on to set several more of Binyon's poems (most notably in his cantata The Spirit of England), he is a poet whose work has not hitherto brought out the best in those who use it as the basis of a musical work.  This, and the fact that good and lasting concert music depicting historic battles has hitherto been in remarkably short supply, should not deter Nettleship, who has always been a composer with a distinctly original way of responding to his musical challenges.  I am inclined to think that if anybody could produce a lasting musical memorial to a long-forgotten battle, he can, and I am trying to move Heaven and Earth to get away to Yorkshire for the event; although I fear I shall be unlucky.

However, anyone who is around that part of the world – now blissfully peaceful – on Sunday 16th October should get their tickets now from https://battle950.eventbrite.co.uk

16 July 2016

James MacMillan - A profile

As promised in a recent, post here is the profile I wrote for Gramophone magazine in 2014 reprinted here to mark the composer's 57th birthday today - Happy Birthday, Sir James!

Having past the half-century mark, MacMillan can be excused his periodic splenetic outbursts as he fends off what he sees as attacks on his native land, his profound Roman Catholic faith and, of course, music, in his Daily Telegraph blog (one outburst against the perceived anti-Englishness of the Scottish National Party prompting a reader to describe MacMillan as “the self righteous, self appointed spokesman for extreme Catholicism in Scotland”).  But if he looks to be moving into the ranks of Grumpy Old Men, as a composer MacMillan’s utter conviction in his firmly-held beliefs only serves to ignite a creative spark which blazes today with as much energy and self-confidence as it did back in 1990 when he first established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the British music scene with the première of The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie at that year’s Proms. 

MacMillan’s own commentary on The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie reveals his abiding interest in the church’s often stormy progress through Scottish history, as well as his desire to tell epic tales through music (it is also evidence of his long-held hatred of both social injustice and religious bigotry); “Between 1560 and 1707 as many as 4,500 Scots perished because their contemporaries thought they were witches. The persecution of witches was a phenomenon known to Catholic and Protestant Europe at this time but the Reformation in Scotland gave an impetus to the attack on ‘witches’ which became a popular and powerful crusade”.  Musically, this dark episode in Scotland’s religious past has inspired something both extraordinarily vivid and deeply moving, which clearly resonated with a non-Scottish audience in 1990 and continues to do so to this day; as the critic for the Daily Telegraph put it, “MacMillan brilliantly demonstrated in Isobel Gowdie that accessibility need not necessarily involve compromise... all its various musical elements - be they Scottish folk tune, Gregorian chant or pure MacMillan - are by no means merely illustrative but emanate from a powerful, all-embracing and unifying emotional impulse”. 

Those “various musical elements” are certainly diverse, and reveal MacMillan to be a true catholic in the full sense of the word - as meaning inclusive and all-embracing.  So confident is he in his own stylistic voice, that while elements which would seem violently contradictory rub up against each other with almost disarming directness, his music comes across not just as coherent, but immediately accessible.   That stylistic self-confidence has not come with age, but was there from the very start .  The Scotsman, reviewing the première this January of Symphonic Study, a work written back in 1981 but which (in his own words) the composer “kind of forgot about”, suggested the young Macmillan had borrowed “mercilessly from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring”.  (The review added, however, that the work also revealed “the mystical harmonic shrouds that, even today, weave a spectral miasma around MacMillan’s centrally binding melodic threads”.)  MacMillan himself acknowledges influences in his music from a great many 20th century composers, singling out those who “have been shaped by religious quests in our time - Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Harvey, Tavener, Pärt, Górecki”.  But he also recognises influences from much further back; “From antiquity I have been taught much by the great contrapuntalists from Palestrina and Victoria to Bach. They inspire modern composers on the need to explore complexity in whatever music is being created”.

Clearly, a deep-seated Catholic faith is at the very core of MacMillan’s writing; his sacred music includes a congregational setting of the Mass (Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman) composed in 2010 for the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain – although MacMillan has since declared that “I have decided to stop writing congregational music for the Catholic Church... there is too much music being created, at the same time as the vast repository of tradition is ignored and willfully forgotten”.  It remains to be seen how true he will be to his word, but he admits that his secular music “can on many occasions be inspired by some reflection on theology or another aspect of religion. This is inevitable, I suppose, for a believer and a Catholic. For example I have now composed two Passion settings; a St John and a St Luke. There are also many purely instrumental works which hover around similar territory - my piano trio Fourteen Little Pictures (based on the Stations of the Cross) and the triptych of orchestral works Triduum (based on the three days before the Resurrection)”. 

However, the most constant musical influence in his writing is drawn from his Scottish heritage; “Along with a number of Scottish composers like Judith Weir, Edward McGuire and others I developed a keen interest in Scottish traditional music. Some of us have absorbed this experience into our own music in different ways. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes sub-conscious. With me, I think it is there in a certain modality that appears from time to time, and a degree of ornamentation that can be traced back to bagpipe music like pibrochd, and other sources. All this has been drawn in to a wider mix, so it is not always immediately observed in all my pieces, but it is certainly there as a subliminal ingredient. It has cropped up a lot in my most recent choral music.” 

Beyond choral music, MacMillan’s latest works give a vivid demonstration of the extraordinary range of this amazingly versatile composer.  January saw the première (in London) of the Viola Concerto, the latest in a series of concertos conceived along traditional lines which so far have included works for piano, violin and oboe.  Last November an organ piece, St Andrews Suite composed for the 600th celebrations of the founding of the University of St Andrews, was premièred in the University’s ancient St Salvator’s Chapel, scene of some of Scotland’s more extreme religious conflicts.  July saw the première in Stuttgart of an orchestral poem, The Death of Oscar, inspired by a monumental Scottish sculpture by Alexander Stoddardt, while in February 2013 his sixth opera, Clemency, based on the Old Testament tale of Abraham and Sarah, was staged in the US after its successful première at the Royal Opera House. And this year MacMillan is also personally promoting musical Scotland abroad when he directs the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on tour in India.  

When the referendum votes have been counted and the sporting medals all been given out, James MacMillan seems set to keep at least one aspect of Scottish life at the forefront of international consciousness.

MacMillan Facts

Born: Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland, July 16, 1959

Education: University of Edinburgh and University of Durham

Teachers:  Kenneth Leighton, John Casken (“I was drawn to Leighton's choral music and to Casken's beautiful sense of orchestral colouring”.)

Self-Confessed Stylistic Territory: “Somewhere between Shostakovich and Messiaen. The former for his determination to keep the symphony alive in modernity, and the latter for his theological explorations in sound”.

Breakthrough Work: Confessions of Isobel Gowdie (Proms Commission 1990)

Most performed work: Veni Veni Emmanuel (over 400 performances)

Recommended Recordings

“Who are these Angels?”  -  Cappella Nova / Alan Tavener; William Taylor (hp) John Kitchen (org); Edinburgh Quartet -  Linn CKD383 (03/12)

·         MacMillan - the Choral Master: Some of his recent sacred choral music, including his Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman and several of the Strathclyde Motets.

“MacMillan Series Volume 1: Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” -  Colin Currie (percussion)/ Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic/James MacMillan – Challenge Classics CC72540 (Awards/12)

·         MacMillan - the Thriller: The composer himself describes this recording of his most popular work as “a great thrill”, while it also features a Scottish musician with whom he has developed a particularly close creative partnership.

The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie & Symphony No.3  -  BBC Philharmonic/James MacMillan – Chandos CHAN10275  

·         MacMillan – the Vivid Orchestrator: A dramatic and colourful recording of the music which brought MacMillan to international attention, alongside his most recent symphony (intriguingly subtitled “Silence”).

Shakespeare Comes to Singapore

Back in April, the world celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.  England, naturally, was awash with events, and on the day itself – April 23rd – BBC Radio 3 devoted an entire day to music programmes from Stratford Upon Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, all with a Shakespeare theme.  Jazz, orchestral concerts, songs and choruses, chamber works, piano recitals, cinematic and theatrical scores; all presented with a Shakespearean connection, obvious or oblique.  Since then, Shakespeare musical events seemed to have died down a bit, so the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s new 2016/7 concert season opening with a “Shakespeare 400” series seems to have come somewhat late in the day. 

A sense of last minute planning has been heightened by programmes with only a peripheral Shakespearean connection, and largely built around a standard-repertory concerto.  I took pains in my concert notes for the first programmes in the series to draw Shakespearean links with all the works or composers performed, but the powers-that-be in the SSO chose to expunge these from the printed programme books; so, as far as the audience was concerned, Shakespeare was confined to a single work in last night’s concert. 

It opened with the wholly un-Shakespearean Vltava from Smetana’s set of tone poems celebrating his native Bohemia.  Possibly this was included to acknowledge the SSO’s visit to Prague this Spring, but if Lan Shui and the SSO had picked up any useful interpretative insights from their very brief sojourn on Czech soil, it was not immediately obvious here – unless it was in the rather murky waters implied by some muddy wind playing at the start, a long way from the clear sparkling streams of Smetana’s imagination.  Generally the wind seemed not yet to have blown away the cobwebs collected during their summer break and it was not until the violins sailed in with a wonderfully expansive account of the main theme, that the performance began to have some kind of objective.  Shui’s approach to this hugely popular score, however, was piecemeal, bumping uneasily from whirlpool to eddy rather than flowing freely over them.  He clearly enjoyed the more turbulent moments, but as a whole this was a performance which lacked both coherence and aural polish.

A big contrast came with the main work of the programme, Chopin’s First Piano Concerto.  It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that this is not a work I hold particularly dear.  I confess to finding its bursts of virtuoso bravura, its tinkling genteelness and its on-the-sleeve sentimentality tiresome.  The fact that it seems to get played to distraction in Asia does nothing to endear itself to me.  However, while my heart dropped as the SSO launched into that sturdy but unprepossessing orchestral introduction, it lifted the moment Yulianna Avdeeva touched the piano keys. 

There was something infinitely attractive about her approach.  Soothing, gentle and undemonstrative, understating the bravura, injecting iron into the genteelness and giving a steely edge to hints of sentimentality, she left much of the headline emotion outside the hall and simply caressed the piano with grace, unpretentious fluency and consummate command.  For once, the Concerto made a bit of musical sense to me, and while I still believe that its length surpasses its musical arguments, I did not find myself wishing – as I usually do - that Chopin could have laid off the continual rehashing of ideas.  In subtle ways Avdeeva was developing and enriching these ideas at each appearance in a way which made satisfying musical sense.  She did not always get the fullest support from Shui, whose fondness for emotional display often jarred against her studied lack of pathos, and there was a moment in the last movement when an innocuous counter-melody from the cellos wore very thin indeed played, as it was, without a hint of variation over and over again.  This was not a performance which focused on sweet sounds and heroic display but began to find something rather more significant within the music.  I would need to hear Ms Avdeeva play it again a few times to be sure, but I think I may be on the path to conversion!

In the first 10 years of its existence, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra performed Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet more often than any other work (Debussy’s La Mer came a long-distant second).  They even played it in its entirety twice, possibly because in their ranks they had a violinist who was a dab hand at the mandolin.  It was always a huge hit with the audience, and I thought audiences the world over loved and adored it.  However, attending last night’s pre-concert talk, I learnt that Singapore audiences barely know the piece and generally regard Prokofiev’s music as “difficult”.  (That said, the talk – which studiously avoided more than passing mention of the works performed in the concert itself – included the strange claims that, like Shostakovich, Prokofiev never left the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution, that he was a 19th century composer, and that “it may come as a surprise, but I believe Prokofiev wrote more lush melodies than Stravinsky”.)

While many Singaporeans in the concert itself may have been struggling with Prokofiev's “difficult” music for Romeo and Juliet, the only difficulty others of us encountered in yesterday’s seven pickings from the first two orchestral suites was that Shui chose to end with “Tybalt’s Death”, albeit in a scintillating, brilliantly executed performance taken at an absolutely cracking pace and effectively blowing away any remaining cobwebs from the orchestra.  What was difficult about this from the listeners’ point of view?  We are used to hearing extracts from the work performed in concert and ending on a more reflective note, and to end with such a violent death scene sent us all out in a somewhat ambiguous frame of mind.  I missed the raw aggressiveness of the opening dissonant crashes of “Montagues and Capulets”, but the striding theme, underpinned by a powerfully driving percussion section, was truly glorious.  And while the more introspective moments of “Madrigal” and “Romeo and Juliet Before Parting” were rather elusive in Shui’s reading, he gave a wonderfully exotic edge to the “Dance of the Antilles Maidens” as well as a real sense of tragedy in “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb”.

15 July 2016

Grade 8 at 80

Following my post about the man who had passed Grade 2 violin at the age of 74, a number of examiner colleagues got in touch with their own stories of examining members of the older generation.  It's not for me to re-tell these - although I liked the story of the man who, entered for a grade 3, confessed to the examiner that he had no idea how to play the piano and had only entered the exam so that he could have someone different to talk to; since his retirement he had only his family for company and the 15 minutes of an exam seemed to provide him with an opportunity to get out and meet someone new.  However, all this reminiscing did remind me of one of my more memorable encounters as an examiner with an older candidate.  And, as it all took place well over 30 years ago, I am content that the main protagonist has long since died.

Having been one of the youngest examiners taken on by the Associated Board - I was barely into my mid-20s when they appointed me - I confess I had lots of experience as a performer, listener and teacher but minimal experience of dealing with people.  So it was especially daunting for me as a new examiner to be faced with those of more advanced years.  Only a few years into my examining life, I was sent to one of the Scottish islands where the steward was a perky old fellow who came into the exam room before each candidate giving me the low-down on their background and
what had been going on in the waiting room.  "This wee lassie", he would tell me in his melodious Western Isles accent - "is very proud of her new shoes", and then usher the young girl in; and, suitably primed, I'd be able to break the ice by saying "My, Megan, what beautiful shoes you're wearing.  Let's hear if you can play C major hands together as beautifully!"

Thus it was that. with the last candidate of a morning session, listed as doing grade 8, I was expecting a similarly detailed intro from the steward.  Instead he came in armed with a large metal wastepaper basket, placed it beside the piano and, with a wry smile, left the room with the pithy statement; "Ye'll be needing that!".

The door opened and he ushered in the grade 8 candidate; a startling apparition dressed from head to toe in black, wearing a pill-box hat with a black veil draped over her face.  She sat at the stool, put her music on the stand and placed a new box of tissues on the top of the piano.  She sniffed loudly, lifted the veil, reached for a tissue and dabbed her eyes.  The tissue went into the wastepaper basket to be followed by another and another.  "Good morning", I ventured (at that stage I had not mastered how best to address elderly candidates; you could hardly call them by their forenames and I was reluctant to make the assumption of her being a Mrs or a Miss).  "Och, I cannae do it", she uttered, and dabbed her eyes again with a fresh tissue - the wastepaper basket was rapidly filling up.  "Would you prefer to start with the scales or the pieces?"; standard examiner spiel which rarely elicits a decisive response and did not then; "I cannae do it!" she wailed.

Assuming deafness, I repeated the question and, having had the same response, took matters into my own hands, saying as breezily as I could, "Well, let's have E flat major, hands together, ascending and descending, legato."  She extracted a book from the pile on the stand and proceeded to root through it.  I was just about to remind her that scales had to be done from memory when I realised the book was the Bach 48 and she was preparing to play the first piece.  "OK.  Pieces first then.  What are you going to play first?"  "I cannae do it" was the reply.  More tissues from the box, across the eyes and into the basket.  "I don't know that piece!", I quipped in a feeble attempt at humour.  "But I see you have the Bach 48 there.  Which one are you going to play?"  "I cannae do it".

This went on until ,with 10 minutes of a 30 minute exam passed and still nothing played, and even worse, nothing written on the vast A3 report form the AB used at grade 8 for a couple of years in the mid-1980s, my patience snapped.  "You have come in here, played nothing, and spent all the time telling me what you can't do.  Don't waste my time or yours. Please just play something.  Anything!  Don't tell me you can't do it!   I know you can do it!"

She was suitably shocked into submission, gathered herself together and played, quite acceptably, a Bach Prelude and Fugue, part of a Beethoven Sonata (the AB in those days used to ask for a complete Sonata and instruct the examiner just to hear fragments) and some Chopin.  Her scales never did get played, but her aural was fair and her sight-reading almost fluent.  She passed with 103 in what was the longest grade 8 I ever administered (72 minutes in total).

For weeks afterwards I waited for the complaint to come in.  I had lost my temper and been curt with a candidate who was clearly in  a very distressed state.  I regretted it bitterly and cursed myself for my short temper.  However, when Ronald Smith, then the Secretary to the Board (later to be re-branded its Chief Executive) contacted me enclosing a letter from the "candidate" which he wanted me to read, far from being a complaint, it was a letter of thanks.

"Dear Sir. I recently took my grade 8 piano exam and although I have no great expectations of having passed, I am writing to thank the examiner for giving me the opportunity to play my best and to apologize to him for my uncooperative behaviour.  I am 80 years old and my husband had passed away the very morning of the exam.  Even from his death bed he urged me to go ahead and do the exam; 'I know you can do it!' were his dying words to me.  When the examiner said those very same words to me, I heard my husband's voice and it pulled me out of my misery.  No matter how I fared in the exam, I feel I have fulfilled my dear departed husband's last wishes, and for that I must thank your examiner".

13 July 2016

Celebrating British Music

Friday sees the opening of the BBC Proms, 122 years old this year and still going strong.  It is a significant feature in the British classical musical calendar and one of the best-known aspects of British music as revealed to the outside world.  But beyond the Proms, this is a significant week generally for British music, for it sees the birthdays of no less than seven important composers, two world-class conductors, a distinguished pianist, one of the most important figures in the world of the classical guitar, and one of the pioneers in the field of popularising music through the written word; all of them British.
Donald Tovey (left) with Joachim

Working backwards through that list, Donald Tovey was born on 17th July 1875 at Eton, where his father was a master.  Early evidence of musical ability is shown by the fact that he was composing by the age of eight, was taken on as a pupil by both Parry and Walter Parratt and was the pianist for Joachim and his quartet between 1894 and 1904.  His compositions were performed in London, Berlin and Vienna and he gave performances of his own Piano Concerto under both Richter and Henry Wood.  But at the same time Tovey was trying to educate audiences through his concert programme notes, which introduced a simplified approach to analysis and voiced very definite opinions on the music which many found unpalatable: his writings met with considerable hostility at first.  In 1914 he was appointed Professor of Music at Edinburgh and, refusing to regard himself as an academic or scholar, set about popularizing music and explaining it to his students and others through the written word.  We can describe Tovey as the pioneer of the modern concert programme note in which context and analysis are offered but wrapped up in a style which is readable, entertaining, opinionated but profoundly informative.  His essays on analysis remain in print and many modern-day students still look to him as an important reference source when preparing their own notes, especially on the Piano Sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven.

I recall a fascinating television documentary about Julian Bream largely because it featured his old MG (I think it was) sports car and highlighted his calm, casual approach to life and his unmodified south London accent.  Born in Battersea on 15th July 1933, Bream was enrolled in the Royal College of Music, where he was obliged to study cello and piano because the guitar, as he recalled in the documentary, was frowned upon by the RCM establishment; he had to practice it in secret.  Throughout the 1950s he toured extensively, introducing the classical guitar to audiences who, like the British musical establishment, had never regarded it as a serious instrument.  He did much to foster interest in English Renaissance music, forming a partnership with Peter Pears, and his affable character and brilliant musicianship endeared him to a generation of composers – notably Britten, Berkeley, Arnold, Walton, Tippett and Rawsthorne – all of whom produced works for him and thereby hugely enriched the instrument’s repertory.  Now living in retirement in Wiltshire, Bream was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement award from Gramophone in 2013, on which occasion he said in an interview; “I devoted my life to music for a reason, and the reason wasn’t because I wanted to get on or make money, but to try to fulfil myself and also to give people pleasure. That’s been my credo”.
Celebrating his 71st birthday yesterday, Roger Vignoles was born in Cheltenham on 12th July 1945.  He has carved out a name for himself as a leading accompanist; a fact underlined by his vast discography which includes songs by Armstrong Gibbs, Barber, Beethoven, Brahms, Brian, Britten, Copland, Debussy, Duparc, Grieg, Mahler, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Rossini, Schubert, Schumann, Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Tomášek, Vierne, Warlock, Weill…  The list goes on, but students in Singapore will probably best know Vignoles following his period in residence at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory earlier this year when he spent time working through Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch with pianists and singers and endeared himself to everybody through his immense knowledge of the music, understanding of the art of performing and thoroughly charming and accessible personality.   

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the founding of what is now known as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  Among its roster of world-class principal conductors have been John Barbirolli, George Szell, Walter Susskind, Alexander Gibson and Bryden Thomson who was born in Ayr on 16th July 1928. Along with Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox, Thomson was one of the major figures in promoting British music both in the concert hall and on record, it being his good fortune to be at the peak of his powers just at the time that the CD came into being and the revival of interest in classical music that it brought, his recordings of Stanford and Bax symphonies effectively introducing these major works to audiences and revealing that the British symphony was far greater and more significant than most people had previously believed.  I would still list his Stanford symphonies and Bax’s Tintagel among my all-time favourite CDs.  He died of cancer in Ireland at the age of 53. 

If Thomson’s reputation was made in the world of recorded orchestral music, Reginald Goodall’s was made in the opera house.  Born on 13th July 1901, he was a cathedral chorister in his native Lincoln, emigrated to north America in his teens, became organist at Toronto Cathedral, and returned to the UK to study at the Royal College of Music with Malcolm Sargent and Constant Lambert.  He stayed in cathedral music, becoming Organist and Master of the Choristers at St Albans, but was determined to make a name for himself in the wider musical world as a conductor.  He joined the Sadler’s Wells opera and on 17th June 1945 achieved his breakthrough when he conducted the world première of Britten’s Peter Grimes.  Following a visit to Bayreuth in 1951 he developed a keen affinity with the operas of Wagner, conducing Die Walküre in 1954, and it was as a Wagner conductor that he finally made his international reputation; his Covent Garden Ring cycle was recorded and remains one of the most important versions available on disc.  As a young critic with the Western Mail I remember interviewing Goodall when he conducted Wagner with the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff.  I’m not sure either of us came out very well from the encounter, but my reviews of his Wagner performances in Cardiff were unrestrained in their enthusiasm for his perceptive and beautifully-crafted approach.

And those seven composers?

Yesterday marked the 131st birthday of George Butterworth who, born in London on 12th July 1885 and brought up in Yorkshire where his father was the General Manager of the North Eastern Railway (a company taken over by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group earlier this year), looked set to become a significant figure in the world of early 20th century British music.  Tragically, he was killed in the Somme serving during the First World War, but in his songs – notably settings of Housman – and in his Housman-inspired orchestral rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad, he has secured a lasting legacy which seems to grow as the centenary of his death approaches; he was killed on 5th August 1916.

Gerald Finzi (left) with Vaughan Williams

Another significant English composer of the first part of the 20th century, famous particularly for his songs especially those which set Shakespeare and Hardy texts, was Gerald Finzi, who was born in London on the 14th July 1901.  He died in 1956 when I was two, but I have twice come into indirect contact with him during my professional life.  Back in 2002, shortly after joining Trinity College London as an examiner, I was sent to a small private school in Berkshire where, among the staff was a charming lady called Finzi.  I well remember how she introduced herself to me: “You won’t have heard of him, but my father was a minor composer who had a few things published but is now mostly forgotten”.  I was able to say, not only that I regarded him as a significant composer, but in the very same week I had performed with my choir at evensong Finzi’s fabulous anthem, Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice and had accompanied a singer friend in a performance at a local music society of Finzi’s Let us Garlands Bring. A decade later I found myself working in the Music Centre at St Andrews University where I spent much time sorting through a large collection of printed scores which Finzi had given to the University.  What connection he ever had with St Andrews I never knew, but it was wonderful to leaf through all those books which had once been in his own private possession. Finzi’s reputation is, like Butterworth’s, still on the rise as we approach the 60th anniversary (on 27th September) of his death.

Two composers well-known for works which became popular radio and television theme tunes share 15th July as their birthday.  One of the theme tunes which has stuck in my mind ever since childhood was Elizabethan Serenade – although I cannot for the life of me remember which programme it heralded.  Its composer, Ronald Binge, was born in Derby on 15th July 1910 and he was one of the major figures in the British light music movement which has come so much back into fashion following the series of fantastic CD releases from Guild, Hyperion and Naxos.  My own personal collection contains no less than 10 pieces by Binge, of which The Watermill remains a particular favourite, while Sailing By has become such an iconic radio signature (for the late-night Shipping Forecast) that when the BBC announced plans to scrap it, there was a huge public outcry and it was retained (tune in to BBC Radio 4 around midnight UK time to hear it).  In the concert hall, I heard a performance of his Saxophone Concerto a couple of years back in Australia.  Binge had been a cinema organist and an arranger, and is credited with having devised the cascading strings effect which was the hallmark of Mantovani’s orchestra in the 1950s.  

The serialization of John Le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Alec Guinness developed something of a cult following when it was first broadcast in 1979, and the theme song – a setting of the Nunc Dimittis by Geoffrey Burgon (born in Hampshire on 15th July 1941) - quickly found its way into the charts.  He did write a Magnfiicat to go with it so that together they could be used as Evening Canticles in the Anglican church, and I put it in the music lists many times during my days in cathedral music, but, frankly, it had none of the magic of the haunting Nunc Dimittis with solo treble and trumpet (Geoff’s own instrument - he used to play it with the London Mozart Players).  Far more successful was his other film and TV work – including Dr Who, The Life of Brian, Brideshead Revisited, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Forsyte Saga - even if he often regretted that his “serious” work for the concert hall never made the same impact.  I have the honour of having played jazz with Geoff once or twice during my schooldays when I took part in informal sessions at his pub, The Chequers in Well, the tiniest and loveliest village I know, nestled deep in the countryside of north east Hampshire.  Geoff died in 2010.
The Chequers at Well: Jazz, Real Ale and Country Air - what more could you want?

Harrison "Tom Cat" Birtwistle
John "Golem" Casken
July 15th also saw the births of two very different British composers.  Harrison Birtwistle was born that day in 1934 in Accrington, near Manchester, and stands today as a leading figure in the avant-garde, prompting the current edition of Private Eye to run a cartoon – inspired by the plagiarism charge brought against Led Zeppelin and their song Stairway to Heaven – in which Mrs Birtwistle is opening the mail and tells her husband, “Someone’s tom-cat is suing you for plagiarism, Harrison”.  Having just listened to a recording of Birtwistle’s The Moth Requiem (BBC Singers/Nash Ensemble, Nicholas Kok – Signum Classics SIGCD368) there are times when I think the estate of the late Lord Britten might have a case, but mostly this is highly original music which is a world away from the sweet charms of Binge.  As is the music of John Casken who was born just over the Pennines in Barnsley on 15th July 1949.  Casken burst into my consciousness when a recording of his opera Golem was on the short-list for a Gramophone award.  I was struck then how he used microtonality to great dramatic effect, but apart from his Cello Concerto and  a short choral piece called A Gathering, I regret I have neither encountered nor sought out anything else by him.  That must change; the celebration of birthdays is often a good time to set records straight.  I am on a John Casken music hunt for the rest of the week!

But I certainly do not need to go on a James MacMillan music hunt; if I had to name my “favourite” living British composer, it would have to be him.  I wrote a profile on MacMillan for Gramophone a few months back and will honour his birthday (16th July 1959) by reprinting it on this blog.  What do I admire about him?  His willingness to absorb influences without conceit, his strong personal commitment both to a religious faith and to his native Scotland, and his unashamed evolution of a distinctive and wholly original musical voice which defies stylistic pigeonholing.  What do I love most about his music?  That it exists!  Long may he write more, long may British music continue to flourish, and Long live the Proms (the perfect antidote to the Political shenanigans and upheavals of the past few weeks).

11 July 2016

Great Organs Without Europe

Much of the music on this disc – and several of the composers – will be unfamiliar even to the most avid organ enthusiast.  Yet the fact that the music here is far outside the mainstream of present-day recital repertory should not in any way imply that it is not worth hearing.  Indeed, much of it offers immensely satisfying rewards to the listener, and these are greatly enhanced by the outstanding playing of David Leigh. 

The programme is clearly intended to take us through the multifarious delights of this relatively little-appreciated organ.  A six-page essay on the instrument (including almost three pages of specification, listing some 75 speaking stops) charts its colourful history from a 1697 Renatus Harris through a host of British and Irish builders, the most recent work having been done by Harrison & Harrison in 1995, but the bulk of it originating from the instrument newly constructed by Willis in 1902.  We do not get to hear every stop - the booklet tells us that the Great Open Diapason No. 1 is “one of the few ranks not heard on this recording” – but what we do hear sounds absolutely magnificent in this exemplary recording by Priory’s tireless Neil Collier.

Sir Robert Prescott Stewart’s Concert Fantasia certainly earns its keep on the disc by sending us through the ranks of the instrument in a kaleidoscopic array of colour and effect.  Perhaps the piece would not stand up so well on a lesser instrument, but beyond its exploration of the resources of a large organ, it is the only piece on the disc to have a direct Dublin connection: as his obituary in the Musical Times noted, “Robert Stewart’s heart was ever in his native country, and the organ lofts of Trinity College Chapel and of the Cathedrals of Christ Church and St Patrick’s were his triple thrones”. 

There is also a connection – albeit an extremely tenuous one - through the Celtic background of Guy Ropartz.  His Prélude Funèbre might seem too reminiscent of his teacher César Franck to make much of an impact, but the rhythmic intrigues of his Sortie, a festive piece which has far more to say for itself than most similarly-named French pieces of the late-19th century, point to his Breton roots.  Jean Giroud, on the other hand, spent most of his working life in Grenoble and appears to have had no Irish, Gaelic or Celtic connections.  If his slow and dreamy Toccata pour L’élevation reminds anyone except the booklet-note writer of the harmonic idiom of Messiaen, I would be hugely surprised.  It does, however, offer a rich harvest of the organ’s more warm and gentle flues.

Every commentary and article on Harvey Grace refers to his outstanding gifts as a writer, as a choir trainer, as an organist, an examiner and an adjudicator.  Finding any mention of him as a composer is like looking for a needle in a haystack, yet he did produce a handful of pieces, many based on hymn tunes, and here is a stirring and eloquent fantasy on the tune Resurgam dating from 1922.  Clearly no technical easy ride, David Leigh handles its journey from darkness to light with great aplomb, not least a glorious manual glissando in the final bars.  But it is in the major work on the disc, the first of Edwin Lemare’s two solo organ symphonies, that Leigh shows his true mettle.  This is a monumental work – some 37 minutes in length and conceived in full symphonic terms – requiring an equally monumental technique.  All is clearly well within the gift of David Leigh who produces a broad sweeping account in which virtuosity, musical insight, deft handling of the organ’s resources and a hint of showmanship combine to create a performance which alone is well worth the price of this very generously-filled disc.

Preparing this review a matter of days before the UK votes in a referendum to decide whether to remain a member of the European Union or to stage what is popularly labelled as “Brexit”, I have no idea what the outcome will be.  Psephologists claim the indications are that it will be a very close run thing indeed, and with their track record of wildly inaccurate predictions, it would be foolhardy in the extreme even to guess at a result at this stage. 

Priory Records, however, have no qualms and are going for an unequivocal “Prexit”, announcing their departure from Europe with a fanfare celebrating the biggest and best in Britishness; whatever the rest of the UK might say, Priory are certain that the country’s organ lovers can survive perfectly well on their own.  And with this, the 100th release in the series, they are pulling the plug on their long-running “Great European Organs” series.  They are certainly doing it in some style, with a fabulous organ, glorious music, a wonderfully gifted player and a sumptuous recording.

The first volume - Stephen Cleobury at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge playing a programme of  mostly German music – was, I notice with some interest, recorded 30 years to the day before the referendum (make of that what you will), and was quickly followed – Europhiles please note – by a recording from Brussels which cast its musical net rather wider with a programme which ranged from Vivaldi to Stravinsky by way of Schumann and Dupré.  In the intervening years a huge variety of organs has been featured, often prompting a feeling that the series would have been better titled “Interesting European Organs” rather than “Great” ones, and a plethora of organists has thrown up an eclectic mix of repertory ranging from the obvious to the obscure.  But one thing has remained constant; the exceptionally sympathetic and understanding recording and engineering and a focus on the instrument above player or repertory.  Booklets, often with a somewhat homespun quality about them, have provided plenty of information on the organs and have helped make Priory’s “Great European Organs” a must-have collector’s item for organ-buffs.

Concluding the series, we have the biggest cathedral organ in the UK performing some of the most stirring of all English music, and while I would never suggest David Poulter’s take on the Elgar Sonata is the best available (my vote would go to John Butt on Harmonia Mundi for that), his is a performance which displays the glories of the mighty Liverpool Willis to an amazing effect.  Perhaps the desire to display the organ somewhat obscures the musical argument – Poulter’s continual changing of stops and bouncing between manuals gives it a wonderfully orchestral quality, but induces in me a certain feeling of dizziness – but he does so with glorious facility, letting the music flow with consummate poise and self-assurance.

Three famous Walton transcriptions end the programme, and here Poulter can be excused his love of colour and registration effect, not least in Crown Imperial where regal splendour, crowned by sparkling reeds, sends shivers up and down the spine of any true-blooded Englishman.  Those delightfully jazzy rhythms which give such an upbeat feel to the march Walton wrote to usher in the new Elizabethan age are vivaciously pointed in Poulter’s scintillating account of Orb and Sceptre proving that a mighty organ is just as nimble on its feet as the crispiest stand-alone tracker-action neo-Baroque one.

Sandwiched between these two bursts of patriotic fervour and regal splendour comes a selection of English organ works ranging from the vaguely silly – Whitlock’s pastiche on a Pomp and Circumstance march allows us a blast or two from the Liverpudlian Tuba -  to the discretely touching – Bridge’s Adagio in E positively shimmers through the silvery Willis strings.  Poulter also pays homage to one of his great predecessors, Noel Rawsthorne (Organist at Liverpool from 1955 to 1980) who, in his post-Liverpool life, has taken to producing some fine organ pieces including this sumptuous take on the Londonderry Air  (showcasing a gorgeous clarinet stop), as well as to that icon of 20th century British organ music, Herbert Howells, in a most affecting and surprisingly intimate account of Master Tallis’ Testament.  Those who love a good crescendo should listen to this; Poulter builds from a magical pianissimo to an awesome fortissimo with spell-binding intensity.