24 April 2017
19 April 2017
17 April 2017
|A Facebook user from Brunei slipped this one past the G.E.S.T.A.P.O.|
Whoever made the decision to open the doors mid-work needs, at least, an immediate sideways promotion (possibly to oversee access to the disabled washroom), while I would earnestly hope that the organisation which booked the hall will demand some kind of financial reparation for the distress caused to those of its patrons who had made the effort to arrive and be seated in time. It is utterly unforgiveable that Singapore's premier concert hall should treat patrons in such an appalling manner; staff changes at the highest managerial level are clearly long overdue.
For those who luckily missed this disgraceful spectacle, the Concerto had been running for about 15 minutes when there was a general pause to set the scene for the tranquil central section. Possibly noting from the screens outside that nobody on stage was actually moving and no sound of any kind was coming out of the hall (not even a cough - so rapt was the audience in the music) some FOH official made the decision to open the doors. The waiting crowd outside filed in even as the music was playing, but no attempt was made to hold them back or even direct them to a waiting area. Instead, oblivious to the fact that there was a concert in full swing, the ushers studied tickets and directed, with the aid of flashlights, the late-comers to their appointed seats - inevitably centre row at the front.
The conductor should have stopped and waited - it was simply impossible to hear the music over the distraction of so many late-comers. That he did not was an error of judgement on his behalf. But he should not have been put in that position in the first place.
If this had been a one-off error on behalf of the Front of House staff, it might be seen as an isolated, if catastrophic, mistake. But it was not. Such things have become an inevitable feature of concert life in Singapore. I have arrived late myself to concerts and been obliged to wait outside; and have witnessed the complete absence of any guidance given to those charged with the smooth running of FOH practices, on one occasion having to tell the staff who were about to open the doors, that the music had not finished - it was just very quiet. From my own professional experience with a concert hall I know the pressure FOH staff are under from those who have bought a ticket and assume it gives them complete authority over the running of the entire event. But good staff training should be enough to counter such attitudes.
And there you have the root of the problem. Good staff training.
In the very early days of the Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in Kuala Lumpur, I was involved in training FOH staff and ushers and impressed on them that the environment in the concert hall during concerts was sacrosanct, and only a dire emergency could allow doors to be opened in mid-concert. Staff were given explicit details of when breaks in performance were allowed - I even played recordings of the works to be performed to identify cues for preparing to admit late-comers. Conductors and soloists were consulted about appropriate points when late-comers could be admitted, and ushers were told about discretion and unobtrusiveness within the hall. We made mistakes and more than once I or someone else was called out from the office to explain to an angry late-comer why the member of staff at the door was denying them entry. But generally it worked, and to my knowledge, we never once had the kind of catastrophe which befell the unfortunate audience and musicians on Thursday.
I would say that it is purely an Esplanade problem. But Victoria Concert Hall has its FOH issues too.
While the General Esplanade Staff Team Against Photographic Opportunism (GESTAPO for short) means that ushers spend much of each concert moving up and down the aisles and hissing across sibilantly to putative photographers, the VCH team are far more obtrusive, running up and down, climbing over seats and asking patrons to pass messages along to some camera-wielding fan in mid-row. You do not attend concerts in VCH without being continually aware of the ushers running around in their crazed search for errant cameras. It's a waste of time in both venues (see above) and an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction; if it matters that much, why not simply confiscate the cameras and phones at the door? After all, anyone attempting to gain entry to the Esplanade auditorium has to undergo a security check in which bags are opened. The purpose of this seems merely to look inside the bags, but it is surely not beyond the wit of man to train the staff to identify cameras and phones and ask them to be left outside? As it is I fear that if you had an explosive device in your bag marked "BOMB" they would simply look at it and let it pass.
The job of FOH staff is to assist in the smooth running of an event, not to disrupt it. This is something which eludes FOH staff in Singapore's premier concert halls, and it is a national disgrace. Even as Singapore is emerging on to the international scene as a major force in the world of music, it is becoming a laughing stock because of untrained and misguided concert hall staff.
15 April 2017
12 April 2017
|A Paperless Concert Programme?|
05 April 2017
04 April 2017
But from the inside it is all pretty dreadful.
Read any biography of any Singapore choir and you come across multitudinous references to "Choral Olympics", "Competitions" , "Eisteddfodau" and hardly a mention of repertory. They dance, they stand around in cleverly contrived patterns, they go to town on the dressing and the colouring, and they commit to memory the most bland, featureless, meaningless drivel and present it as some kind of live musical wallpaper. In short, Singapore choirs compete but they do not sing.
In Singapore, promoted largely by the schools and that phalanx of choral directors, choral singing is a competitive sport, not a musical activity. Like soccer, only without the physical exercise, the corruption, the loose women or the bags of money, good choral singing is defined by league placings and international triumph is lauded above internal satisfaction. And, as a result, the connection between music, artistry and choral singing is lost. There is hardly a choir in Singapore who could successfully cope with a hundredth part of the repertory any self-respecting British, French or German choir - or Australian or New Zealand, for that matter - and because of this, despite my absolute passion for choral singing, I avoid the activity in Singapore like I avoid swimming in crocodile-infested waters.
There are exceptions. Sit in Mass at the Cathedral of The Good Shepherd any Sunday and Peter Low's choir will entrance with their singing of plainchant, even if some of the other music they sing is so vulgar that I cringe with embarrassment. Today, at St Andrew's Cathedral, a choir of students gave a lovely unaccompanied performance of the Schulz St John Passion marred only by an amplification system which rendered much of it virtually indecipherable. And if you wander in to the Esplanade on the evenings of the 21st and 22nd and the afternoon of the 23rd April, you will hear three ladies calling themselves La Voix Médiévale performing music from the 10th to the 14th centuries - and I instinctively know this will be good.
And very best of all is The Philharmonic Chamber Choir. I heard them do a programme of unaccompanied Asian works last Sunday and I have to say it was about the best piece of choral singing by a local choir I have ever heard in Singapore. Here's my review from yesterday's Straits Times.
The other composer present was Chen Shu-xi. He was sitting in the balcony rather than singing in the choir, but his four Musical Impressions of Taiwan was given an equally committed and perceptive performance.
Indian composer Vanraj Bhatia probably stretched the choir the furthest in this respect and, in the rapid-fire passagework of his Monsoon, they very nearly came unstuck. The pitch slides which featured so much in his Autumn were far more within the choir’s technical comfort zone.
03 April 2017
It's been one of those marvellous weekends in Singapore which was literally bristling with music. Setting the International Jazz Festival to one side, the place seemed abuzz with music. Les Arts Florissants kicked it off on Thursday night with a magnificent selection of Monteverdi Madrigals, jazz legend Tony Makarone got the lunchtime crowd tapping their feet at the Asian Civilizations Museum on Friday, and that same evening saw a trio of Brahms Trios performed by various faculty members of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. Saturday at the National Gallery saw not one but four different chamber performances, while in the evening Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony should have dominated the musical weekend, had it not been for the fact that The Philharmonic Orchestra was simultaneously beginning its Beethoven cycle. And to top it all off, last night saw a performance of contemporary Asian choral works at Victoria Concert Hall, a review of which will appear in this blog tomorrow.
Not for the first time, those of us charged with charting the Classical Music life of Singapore through the pages of the Straits Times were stretched beyond breaking point and had to miss some out. Nevertheless this morning's edition of the paper seems to carry a near record-breaking number of reviews, including one for a performance which, not just in its quality and its originality, but in its global implications, deserves to be reprinted here.
L'Arietta is a small professional company dedicated to making opera accessible through informal, not to say, casual presentations in out-of-the-way venues. Which is not to say these productions are not of the very highest professional standard, and so good was their performance this weekend, that it demands the widest possible publicity. What makes this of global interest is the presentation of an opera which, for some inexplicable reason, has never been caught by the radar of popular contemporary opera. Tom Johnson's The Four Note Opera strikes me not only as one of the cleverest, but one of the most dazzlingly original and entertaining of all minimalist operas.
Occasionally other notes did creep in for special effect, but this hour-long production involving one piano, four singers – plus a supernumerary bass – and four dancers serving as the singers’ Alter Egos, was neither musically tedious nor tiresomely repetitive. And that was down to the sheer ingenuity of Johnson’s score and Mary Ann Tear’s inspired direction.
So well cast were the principal singers that it seemed as if the opera had been conceived with them in mind. In fact The Four Note Opera dates from 1972, when American composers were obsessed with minimalism, and while as a show it was side-splittingly entertaining, as a piece of music it was devilishly clever.
Angela Hodgins as The Contralto (“actually I’m a mezzo-soprano” was one of her more memorable lines) was absolutely fabulous. Bitchy in her relationship with The Soprano, oozing charm in the ensemble numbers, and nothing short of amazing in her unaccompanied aria. Required to drift out of tune and then back in again, she performed this feat with such impeccable sure-footedness, that when Aloysius Foong, the insouciant but razor-sharp musical director, matched her final note on the piano, the resulting applause was so loud that, I am reliably informed, you could hear it the other side of Aliwal Street.
As The Soprano, Akiko Otao exuded endearing charm while conveying a convincingly grotesque and egotistic diva. Her double aria, sung slowly to “show my lyricism” and again quickly to “show my virtuosity”, was not just a masterly display of vocal control, but also a matchless example of exquisite comedic delivery.
The two lead male roles, Brett Allcock as The Baritone and Leslie Tay as The Tenor, were each supremely commanding vocally. Allcock was a marvellously poised presence, astonishingly precise in his incredibly complex aria involving lots of unexpected pauses and scripted false entries. Tay brought wonderful richness and passion to his role as the frustrated Tenor denied his top C by a score which had no Cs in it of any type.
Tear’s monochrome staging and lighting took its cue from the piano placed centre stage. Unfortunately, the blue hair of one of the excellent dancers was a distracting spray of colour in an otherwise uniformly black-and-white visual production.
29 March 2017
My father, certainly, and the fact that both my parents were supportive in getting all four of us children to learn the piano. That first piano teacher, Elizabeth James, who was both inspirational and brilliant, and whose legacy remains with me to this day, sadly unthanked or generally unappreciated. And certainly a memorable performance of The Wasps Overture by Vaughan Williams in the Royal Festival Hall in London sometime in the early 1960s (I remember sitting back in my chair, putting my head back on the seat cushions - they seemed so large then - and giving myself up to some fabulous horn playing in a performance which, I have a feeling, was conducted by Sir John Barbirolli).
But perhaps the strongest debt I have is to Barry Rose who was the choirmaster at Guildford Cathedral. I did not sing in his choir on a regular basis, but whenever I came under his direction, it was a moment of such inspirational glory, that I carried it with me for years. In short, I admired him almost to the point of hero-worship, and when he moved to St Pauls, I never let a month go by without turning up for a weekday evensong (even though, by that stage, I was living in Ireland with a cathedral choir or my own to direct).
|Barry Rose at Guildford in the 1970s|
Organists only have themselves to blame for this. Their incestuous fascination with the technical intricacies of their instruments, their exclusive attitude to their instrument and their acceptance of the fifth rate in music simply because it is French 19th century, north German 18th century or uses the Tuba Mirabilis 8 foot, has alienated so many (notably priests and vicars) that their demise is, lemming-like, self propelled.
My old friend and fellow-chorister, Peter Almond, rooted out from the internet (he's retired, not as mobile as he once was, and lives alone in glorious south London splendour, so he has time to trawl through the dark recesses of the web) a recording of Barry Rose and the Guildford Choir at their very heyday. And, despite pressure of work, a pile of CDs to review, and an impending appointment at the hospital, I've given myself up to wallow in the glories of the past. And I've come up with something I should have said years ago.
The Golden Age of British music may have been encapsulated in Gibbons, Tallis and Purcell. It may have belonged to Britten and Walton, Vaughan Williams and Elgar. But for me, it was the Anglican cathedral and church music of the 1960s-70s when cathedral organists were, for a very brief time in their long history, also consummate musicians, inspirational choir trainers and devoted servers of the church. I do not find such people exist today.
As we approach Passiontide and Easter, let me share a moment of that Golden Age by directing you to something you would almost certainly dismiss today as Victorian tat; Stainer's Crucifixion., I like it, but accept it is not the last word in musical genius. However, listen to that choir of men and young boys moulded to aabsolute perfection by Barry Rose with Gavin Williams showing how organ accompaniments should be played. And if the one hour of devotional music is too much for you to bear, skip to 35:27where you will hear a simple hymn elevated to great music by an inspirational conductor and one of the finest choir trainers the world has ever witnessed.: Stainer's Crucifixion, Guildford Cathedral, Barry Rose