28 September 2016

Pink Harmoniums and Colourless Hammonds

That was my house - on the extreme right, with
Snowdon in the background
 For some years I lived in a house on top of a small hill near the village of Llangaffo on the Isle of Anglesey.  It had spectacular views of the sea on three sides and a breath-taking view looking down over the Menai Straits with its iconic bridges and directly on to Mount Snowdon beyond.  I bought the house just for the view because, quite frankly, it was not just in a ridiculously isolated place, but was in an horrific state of repair.  Years were spent simply making it habitable and getting rid of the invasive damp and expelling the hordes of rodents and gastropods which had taken up residence many generations before I moved in to what had been, for some years, an empty property.  In my first year I had a massive bonfire on which I threw tons of mildewing, rotting furniture which had been left behind by some previous owner – to this day I can recall the hissing and spitting of the flames as they dried out the sodden wood and ignited the hordes of woodworm which had perforated just about everything made of wood. 

Including a pink harmonium.

Where the harmonium had come from, I don’t know.  How it had been painted pink was an even greater mystery.  But I called in a pest control man who got rid of the mice who had nested in the bellows and chewed the leather to extinction and chemically removed all surviving woodworm, and then I called in a musical instrument maker to get it back into playing order.  I often wished I’d had enough money to call in a furniture restorer to get rid of the pink paint, but I decided to do it myself – and the instrument spent the rest of its days streaked with bare wood, black varnish and various shades of pink depending on how assiduous I had been with the paint stripper and the sander.  But it sounded good.

It was operated by two foot pedals which you pumped to get air into the bellows, while your knees could press outwards on two wooden bars, the one on the left controlling the volume, the one on the right cumulatively adding the stops, of which there were about fifteen.  The more energetically you pedalled, the more consistent was the tone, but equally the more insistent was the noise of the pedals.  Its stops, with names like “Flute Harmonique”, “Diapason” and “Clarionet” all made roughly the same sound – a kind of wheezy reedy warble which by no stretch of the imagination could pass as the sound of the organ it most pitifully tried to emulate.  It was even called a “Reed Organ”.

Memories of my pink streaky harmonium have been stirred this week as I prepare to perform tonight, at Singapore’s Victoria Concert Hall, the harmonium part of Schoenberg’s arrangement of Johann Strauss’s Roses from the South. 

Yes – you read that right – Schoenberg, arranging Johann Strauss II for harmonium (and piano, and string quartet).

He did it in May 1921 for one of his “Society for Private Musical Performances” in Vienna.  These concerts were intended to promote the then revolutionary works of what we have taken to referring as the Second Viennese School, and Schoenberg felt that by including some popular Strauss but in arrangements for unusual instrumental ensembles, he would be forging a link between Viennese tradition and the Second Viennese School.  We know that the room in which the concerts were held was small and intimate, but it contained a harmonium which Schoenberg decided would effectively fill in the wind parts of Strauss’s original.  The effect is weird, and I remain unconvinced that Schoenberg was really serious: I can’t help but think he was being somewhat facetious in creating a sound of such odd domesticity with its overtones of fringe protestant prayer meetings.

Why the fringe protestant prayer meetings?

Well, for those who don’t know, the harmonium was originally conceived by a French instrument maker in 1842.  It was seen as a portable organ which Christian missionaries could take with them to outposts of Empire in order to provide appropriate musical support for their worship services.  Thus harmoniums found themselves spread far and wide, cropping up in Mission churches and carted through jungles along with Bibles and Prayer Books.  Most famously the missionaries took it to India during the 19th century, where the Indians took it to heart and made it an integral part of their own musical culture, reducing the size and scope and thereby expunging any lingering residue of Christianity from it.  In Asia, most people regard the harmonium as an Indian instrument, and when people got to hear that I was playing a harmonium in tonight’s concert, they wondered how I would look sitting cross-legged on the floor in Indian fashion.
The Indian Version

The harmonium, in its European guise, is generally a free-standing single keyboard instrument which makes sufficient sound to support a small congregation and has a limited dynamic and tonal range, restricted largely by the fact that the sound is entirely produced by small reed tongues which vibrate freely within the instrument and are usually placed just below the keyboard.  It was ideal for the myriad of non-conformist chapels which spread around Wales during the 19th century, and I imagine my pink model had been removed from one of these.  But while it was popular in Wales, and parts of England where worship was carried on in small chapels, that was nothing to its popularity in America.  No less than 247 different US-based companies were manufacturing the harmonium in the last decades of the 19th century.  No wonder it is often referred to as the “American Organ”.

In France it was taken rather more seriously as a musical instrument in its own right, and it was so accepted as a practice and teaching instrument for organists to have in their homes, that it started to gather its own repertory; recognisable from the title page which will often describe a work as being for “orgue espressif” – the name the French gave to the seriously musical harmonium.  With some major French composers treating the instrument seriously, others found a use for it in their scores; notably Tchaikovsky (Manfred Symphony),  Rossini (Petite Messe Solennelle) and Korngold (Much Ado About Nothing), while it seems that Saint-Saëns’ so-called “Organ” Symphony was given its first performance in London’s St James’s Hall on a harmonium, because the main organ had been dismantled.  In the light of that, Schoenberg’s use of the harmonium should not seem quite so outlandish as it does to our minds today.

The Hammond Organ killed the Harmonium
The harmonium’s demise was as rapid as its rise.  The end of European colonial ambitions saw a change in the approach of Christian Missionaries (today missionaries carry food, medicines and education rather than harmoniums, which might or might not be a good thing), the widespread closure of non-Conformist chapels in Wales and the falling away of church-going generally in the west saw worship services concentrated in larger buildings, while the final nail in the coffin of the harmonium was the invention of electronics.  The colourless Hammond organ and the bland Lowry killed off the harmonium barely 100 years after it had first been patented. 

So the ultimate irony is that, without a single working harmonium in Singapore (excluding, of course, the Indian derivative, which has shrunk to the point whereby it cannot realistically work in a western musical setting) tonight’s performance will be on an electronic organ.  Hours of careful experimentation have resulted in my finding a harmonium-like sound from it, but how I wish I had my old Pink Friend with me; that would have been just the right colour for Schoenberg’s eccentric take on Strauss.

24 September 2016

President's Young Performers

Bernice Lee - Oboe
Jade Tan - Mezzo-Soprano

Each year the Singapore Symphony Orchestra puts on a public concert in which outstanding local musical talent is showcased.  This annual President’s Young Performers Concert gives an opportunity for Singaporeans emerging from the ranks of the world’s music schools and conservatories to present themselves in a professional concerto setting before a paying, if generally sympathetic, public. As a barometer of Singapore’s musical health it is a splendid concept.

President Tony Tan -
neither a Potentate nor a
Disruptive Presence
As usual, the Republic’s President, Mr Tony Tan, was in attendance.  It should be pointed out to those who believe that most temporal Asian leaders regard themselves as near-potentates, that the Singapore President’s presence in the concert hall was by no means disruptive.  He sits there in an ordinary seat next to his wife, reading the programme notes, listening to the concert and applauding, just like anyone else.  The only difference is that he has to look as if he’s enjoying it and cannot take out his mobile phone to while away the boring bits – although, to be fair, President Tony Tan gives every impression of genuinely enjoying the music.  One of the wonderful things about Singapore is how so many political leaders support the arts out of personal interest as much as state duty. In fact the only disruption the President’s presence caused was the young girl shimmying up to the microphone on stage and announcing his arrival as if to say “Look at him!  He can make his way to his own seat almost unaided!”.

If the President was not centre stage at this event, two young Singaporean students were.  Bernice Lee is studying oboe at the Guildhall School in London, while Jade Tan Shi Yu is a mezzo-soprano studying voice at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore.  Both showed complete self-assurance in their stage manner, revealed solid technical abilities and were every bit as sure-footed and confident as the best of professional soloists. 

But the key word here is “Young”. 

At the current stage of their musical development, neither is really in the top league.  They certainly did not disappoint musically, but neither did they present the kind of dazzlingly brilliant performances which might have warranted the unrestrained cries of adulation with which at least one section of the audience greeted them.  It’s good to have friends and supporters – that’s the home crowd advantage – but their response should not be taken as a true indicator of performance quality.

Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto is a delightful thing, its wonderfully sinuous melody, weaving in and out of chromatic chicanes like a Malaysian moped in Kuala Lumpur traffic, fluidly manipulated by Lee in an admirably nonchalant manner.  She even revealed a deeper understanding of Strauss than merely playing the notes right, in her cadenza-passages where she brought in some individual ideas about operatic drama and witty poise.  This is well on its way to being a very impressive interpretation of a very complicated work. 

But Lee’s youth revealed itself in the unequal battle she was fighting with the SSO who were making no concessions to youth or inexperience.  Neither were they making any concessions to the delicacy of Strauss’s writing, and barged their way through his often subtle textures like a herd of bulls let loose in an emporium offering for sale porcelain artefacts.  In Strauss’s moments of gentle dialogue between solo oboe and clarinet, the clarinet won hands down, and only the first violins – always beautifully blended and ingratiatingly smooth – seemed to have tuned into Lee’s interpretative views.  A more mature and seasoned oboe soloist would surely have nipped this kind of orchestral hostility in the bud by turning round in rehearsal and telling them all to Bugger Off until they were willing to toe the line.  At 22 student Lee would probably not have the courage to do that.

Elgar’s orchestra for Sea Pictures is considerably larger than Strauss’s for the Oboe Concerto, but it emphasises the deep and rumbling tones to allow room for the solo voice to reveal itself.  Jason Lai understood the music’s Wagnerian debts, and drew some powerful pictures in orchestral colour to underpin Jade Tan’s singing.  For her part, Tan has a fine voice with plenty of strength, a strong sense of pitch security and excellent and idiomatic diction.  She performed Sea Pictures when she won the Conservatory’s Concerto Competition last year, and it is good that she has made this fine work something of her own.  But I am not sure it was a good idea to use it as the vehicle with which to make her professional concerto debut.  A student orchestra and a student audience is one thing, a professional orchestra and a paying audience quite another, and there were times when she was in danger of drowning beneath the sheer weight of professional orchestral forces.

As with Lee and the clarinet, in a straight fight between Tan and the French horn, the horn won hands down, at one point coming in with such abrupt vehemence that it sounded like the raucous squawk of a passing albatross.  In general the orchestra seemed completely unaware of the particular problems in balancing a low solo voice with a big chunk of heavy brass, and it certainly did not help that Lai chose to dispense with the moderating influence of the organ which would surely have smoothed out the percussive edge of the wind in the “Sabbath Morning at Sea”.  Elgar knew what he was on about when it came to orchestration, and recognised that quite often more instruments mean less power. 

However, the problem of orchestra and voice balance in Sea Pictures is well known and can only successfully be overcome by a voice which, setting aside power (and Tan has plenty of that, even if there is scope for more), has the range of colour and dynamics to turn it from being merely a vehicle to deliver the text into a distinct musical timbre. Elgar uses the voice as a distinct musical instrument, and Tan does not yet possess the range of dynamics, colour or flexibility to fit in with such a hefty orchestra.

It would be easy to suggest that youth and inexperience were the main reasons for any shortcomings in the first half.  But they weren’t. The concert’s second half showcased the SSO on its own playing Brahms 2, and it was pretty obvious pretty soon where the real problem lay.

Jason Lai had a fairly compelling idea of what he wanted the Brahms symphony to do.  He saw its glorious melodic lines flowing effortlessly over the bar-lines and on into the distance beyond, he saw the wit and charm of the light-hearted third movement, and he saw excitement and joyful fervour in the exuberant finale.  He communicated that to the audience and to the first violins, who again shone with a lovely, rich and conglomerate tone.  He did not get his message across to the rest of the orchestra, and while this was not a total shambles, at places it came pretty close.  Entries came late or early, dovetailing lines fell into the abyss or collided clumsily, ensemble cracked and inner balance was distorted.  It was a triumph of sound over music, and while it was noticeable that several sectional principal were not in place, an orchestra has to be greater than its principals.  If it can’t work together without them, there is something fundamentally wrong.

No doubt the next time the SSO goes on tour or releases a CD it will be enthusiastically received by critics (especially, for some reason, those in North America).  They will have every justification in proclaiming the SSO something special and proof that the future of Classical Music lies in South East Asia, and the SSO will gleefully add these ecstatic outpourings of international critics to its database of Nice Things To Put On Publicity Notices.  The trouble is, for those of us who hear it week in week out, finding it on top form is still a matter of luck rather than judgement.

23 September 2016

Music Without Clothes

It never went on to the CV, especially when applying to be a cathedral organist and choirmaster, but the more I look back on it, the more I realise it was one of the significant experiences in my musical life.  I played the organ in a strip club.

I well recall how it came about. 

We had done a performance of Handel’s Jephtha in Llandaff Cathedral and, still on that adrenalin high musicians experience after any successful performance, a few of us decided to hit the bars of Cardiff.  Jephtha is lengthy and by the time we had got ourselves together after the performance it was well past 10.30, the hour at which Cardiff pubs used to (perhaps still do) close.  Not to be discouraged, the tenor soloist knew of a club in town which stayed open late and reckoned he could get us in.  He could, and for a while we sat at a table in a noisy night-club discussing the performance.  Gradually we dispersed around the club, and for a while I was alone at the table.  At that point a man came over to me from an adjoining table.

“Did I overhear someone say that you played the organ?” he asked.  I explained that yes, I did, and told him I was a music student whose first study was the organ.  “Would you be interested in a job?” he asked, “I am looking for an organist in my club”.  I tried to explain that I was training to be a cathedral organist and that playing in a club was beneath my dignity!  He mentioned £15 a night for three nights a week, and I began to waver.  “I don’t really know any suitable repertory”, I told him.  He asked what sort of stuff I played, and when I said “Hymns and that sort of thing”, he declared “That would be perfect!”

Thus it was that the following Friday night I found myself in the grim setting of the Upper Race Working Men’s Club on the outskirts of the mining town of Pontypool.  There was a solitary Hammond organ on stage and a few hundred miners in the hall doing some very serious drinking.  I played a few things to get used to the organ, and nobody seemed to listen, so I carried on.  Then a woman came up to me from behind the curtain on stage and said that she was ready to start.  She was dressed somewhat unconventionally for a singer, but I assumed that was what she was, and I duly asked her what she wanted me to play and whether she had the music with her.  “Just carry on what you were playing and I’ll work to that”, she told me and, as I had been playing a hymn, I pulled out a few levers and pressed a few switches, and started again in the full expectation of her joining in at some stage.  Concentrating as I was on the hymn, I didn’t see what happened next until an item of clothing appeared on the floor beside me. 

Then another.

Then another. 

A bra appeared, unfilled. 

A pair of black panties landed on the organ, with all the elegance of a squashed fly. 

And then I looked up. 

The now naked girl came over, collected her clothes, and gave me a kiss on the top of the head.  “That was lovely, dearie!” she exclaimed.  My manners obliged me to say the same to her, but my confusion never warned me of its implications, and on all of her subsequent appearances she would, at the end of the act, cock a leg up over the music stand of the organ.  I knew then what the miners faced each time they went underground to dig for coal in those long, dark passageways.  Altogether four girls stripped in rotation in four 20 minute segments, and each did so to the accompaniment of various hymns from my repertory.   

By the next night I was prepared and had learnt some more suitable (I thought) material.  But this was not liked by the girls or the miners who asked to have the hymns back.  “We love the ‘ymns”, I was told, “The lads can sing along while we strip!”  And so it proved.  Over the weeks and months, the singing got more enthusiastic and the stripping became more desultory until one girl gave up the stripping at the penultimate stage and conducted the ramshackle choir of drunk Welsh miners in a stirring rendition of Cwm Rhondda dressed just in her off-white underwear. (Thank goodness the bra was still on.  A bra-less “Busty Morgan”, a well-chosen stage-name, would have beat time in at least three different directions.) 

The requests started coming in from the floor and certain girls preferred certain hymns.  An all-round favourite was Ar hyd a nos (translated that means “All through the night”) and as “Leggy Lizzie” did her stuff to it, the entire hall would hum along like a smooth, velvet carpet.  Eventually the hymns became more popular than the strippers, but I had had enough and, despite the generous monetary rewards, after six months I decided to give it up because I was developing a kind of Brahms Syndrome.  I found it difficult to take the girls of my own age seriously, knowing that what lay under the carefully assembled glittering exterior was not likely to live up to external promises.  Instead I found myself strangely attracted to the inaccessible, unattainable women, whose careful assembled glittering exteriors held promises I would never be in a position to test.

Luckily the Brahms Syndrome was only a temporary aberration.  But a more lasting consequence of my strip club venture was the appreciation of music beyond the kind of audiences I had been groomed to expect.  Knowing that drunken Welsh miners in a run-down working men’s club got every bit as much satisfaction – possibly rather more – than a worthy bunch of civic dignitaries in serried ranks in a cathedral, or even a be-bowtied upper-middle-class elite in a plush opera house, has had a profound effect on how I approach music. 

In the world of classical music we try to reach out to new audiences, assuming that lurking out there somewhere is a vast pool of musically-illiterate people who need to have their ears opened to the glories of Mozart, Bach and co..  Perhaps, though, it is not they who need their ears opened, as us musicians who need our eyes opened to see that music is perhaps already flourishing where we least expect it.

20 September 2016

Rainbow Pianos

Some years ago I was working in Parson's massive piano warehouse in Kowloon and stumbled across two remarkable pianos.  There was a bright red one designed to look like a - and I believe actually designed by - Ferrari. 

There was also a transparent one, made of a kind of see-through plastic which meant you could see all the inner workings with remarkable clarity.

The piant manufacturer Dulux includes a few shades in its vast cataologue which it calles "Grand Piano" (which they might equally well have called "Ostrich Intestine" for all the relevance it has to the particular shade of paint), and its greyish/brownish hue seems to have been inspired by the rear end of that Old English Sheepdog which remains the company's iconic mascot.

Of course, white pianos have always been in vogue in certain musical environments, and do I recall seeing Elton John playing on a pink one?

There's a discussion forum I stumbled across which suggests all sorts of answers (wrong, weird and very rarely wise) as to why grand pianos are usually black, and I remember a phone call I had from the people who were restoring my own grand piano in which they very tentatively suggested that I might like to secure the services of a French polisher in order to remove the black lacquer and restore the original walnut wood of the case.  They seemed to think I would be appalled at the idea: I was not, the piano went off to the French polisher and came back looking spectacular (and, when I wasn't playing it, sounding pretty spectacular too).  What a shame that piano was destroyed on that ill-fated sea-journey my belongings attempted (but failed) to make from Singapore to Gravesend back in 2012.

An earlier grand piano in my possession came to me courtesy of the INLA (for the uninitiated, that's the Irish National Liberation Army, who exerted much effort in trying to oust the British from Northern Ireland by blowing up just about everything they could find).  When a bomb destroyed one of the most lovely Georgian homes on the Donegal/Derry border (in which an eminent legal personage lived), taking with it both the man of the house and his wife's right hand, it also ripped the legs off a massive Grotrian-Steinweg piano.  The maimed and grieving widow offered the piano to me as bomb-damaged goods, and I found someone to stick the legs back on and get it into a vaguely playable condition.  That piano was black, although the blackness was more the result of the fire which followed the bomb, and it made a most unfortunate noise when it was played.  I was told it had once been a fine mahogany - turning it into a black instrument had done it no favours.

There is certainly no good reason why pianos should be black, or even dark brown for that matter.  The only reason it seems that red, blue, pink, transparent or any other colour are not all the rage is that people tend not to take them seriously as musical instruments.  In a world where appearances are everything, one expects pianos to be dark and sober and, quite simply, a rainbow piano demeans itself before it has even uttered a single middle C.

I am as guilty as anyone in having that colour prejudice against pianos.  I can live with black or brown, but I never believed the red could possibly be serious, and the transparent one was, surely, just a joke.

So imagine my amazement when out of the blue (excuse the colour pun) a green piano appeared in our music conservatory.  Not just any green, either.  A pretty vile, bile-like green.  As one colleague said, staring at it in utter disblief, "is that to be played by a leprechaun?"
The picture of Lanskey and green piano in action has been stolen unashamedly from Chang Tou Liang's Pianomania website.  Let him sue if he dares! 

It had its first public airing a few days ago and was not played by a leprechaun.  In fact the pianist could hardly have been less leprechaun-like, and his giant frame largely eclipsed the green little Johann Strauss model Bosendorfer.  A green shimmer did pervade the hall, however, but came not from the piano but rather from the envious eyes of every pianist in the audience who marvelled at the wonderfully sensitive, refined and infinitely subtle playing of Bernard Lanskey.  What made it all the more disturbing for those of us who have attempted in our own way to master Mozart's sublime Quintet for piano and winds, was that this incredibly fine playing was coming, not from a great pianist at a great piano, but from a great pianist at a green piano!  If the cost of getting a piano to integrate so beautifully into the textures of this extraordinary work is to paint it green, so be it.  The scales have been lifted from my prejudiced eyes, even if the green hue remains.

As for the piano, it was a gift from Mr Tan Kah Tee whose support and generosity towards the Conservatory in Singapore seems utterly boundless.  If one might have suspected he had ulterior motives in passing a green piano on to the Conservatory, one can only hang one's head in shame.  He knows his pianos and has come up with something which not only sounds fabulous but achieves what few other instruments have ever done; broken barriers of prejudice.

That said, I still have my doubts about that transparent one - and as for the pink one.  Well... you've got to be joking!

19 September 2016

Lancashire's Early Christmas

Around the time of his 90th birthday, my father decided that he'd had enough of living in and around London and moved north to Lancashire.  They say you should never move from your friends and family once you are past a certain age, but he did and has been perfectly happy there for the best part of a decade.  What has made him settle in so easily is the musical life there.  He goes to a church where the organist - the inimitable Peter Jebson - not only got my father to join the choir, but inspires everyone with such robust and outrageously exuberant hymn accompnaiments that it is impossible not to sing along with him. (How those miserable guitar-yielding middle-aged ecclesiastical rockers must loathe such open displays of msucial enthsuiasm in church).  My father also goes to music appreciation classes at the University of the Third Age (where he seems to have been encouraged to abandon a long-held suspicion of jazz) and gets over to Manchester a few times each year to hear the city's orchestras in the glorious Bridgewater Hall.

Some time back he phoned me to tell me how much he had enjoyed the Halle Orchestra's carol concert, and when a recording of the live event appeared on a list of CDs seeking reviewers a few weeks back, I decided to listen in and hear what had got Dad so excited.

I'm a sucker for Christmas music - I can't get enough of it - and genuinely look forward to the blizzard of Christmas CDs which arrives around the same time that Autumn Leaves Begin To Fall.  The Halle got in first this year, and I have to say I enjoyed it enormously, even considering that live, festive occasions never quite come off so well on CD.  Here's the review which is currently posted on the MusicWeb International website.

If you don't read this blog again for a few months, do have a Happy Christmas!

A Christmas Celebration

Nigel Hess (b.1953) : A Christmas Overture [7:27]
Adolphe Adam (1803-1856): O Holy Night [6:20]
John Gardner (1917-2011): Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day [1:55]
Robert Lucas de Pearsall (1795-1856): In dulci jubilo [4:07]
Roderick Elms (b.1951): Noel [4:05]
John Williams (b.1932): Somewhere in My Memory [3:41]
Adam Saunders b.1968): Fairytale Sleighride [4;35]
John Rutter (b.1945): Angels’ Carol [3:17]
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Winter Bonfire, Op.122 – Waltz [3:19]
Gustav Holst (1874-1934): Personent Hodie [2:31]
John Ireland (1879-1962): The Holy Boy [3:01]
Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987): Jesus Christ the Apple Tree [3:08]
Richard Bissill (21st century): A Christmas Carnival [11:01]
Harold Darke (1888-1976): In the Bleak Mid-winter [4:53]
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908): The Snow-Maiden – Dance of the Tumblers [4:03]
Marta Keen (b.1953): Christmas on the Beach at Waikiki [3:29]
Leroy Anderson (1908-1975): Sleigh Ride [3:09]
Arr. Arthur Warrell (1900-1975): We Wish You a Merry Christmas [2:01]

Hallé Orchestra, Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir, Hallé Children’s Choir
Stephen Bell (cond.)
rec. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 21 December 2014 and Hallé St Peter, Manchester, 3-4 July 2014.
HALLE CD HLL 7545 [76:04]

The children are heading back to school, the leaves look as if they are on the turn and the politicians are gathering for their annual conferences.  Yes, the British summer is ending and, as the evenings draw in, so thoughts turn to Christmas.  In this uncertain world it is good to know of one definite: the Christmas CDs will soon be pouring out of the warehouses, each with its own variant on the theme of dressing up the traditional to make it seem both new and familiar at the same time.

With its huge musical resources - the booklet lists well over 400 musicians spread over an orchestra and three choirs, as well as a bevy of assorted conductors, directors and accompanists – and its own record label, the Hallé is particularly well armed to take  Christmas by storm.  In its armoury are live recordings taken from the Hallé’s 2014 Christmas concert and studio ones made at its recording home in Manchester.  The result is a pretty spectacular affair which goes for the big effect rather than for seasonal intimacy.

Its opening salvo is a blazing concoction of Christmas melodies wrapped up in lavish orchestrations (lots of bells, brass and full organ chords) and energetically played by the Hallé.  The man responsible for the big organ chords in Nigel Hess’s Christmas Overture, Darius Battiwalla, has added his own touches to a Christmas classic – O Holy Night – expanding it two almost twice its usual length while at the same time making it a wonderful showcase for the massed voices of the combined Hallé Choirs.

Subtitled “A Festive Romp for Organ and Orchestra”, Roderick Elms wrote Noel in 2013 to celebrate Stephen Bell’s appointment as first Associate Conductor of the Hallé Pops, and with Elms taking the concertante organ part, this is a bright and cheerful medley of carol tunes which manages to avoid sounding overblown only because it is taken at such a sprightly pace and benefits from a crystal clear recorded sound.  Nothing quite so obviously Christmassy about Somewhere in My Memory, but then given the obsession orchestras seem to have in programming anything by John Williams, the inclusion of this chunk of his score to Home Alone seems pretty inevitable.  It certainly is a more worthy piece of music than the excessively imitative (of Williams) Fairytale Sleighride, although Stephen Bell milks Adam Saunders’ score for all it’s worth.

A blatantly obvious Christmas romp comes in the guise of the appropriately named A Christmas Carnival by Richard Bissill. The booklet notes suggest this is a “Richard Strauss-like festive tone-poem”; if so, obviously there’s another Richard Strauss out there, for this is a million miles away from anything the Bavarian one would ever have dreamed of writing even under the influence of an excess of Christmas Bockbier.

John Gardner’s setting of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day makes a refreshing change from the famous David Willcocks arrangement, especially with such crisp and incisive string playing as the Hallé produces here, but I’m not sure that Bell’s extravagant dynamic washes, clearly aimed at the live audience, work so well in the cold light of CD.  The need to pander to the live audience also spoils Holst’s arrangement of Personent Hodie which comes across here more in the manner of a rustic clog dance.  There is something relentless and unyielding about the fulsome account of  Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple tree - if only Bell could have relaxed or even turned up the ends of phrases to give a feeling of shape to this intensely beautiful piece.  Also missing out on beauty, Harold Darke’s famous setting of In the Bleak Mid-winter nevertheless possesses here a certain warmth of spirit despite some coordination issues in the third verse. There is, however, a lovely, beautifully measured and warmly expressive account of In dulci jubilo from the Hallé Choir as well as a deliciously gentle account of The Holy Boy from the Hallé strings.

A Christmas CD without John Rutter is like a sea without water, and this one has his Angels’ Carol in a particularly buoyant and unsentimental performance. And while we might realistically expect to hear Prokofiev’s Troika in this context, the Hallé comes up with something very different, a sturdy Waltz from the virtually unknown cantata Winter Bonfire. This is a truly rollicking performance which, like the account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dance of the Tumblers, is a moment of true orchestral glitter. 

The closing items are more riotous than subtle.  The children singers clearly love every moment of Christmas on the Beach at Waikiki, and the live audience lapped it up – their  applause is generously allowed to live long on the CD - but, like the clapalong version of Sleigh Ride and the unabashed riotousness of We Wish You A Merry Christmas it would probably have been better to leave these to the memories of those who were there rather than preserve them in the aspic of a CD.

If this sets the scene for Christmas CDs 2016, then we are in for a boisterous time.  Which, perhaps, is no bad thing given the trials and tribulations of the year that is so rapidly passing.


16 September 2016

The Sanctity of the Concert Hall

Twice a year I set a group of students, drawn from various faculties around the university but generally not connected with music, the task of attending four concerts and observing the way in which different audiences behave.

Largely unprompted by me they identify applause as the biggest issue; how people applaud and when they applaud.  Several of them came up with the categorisation of three types of applauder and three types of applauding which they found the most annoying:
  1. The "I Know Music" type who bursts into applause almost before the music has died away, determined to be the first into the fray, and who visibly - and often audibly - castigates any who choose to applaud at a point which they themselves feel is inappropriate.
  2. The "I Know Nothing About Music" type who generally refrains from applauding and makes more noise fidgeting during the performance than expressing any kind of reaction afterwards.
  3. The "I Want To Look Clever" type who looks all around before applauding to make sure they are conforming, but then becomes ever more vociferous as the confidence in their growing convictions grows.
  4. The "Monkey" who, keen to be seen both from the stage and from the auditorium, raises the hands to an impossibly high level as they applaud; in much the same way as an orang-utan might raise its arms when reaching for a high branch in the forest.
  5. The "Stander" who, like the Monkey is there to be seen, and leaps to their feet (often with a shout or two) irrespective of the quality of the performance.  The "Stander" invariably is the most vociferous in demanding an encore.
  6. The "Whooper" who does not applaud so much as indulge in football-stadium-like cheering.
The vast majority of concert-goers simply applaud to express their personal reaction to the concert, and my students wondered what prompted the others to do otherwise.  The answer may lie, at least in part, in the other key observation they made.

Bearing in mind that many of these students had never attended any kind of classical music concert before, I found this observation, frankly, very disturbing.  In a nutshell, they observed that music students and musicians in the audience were, in terms of dress, behaviour and response to the performances, a significant barrier to the enjoyment of others.

It concerns me that music students attending concerts behave in way which can seem quite intimidating to other concert-goers.  I now have impartial evidence to support my concern.  My student observers noted that the barrage of cat-calls, wolf-whistles and screams from music students which accompany the appearance on stage of fellow-students or professors, was alienating other concert-goers who felt they were intruding on some private event or were showing their ignorance in not recognising the brilliance of the performers before they had even performed.

My students supported their observations with photographs of music students sleeping, playing Pokemon Go, eating, texting and talking to their neighbours (and, in one instance on the phone), during a concert.  They asked why, when the performance so clearly failed to attract their attention, did they then respond with unbridled enthusiasm?

The answer is simple.  Music students and music students spend their lives in concert halls and no longer feel that sense of mystique which, for the rest of us, accompanies any formal concert.  They cannot identify the hallowed sanctity of the concert hall which is such a draw for other concert-goers. Sadly, it is almost a badge of honour among music students to treat live performances as routine and, unwittingly, create the impression that they are not involved with the music.

It may be understandable, but it is not excusable.  The priest does not shout and dance his way around the church (or, at least, they never used to) simply because that is where he spends most of his working life; he understands that the church is there for the benefit of those who only attend once a week (or less), and he must respect their expectations.

As a teacher I used to suggest that my principal purpose in teaching music was not to train the next generation of great soloists, choral singers or orchestral musicians, but to train the future generation of audience-members.  Musicians need audiences.  We must be careful not to let our familiarity with the concert-hall environment drive them away.

07 September 2016

Nobody Goes because Nobody Knows

My Straits Times colleague, Chang Tou Liang, reviewed a concert over the weekend in which, as he wrote, a large proportion of the audience walked out in the interval, prompting the conductor to voice his concern from the podium that so few people had remained behind to listen to the symphony in the second half of the concert. 

Sometimes people (myself included) walk out of concerts because they are bad or because the music is just intolerable to their ears.  Good on them! Audiences should be more pro-active in engaging with the music, positively or negatively.  However nothing in Dr Chang’s review seemed to imply that there was any musical or intellectual reason for this mass exodus.  He simply put it down to the fact that the symphony (by César Franck) was not the kind of thing the audience was there to hear.  This prompted a little flurry of correspondence (to which I was an admittedly passive party) suggesting that if audiences did not wish to attend concerts there was little point in newspapers reviewing them. 

In the normal course of events I would heartily endorse this view.  It is eminently sensible that a newspaper reviews and reports what is of interest to the wider public and ignores what is not.  My sporting passion, such as it is, is for croquet, a game I love and in which I show some meagre aptitude.  But I am in a tiny minority and, much as it is of interest to me and few other members of the specialist elite who follow it, I fully appreciate why I can’t read full page reports of the latest matches in my national paper; croquet attracts so few to its matches that one can hardly envisage any but the most avid enthusiast wishing to read a review of the game a few days later in a daily newspaper.  Soccer, on the other hand (much as I despise it) seems to be very widely enjoyed by a huge cross-section of the public, so it is the duty of the national newspaper to report it.  Games of soccer are clearly something which interests the general public.

Why should we adopt different principles in music?  If a concert is of such minority and specialist appeal that nobody goes, there can be no justification in reporting it, while if the crowds pour in, then there is a duty to report it.

But in Singapore it’s not as simple as that. 

I am an avid concert goer, well up on the Singapore music scene, and I adore César Franck’s Symphony.  Yet, until I read Dr Chang’s retrospective review, I had no idea the concert had even taken place.  Last week, attending the Esplanade for one concert, I noticed another which I would have much preferred to attend had I known it was on.  Yet I did not.  I have a drawer full of schedules from various orchestras, chamber ensembles, individuals, educational establishments, concert venues, ticketing agencies and so on, through which I regularly delve to see what is coming up.  I occasionally attempt an online trawl, putting “classical music concerts in Singapore” into my search engine.  Yet so much slips through the net.  I know where to look; how can a general audience, and especially visitors from overseas, know in advance what is going on on any single day in the arts scene of Singapore?

Singapore is so primitive and amateurish in its management of publicity that it defies belief.  There is no one-stop arts events calendar (certainly not one which clearly identifies all classical music events), there is no routine blanket calendar of arts events in a national newspaper (compare that with what Hong Kong has in the South China Morning Post), there is no leaflet detailing what’s on in the next few weeks.  Instead there is a plethora of publicity flyers produced by a vast array of different interested organisations who promote their events and ignore the others.    

Go to the Esplanade and try to find out what is on next month.  You can tell at a glance about all the free events, but the paid ones – you will never know!  If the tickets are sold through an organisation called SISTIC, you can pick up their pathetic little leaflets, usually circulated days too late to be of any value (the September leaflet has yet to hit the leaflet racks), and if the artist is famous or there is some kind of visual interest in the event, a large poster might be put up.  But otherwise, you have no way of knowing what’s on, where and, most importantly, at what time (I went to a concert recently which at no point in any of its publicity had mentioned a starting time – even though there were lots of eye-catching images on the poster).

SISTIC does not have the monopoly.  There are others, too numerous to mention, who promote their concerts and nothing else.  The online search nets those organisations, but no clear and comprehensive list of classical music events in Singapore.

There is so much going on now that someone needs to sit down, collate all the information, and put it up online and in print so that it can reach those who are interested.  But it won’t happen, because the kind of entrepreneurial thinkers who might see this as a good idea will also quickly realise that there is more money to be had in promotion than information.  Anybody with a charitable notion of helping inform the public will run up against the vested interests of the concert promoters and ticketing companies who put profit above artistic environment, and reject the notion of their events being promoted alongside those of their competitors.

So the sad fact is that audiences for the arts, and classical music in particular, in Singapore will remain in ignorance of the vast amount of what is taking place and, as a result, fail to attend events they would have wished to attend.  If nobody knows what is going on, how can audience numbers realistically reflect the public interest?

02 September 2016

An Orchestra's Debut

As promised, here's the review of the new Singapore orchestra as published in today's Straits Times:
 Several new ensembles have appeared on the Singapore scene over the past few years.  The latest, like its predecessors, sets out to do things differently.
For a start there’s the name.  Clever, in that it combines the Latin preposition which indicates referring to something with the English word for the noise an orchestra makes.  Put together they create another word which means resonating.  That annoying little colon and the odd capitalisation, intended to highlight the cleverness of the name, should be dispensed with at the earliest opportunity.

Then there is the unusual starting time – 8.15pm.  The idea is to allow patrons to enjoy a leisurely dinner before heading off to the concert.  But the downside of dinner before concert is that drowsiness intervenes.  I wonder how long re:Sound will maintain the 8.15 start.

The biggest innovation is that this is Singapore’s first fully professional chamber orchestra.  Chamber music implies small, intimate, conductor-less ensembles, while orchestras are big and have a conductor.  But there are noble precedents, notably the Mahler Chamber Orchestra which made such an impact when they visited Singapore a few years back.  As it was, not all of re:Sound’s inaugural concert involved a conductor.

The Unique Selling Point of re:Sound is its focus on classical repertory - not the random dates young music students are told define the term “Classical”, but the clean, direct expression of music inspired by the classical lines of ancient Greek and Roman architecture.  This new orchestra introduced itself to the world with three works by Mozart, Stravinsky and Schubert, all linked by that sense of classical purity.

Mozart’s 40th Symphony has become such a mainstay of any orchestra’s repertory that to hear it played with such refinement and discretion by these players, crisply and firmly guided by Jason Lai, was a refreshing treat.  Even more refreshing was an impressively neat and precise account of Stravinsky’s Concerto for Strings.  Lai gave a tremendously incisive bite to its cutting rhythms, shaped its dynamics with infinite care and generously gave full rein to Stravinsky’s witty gestures.

In the spirit of chamber music, re:Sound played Schubert’s Fifth Symphony without conductor, leaving it to concertmaster Seah Huan Yuh to keep the 30 or so players in line. 

It was probably too soon in their collaborative existence to attempt this, and while the performance undeniably had great energy, it was often too fast (especially the second movement) to achieve the kind of pristine clarity that had characterised the first half of the programme.  On top of that a sense of nervous tension permeated the playing and effectively obscured the essentially sunny and open-spirited character of Schubert’s music.

As a debut performance, however, this was very impressive indeed.  Singapore’s newest orchestra is going to be a very good one.

01 September 2016

A New Singapore Orchestra

Over the past four or five years I could have used this same title for a blog post almost as many times.  It seems that almost every year a new orchestra emerges on to the Singapore music scene.  According to one colleague in the know, there are currently no less than 21 orchestras floating around Singapore.

Why this growth of orchestras?  Is it audience-driven?  Do audiences crave more orchestral concerts than are currently available to them here?  Or is it musician-driven?  Is there such a burning desire to belong to an orchestra that, when existing ones are full to capacity, new ones have to be created?

The answer was possibly provided by Mervin Beng at the inaugural concert of Singapore’s latest new orchestra (re:Sound) at the Victoria Concert Hall last night.  Speaking from the stage after the interval, he proudly pointed to the fact that a majority of the musicians in re:Sound were Singaporean by birth and, moreover, a great many were graduates of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  That might lead the cynical observer to suggest that the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory produces orchestral players merely to create more and more orchestras in Singapore, and that the prime function of orchestras in Singapore is as a statement of national pride rather than an indicator of musical health.

Yes, it is good to know that in the few short years since the creation of Singapore’s first professional orchestra (1979) musical training in the country has so dramatically improved that it can now people a dozen or more orchestras.  That is a certainly cause for national pride.

But an orchestra cannot exist merely to provide employment for local musicians or to wave the flag of nationalistic self-congratulation.  For orchestras to survive, thrive and grow, there has to be the cross-fertilisation which comes from international input.  Singaporean musicians are infinitely devalued if they remain immune from the influence of foreign talent – either through rubbing shoulders with them in the orchestra or by going overseas themselves to gain invaluable orchestral and musical experience. 

If evidence of the importance of national and cultural cross-fertilisation were needed, we should only look to the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.

Founded amidst great fanfare in 1998, the Malaysian Philharmonic had 106 playing members of whom just two could be defined, albeit by some stretching of the definition, as Malaysian.  The rest were out-and-out foreigners.  This was deliberate.  The Prime Minister of the day boasted how it showed that Malaysia could attract the very best, while the President of the company which paid for the orchestra promised that no Malaysian would ever play in the orchestra unless they earned their place through fair competition with players from elsewhere in the world.  It was called the Malaysian orchestra, we were told, because it belonged to Malaysia, not because it was peopled by Malaysians.

Things went wrong when management succumbed to popular pressure and started to bring in Malaysian players because they were Malaysians rather than because they were good.  Morale hit rock bottom and standards dropped.  What had once been unquestionably the finest orchestra in Asia, was reduced to just another local band.  Luckily, a hard core of foreign players remained and, while it teetered on the brink for a time, it has held on and, although I have not heard it since 2012, reports I get are that, while it is but a shadow of its former self, it is still a highly competent orchestra, the foreigners having held fast to their standards and the Malaysians having conscientiously worked themselves up to match their level of playing.

So, to create an orchestra in Singapore merely for Singaporean players, laudable as that might seem, is almost doomed to failure.  Other orchestras here have grown up, performed once, and then sunk back into obscurity.  Will it be the case with re:Sound?

I suspect not.  Largely, I have to say, because unlike earlier attempts to get an orchestra off the ground here, this one is driven by an absolutely determined body of people, headed by Mervin Beng, who know what they want and are absolutely focused on achieving it.  On top of that, Beng is a hard-headed realist who knows the pitfalls and problems of running an orchestra, and has set the necessary mechanisms in place to ensure that ideals do not obscure the cold hard light of reality.  On top of that, he seems to have been able to attract strong and committed sponsors and certainly knows how to play the field to ensure his orchestra has all it needs to develop and thrive.  And he has certainly done well in his choice of conductor (Jason Lai) and musicians.

Beng’s trump card, however, is his identification of a particular niche in the Singapore musical scene which has not been filled adequately by others.  He recognised that the core works of the classical orchestral repertory – the music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and so on – were either overlooked or treated peripherally by the existing players in the field.  The Singapore Symphony is too big and too firmly rooted in the grand orchestral repertory of the late 19th century to put this music at the heart of its concert programmes or even offer anything but occasional glib and superficial readings of it in its mainstream programming.  Other local orchestras never showed sufficient grasp of the stylistic implications of this music to give worthwhile performances.  In short, Singapore orchestras have worked on the principle that everybody knew this music, so it did not require special care or attention.

By creating a professional chamber orchestra, Beng’s thinking was to draw together highly capable players who could, by focusing exclusively on this repertory, get right to the heart of it and make the effective interpretation of it the very core of their existence.  Of course, to achieve the level of collective involvement in the interpretation of this music that it demands in a world where the performance of the classical repertory is widely regarded as an extremely specialist endeavour, the orchestra needs to play it in public a great many times before it can begin to make its own mark on it and convince the Singaporean audience that there is value in treating these familiar works as significant musical journeys rather than popular musical stocking-fillers.  They got off to a good start last night, but there are a couple of significant hurdles, which seem endemic in Singaporean musicians, which need to be overcome.

The vast majority of Singaporean orchestral players emerging from Yong Siew Toh (and other local institutions) have had precious little exposure to high quality, live performances of this repertory.  There is a hugely active concert calendar at the Conservatory, but it is wide-ranging, and genuinely accomplished performances of this repertory by those who have made its interpretation their life’s work are inevitably few and far between.  Few of the Singaporeans, too, have had prolonged and wide exposure to these sorts of performances on their travels overseas.  In the main, they have got to hear of this specialist approach to the classics through recordings; and a recording - even a fabulous one by a world-class ensemble - is a very, very different animal from a living, breathing, live performance. 

On top of their general lack of awareness of the orthodoxies of modern-day realisation of the classical repertory, Singaporean musicians have another issue to overcome; and this is a more personal and, consequently, more complex one.

Because they have had to make so many sacrifices, have had to go against the advice and wishes of their peers and, often, their parents, young Singaporeans regard music as a deadly serious business.  They have drilled themselves to a state of technical mastery which is the result of years spent in the narrow confines of the teaching studio and practice room; read their biographies and see how much more they value the teachers they have had and the competitions they have entered than the exposure they have had to music in the non-educational, non-competitive environment.

The one thing which has marked out the vast majority of performances I have heard from Singaporean students and young Singaporean professionals is an inability to communicate in their performance anything other than a knowledge of the technical challenges the piece presents to them and an awareness of the purely academic structure they have identified through visual analysis of the composer’s technique.

Yet music is a communicative art which uses sound (the player’s technique) and structure (the composer’s technique) to convey a message.  Identifying that message and then attempting to project it to the audience is what interpretation is all about; and what is so signally lacking in so much of the musical activity of young Singaporean players.

To grasp that message, the performer has to forget the technical and academic details of the physical score and get to grips with the complex notion of combining an understanding of the society in which the music was born, the life of the composer who conceived it, the political, religious, social aspirations that went into the creation of the work, and a profound grasp of the full gamut of human emotions.  You can read about this in books, or be taught it by lecturers, but you never understand it until you go to the place where the music was written or rub shoulders with those who have some personal connection with it. 

Singaporean musicians are extremely lucky that the likes of Mervin Beng are around to provide them with the opportunity to develop and perfect their skills.  But they themselves have to create their own environment in which they can fully develop their art.
{my review of re:Sound - The Journey Begins appears in tomorrow's Straits Times and will be reprinted here over the weekend.]