17 November 2017

Assessing Music Teachers


How do we assess a music teacher?  This is an important question for parents, who with little or no musical knowledge themselves, are still eager for their children to learn music.  How do they know who the best and worst teachers are?

I happen to think that it is a marvellous thing that music education is given a very high priority in Singapore.  Julie Tan, a former chair of the Singapore Music Teachers’ Association, has said that being a music teacher is one of the most stable jobs currently on offer here.  She’s right.  History has shown that, even in the midst of major financial slumps, parents still value music education sufficiently highly to make sacrifices to ensure its continuity.  And given the absolute obsession with graded music exams here, once you start a child off at Grade 1, that child is effectively locked into lessons for the next eight years, if not longer.  With financial, legal and commercial organisations laying off staff in the path of encroaching IT advances, there is as yet no computerised alternative to the human interaction between music teacher and student.

You would have thought, then, given the centrality of music education within Singapore and the heavy involvement of government in it, a coherent and credible system of teacher assessment would have long been established.  But that is, sadly, very far from the case.  Those responsible for assessing teachers have a mind-set stuck firmly in the 1940s and 1950s when Singapore came under the colonial governance of the United Kingdom and when attitudes saw London as the ideal on which Singapore should be modelled.

It might have been right then.  It is not right now.  The UK changed its approach to training and assessing teachers decades ago; it seems as if Singapore harks back to the heady days of colonial rule and austere judgements taking no consideration of humanity of individuality.  And what is music teaching if it is not a very human interaction between individuals?

It is not just a political point; it is a qualitative issue.  Singapore actively (if accidentally) discriminates against good teachers and promotes bad ones because of its outdated and misguided approach to teacher assessment.

When I have applied for teaching jobs in other countries, I have been assessed by the knowledge, passion and communication skills I have shown in letters of application and interviews, by means of a practical demonstration, a visit by an assessor to a class I have been teaching, or, more recently (I am happy to say), by repute.  That’s not how it’s done here.

In Singapore it all boils down to an unshaking belief, held not just by parents (who would not generally be expected to know any better) and by some teachers, but most shockingly, by those in government service charged with maintaining Singapore’s educational standards, in the power, authority and musical legitimacy of a London-based organisation called the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (the ABRSM as it is largely known to Singaporeans).  Set up in colonial Britain in 1890 with the highly laudable intention of promoting “the cultivation and dissemination of the art of Music in the United Kingdom and throughout the Dominions”, the ABRSM has since grown to become a global monolith, assessing over 610,000 students worldwide every year, of which an astonishing 10% are in Singapore. 

The ABRSM did not invent the notion of the graded music exam – that idea had been mooted by another London-based organisation, Trinity College, in 1874 – but they have such a total stranglehold over graded music exams in Singapore that it has almost become a synonym; “my child’s doing her ABRSM this week”. 

In the days of the British Empire, the graded music exam served a very valuable purpose, and it still does today.  It provides a very useful framework – if not an out-and-out full curriculum – to teachers who are not good enough to devise one of their own, or imaginative enough to teach to a pupil’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.  And the sad fact is that, even today, there are hundreds and thousands of bad music teachers who exist solely on the basis of being able to follow the ABRSM syllabus and to treat it as a stand-alone teaching curriculum (which the ABRSM would be the first to say it was never designed to be). For them the ABRSM is a life-saver, giving them legitimacy which is only reinforced by a society which sees music education purely in terms of ABRSM goals.

There is also value in the exam system in helping parents identify a child’s progress in an activity with which they themselves are unacquainted but can recognise certification where they could not recognise ability.  And the pupils themselves often flourish with the incentive of an exam; dread it as they might, there is purpose when there is another step on the ladder in sight.

I spent 40 years as a music examiner, 20 of them with the ABRSM.  I had my issues with the system, of course, but I recognised the extreme good work we were doing and, for all its flaws, I am still utterly convinced that the graded music examination system has many benefits, particularly to those with limited teaching skills or unambitious musical intentions.  And it has undoubtedly opened the eyes and ears to generations who would otherwise not have been exposed to music.

The purpose of the ABRSM is to assess students.  My problem is when those in authority use the ABRSM graded examination system to assess teachers.  I have often heard stories, and met those with first hand experience of the situation, but when a student came to me the other day bearing a letter from a Singapore school I saw for the first time the appalling – I would venture to use the word catastrophic – damage being done to music education by Singapore’s single-minded obsession with the ABRSM.

This conservatory student has been one of our bright stars.  A brilliant brass player and profoundly intelligent musician, in the years to come he could realistically audition for a principal chair in any orchestra of his choosing.  Yet he has decided he does not want a career in performing, but in teaching.  I find that a wonderful thing.  Yet he has been rejected, not because he is no good but because  he never did his ABRSM Grade 5 theory.  I have the letter in front of me, signed by a civil servant in the country’s Ministry of Education and it is unequivocal:  “We would like to request for a document to certify that xxx has attained his ABRSM Grade 5 in Music Theory. We understand that based on the CV, xxx is currently pursuing a degree in the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, NUS. But due to the nature of our ITQ Specs, we will need documentation of the qualifications that he has attained with regard to the ABRSM grade.” (The irony that the Singapore government regards a qualification from a London organisation over which it has no jurisdiction regarding academic standards as more valid than one from one of its own tertiary education establishments was not lost on the student.)

Any of us who teach music theory or history in tertiary establishments know that much of our early time with new students is spent disabusing them of the ideas inculcated through ABRSM grade 5 theory.  The ABRSM grade 5 theory exam is not wrong, it is just so simplistic that it loses all relevance to the real world of professional music making.  And yet the government seems determined that teachers should not have the kind of level of advanced musical knowledge I would want and expect from any teacher educating my child, but that they revert to a simplistic set of sterile misconceptions which belong more to the 1890s than the 2010s.

In a recent class discussion, a Singapore student stated that “Singaporeans are defined by our qualifications”.  How right she was.  And until such time as those responsible for assessing teachers can find their own way of assessing Knowledge, Passion and Communication (the three key attributes to a good teacher), Singapore will remain a place where quality is seen as a bit of paper rather than as an ability, and where good teaching is turned away in preference to bad.

16 November 2017

The Individualisation of Music


In the beginning (or thereabouts) music was believed to be the sole property of the gods.  The ancient Greeks and Chinese believed in the Harmony of the Spheres, a music created by the movement of celestial bodies.  They understood it to be inaudible to man and, therefore, audible only to the gods. 

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With the evolution of human thought, that “inaudible” music was rendered audible by artificial means – the invention of instruments and the formalised art of singing.  The church, being that element of human existence closest to God, took possession of this music, and established a system of notation which allowed it to be disseminated among those who were able to read it.  It was now the exclusive property of religious leaders and priests – the only people educated in the ways of musical notation – as well as those ordained by them to practice the art of music.

With the Reformation in the early 16th century, the new Protestant churches were defined almost as much by their music as their religious beliefs, while around a century later and with the growing concept of statehood above and beyond religious affiliation, music became associated with royalty. The 18th century saw wealthy families and courts using music as an outward symbol of wealth, ordering their servant musicians to produce on demand music to satisfy their needs as a unified group.  That all changed with the outbreak of war in 1914.  The established political order disintegrated.  Great emperors, kings, tsars and rulers were seen as fallible, God was seen as impotent, and religion and aristocratic lineage were seen as irrelevant. 

What has happened to music, so long associated with gods, sacred rites, the church and the ruling elite, has been one of the most intriguing and enduring legacies of the First World War.

Stylistically, we know it became irredemably fragmented.  The comfortable – if dubious and misleading – categorisation of music into stylistic periods could no longer hold sway.  A promotional leaflet sent to me to be edited a few days ago spoke of a performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto as “a must for lovers of contemporary music”.  When I suggested that this was wrong, I was given the line that music fell into the categories of Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern/Contemporary, so Gershwin was clearly a contemporary composer.  Similarly we see people struggling in vain to box up the huge diversity of music since the First World War with such pointless labels as Modern, Post-Modern, Twentieth-Century, all of which are as meaningless as they are demeaning to the music itself.  The fact is, there is no common, blanket stylistic feature which links music written since 1918; and while I would argue that this is also the case with all music ever written, I can see certain elements which might lead some people to think that there is some superficial and vague connection between composers living in previous eras. 

However, if we are still scrabbling around in the dark trying to fulfil our sterile desire to categorise music written since 1918, the passage of time has allowed us to look back and see one very definite change which has unified music since then.  And that is its dissemination.  Not so much the way it has been disseminated – although the advent of recording and broadcast, evolving with alarming rapidity in that 100 year period – as to whom it is disseminated.  (Although I readily agree that the two are inseparably linked.)

Once fit only for the gods, then fit only for the church, then fit only for the god-like rulers of nations, and then fit only for a tiny elite distinguished by accident of birth, music is now the possession of everyone.  Each of us is, in effect, our own god, our own church, our own ruler and our own master.  Suddenly music, once accessible only to a tiny minority, is accessible to everyone regardless of faith, social status, wealth, race or education, and that has had a profound effect on what music actually is.

There was a time when music served a purpose.  Once people started to write music, rather than simply acknowledge its existence as a natural phenomenon, the church led the way in defining music and its function. Composers wrote to glorify a god or satisfy specific patrons.  The church no longer leads.  Where once society followed and obeyed church rulings, church now follows and obeys society’s demands.  That is why issues such as gay marriage, abortion, social equality have become so divisive, with those who hark back to the days when the church’s teachings held sway finding it impossible to accept the contrary will of society.  So it is with music.  Our church music is, by and large, a feeble, wishy washy and witless imitation of what is popular in society at large, and if churches commission new music, it remains firmly within the walls of the specific church which commissioned it, and rarely ventures out into the wider public domain.  For many, the church and its music are an irrelevance, a peripheral element to society.

Our rulers are no longer rich, wealthy, god-fearing men born to their roles, but clumsy, thoughtless and often ill-educated politicians who see ruling as a career choice rather than an ordained state.  They have neither the interest in nor the knowledge of music, and generally leave it well alone, happy to bend to the will of society when it comes to selecting music for state occasions.  Hence the cheap and nasty Canadian manufactured songs which adorn the Singapore National Day Parades and the Revolutionary songs from Catholic France which get the Malaysians so stirred with national pride every August.

So with neither our religious nor our temporal leaders showing leadership in music, it is left to each of us individually to do with it as we wish.  In this, the technological revolution which has allowed us free and easy access to music whenever we want and wherever we are, has only helped us take possession of a once exclusive and elusive art form.  And with that has come a complete change in attitudes and understanding.

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Ask anyone to define music, and they will instead offer their emotional response to it.   The quality or value of a piece of music is determined, not by others, but by each of us individually.  If we like it, it’s good; if we don’t it’s bad.  There are as many different musical tastes and preferences as there are people on the planet, and no one musical work can ever stand out as exceptional, because we now engage with music as individuals not as members of society.  There can never be another St Matthew Passion or Beethoven Ninth Symphony simply because we do not share music en masse nor do we accept the validity of somebody else’s view above our own.  Generations of music students have been taught that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are great composers.  Who is there now to teach the next generation who our next great composers are?  The best we can hope is that a YouTube video will go viral – and as nobody stomachs YouTube videos of more than a few minutes’ duration, the hope of something really great emerging through that channel is a forlorn one.

With this individualisation of music, we have a fundamental change in what music is.  No longer can it serve a function or inspire us collectively.  Instead, each piece is accepted only on its own terms by an individual.  Writing music for a common body – the church, the nation – is no longer relevant.  The days of great composers and great music are over; in its place comes music for personal gratification and stimulation. 

I am not sure that one is better than the other, but like music, we will all have our individual views on this.

 

10 November 2017

Heavenly Hildegard

I enjoyed this CD which I reviewed for MusicWeb International.  Here's my review - and you can order it from them.

 
Considering she lived almost a thousand years ago and stands as one of the first composers in musical history whose name can be unquestionably attributed to specific and original musical works – she composed 77 settings of her own mystic visions - we know a surprising amount about Hildegard von Bingen.  We know about her family, her early days in a convent, the window out of which she looked on the world (and through which the world looked at her), her dealings with the religious and temporal leaders of her age, her remarkably persuasive and, as we would call it today, entrepreneurial abilities, the places she visited, the people she knew, the ideas, thoughts and opinions she had and, of course, the mystic visions which led her not only to set them to music but to commit the music to  manuscript and thus to posterity.  What we do not know is how that music was performed in her own time, what it sounded like then and how contemporary listeners and performers responded to it.

It is a common failing among those who attempt “authentic” performances of music to authenticate them only in terms of physical instrumental attributes and notions of pitch and tempo.  In other respects, such performances all too often assume 21st century concepts and ethics as being constants throughout the ages, and wrap up historical evidence in sounds designed to meet the expectations of 21st century ears rather than those of earlier times.  In the case of Hildegard, we only have those 21st century ears to go on, so this is not a recording which in any way attempts to address the issue; there is no pretence that these are in any way aiming at an “authentic” performance style.

Ask any member of the general public to describe classical music and very soon the word “beautiful” will crop up.  Otherwise intelligent and logically-minded people will often go weak at the knees in the face of old classical music and coo lovingly about its beauty and its calming effects.  It is rather sad that great music is so often reduced to superficial notions of beauty – like the assessment of a woman as beautiful rather than as a living, breathing, thinking, and complex human being.  That feminine analogy is singularly apt when dealing with Hildegard, for it is often difficult to assess her as a composer without having to wade through acres of feminist ideologies.  Barbora Kabátková’s booklet notes with this CD are no exception, and highlight the concept of women relegated to an inferior status to men since the days of Eve.  Without wishing to get into feminist arguments, I would only say that such arguments only serve to diminish the extraordinary achievement of Hildegard, not in being a woman in a man’s world, but in being a composer in a world where composers did not exist at all as individuals. 

The Tiburtina Ensemble comprises nine women’s voices which blend beautifully in this sequence of carefully selected extracts from Hildegard’s Visions.  While they trace with immaculate precision the musical fabric of Hildegard’s creations, a trio of “old-testament instruments” – two harps and a zither (or dulce melos) – provides an improvised accompaniment, as well as a couple of purely instrumental interludes.   With the aid of a misty acoustical environment, a perfectly manicured vocal tone, delicate and ethereal improvised instrumental support – often tinkling away in the background like so many wind chimes in an ornamental garden – and a general atmosphere of ersatz-medievality, we have Hildegard presented on disc here in much the manner we might expect from a movie director keen to take us back to a long-forgotten age, where chivalrous knights serenaded unattainable maidens in high castle windows (preferably with flowing golden tresses).  It has that slightly false feeling of creating its own legend, rather than cutting through legend to the hard facts underneath.  We even have the long-drawn out final fade as an anonymous setting of Psalm 8 evokes a procession of medieval nuns moving out of the chapel and into the twilight zone beyond.

However, there is no denying that this is a highly effective and, yes, beautiful recording, which, in default of a genuinely authentic approach, gives our 21st century ears just what they like.  In her booklet notes, Kabátková, who also directs the ensemble and is one of the two harpists (the other is also a singer in the group, Hana Blažíková, while the zither player is Margit Ubellacker) writes how the recordings were made over several days in the Cistercian Monastery at Osek where the musicians were able to ponder “the events of recent days – the sweeping celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, or the cruel bloodshed in Ukraine and Syria” while recalling that the monastery had been transformed during the 1950s by the Communist regime into a “prison facility for nuns from several congregations throughout the whole of Czechoslovakia”.  Little wonder that this recording positively oozes atmosphere, reflection and an aura of deep devotion and spiritual commitment.

Do not look to this recording to give historical substances to one of music’s first great composers.  Instead relish the way this ancient music speaks to our own age when treated with such love and devotion by these committed and sincere performers.

04 November 2017

One Orchestra. Two Conductors. A World of Difference

Andre Previn memorably tried to show on his 1970s Saturday evening TV programme about orchestras that without a conductor on the rostrum, even the best orchestras would soon fall apart.  His demonstration fell rather flat; when he walked away from the rostrum, the orchestra carried on just as well without him. 

But Previn was working with the London Symphony, and they were (and are) one of the best orchestras in the world.  His experiment would have worked better with a less accomplished orchestra; one which needs a conductor not just to keep them together but to inspire them to make music rather than play their instruments around the same time.

It did not exist then, but today's Singapore Symphony would have been a rather better choice than the LSO of the 1970s.  However, the vital role a conductor plays has never been so vividly demonstrated as it was last week with two very different concerts given in the same concert hall by the SSO.

Last weekend they gave a concert under Kristjan Järvi, and it was pretty dreadful.  On Wednesday they gave a different programme under Pavel Baleff, and it was spectacular.  The change which came over this orchestra was not down to repertory, personnel or rehearsal time; it was purely down to conductor.

Most musicians know and respect the name Järvi.  It is one of the great conducting dynasties of our time.  Its patriarch, Neeme, is one of the great conductors of our time.  His son Paavo has also carved out a pretty impressive conducting career.  Paavo's young brother, Kristjan is following along in their footsteps.  But whatever conducting skill he possesses, it certianly was not sufficient to inspire in the members of the SSO anything worth listenign to.

Few musicians outside his native Bulgaria and the city of  Baden-Baden, where he is chief conductor, have heard of Pavel Baleff (two years' Kristjan Järvi's senior).  Yet he inspired the SSO to heights they have seldom before attained (I certainly have never heard them play better).  It can only be the conductor, with just five days between the two concerts, such a magical transformation from listless meandering to incisve focus can not have occurred for any other reason.  I reviewed both concerts for the Straits Times and reprint my reviews below.  It still seems hard to believe that this was one and the same orchestra.

The Ring – An Orchestral Adventure
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) Kristjan Jarvi (conductor)
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (27th October)
It was difficult to identify any coherent thread running through this programme other than a sense that nothing was quite as it seemed.  A piece about China was Estonian, music described as Egyptian was actually French and a thoroughly German opera was given a makeover by a Dutchman who took out all the words and removed the singers.
Kristjan Järvi, the youngest member of the famous Estonian musical dynasty, not only conducted the concert but composed the concert opener.  Intended to portray his favourite Chinese city, the odd assemblage of capital letters in the title - ShANgHAi Wonder - made it look more like a chemical formula.  The odd assemblage of trite and derivative musical gestures did nothing to dispel that impression.
 
Making a welcome return to Singapore, Jean-Yves Thibaudet sailed breezily over the phenomenal technical difficulties of Saint-Saens’ Fifth Piano Concerto.  Composed during a cruise down the Nile, this has ever since been called “The Egyptian”.  Thibaudet must have been wondering whether he, Järvi and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra were all on the same boat for today’s musical journey.  
 
Jarvi’s hand often strayed from the tiller, and the orchestra was left floundering around, wondering which direction to take.  The charming oriental melody in the second movement from the piano and the clever gamelan-type effects from the orchestra came as little moments of solid ground in an otherwise wobbly performance.  Luckily, Thibaudet took command of the final movement and brought it into harbour with enough panache to get the audience clamouring for more.
 
All orchestral percussionists relish a challenge, and Dutchman Henk de Vlieger is no exception.  Responding to a challenge thrown down by his conductor in 1992, he set out to distil the 15 hours of music in Wagner’s epic four-part Ring Cycle into a single, hour long concert work. The result - The Ring – An Orchestral Adventure – splices together all the big tunes from the original, cutting out the action, the voices and the boring bits.
 
Buoyed up by four harps, a fistful of French Horns and Wagner Tubas, and a veritable battery of percussion including a weighty profusion of anvils (which sounded uncannily like the inside of a clock museum around midday) the SSO threw themselves at this luscious score with enormous enthusiasm.
 
Unfortunately, so did Järvi, and the ensuing lack of discipline led to some horribly scrappy moments – the worst being a general silence just before the final ecstatic apotheosis which was anything but silent.
 
Against this, however, there were marvellous, unforgettable moments.  The Magic Fire Music positively shimmered with intensity, and the woodwind bird calls against dreamily murmuring strings were simply captivating. 
 
Best of all was Siegfried’s stirring horn call brilliantly delivered by Han Chang Chou in what must be, for me, the most memorable single musical moment of 2017.  Which was just as well.  Much of the rest of this concert I would prefer to forget.  This was not the SSO’s finest hour.

  
A Night At The Opera
Diana Damarau (soprano), Nicolas Teste (bass-baritone), Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Pavel Baleff
Esplanade Concert Hall
Wednesday (1 November)

This was a gala concert aimed at opera lovers, and they certainly got their money’s worth.  But if, by some astonishing error of judgement, somebody had turned up expecting a normal orchestral concert, they would surely have left this marathon session feeling equally satisfied.

A combination of two marvellous singers, an orchestra on absolutely cracking form and a conductor whose direction was nothing short of inspirational, made this a night to remember.
Pavel Baleff may not be a household name, even among classical music aficionados, but his conducting inspired the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to a level of excellence they rarely achieve and which, one suspects, surprised even them.

Clear, precise, economical with gesture and with a commanding presence which ensured this programme of 16 individual items flowed seamlessly, Baleff laid his cards on the table at the very start with an incisive and immensely musical interpretation of Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture.  The dynamics, ranging from a whimpering whisper to a thrilling thunder, were perfectly measured for maximum effect, and the controlled precision of the playing was marvellous to behold.
Even more impressive was the famous Dance of the Hours, which got the audience screaming with enthusiasm.  The Prelude to the Flying Dutchman did much to restore the SSO’s Wagner credentials after last weekend’s wobbly efforts.

Bass-baritone Nicolas Teste has a voice full of rich, opulent darkness and, compelling as he was in King Phillip’s aria from Verdi’s Don Carlos, he really came into his own in Mogst du, mein Kind from The Flying Dutchman.  His austere, monumental vocal presence seemed ideal for the night after Halloween.
The concert’s headline act was Teste’s wife, the soprano Diana Damrau.  The whole programme was a testament to her intelligent and imaginative approach, drawing on arias which were not necessarily what we might have expected, but which brought together genuine musical interest with lavish opportunities to display her remarkable vocal powers

The usual suspects in any operatic soprano recital were there – Una voce poco fa from The Barber of Seville, Je Veux Vivre from Romeo et Juliette and, of course, Sempre Libera from La Traviata  – as well as relative rarities – from Bellini and Meyerbeer. 

On all of these Damrau put her own unique stamp, effortlessly filling the hall with a voice which had such physical presence that it was like being drawn into a warm, colourful and intense embrace.  Add to this the occasional pirouette and a great deal of expressive hand action, and everything was transformed from being an operatic aria into a vivid and compelling character portrait.  This was singing of a quality few in Singapore will have experienced at first hand before.

03 November 2017

Colombia's Best-Kept Secret




It would be pretty difficult to get further away from Singapore than Colombia.  That, certainly, is a fair reason why most Singaporeans know so little about that South American country.  But in today’s world, with its ease of travel and communications, there is no excuse why one of its most impressive treasures remains largely hidden from international view.

Colombian singer Betty Garcés made her Asian début last night in Singapore, and while a large enough audience of Colombian expats and Singapore vocal students and teachers had assembled, few, if any, were quite prepared for what followed.

This was a stunning voice, a magnificent performing presence and a consummate artist.  The standing ovation which she received after her 90 minute recital was entirely deserved, as was the level of perplexity voiced by so many at the post-recital reception about why it was this astounding talent had not already made its mark on the wider world.  In short, voices like Betty Garcés are sufficiently rare for them to be deserving of the widest international attention.  A quick series of emails and calls to friends in the business around the world have reinforced the picture of a voice nobody seems to have encountered; it’s not just Singapore which has been basking in ignorance of this astonishing talent.

With immense power, consistency and monumental presence, her voice filled the hall and could have easily filled a space several times as large.  Diction was fabulous, and the delivery was such that we did not need texts or translations (just as well – there weren’t any) to know exactly she was singing about.  Minimal hand actions and discrete facial expressions were all that was needed to support a vocal instrument of this superb quality.  One or two very top notes, perhaps, felt a trifle strained, but in matters of pitch, projection, control and expression, there was nothing to explain why this voice has not joined the pantheon of great sopranos in demand the world over.

Accompanied by fellow-Colombian Alejandro Roca, who gave a couple of brief introductions, Betty Garcés’ programme fell neatly into two halves.  The first was devoted to songs from the early decades of the 20th century. 

Opening with a selection of five songs from Joseph Marx (1882-1964), she instantly captured hearts with her sumptuous and beautifully poised voice, revelling in the intoxicating world of Marx’s opulent post-Richard Strauss harmonic palette.  And, as if to reinforce the almost incredible impression she had made with the opening songs, a performance of the indescribably beautiful “Marietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt was itself indescribably beautiful.  Puccini seems very much her thing – one could imagine this voice as the ideal Mimi – but it was not La bohème here nor indeed anything operatic.  Instead, Garcés chose three rare Puccini songs – Sole e amore, Sogno d’Or and Morire – and sung them with such purity and sincere affection that one can only hope she will get round to recording them one day.  I know two of them, at least, from a recording with Kiri Te Kanawa; and I would not like to say which of these two singers is the better in this repertory.  A bit of true Italian opera did creep in with Adriana’s aria from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and it was only to be expected that Garcés sung it with total and complete assurance and conviction.

If, in the first half, she had established the fact that she was an exceptionally gifted and sensitive soprano, in the second she paid homage to her homeland – or, at least, her home continent.  Some Villa Lobos and Ginastera were impressive.  Spellbinding would be a better word for Francesco Braga’s Engenho Novo.  Not a song I had ever encountered before, the demands it places on the tongue (rattling off syllables at a rate of knots) the lungs (never apparently pausing for breath) and the brain would seem virtually insurmountable.  Yet Garcés delivered it with effortless fluency, bringing humour and joy into what must have been an extremely challenging two-and-a-half minute sing. 

She offered a lovely selection of six songs by the Colombian composer Jaime Léon (1921-2015) which, as Roca had suggested, would almost certainly have been the first time they had been heard in Singapore.  Garcés certainly sold the songs on us, so compelling and beautiful was her performance of them, and as for the last one, Letra para cantar al son del arpa with its spectacular harp-like piano glissandi, tossed off with great relish by Roca, if this does not find itself in the repertory of at least one of the Singapore vocal students in the audience I would be very surprised.

Garcés proved to be a brilliant ambassador for Colombia’s musical life.  She also showed herself to be one of the great sopranos of our time.  Perhaps it’s time the world got to know it.

24 October 2017

Puzzling Piano Pedagogues


Is there any field of practical human activity in which those who teach do not, and never have, practised?  Are there driving instructors who cannot drive, parachute instructors who have never jumped?  Do medical doctors learn their skills from those who have never faced a patient, or chefs from those who have never handled food? 

Incredible though it may seem, there is one.  Moreover, it is not so much a practical activity in which some of those who teach are not practitioners, but that the vast majority of teachers of it are not, have not, and will never be practitioners of it.  In the world of piano teaching, a complete lack of experience in playing the piano is not so much common as the norm.

I must state straight away that this is not the case when it comes to advanced piano teachers.  In our conservatory in Singapore I count among my colleagues eminent piano professors who regularly prove their unquestionable piano performing skills in the public arena.  The situation – I don’t call it a problem since it is such standard practice – of the non-practitioner teaching exists more at the earlier stages of the teaching process.

It does not seem to exist in other branches of music.  My first French horn teacher was a man called Alan Civil, whose name lives on almost 30 years after his death through his legacy of great recordings.  My first harp teacher was a glorious lady with the wonderful name of Glenys Gordon-Fleet who was Principal Harp of the BBC Welsh Orchestra.  And while I began my organ lessons with my father and later a man called Peter Mound – both highly-respected church organists - I was just 14 when I was sent to be a pupil of Michael Austin, a virtuoso recitalist on the international circuit and an extremely inspirational teacher.  And beyond my immediate personal experience, my daughter’s first violin lessons were from a leading figure in the Scots fiddle world who is also a regular fixture in several prominent ensembles.  So what is it about the piano which gives credibility to the non-practitioner’s guidance of the potential practitioner?

There are, of course, many answers to this apparent contradiction, not the least of which is the unique place the piano has in society and its ubiquitousness in the domestic environment.  And it is an indisputable fact that many piano teachers with no performing experience or ambition are really very good indeed; just because Mrs Smith, Mdm Wong or Mr Levy-Ragonstein has never played the piano in public is no barrier to them being excellent piano teachers.  But that begs two questions.  Firstly, what IS a good piano teacher and, secondly, how can they teach something of which they have no practical experience?

The second question is easy, and I draw on my own experience.  Like most students, I found I was able to make a bit of money by doing some private piano teaching.  When I left the warm, safe embrace of my student life and battled out into the nasty reality of life in the adult world, I carried on as a piano teacher, and built up a large body of pupils.  I hated every single moment, because I knew I did not really know what I was doing.  Yes, I could sit down with a student and watch them play scales, tell them where they had played a wrong note (as if they didn’t already know) and drill into them the mechanical actions which enabled them to pass their music exams.  But I knew in my heart of hearts that if they had turned to me and said “I need you to teach me the Liszt Dante Sonata as I’m playing it in the Wigmore Hall next month”, my façade as a knowledgeable teacher would crumble.  I had no idea how to play the Liszt Dante Sonata, certainly could not even dream of playing it myself and, moreover, I had no idea how to face a Wigmore Hall audience.

(That dislike of teaching stayed with me for years, to the extent that I refused to teach for over three decades, eventually relenting only when a number of erstwhile pupils persuaded me to take them on as organ pupils.  I am a practising organist with a pretty good background in performing, and I suddenly realised that, since I knew my stuff and had real practical experience of the skill, teaching the organ was an extreme pleasure.  My students all did extraordinarily well by their own terms, and I bitterly, bitterly regret that, based in Singapore with no access to an organ nor any potential pupils, I no longer teach.)

I had been able to set myself up as a piano teacher, not because of my experience (as a student I had none) but because the market took no heed of credentials.  If I said I could teach the piano, that was enough, and the pupils flocked in.  Parents did not know any better, and paid up happy that their children seemed to be progressing and periodically taking home bits of paper with words like “Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music”, “Examination” and “Distinction” elegantly printed on them.

Much more difficult is to define what makes a good teacher.  And it is this issue which has led to the common practice of people attempting to teach something of which they have no real knowledge or experience.

For me, a good teacher inspires and encourages, sets an example through their own experience and demonstrates how to negotiate the practical obstacles along the path of gaining professional competency in the skill being taught.  Yet, when most teachers have no practical experience to draw from nor are able to show, from personal experience, how to negotiate the inevitable obstacles along the path of a professional career, there has to be some other yardstick which substitutes for practical experience yet still appears to legitimise the teacher’s practical credentials.

Step forward the graded music exam.

A vast worldwide industry has been set up around graded music exams, generating vast numbers of self-sustaining career opportunities in the pursuit of the ultimately sterile attainment of a certificate.  While violinists, cellists, organists, brass and wind players, harpists and even singers are trained to perform, most pianists are trained to pass exams.  Without the graded exam, the piano teaching industry would collapse and vast numbers of ersatz-professionals transformed at a stroke into inexperienced amateurs.

It doesn’t perhaps read that way, and I admit to feelings of cynicism, but this is not a criticism of the situation, merely an observation of it.  Most of the piano teachers I have met are well-meaning, caring and conscientious folk; it is the environment in which they work, where the focus is not so much on acquiring a practical skill as acquiring an ultimately pointless certification, which I feel is so weird.

19 October 2017

The Death of Programme Notes


Of the many roles I’ve played in the musical world, without a doubt my favourite is, and has always been, writing programme notes for concerts, liner notes for CDs and – yes, I’m THAT old – sleeve notes for LPs.  The joy of researching around music both familiar and unfamiliar in order to entice listeners to listen to it in a new way and to introduce it to those who have not heard it before, coupled with my insatiable love of language, never ceases to stimulate me.  Writing for a readership which embraces the complete span of prior knowledge, understanding and interest is an irresistible challenge, while the urge to share with others the complete joy I get out of music drives me every day of my life. 

Call me selfish, but I think the loss of the sleeve note, the demise of the liner note and the widespread abandonment of the programme note is nothing short of catastrophic.  Yes, the playing is the thing which matters most, but what is the use of playing a piece of music when, for the audience, it is an empty meaningless sound, devoid of any social, political or historical context.  A great performance should have even greater impact when the background to the music is explained; a mediocre performance should accrue some purpose when the music is put in context and given a human face.  These are the jobs of the writer; and it is a skill which not everyone possesses.

Technology killed the sleeve and liner notes.  The blind rush to embrace the new without regard to what remained of value in the old, has seen most people develop a relationship with music as a free digital experience unencumbered by literary or intellectual baggage.  The result; a generation of musical ignoramuses who know what things sound like but do not know what they mean, and happily impose bland adjectives like “beautiful” and “nice” on music which was intended to be neither.  A performer who prefaced a performance of the E minor Partita at a recital I attended recently by telling us that before Bach wrote the work “he had personally buried 12 of his children” was being as grotesquely simplistic as he was being factually wrong.  Yet nobody in the audience seemed to bat an eyelid at this blatant piece of monumental ignorance.

What is killing the concert programme note is a combination of indifference, financial constraints, political correctness and diminishing attention spans.

Indifference:  If you go to a concert where a programme booklet is available, study its contents. Beyond the adverts – many of which have seen more imagination and thought gone into the copy than the notes about the music itself – what do you find?  Lists of names of course (and that is essential – I think you do need to know who is on stage and who has worked behind the scenes), and biographies of the artists. 

And this is where we find our first problem.  Increasingly, these artist biographies are unedited reprints of marketing materials sent by agents invariably with the instruction “Not to be Edited or Altered in any way without prior consent”.  This provides enough of a threat to send any junior marketing person in an orchestra office into “leave-me-out-of-it” mode, plonk the entire ridiculous blurb into the book, and fill a handful of pages with no mental effort.  In this way, interns have been responsible for killing off much of the value and quality of programme books.  And if any space is left for notes about the music, it will usually be a small chunk of text, as often as not written by someone with a smattering of half-baked understanding about music history. 

Now look around at the concert audience; how many of them are reading the notes in the booklet?  The chances are none.  Why read something so superficial and uninteresting? Best simply to look at the pictures and study the ads.

When I was a diploma examiner for Trinity College London, we began to ask candidates to submit their own programme notes.  While I read them assiduously, often checked references and double-checked facts, most of my colleagues did not.  They simply looked at the word count and issued a mark accordingly.  Most handed the notes back to the candidate at the end of the exam (I think this practice has now been banned – I hope so) insensitive to the hours of effort that had been expended on their composition.  If I mentioned to a fellow examiner that some fact or other was wrong, the response invariably was, “we can’t be expected to check all the facts”.  Such indifference completely undermined (perhaps still does) the value of programme notes.  Many candidates simply cut and paste from Wikipedia the night before the exam, with no consequence on their final result.  But there were (and, thankfully, still are) the few who really cared, whose teachers recognised that, if nothing else, the practice of writing programme notes helped foster a deeper understanding of the music beyond the mere technical challenges it presented.  If you see a diploma as a means of education rather than as a piece of paper, the programme notes are truly invaluable - and I urge all teachers and students to think about this.  If, on the other hand, a diploma is just an acquisition, by all means treat the programme notes with indifference - chances are, you'll get away with it! (I offer my personalised guidance on this to all who ask - but precious few do!) 

 

Financial constraints.  A couple of years back when a major festival was being planned for Singapore, an eminent violinist approached me and asked if I would write the notes “as we want to have interesting, informative and knowledgeable programme notes to reflect the quality of the playing”.  I eagerly agreed and named a fee.  “Oh!” came the horrified response, “We were not budgeting for that”.  I wonder if she would be willing to present a recital for me free of charge.  Of course not, and I would be neither rude enough nor thoughtless enough to ask.  My knowledge and skill has been honed over years and at great personal cost – just as hers has been.  Why is my contribution, therefore, so contemptuously dismissed?  All my professional life I have been battling against those who feel that anybody can write about music, so why bother to pay somebody to do it well? 

 

Political Correctness.  Putting music in its societal and historic context often involves reminding us about the morals and ethics of the past.  These can be both uncomfortable and difficult.  When I was programme annotator for the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, I was forever having to tread delicately over Islamic sensitives when discussing the music of those composers who, through no fault of their own, had lived in times which did not share the ethics of late 20th century Malaysian Muslims. 

And it’s not just religious; a recent note submitted to a US concert agency about a Haydn work which had been commissioned with money from the slave trade was rejected on the grounds that this was an unacceptably contentious issue, while I had to fight long and hard with one Asian orchestra to convince them that Leroy Anderson was not black, so did not belong in a programme highlighting music from “forgotten minorities”.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Political Correctness killing the concert programme note is the current fad for “green”.  In Singapore, the programme booklet is a dying thing.  Go to most concerts and you are told to download the programme by scanning a QR code.  Since I never take my phone to concerts, I am denied access to programmes, so have no idea who the performers are or what they are playing.  Others find that, once they have set eyes on their mobile screens, they cannot tear themselves away, and sit happily studying the phones in blissful ignorance of the music going on around them.  But the most ridiculous thing about this is that it is not “green” at all.  Ask the children mining for precious rare metals in Africa, the villagers seeing multi-national corporations come in to rape and plunder their ancestral lands, how “Green” our obsession with smartphones is.  Compare that with the managed forests and plantations which supply the paper industry.  And give me trees cut down to make paper anytime over the iniquitous desecration of natural habitats in order to fill the ground with environmentally devastating palm oil plantations.  At least a forest cut down to make paper can be replanted.  Precious metals cannot be replaced, nor can land given over to palm oil be re-fertilised.

 

Diminishing Attention Spans:  The idea of sitting down reading a block of text is anathema to even the most earnest students today, it seems.  Who can devote five minutes of their life to reading about the sacrifices and tribulations a composer went through to create a great work of art, when the allure of Twitter puts pointless rubbish (aka Trumpisms) in easy reach, taking less than a minute to read, absorb and dismiss?  Increasingly the few remaining commissioners of programme notes impose ever diminishing word counts, to the extent that nothing of value can be provided; their argument?  “People do not like to be faced with large chunks of text”.  A bit of imaginative designing and clever use of photographs and illustrations would help, but there again, that costs money, requires thought and is unnecessary if your programmes are available as downloads for miniscule smartphone screens.

We must recognise that programme notes have only been a common element of the listening experience for a century or so, and perhaps are not seen by many as an essential part of the concert-going, music-hearing environment.  But as the origins of so much of the music we hear slips beyond collective memory and into a world of forgotten and misunderstood societies, somebody needs to remind audiences (and performers) what those societies stood for and what they expected of their musicians.  You could read lengthy and scholarly tomes, you could take a chance and hope that a Wikipedia contributor has done his homework, but best for the audience is to have someone who cares present what you need to know to appreciate the music better in neat, readable and suitably focused language.  That is my skill (and that of a handful of other like-minded souls) and I regret that it has become completely devalued by our society’s elevation of ignorance.

13 October 2017

Black Scottish Horn Players



Among the discs reviewed recently (this particular review appears on the MusicWeb International website, from which the disc can be purchased) was one entitled Edinburgh 1742, and comprising music written by Handel and Barsanti.  I liked the playing, the recording and the music - as, perhaps, you can gather from my reprinted review below.  But what intrigued me most about this was something I read in Michael Talbot's outstanding booklet notes.

The French Horn took on a particular resonance in English "high" society during the 18th century.  (Don't give me that gaff about Edinburgh being in Scotland, not England - I know that: I live there for part of the year.  In the 18th century, the concept of Britain was largely non-existent.  The English crown and government had subsumed Scotland and, to all intents and purposes among those in the "higher" levels of society, Edinburgh was just another fine English city.  It would have been anathema for the ladies and gentlemen of Edinburgh society to consider themselves Scots - until Sir Walter Scott came along with his romantic notions of a distinct Scottish character, the term Scots was more-or-less synonymous with lower-class and common.)

Back to the French Horn.  It would seem that any wealthy family worth its salt employed a couple of horn players to act as urban doorbells, announcing arrivals and departures, and as early car horns, travelling with the family coach to clear the way and warn of progress.  The implication given off was that the family spent much of its time in its country estate on the hunting field - the horn's natural habitat - so when back in town, the necessary horn players for the hunt, were given other duties.  That's interesting enough, but what Talbot goes on to point out is that often these horn players were black.

With the slave trade at its peak - Bristol was the hub of that particular activity - those who made their money from trading human beings, would often cherry-pick from their cargoes to find suitably imposing domestic servants not just for themselves, but for their friends and associates.  To have a couple of black men on display outside your front door playing the French Horn, was clearly a tremendous symbol of power and prestige; and the fact is that these former slaves from west Africa via the cotton and sugar plantations of the southern states of the USA seemed to have a peculiar penchant for powerful horn playing.

This, at least, is the impression I get from reading Talbot's essay, nourished, of course, by my own fervid imagination.   But how true a picture is it of 18th century English life? 

It might seem purely speculative were it not for this news item which BBC Wales presented on 24th March 2007 (from which the picture at the head of this post is taken).

"Among the attractions tourists will be able to see again at Erddig Hall, near Wrexham, is a well-known 18th Century image of the slave trade.  The National Trust property is home to the Negro Coachboy, a portrait of a black youth thought to be owned by the mansion's founder, John Mellor.
The bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery Act is on Sunday.  The painting, also known as the 'Negro Minstrel', 'Black Boy' or 'Mellor's Coachboy' hangs in the servants' hall.  Painted around 1720, it is still not clear whether the youngster was a slave taken to live and work at Erddig Hall by Mellor, who was a wealthy London lawyer, or whether he was just a figment of an artist's imagination. A verse written at the house decades later offers a clue to the painting's origins, claiming the boy worked at the hall and was given a Christian burial locally, but it cannot be confirmed. Jeremy Cragg, house and collections manager, said Mellor was not involved in the slave trade, but like many wealthy people of his time might have had a slave boy as a 'fashion accessory'."

It seems that here is a piece of English music history which managed to get itself swept under the carpet by the Political Correctness Brigade, terrified of offending black people by suggesting that, once upon a time, long ago, some of them may have been forced into slavery or treated as curiosities by white people.  It certainly is worth further investigation.  In the meantime, here's my review of the Linn disc, "Edinburgh 1742".


There is some relevance in the title (Edinburgh 1742) , but the really unifying feature in this programme is the pair of French Horns which appear in all but one of the works recorded here.  But before going any further, I must register my unreserved admiration for the excellent booklet notes by Michael Talbot who, in recent years, has turned his perceptive scholarly gaze, previously concentrated on Vivaldi, to focus more intently on Francesco Barsanti.  He offers here some of the most informative, readable and absorbing notes I have ever come across with a CD.  Beyond the enticing outline sketch of Barsanti’s life – born in Lucca, abandoned law for music, established a solid reputation as an oboist (“permanently in the background, never seeking the limelight”), travelled to London in 1723 and in 1735 joined the Edinburgh Musical Society where he “settled into the role of factotum, even acquiring a set of timpani to play in the Society’s orchestra” – Talbot gives us a wonderful insight into the role of the French Horn in 18th century Britain. 

We read that the instrument graduated “from the forest to the house, the street and the waterway” and developed “a deep social resonance” in 18th century English society.  Any nobleman or rich merchant would have a pair of servants employed to play French Horns  to announce domestic arrivals and departures.  Intriguingly, Talbot tells us that many of these servants were black, having themselves graduated from house-slaves in America, and gained a high reputation for their prowess as horn players.  The very portability of the French Horn made it a particular feature of water parties. 

Of course, the obvious indicator of this in in Handel’s Water Music, and, given Talbot’s intriguing insight into the unique place the French Horn had in English high society, perhaps we might have thought that the inclusion of at least part of that work on this disc would be obvious.   The tracklist makes no mention of it, but it is here, albeit in disguise!  The Concerto in F HWV331 is Handel’s own reworking of two movements from the second of the Water Music Suites, excising the trumpets from the original and transposing the whole thing into the horn-friendly key of F major.  Alec Frank-Gemmill and Joseph Walters bubble along cheerfully in these boisterous movements finding an enticing balance between the rawness of the natural horn and the elegance of a well-turned concert tone, each phrase intelligently moulded and the whole thing given a marvellous buoyancy by some suitably exotic ornamental flourishes.

The other Handel items also employ a pair of French Horns, but in very different capacities.  The March in Ptolemy was written for a Hanoverian military band and became hugely popular amongst the London public in the early days of the Hanoverian monarchy.  The aria from Alcina adds a pair of horns to the mix, but here they are something of a novelty adding a wonderfully vivid edge to this tremendously invigorating depiction of an angry tigress in its lair deciding whether or not to run from the hunters.  Emilie Renard delivers a stupendously powerful vocal line, shaking with suppressed anger and energy.   You can almost feel her claws!

But where, you must be asking, does Edinburgh and, in particular, the year 1742 fit into the picture?  Barsanti, as we read, was based in Edinburgh between 1735 and 1743, marrying a Scots girl and visiting many parts of the country.  The 1742 connection comes from the fact that the five Concerti Grossi on this recording (each employing a pair of French Horns) as well as A Collection of Old Scots Tunes were published in Edinburgh in 1742  (according to Grove – Talbot suggests they appeared a year later).

Since the bulk of the programme is devoted to Barsanti’s Concerti Grossi for two horns, timpani and strings (Op.3 contains five more for trumpet, oboe and timpani, not recorded here), it might be appropriate to discuss these in some detail.   While Handel never visited Edinburgh (so far as we know) his and Barsanti’s paths crossed in London after Barsanti’s return to the English capital in 1743, and there is something distinctly Handelian about Concerto No.1, although the unmistakable stamp of Vivaldi is discernible in much of the violin writing.  For the first two movements the horns very much play a secondary role to the string ensemble, with the timpani rumbling away in the background.  But they then take the lead for a vivacious Allegro and have a somewhat concertante role in the concluding Menuet.  The Vivaldi influence is even more pronounced with the opening of Concerto No.2, where the horns and timpani again assume a somewhat concertante role.  Concerto No.3 opens with a Sostenuto movement in which that famous rhythmic device, the Scotch Snap, seems to figure (and is much vaunted under Peter Whelan’s direction), while the horns crown the music with their stately presence.  The second movement has more than a hint of the hunting field about it as the string ensemble gallops along hotly pursued by the horns and timpani.  Concerto no.4 is the only one with three movements, and in its opening movement the horns sound out in a blaze of glory above busily fugal strings. The adagio from Concerto No.5 is mostly in the form of a swaying Siciliano for the two horns with a basic string accompaniment, while the same Concerto’s Menuet opens with a powerful timpani solo played with startling presence by Alan Emslie.

In all five Concerti Grossi the Edinburgh-based Ensemble Marsyas play with impeccable stylistic elegance.  The dance movements – all of the concertos end with a Menuet – have a pleasing rhythmic lilt, and the clarity of articulation is particularly impressive in the contrapuntal passages.  Occasionally I wonder whether the continuo is pushed a little too far into the background, and the ornamentation often has a slightly false feel to it, but Peter Whelan directs clean-cut, intricately detailed and disciplined performances which largely avoid pretentious display or extravagant exhibitionism. 

The four short Old Scots Tunes from Barsanti’s collection of 30, are performed by Colin Scobie who produces a lovely quasi-Scots fiddle sound with some wholly idiomatic gestures and nimbly executed slides in the well-known strathspey The birks of Invermay.  Accompanied by the deft cello of Gulrum Choi and the tinkling harpsichord of Philippe Grisvard, the overall effect is slightly schizophrenic – is this Italianate baroque or Scots traditional? – but decidedly pleasing; as is this entire disc.