27 February 2017

Distinction Secrets

“Some Believe That to Get Distinction You Need To Be Special.  We Believe That To Get Distinction You Need To Know The SECRETS!”

I came across that (or something very close to it) pasted to a window of a small private music studio tucked away in an ill-lit corridor in some forgotten shopping mall over in the east side of Singapore.  Having just spent a couple of interesting hours in the company of some ABRSM examiners who had just arrived to undertake their extended examining tours, it got me thinking.  Are there SECRETS to getting a Distinction?

With 40 years as a graded music examiner for the two principal boards (ABRSM and Trinity) I have frequently been asked that question.  Are there exam techniques (ie. special tricks) which, if the candidates employs them, the examiner will automatically award Distinction?

Certainly I have had plenty of those tricks tried on me.  In Malaysia on no less than four occasion I was unsubtly offered inducements to look favourably on a certain teacher’s students.  Many of us examiners have found ourselves put into a very difficult position by having been offered what seems like genuine hospitality from people overseas only to realise, far too late in the day, that this innocent social intercourse is in fact intended to put pressure on the examiners; I never forget one particular occasion in Hong Kong where three of us, very seasoned examiners, were asked to comment on a singer in a restaurant, to which we had been invited as guests of the proprietor.  A few days later one of us (not me, thankfully) reported that the same singer we had politely praised, appeared in the examination room as a candidate. 

The trouble with examiners coming from the UK (as the vast majority of them do) to examine in other parts of the world, is that they do not understand the different business ethics, where inducements are considered perfectly normal, and where pressure to gain Distinction is way beyond anything they have experienced back home.  I cannot speak for others, but inducements never achieved the desired result with me.  As I often reported, when informing the various Boards of these situations, I accepted all inducements to avoid causing offence, and promptly ignored them all.

So what other secrets might help a candidate achieve Distinction?

Firstly, there is the choice of examiner.  Try as the Boards might to achieve a wholly artificial uniformity amongst their examiners (if no two people ever listen to music the same way, why should examiners be expected to do so?), there is no doubt that some examiners are more prone to handing out Distinctions than others.  I knew of one examiner who suggested (and not entirely flippantly), that if the candidate had taken the effort to prepare for the exam, they deserved high marks.  Some examiners are more generous when confronted by a younger candidate at a high grade (and Trinity commit the ultimate sin by letting their examiners know the ages of each candidate); I remember arguing at length with another seasoned examiner who told me how she had awarded the highest mark she ever had at a grade 6 “because this sweet little child was just FIVE YEARS OLD!”  And there is a widespread belief in some societies that women examiners are more harsh than their male counterparts, and that young examiners are meaner markers than older ones.  I was once involved in sifting through entry forms which included a box marked “special requests”, and was surprised how many put as their special request “Elderly White Male Examiner please!”

But, unless there is some secret way of determining who the examiner is going to be (and I do not believe there is), then this is a purely chance element over which the teacher has no control.

Perhaps a secret over which the teacher/candidate has a little more control is in the choice of repertory.  If the composer of a piece is also the examiner (something which seemed to happen a lot in my days with the ABRSM), teachers felt that, by choosing their piece, the student stood a better chance of gaining a Distinction.  Similarly, much effort would be made to find out who the examiner was (something which the ABRSM used to hold as a state secret, but which Trinity never did, often announcing the examiner and giving the examiner’s full biography, weeks before the exams) in order to find out what their personal likes and dislikes were.  An examiner who declared an interest in the music of Chopin would often find candidates playing Chopin to him, while another examiner who had written about the “error” of using a pedal in Bach, would find all the Bach works presented to him in the examination room delivered senza pedale.  I’m not sure, however, that this ever worked; examiners are much too preoccupied with their administrative tasks in the examination room to recognise the efforts made to entice a higher mark through choice of music or style of performance.

Deep post-exam analysis by teachers is often carried out as a means of trying to identify a pattern.  “All the examiners seem to ask for F sharp major in contrary motion at Grade 5.  Examiners never ask for C major in Grade 7” and so on.  But while some examiners do have their own private list of scales and exercises to ask, there is no central directive on this, and the technical work asked in the exam is entirely random, within the parameters of the syllabus.

So if choice of examiner, choice of repertory or section of technical work has no effect on the result, what does?  Increasingly, the technique of an appeal seems to be a teacher’s weapon of choice.  There was a time with the ABRSM (in the days of the inimitable Pam Harewood) when any complaint from a teacher was met with a stern, curt and dismissive reply.  Candidates and teachers are now seen as “customers” who need to be induced to retain brand loyalty in an evermore competitive market, so an appeal is almost automatically met with an official assumption of the examiner’s error, and customer satisfaction is assured by an upward revision of the mark.

However, beyond wondering what secrets there were in obtaining a Distinction, the notice I read also made me wonder why there was considered a need to obtain a Distinction in the first place.  If we accept (as we should) that a graded music exam is no indicator of musical ability – just an indicator of an ability to perform specific skills – what value is there in a Distinction?  Passing an exam, is, surely, enough, and with that the student can get on with the serious business of studying music rather than exam technique.

Unfortunately, within south-east Asian society where there is a widespread inability to recognise musical ability, the ability to recognise paper qualifications is endemic.  We all have stories of great musicians shunned because they have not got a paper qualification.  Singapore’s Ministry of Education or National Arts Council would never entertain any application from the likes of Bach, Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven because they have no paper qualifications to show for their endeavours.  Rather like the academic who publishes reams and reams of pointless and incomprehensible gibberish simply because tenure in post demands an active record of publication, the sterile attainment of qualifications undermines the whole raison d’etre of their existence.

In that culture, Distinction does matter, and every trick known to mankind (and few besides) is brought into play in an attempt to guarantee Distinction.

But, in truth, there are no secrets to it.  With assiduous practice and hard work, any student should pass.  A student who actually enjoys their music-making and is not too stifled by the constraints of an examination might well get Merit.  But for a Distinction, only two things seem to help.  Being exceptionally skilled as a technician – with agile fingers and a pin-point level of accuracy – or having a natural musical instinct which shines through even when confronted by the horribly constraining environment of an examination. 

If it was left to me, I’d give up the chase for a Distinction, be happy with a Pass, and then go on and enjoy my music.  But for too many, music has nothing to do with enjoyment, and everything to do with hard work, misery and artistic sterility.  It’s not the fault of the examination boards that they stifle musical enjoyment; rather, it’s the fault of those who believe that the sole purpose of a musical examination is to get a Distinction.

20 February 2017

A Mainstream Concert With Attitude

Under a blazing sun and in the wilting mid-afternoon heat I made my way to a non-descript glass building, more a short corridor, stuck on a glorified traffic island in the middle of town.  With traffic surrounding it and a metro station underneath - its exits surfacing at either end of the building - this may seem an odd venue for a Sunday afternoon tryst. 

I do, perhaps, paint rather a gloomier picture than the reality deserves; this traffic island is, like so much else in Singapore, lush and green, and the carefully manicured lawns and neatly spaced rows of trees cleverly blot out the sound and smell of traffic and busy comings and goings of underground rail travellers, while the building itself is usually used as a kind of pop-up art gallery enticing the culturally-starved commuter to while away a few minutes during a break in the daily grind.  This was, however, a Sunday.  There were no commuters and there were no paintings on view.

So what was going on inside, carefully screened from any passers-by by means of comprehensive window blinds?  Why were I, and a handful of other individuals, all making our separate ways there for a 4pm assignation?  There were no posters, no notices, and no indication that this was anything other than a private, closed-door gathering.

It had all the indications of some kind of subversive meeting, and those who took the trouble to peer inside through a gap in the blinds would have seen a dozen or so people all sitting staring at banks of computer screens and associated electronic paraphernalia.  Was this a covert meeting of subversive agents who had hacked into the computers of government or who had placed secret surveillance equipment in the residencies of the President and of the Prime Minister?  It certainly gave off that impression. 

In fact, it was a concert. 

Why is it that concerts of contemporary music are so keen to pass themselves off as detached from the mainstream of culture and to surround themselves with an aura of mystery which effectively shuts out any but the select view who are “in the know”?  Are they imitating the profusion of underground and subversive arts groups which underpinned the cultural and social revolutions of the 60s? Do they think that by hiding themselves away and speaking only to the initiated, they are somehow demonstrating themselves to be at the cutting edge of revolutionary art?

Certainly nothing at this Sunday afternoon concert was in any way revolutionary.  It was, in fact, a mainstream concert in all but attitude, and one which not only deserved a bigger audience than it was aiming for, but appeared to get one too.  As yet more people sidled in the door, a hurried attempt was made to find more seats, and coffee cups, bags, masses of wires and computer accessories and empty boxes were hurriedly moved on to the floor to allow a wooden bench to brought into service.  In the end, our number probably was not far off 20, and there were even a few hanging around outside who might have been lured in had it not been veiled in so much pointless secrecy.

And what did we hear?  Half a dozen new works, some of which were very good, some of which were all right, and some of which, I readily confess, lay way beyond my comprehension.

The best were undoubtedly Peter Edwards’s Ssoonro receiving its first performance, and Per Magnus Lindborg’s Búgó Resonances which has been around long enough (it was premièred in 2002) to become something of a mainstream repertory work.  Singapore’s ubiquitous Keyboard-Player-Of-Infinite-Talents, Shane Thio, gave a strongly individualistic account of the Lindborg, and if the mute glissandi did not quite come off as intended, the fault lay in the piano rather than the pianist. 

Peter Edwards’s work had the huge benefit of bassoonist-extraordinaire Christoph Wichert to undertake the things with his bassoon Edwards asked, and he did so with a fluency and ease which belied the extraordinary nature of what those things were.  Scored for bassoon and electronics (the latter managed by Wichert by means of a foot pedal) this was a highly accomplished new work which effectively matched strange effects from the bassoon with the electronically created sounds to produce an intriguing duet where the two merged into one more often than I would have thought possible.  In his introductory talk, Edwards explained how he had checked with Wichert to ensure the bassoon techniques he wrote were entirely playable by any competent bassoonist on any bassoon, and this desire to create a work which can, like the Lindborg, survive beyond its first performance and its original first performers, is something not every contemporary composer shares.  Well-crafted in terms of structure, it had a fine sense of ebb and flow, and was just the right length to sustain and support its ideas without ever overplaying its hand.

Which is not something Jiradej Setabundhu was able to do with his new work, also scored for bassoon and electronics.  Here Wichert chased a graphic score around, the score visible via computer screen to the assembled watchers and listeners, and while it was an arresting idea which worked extraordinarily well in places, it went on too long and the novelty quickly palled.  Entitled Fire it seemed to represent the bassoon’s attempts to stamp out small bursts of flame as they leapt up unexpectedly from all corners, but one rather wished Wichert had, in the end, put the bassoon down and simply unplugged the computer.

Piano Peals by Joyce Koh Bee Tuan was, as the title suggests, a bell-like exposition of some ideas on the piano accompanied by electronics, and as such it was effective.  Again Thio was a suitably convincing deliverer of the musical ideas.  It just never went anywhere or developed any of its ideas.  It was so tempting to look again at the way Edwards had crafted his work so that it had logic and shape to define the sounds and compare this to the somewhat aimless meanderings of Koh’s piece.

We were told that one work billed as being a “Singapore Première” by Tan Tuan Hao, was not going to be performed “for technical reasons”; code, I assume, either for it not having been finished or for having proven itself to be unplayable. 

So, instead, we had two hearings of Rama, billed as a “World Première”, by Liew Kongmeng, one at the start of the programme and the other at the end.  In neither performance did it work for me.  Liew had written for a quartet of fine musicians - Thio and Wichert were joined by flautist Roberto Alvarez and violist Janice Tsai – and he instructed them to improvise freely against the computerised sounds he was manipulating.  That in itself seemed a pretty pointless exercise to me, and it did not help that, on the first performance, Liew stopped the players in mid-improvisation to tell them he had not been ready, and they had to start it all again; add to this one of the audience calling out to Liew and giving him instructions about how to proceed, and you have something which goes beyond informality and borders on the incompetence.

Had this been all the work was about, I might have enjoyed the effect of four excellent musicians dreamily improvising away to a schedule of noises from the computer.  But this was not what the piece was all about.  Liew had instructed the audience to take out their phones and access a website, the address of which he put up for all to see.  (Said website had about the most complicated address imaginable, comprising random numbers and symbols.) He then told them that at this website there would be some buttons with which they could alter an image which was presented on a computer screen in front of the audience. 

Now, I have to confess to having lost the plot at this stage.  I routinely turn off my phone when I attend a concert, and to fire it up not only takes time but causes noises to emerge; so I chose not to.  On top of that, my phone’s battery life is not infinite, and with a further appointment that evening, I decided I needed to preserve the battery in case of later necessity and not waste it playing online games with others in the room.  So I am in no position to judge the effectiveness of this aspect of the performance.  But from where I was sitting it seemed that the image (a blob) responded without any obvious association to the music or from what the phone-merchants were tapping into their devices – more than one of the audience was seen shrugging shoulders as a repeated jab at the button yielded no affect at all to the blob on the screen (and in any case after the false start Liew had forgotten to put the image back up on the screen).

I am excited and enticed by multi-media (or at least, duo-media) presentations provided the media are complementary.  This just seemed as if the audience was being given an online game to play while the music sounded, and if there was a connection, I am afraid it passed me by.

That issue aside, I am enormously glad I made my way to this secret location and indulged in this subversive bit of cultural elitism.  I only wish these composers were more happy to share their work with the wider world and not feel that they need to try it out in semi-private conditions first of all; this was generally much better than that.

15 February 2017

Page Turning Technologies

If this is a sign of things to come, I, for one, am all for it, but there are implications which we are in danger of overlooking.

Yesterday I attended a recital given by the Stradivari Quartet.  They performed two of Schumann’s quartet’s and Janáček’s Intimate Letters. I reviewed it for the Straits Times so if you are at all interested in my thoughts on their playing and programme, you can read it on their website.  What my review does not mention was the matter which struck me most forcibly about their visual presentation.

The first violin, Wang Xiaoming, appeared to be playing from a large number of photocopied sheets stuck together in a kind of concertina fashion which needed considerable reorganisation between movements.  Nothing wrong in that at all; he can add his bowings and articulation markings without spoiling his original copy and this allows him the flexibility to change subtleties in performance according to the venue.  I could not really see from where I was sitting (and it didn’t help that in the row in front was a particularly badly-behaved young boy), but I think he only used the one music stand – although I would not have been surprised had he used two.

The second violin, Sebastian Bohren, played from a standard copy placed squarely on the music stand before him.  He had prepared his page turns and between movements took the opportunity to check that all the necessary corners were turned up so they were within easy reach once the playing was underway.

The cellist, Maja Weber, had an iPad on her music stand, and periodically stabbed at it and delivered a dramatic swipe to move the page along. So dramatic and aggressive were some of her swipes, that I wondered how she had trained herself not to push through several pages at once, but it all seemed to work well.  Between movements she adjusted the placing of the iPad on the stand in that habit all musicians have in performance: you know the kind of thing which has pianists needlessly adjusting the stool between movements, singers clearing their throats between songs in case there might be an un-realised blockage, and orchestral players moving their music slightly to the left or right on the stand, all for no reason other than to expend a bit of pent-up nervous energy.

The viola player, Lech Antonio Uszynski, played from a tiny tablet – possibly an iPad Mini – which he never once touched during the performance.  Presumably he turned the pages by means of a foot pedal.  This meant that he concentrated solely on the viola and when he was not playing or when there were breaks between movements, he sat patiently while all the others in their various ways re-adjusted their music.

The issue of turning pages is a major concern.  Pianists who use music often have to contend with page-turners who are never quite sure when to turn, and there is a sense that concentration is divided between playing the music and ensuring the page-turner is there and ready to turn at the right moment.  Solo instrumentalists who need to use music – especially in new works – often have to spread it out across several stands to prevent the need for a page-turn, and I have even seen violinists use a page-turner out of necessity.  For organists it is a particularly serious issue.  Organists generally use music in performance both because it is the tradition, but more particularly because, with both hands and both feet fully occupied not only in playing notes but in managing stops, pistons, combination pedals, swell pedals, toe pistons and the like, there is far more which needs to be committed to memory than just the basic notes.  On top of that, no two organs are in any way the same, and unless the organist only ever plays on the same organ, the music is necessary to keep the mind focussed when in an alien environment when stops, pistons, even numbers of keyboards, touch and resultant sound is so different from that to which they may have become accustomed. 

That organists do not need to have the music is evidenced from the growing numbers of concert organists who play from memory, but these are still the exception and most of us still rely on the music being there to keep us, musically, on the straight and narrow. For us, the problems are many: Which side does the page-tuner stand – it varies from organ to organ and even from piece to piece? Is the page-turner going to obstruct the sight of and access to the stops, located right where the page-turner’s armpit is usually poised (and several page turners either need to use under-arm deodorant or need to find a less offensive one)?  And is the page turner’s leg to get in the way when there is a pedal or piston set over to the extreme edge of the pedalboard? 

Players have come up with a range of solutions.  Dame Gillian Weir used to paste miniature copies of the music on a large sheet of hardboard, which negated the need for a page-turner but which hastened the need for a strong pair of magnifying spectacles.  Others have spent many tiresome hours pasting hand-written staves and cutting out various bars from pages to make the page-turns possible by the player, while others abandon the whole idea of being in control of the organ, and simply play the notes while finding some mug of a page-turner who is willing to do everything else.  I once turned for a Korean lady organist who expected me to pull out and push in the stops, operate the thumb and toe pistons and control the central swell pedal. 

(I cannot resist the story about Gillian Weir and the Hoddinott Organ Concerto.  At one points this instructs the organist to hold a large cluster with both hands and feet, and marks it with a crescendo.  Not wishing to offend the composer at the work’s première by disobeying his clear direction, she asked the page-turner to stand behind her and operate the swell pedal by pushing up a broomstick between her legs.  This was in Llandaff Cathedral where the audience does not see the organ console: I fear it would not have been a wise move in full public view, it could so easily have been misconstrued.)

So technology, if it can obviate some of these problems, is to be heartily welcomed.  I have heard of, although not seen, organs where the music stand is in fact a large computer screen.  You can scan the music into the computer and it will appear on the screen.  Moreover, the technology allows it to roll on over each page without any human intervention.  I have even seen music stands with built in screens on which the music can be read.  There is the technology which allows the music to move along with the speed of the performance, and jump back where necessary with repeats and da capos.  So the days of swiping iPad screens in performance are numbered, certainly.  But are the days of music hard copies on stands also numbered?

Not necessarily, for, as the Stradivari showed, there are implications. 

Forgetting, for a moment, the slightly distracting image of four players with four different kinds of music laid out before them (after all, this is a period if transition, so we cannot expect everything to be perfect every time), Uszynski unwittingly revealed the problem.  What to do between movements?

When musicians fiddle with their music, we know the performance is not over – they are clearly preparing for the next bit.  Ridiculously, in this concert, the programme notes did not delineate the movements of the works, which meant the audience had no idea what to expect.  So it was that, while Wang and Bohren made it clear that, when they were not playing, they were preparing to move by the simple act of rearranging their copies, Weber and Uszynski had no such means of communicating this to the audience.  Weber did her little trick, but Uszynski simply sat there patiently looking at the others.  If all four were using the iPad Mini system, what would we have made of the bits between movements?

As a diploma examiner, I often commented on the failings of candidates to gauge the distance between movements; the common problem with young players is they rush between movements without sufficient space to allow the brain to change gear from one tonality or musical mood to another.  Sometimes the gap between movements is dictated purely by the ease with which the page is turned – and I note players who get their page-turners to turn between movements often miss the essential spacing of movements; for my part I always insisted on turning my own pages between movements as it helped both me and the audience appreciate the change of mood within a single work.

The implication of this new technology is that those who object to applause between movements (and I am not one of them) will have much more cause to be offended in the future.  When we see four members of string quartet sitting silently doing nothing, we will inevitably want to fill that silence with applause, while those players who have traditionally spaced movements by the speed with which they re-adjust their copies, will find no need to break between movements at all, and we will get a spate of merged musical tonalities and moods which will in its own way disrupt the flow of the music.

So roll on the new technology, but roll on the understanding that it does not always solve every problem without creating a few of its own.

12 February 2017

A Performing Has-Been

Sitting in on an open rehearsal conducted by Charles Dutoit I was next to my friend and Straits Times reviewing colleague, Chang Tou Liang.  For two uninterrupted hours we watched the tireless maestro barely break into a sweat over Stravinsky’s Firebird – not bad for an octogenarian; Dutoit was 80 last October.  The student orchestra certainly was starting to show signs of exhaustion, and a lot of others in the auditorium found it all too much and beat hasty (and not always silent) retreats.  Tou Liang and I stayed through to the end.  For my part, I was keen to see if maestro would offer any insight into a work he has worked with longer than I have lived.  I was disappointed in this, although it was fascinating to see him work so hard at matters of rhythm and subdivision of beats, often slowing the music down to a point which revealed as much about the genius of Stravinsky’s writing as it did about the shaky technical foundations of some of the orchestral players.  Why Tou Liang sat it out was clear when the maestro finally walked off stage; as he went Tou Liang leapt up from his seat and, dragging with him a remarkably heavy carrier bag, made for the back-stage area.  A colleague, watching him hurry away, commented that “There goes Tou Liang with all his Dutoit CDs hoping to get them all autographed”.

I won’t say I do not understand the fascination with autograph collecting; it’s just that I don’t indulge in it myself.  I did once, in my extreme youth (when Dutoit was a mere stripling in his 30s), and as I think back to that time, an image of a red autograph book springs to mind.  Its pages edged in gold and the padded red cover embossed with the word “autographs” in cursive script.  Several of its pages had been filled; I recall autographs from Eric Williams who had written a book called The Wooden Horse about his escape from a Prisoner-of-War camp during the Second World War, from Vivian Fuchs who had trekked overland to the South Pole, from the great naturalist and son of another Antarctic explorer, Sir Peter Scott, and a singer called Cliff Richard as well as members of his then backing-band, The Shadows.  There was also an elaborate autograph from a French painter called Paul Paris; it was only many years later that I learnt that this artistically-attired, incomprehensibly accented and goatee-bearded man was, in fact, my own father in disguise.  Perhaps that revelation stopped my autograph hunting career (don’t blame yourself, Dad, I had abandoned autographs long before you confessed to your subterfuge), but certainly it had died a death and the autograph book was consigned to some south London landfill long before I took up an interest in music, so the only autographs of great musicians I have ever possessed come from letters, exam reports and, in the case of Malcolm Arnold, on the bottom of a cheque which I cashed as soon as I received it. 

But for Tou Liang it is something of an obsession, and when I saw him at the bus stop after the rehearsal and enquired whether he had been successful in foraging for Dutoit autographs, he told me that he had.  “Dutoit is very good about that sort of thing and is happy to sign”, and he went on to tell me that usually when catching artists after shows and presenting swathes of their CDs for signing, he struck lucky.  In fact the only one who has refused to sign for him is Martha Argerich. (If you read this blog, Martha, as I’m sure you do on a regular basis, please be kind enough to send Tou Liang your autograph; it’ll make a lovely man very happy!) He also tells the story of how Peter Donohoe refused to sign until shamed into doing so by something that Tou Liang had written; and since then has showered Tou Liang with autographs.

As the bus came and Tou Liang prepared to clamber aboard, I reminded him that he had never ever asked me to sign my own CDs, at which he stood back in shock: “I didn’t realise you had made any”, was his parting shot as the no. 96 set off towards Clementi. (For non-Singaporeans, I kid you not; there is a suburb of Singapore called Clementi and named after a former British colonial officer who was a distant relative of the composer.)

As I remained alone at the bus stop (the 151 to Hougang seems to attract far fewer customers than the 96 to Clementi) I pondered on the fickleness of fame.  I have had my 15 minutes, according to Andy Warhol, and it has faded out of memory with a rapidity matched only by the powerful Mercedes motor driving the Citaro bus on route 96.  There was a time when people recognised me in the street (well a few did, at least) and even came over to ask whether or not I was the man who played the organ.  Not now.  A performing career which lasted the best part of 40 years seems to have been completely expunged from the collective memory and I am left, a solitary figure at a bus stop, with my memories and a bunch of students who think all I am is some boring old fart who shows an unhealthy interest in the past and in the sex lives of long-dead composers.

There is a more tangible memory to hold on to, even as the passing of years sees my own recollections of a performing past fade away.  In my time I made some dozen LP recordings, as accompanist, conductor or soloist, and while my own copies lie somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean or in some dockside scrapyard (I assume) in a rusting shipping container, at least one of my LPs was transferred to CD and can still be rooted out from the various online stores which seem to have access to unlimited sources of old and forgotten material. 

Released as an LP in 1983 on the Priory label, it came out at the wrong time; the CD format emerged on the commercial market that same year and this sounded the death-knell for LPs.  Added to this was the fact that the organ, when we recorded it one frantic Sunday in February, wasn’t working properly.  At one point I had the organ builder Peter Collins sitting behind the console pushing up keys which stuck down as soon I pressed them, while the St David’s Hall janitors were on a strict overtime regime and towards the end of the session kept coming into the hall and tapping their watches in a pointed manner.  The prospects for this recording were decidedly inauspicious.


Yet, perhaps because of its magnificent cover photograph (see above), the recording proved to be something of a survivor.  In 1989 Priory reissued my performance of York Bowen’s Fantasia from that LP on their compilation CD “A European Organ Tour (PRCD903), and it stayed in the catalogues a long time; largely, it has to be said, because it came at the time of a revival of interest into York Bowen’s music.  And then, in 2004, they embarked on a series called “Priory LP Archive Series” which delved into their huge and valuable back-catalogues and reissued some of the more enticing tracks in a CD format.  The second volume of this series featured my recordings of Christopher Steel’s Suite Changing Moods and William Mathias’s Variations on a Hymn Tune (a performance of which I am inordinately proud, not least because the composer himself told me how much he liked it), and it seems this CD is still available.  There’s even a copy in the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory library, but with my name missing from the online catalogue which means that my glorious past as a star organist is almost totally obliterated from the view of modern-day students.

When people do recall that I was once a performer, they often ask me why I stopped.  Well the true answer is that a vicious-tongued SSO trombonist so offended me during rehearsals for the Saint-Saëns Symphony back in 2009 that I swore then that I had had enough of trying to convince people that the organ was a legitimate musical instrument and that organists were every bit as good musicians as were trombonists.  It seemed better then to live off memories than live with continual disappointments, and so it has proved to be. 

However, it would be nice if someone, just once, turned up CD in hand and asked for my autograph; it would be fun to turn them away à la Argerich, but even nicer to show generosity au Dutoit.

(Your chance to get my autograph and, maybe, even hear me perform one last time, comes on Tuesday 21st March when, celebrating J S Bach's 332nd birthday and attempting to lay the ghosts of the past, I once again venture into the thorny territory of "The Organ - Is It A Legitimate Musical Instrument?" one of the Forum Lectures at 5.30pm in the Stephen Baxter Recital Room at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.)

10 February 2017

CD Review - Up and Down the Violin, Round and Round the Piano


Augustin Hadelich (violin) and Joyce Yang (piano), recorded in New York June 2015

AVIE AV2347 [67:25]

In whichever order you listen to the works on this disc, you will end up feeling completely shell-shocked by the unyielding barrage of emotions and musical styles it contains.  Not only are these four composers from very different musical worlds, but even within each work the musical language is so varied and wide-ranging as to defy categorisation.  This is an extraordinary piece of programming and, it must be said, a brilliantly effective one too which works so well because these are two such magnificent players.

Taking the music in the order in which it appears on disc, we begin in a world which lurches unashamedly from Erich Korngold to George Gershwin to Alban Berg and to Astor Piazzolla, delves into a 1920s night club and shakes a leg at the streets of New Orleans as if from the comfort of a plush cinema sofa.  It has been described as kitsch; but Tango Song and Dance by André Previn is much more than that, even if its musical language seems like a random sampling of early 20th century fads.  Written for Anne-Sophie Mutter (at which time they were still husband and wife), it is as genuine an expression of love as you could you imagine in musical terms, and while Mutter and Previn recorded it for DG in 2003 in a memorable performance which oozed love and mutual affection, I find in the Augustin Hadelich and Joyce Yang partnership a freer feel, less constrained by the overwhelming sensation of “luvviness” and more intrigued by the switch-back ride of stylistic toe-dipping.  Their final flourish, Hadelich launching off on his upward spiral while Yang anchors it all firmly to the ground with some tremendously solid piano chords, is superb.

In many ways the Previn offers the key to the programme; human relationships and feelings. We have had love from Previn, and next we have anger from Schumann.  He wrote his first Violin Sonata in the wake of a heated argument with the deputy mayor of Düsseldorf concerning Schumann’s conducting of the city’s choir.  Not only does the Sonata inhabit a stylistic territory about as remote from any of those touched by Previn, it also seems a world apart from it in its unease and pointedly direct gestures.  It has, as Hadelich writes in the booklet notes (which take the form of a conversation about the music between Joyce Yang and himself), “violent mood swings”.  If the duo partners had managed to convey a strong sense of love and affection while standing a little outside the emotional world of the Previn, they do the same with equally impressive results with Schumann.  Those mood swings are vividly conveyed, the passionate outbursts of the first movement abruptly giving way to the more introspective second in a way explained by their joint view of the music as “telling a story” (they even go so far as to outline their opinion as to what that story is).  They bring a biting, brittle edge to the jagged figurations of the third movement, like two swordsmen fencing the occasional thrust. 

After the emotional intimacies of Previn and Schumann, György Kurtág’s three pieces seem like studied exercises in detachment.  The first is desolate, the second dynamic and the third distant.  Reading the booklet’s dialogue gives one a powerful insight into how the performers see the work, and while it is difficult to go back and imagine how it would come across without the benefit of this insight, I find this an utterly compelling and at times profoundly moving musical experience.  There is in this playing a real feeling of mutual personal respect.

With the Franck Sonata we enter yet another new world of human emotion and musical language.  This is far more than a composer’s feelings at the marriage of a friend, and the passionate, explosive, deeply affecting and at times almost unbearably intense journey the music takes over its four movements seems to encapsulate a whole range of human emotions, not all of which one suspects Franck would have wanted the world to recognise.  Not for nothing does it stand at the pinnacle of 19th century violin sonatas, and while its language might at times seem orchestrally (or, perhaps, organisticallythrough) conceived, here we have two players who are clearly attuned to each other’s approach and understanding of the score, as well as having that instinctive feel for each other’s nuances that brings the whole thing together in one soaring exhibition of drama, feeling, virtuoso display and interpretative conviction.  Their perfectly measured silences as the second movement returns to its turbulent self are masterstrokes, and rarely on disc have I heard the third movement delivered with such consummate balancing of emotional substance and tonal poise; its final moments are truly inspired. 

The music on this disc might offer up a roller-coaster of a ride both emotionally and stylistically, but it is handled with such masterly self-assurance by this remarkable duo that all one wants once it has run its course is to go through it all over again.
[This review was for musicweb-international.com from which website this disc can be purchased]

CD review - Chinese Chamber Music

JIA Daqun (b.1955)

Ensemble Les Amis Shanghai, Han Quartet recorded in Shanghai, November 2015
NAXOS 8.579011 [70:07]

The history of Western classical music in China dates back barely a century.  Several Chinese composers emerged in the middle years of the last century who wrote music in the Western tradition strongly flavoured by Chinese elements – especially scenery, poetry and folk tradition – before the Cultural Revolution put a lid on it, and it seemed as if Chinese music was destined to revert back to being a purely domestic concern.  But Mao’s hostility to western influence in music backfired spectacularly, and in the 40 years since the end of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese composers have not so much been emerging as bursting on to the international scene.  Music by Bright Sheng, Tan Dun, Zhou Long and Chen Yi are to be found in the repertory of ensembles and soloists across the globe, and while these composers all live and work in the West, their music makes a deliberate attempt to celebrate their Chinese heritage in a language which is immediately identifiable as contemporarily Western. 

But what of those composers who lived through the Cultural Revolution and then chose to remain in China?  Among the most significant of these is Jia Daqun who is currently Professor of Composition and Theory at the Shanghai Conservatory – incidentally the oldest music conservatory in China, founded in 1927, and, effectively, the cradle of Chinese interest in Western Classical Music.  

Jia’s story is a fascinating one.  A native of Shanghai, his early interest in music was stifled by the Cultural Revolution during which he studied traditional calligraphy and painting at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.  However with the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, his interest in music was re-ignited and he took up the study of composition.  Whether this was because the study of Western music was once again permitted or because, as Jia has suggested, his eyesight was causing him problems, he nevertheless developed a style of writing which imported the principles of form, line and colour from Chinese calligraphy and painting.  He has received considerable support from the Chinese government, which named Flavour of Bashu for two violins, piano and percussion, as the “Chinese Classical Music Composition of the 20th Century”.

This disc, the second in a series from Naxos devoted to his chamber works, gives us all a chance to hear that work and identify what made such an extraordinary impression on the Chinese government.  From the very opening, with the wailing of the violin, the explosive punches from the piano and the energetic knocks and scrapes from the percussion, we are thrust into the world of traditional Sichuan opera (“Bashu” was the name of states from which Sichuan was formed).  Clearly this is music which wears its ancestry not just on its sleeve but allows it to permeate every sinew of its body.  But vivid Sichuanese effects are not the sole musical feature of this intriguing score.  Before we have reached four minutes into the first movement (“High Pitched Tune”), we are firmly in the sound-world of Messiaen, and with the motor rhythms of the piano and the interweaving violins of the second movement (“Veins in Rock”), we are revealed a musical language which derives as much from the masters of 20th century European music as it does from the traditions of China.  We read that this movement depicts the “strength of the mountains” and the “changes in the mountains’ structure” so much a characteristic of the Sichuan landscape.  Visual stimulus was obviously at the forefront of Jia’s mind, but this is music which needs no such picturesque imagery to justify itself on purely musical grounds.  Perhaps only the third movement (”Masks”), which “is based on the different types of facial makeup”, seems to need its visual imagery to make sense.  It is in the form of a disjointed dialogue between the two violins (Wu Shuling and Tian Junjun) with operatic effects from the three percussionists (Song Yuchen, Zhu Tianyao and Ma Li) and some reflective, Messiaen-like outpourings from the piano (Yu Xiangjun).  It is a fascinating work, and one can only admire the dedication the six members of Ensemble Les Amis Shanghai in presenting it in such a powerfully committed performance.

Counterpoint of Times is a four movement work for a conventional wind quintet in which Jia shows his fascination with musical theory and structure.  It is tightly organised and coherently devised, employing a musical language which is unrelentingly atonal but which includes some effective instrumental gestures.  Although visual imagery has no obvious part to play in the work – the movement titles are abstract (Prelude, Intermezzo, Scherzo, Postlude) – Jia’s commentary on the piece draws attention to the use of various mathematical sequences which hints at Jia’s background in fine art by describing the Golden Ratio, employed in the final two movements, as “particularly pleasing to the eye”.  This may be abstract music, but it is abstract music with a whiff of the tangible.

Despite the lack of titles for the three movements of the String Quartet, this is clearly more visually oriented.  Jia recalls that he wrote it “to express the feelings and to communicate a wider understanding of Chinese spirits and culture”, and while the musical language is very much rooted in the late 20th century, with much use of tonal indeterminacy and harmonic ambiguity, the frequent use of instrumental effects – knocking on the cello wood and the very pliable melodic figures from the violins (notably in the second movement) – do add a feeling of Chinese-ness to it.  The Han Quartet, faculty members of the Shanghai Conservatory, make a lot of sense from Jia’s complex score.

Only in the most recent work on the disc, The Prospect of Coloured Desert, does the multi-instrument Ensemble Les Amis Shanghai include traditional Chinese instruments – the Sheng and the Pipa.  Commissioned by the Silk Road project, this work depicts a number of richly descriptive verses, and the music is clearly wholly concerned with evoking this visual imagery.  As with all the performances on the disc, this is a model of concentrated and committed effort which serves the composer and his music extremely well. 
[This review was for musicweb-international.com from which website the disc can be purchased]

CD Review - A Noble Calling

Thomas Tertius NOBLE (1867-1953)

John Scott Whiteley on the organ of  York Minster (recorded April 2015)

PRIORY PRCD1152 [77:00]
Among those composers who are remembered today just for one single work is Thomas Tertius Noble, former organist of both York Minster and St Thomas’s Fifth Avenue New York.  Those with an interest in English church music know of Noble in B minor, one of the classic settings of the Evening Canticles, but few know of anything else; except, perhaps, a handful of hymn tunes and psalm chants whose authorship usually passes unnoticed.  John Scott Whiteley describes Noble as “one of the last of the great Victorian cathedral organists”, and clearly thinks highly enough of Noble’s work to record his complete organ works for Priory.  This is the third and final volume.

As Whiteley points out in his extensive and extremely detailed booklet notes, Noble was very much a musical chameleon, “latching onto whichever currents of influence found their way into his life”.  Certainly the 15 pieces on this disc show no common stylistic thread, and while they are all utterly typical of English organ music of the era, they lack any kind of distinctive voice.  Add to that a sense that the craft of composition concerns Noble more than its results - as the late Arthur Wills so memorably put it in his published guide to the organ, referring to Noble’s French conytemrpaories, “the craftsmanship of their work is never in question, but the musical content is frwquently too arid to interest musicians outside the organ world” – and we have rather a lot of well written but ultimately unmemorable pieces here.
Possibly because it comes from a much larger work – a canatat written for York Minsuter in 1904 – the The prepondarnce of hymn tune preludes on the disc point to the practicality of Noble’s organ music, although it remains an intriguing puzzle as to why so many of them on this disc are based on Welsh melodies.  They generally tend to be soft and harmless, their structure governed by the tune itself, which mercifully means that their rambling nature does not let any of them go on too long.  Another aspect of Noble’s life which prompted him to write organ music, was his prolific recital-giving, and for a major recital tour of the USA in 1913 he composed his Finale in D.  While Whiteley suggest that in it Noble is paying lip-service to Vierne’s famous Finale has neither the melodic interest nor the general mood of excitement of his Parisian counterpart.

(This is a review for musicweb-international.com from which website the disc can be purchased)

08 February 2017

Rare hearings of Karg-Elert and Franck

A Piano, A Karg-Elert and a Harmonium
It’s not often that I go to an organ recital in which I come across music I have never heard before and which I would move heaven and earth to hear again.  Such a thing has never, ever happened to me in Singapore before.  Here, the organ community lives and breathes North German Baroque and French Symphonic Romantics to the exclusion of all else – and often in blissful ignorance of the inappropriateness of such repertory to the organs at their disposal.

I am a huge supporter of the Victoria Concert Hall Organ Series simply because it is the only organ series in Singapore.  But my loyalty has often been sorely tested by some pretty inidfferent performances of some pretty uninspiring repertory.  And I have to say that the VCH Klais is a horrible instrument and one which is virtually impossible to play without a cohort of assistants to pull in and push out stops, often with hefty accompanying clunks.  That these assistants so often spend most of the recital dancing around the organ console, squeezed frighteningly close to a precipitous drop down to stage, is yet another reason I find recitals there so off-putting; I wish that, just once in a while, we could have someone choosing a programme which they can play unaided and yet which suits the limitations of the Klais; but such a day has yet to come.

Nevertheless the monthly recitals are something I make a point of attending, and will often persuade the Straits Times to run a review; the idea being that it draws attention to an aspect of Singapore’s musical life which often gets overlooked by the musical snobs who believe that the only concerts worth going to feature famous pianists playing Liszt and Chopin or superannuated conductors directing Mahler and Rachmaninov.  I am not alone; the organ series consistently attracts a very sizeable audience, and while some might cynically suggest that the audience is there because the concerts are free or because they preface a public tour of the concert hall, I offer full credit to Margaret Chen, who masterminds the programme along with VCH’s own Michelle Yeo.  They have identified a demand for relaxed, lunchtime concerts and filled it by promoting organ music to the point where there is a clear appetite for it; whether the music is good or bad or the playing brilliant or indifferent.

This week’s concert was, however, something out of the ordinary and, in that it introduced two new works to me the existence of which I had no idea before the concert (I have since found the music and ordered the CDs) it was a very special event indeed.  Luckily I was able to review this one for the Straits Times, and my pre-publication review follows;


Concerts featuring an organ and piano duo are extremely rare.  The sheer physical and sonic size of most concert hall organs means that, in a straight fight, the organ invariably delivers a knock-out blow in the first round.
 However the Klais organ of the Victoria Concert Hall is relatively small while the Steinway piano is pretty big and, with a bit of help from some inspired programming and two skilful players, this was a more equitably matched affair.

An unavoidable consequence of pairing off these two instruments is a slight conflict in tuning, and with the organ perceptibly sliding out of tune as the concert progressed, by the time we reached the encore – Elgar’s Salut d’Amour – the relationship had soured somewhat.
Tuning issues were not an issue in the actual programme, however, not because they did not exist but because the music itself was so captivating.  On top of that, organist Koh Jia Hwei and pianist Lim Yan played it all with such compelling artistry, that only the most astute ears might have picked up small discrepancies in pitch.

 Avoiding music specifically written for organ and piano – not a problem, since there’s hardly any of it – they chose two substantial works scored for piano and harmonium, the organ’s very much smaller and more intimate relation.
Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Fugue and Variation is a mainstay of the organ repertory, but here it was presented in an arrangement for the two instruments by Franck himself.  He had taken the opportunity to throw in a handful of pianistic arpeggios which Lim polished off with great aplomb (smothered, unfortunately, by some ill-timed applause) but otherwise the arrangement left the organ delicately to pick out the endearing theme on a variety of stops while the piano provided the harmonic meat.

A complete novelty was Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Silhouetten.  This was specifically written for harmonium and piano, so hardly ever gets a public airing. 
 And that is to everyone’s loss, for it comprises seven totally beguiling pieces.  Full of colour, character and charm, each one is strongly reminiscent of Grieg, but longer and more ingeniously constructed than anything he wrote.  Those who know Karg-Elert’s style would have been surprised by the music’s freshness and its uncomplicated harmonic language.

Being a husband-and-wife team, Koh and Lim have an innate understanding of what each is doing, and the result was a wonderfully fluid performance.  Ever sensitive to the issues of balance, Lim took on an almost orchestral persona as he weaved around Koh’s beautifully poised organ playing. 

Franck's Pianistic Arpeggios
 Not to be outdone, Koh’s assistant also weaved around, busily manipulating the organ stops and flicking pages backwards and forwards with great alacrity.  She even took a bow and enthusiastically applauded the joint performance.  It was mildly irritating, but did not detract from a concert which was both inspiring and utterly delightful.

Franck's original