24 April 2017

Tapestry Festival of Sacred Music

What a wonderfully festive weekend it has been in Singapore!  Most of my waking hours seem to have been spent in and around the Esplanade soaking up the atmosphere of the annual Tapestry Festival, one of the highlights of the city’s arts calendar. 

(I have to confess to a personal connection with the Tapestry Festival.  It was at the Tapestry in 2011 that I gave one of my last ever solo organ recitals in Singapore.  It can’t have been any good, for nobody seems to have remembered it and they never asked me again, but I remember having had a wonderful time myself!)

Running since 2009, the Tapestry Festival celebrates sacred music in all its guises.  It tends to be more an ethnic arts festival than anything else, the sacred music it presents coming mostly from non-Christian and culturally remote faiths, but it affords us all a wonderful insight into cultures and religions which, even in multi-cultural and multi-faith Singapore, are alien.

This year’s festival comprised, by my reckoning, around 50 events all of which, miraculously, were free.  There was Korean Shamanistic music, Thai Buddhist chant, Sikh Singers, Devotional Songs of Shiva, Shima Singing bowls, 10th century chants, and 19th  century French choral music, along with Islamic Devotional Poetry, Hula dancers, Arabic calligraphy and a talk on pre-Islamic carpets.  Nobody could have any excuse for not being aware of the multiplicity of faiths in our world.

A magical moment for me came on Saturday evening.  Taking a break after the lovely medieval chanting of the three ladies who comprise La Voix Médiévale and before the Megwhal Singers of Rajasthan, I sat with my wine in the outside bar of Harry’s watching the sun go down as the flaming torches shimmered by the harbour.  At the next table sat the Esplanade’s director, while at another sat a group of dancers who had performed earlier.  Around us a crowd moved slowly around, lapping up the sights and sounds, talking about what they had seen and what they were going to see.  Children played around noisily, a party of disabled people, bedecked in bright green tee shirts, was gently shepherded by  ever-patient and attentive carers (the sacred in practice, you might say) and the whole thing just felt utterly festive; compensation for the absence of true Festival club where we could all have mixed and discussed across cultures and arts disciplines – hopefully that will come one day.

However, there is a niggling ethical issue I have with this, which is probably the product either of an over-sensitive mind or an indicator of a suppressed conscience.

Twice in my professional life I have been actively engaged with ethnic music.  The first time came as I had completed my Masters degree at Cardiff and been accepted to do a doctorate.  In need of funding, I approached the Welsh Arts Council.  They had no funding available but, to my surprise, the Director offered me a job identifying, researching and setting up a musical instrument collection for the Welsh Folk Museum which would portray the wealth of music making in South Wales.  For a year I travelled around, locating weird and wonderful instruments, learning how they were played and what their function was in the long-dead societies of which few then could remember, and then present their history and sound to interested students before putting them on permanent museum display.  At the end of the year I was offered the job full-time, but I turned it down, partly because this was not what I wanted to do, but largely because it seemed so alien to me.  It was not part of my culture, nor my tradition, and while I for a very short time probably knew more about it than anyone else, I felt always as if I was a stranger, an outsider, to a culture of which I could, by virtue of my birth, never be a part.

The second time came around 20 years later when, in a project supported by the Sarawak Government, I was asked to identify and record the music of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak.  A mad-cap scheme thought up in Kuala Lumpur to build a massive and utterly unrealistic hydro-electric plant in the middle of Borneo would have resulted in the flooding of native lands of some 26 different indigenous tribes.  In a sop to environmentalists (the disappearance of one of these, the Swiss Bruno Manser, had drawn in unwelcome international scrutiny on Malaysia’s treatment of its non-Muslim indigenous peoples) it was decided to record their arts for posterity.  Once again I spent a year travelling, listening and learning in the company of an ethnomusicological expert from Canada, and was intrigued and fascinated by the sounds I heard and the music I experienced.  But when one man from a particularly remote tribe refused to sing for a recording, stating that for his song to be heard out of context would bring bad luck on him and his people, I realised that I really had no idea what was at the heart of what I simply regarded as interesting sounds.  I could recognise the sounds the music made and enjoy it on my own terms. I could even look with the academic eye of a musicologist at its rhythmic complexities and remarkable tuning systems.  But I could never appreciate the music as it was intended – I could only re-interpret it through my western eyes.   The music lost its legitimacy once I was involved in either its delivery or reception.

How much more dangerous it is for us to treat so carelessly music which belongs to faiths of which we have no understanding, and can never have because we are not of the culture, the land or the ancestry of those who create the music.  To put on public display the sacred music of others is, as I see it, paralleled by the medical student who dissects and regards the most intimate details of a cadaver but can never begin to appreciate the person who once inhabited the very cadaver being so clinically inspected.

It hit me very much at the Tapestry Festival this year during a display of Shona music from Zimbabwe.  The hypnotically attractive sound of the Mbira was charmingly introduced by Fradreck Mujuru, and he was joined by two locally based musicians with a skilled interest in ethnomusicology.  They could certainly make the right noises and the sound of the music was enchanting.  But when Mujuru endearingly described the Mbira as a “telephone” by which the Shona people could contact their ancestors, I suddenly felt the dread hand of ethical doubt.  What is the point of having a telephone if there is nobody to contact?  Our two local musicians may have known how to operate the keypads and dials, but neither of them had the ancestors at the other end of the line nor, I presume, the inner conviction that they were there to be contacted at all?

My worry is that while Christians have for so long taken their great musical legacy for granted to the extent that it is now almost wholly lost (how often do you hear in Christian worship today the great music which has sustained Christian beliefs for so many centuries? - it certainly is extinct in Singapore) are we not in danger of allowing the same thing to happen to the music of other faiths.  We even lump it all together as if it were a single entity under the generic label “World Music”.  My fear is that, by taking possession of selected parts of other faiths for non-faith purposes, we will end up doing with that what we have done to our own heritage – take it so much for granted we let it die.

May the Tapestry Festival continue and thrive not as a means of preservation but as a simple reflection of the world in which we live yet which we largely fail to understand.

19 April 2017

Ignoring Musical Boxes

The Tana String Quartet have paid a surprise visit to Singapore and gave an unannounced concert last night.  A handful of conservatory staff attended along with a slightly larger handful of students, most of whom are studying composition.  They were told it was a programme of “contemporary” music, which it was not, with the pieces themselves having been written in 1989, 1977 and 1928 respectively – long before most members of the audience had been born.

A question posed to the Quartet afterwards raised the issue of their apparent reputation as performers of “contemporary” music, and their response is well worth reiterating here. 

We do not, the questioner was told, approve of putting music in boxes.  Yes, we do play contemporary music, but we also play the older repertory.  A string quartet which does not play Beethoven is as bad as one which does not play contemporary music.  For us, all music we play is great and that is all.  Why do we want to put music in boxes and give it labels?  If you go to the museum and you look at a picture and do not like it, then you move on to another.  Why do we not do the same thing with music?  Why do we not place it all side by side? 

This was a great response and one which I wish everyone would accept.  By this appallingly banal habit of throwing music into boxes marked “Baroque”, “Classical”, “Romantic”, “Modern”, “Contemporary” and so on, we block it off from reality.  Instead of letting music be part of the great flow of society, continually changing and evolving and never stopping, drawing from the past and reflecting the present, we cut it up into isolated fragments, unrealistically drawing completely incompatible composers together and separating like-minded ones from each other.  Anyone who says “I like Baroque Music” or “I hate contemporary music”, is really saying “I am an imbecile with no understanding and none of the mental capacity to cope with listening to music”.  As the Quartet pointed out, if you play Bartók in the same programme as Haydn, Bartók sounds modern; if you play him in the same programme as Cage, he sounds old. 

And that refreshing level of realism informed their playing in what was, for me, one of the outstanding concerts of the Yong Siew Toh calendar. 

They began with John Cage’s Four.  Eloquently introduced and explained in unpretentious terms, the audience members were advised to shut their eyes and see behind their closed eyelids little lights come on and go out as each member of the quartet played, within a certain time-frame, isolated pitches.  It was a lovely suggestion and worked well, the beautifully framed playing of the pitches creating an atmosphere which was profoundly evocative of the immensity of space.  Rarely has Cage sounded so compellingly romantic – and I recommend all those who, in their imbecilic ignorance dismiss Cage as “contemporary”, with all the hostility they bring to that meaningless label (Cage died 15 years ago so is no more “contemporary” than Beethoven), to listen to Four.

The only work by a living composer in the programme was also the most accessible, tonal and rhythmically direct.  Arvo Pärt’s Fratres is one of the early classics of his “tintinnabulation” style, dating back to 1977.  Originally scored for wind quintet, string quintet and percussion, he subsequently arranged it for violin and piano, cello and piano, four, eight, 12 or 16 cellos (1980), solo violin, strings and percussion (1985) and in 1989 produced the string quartet version played by the Tana Quartet. 

They played it magnificently.  While the second violinist, Ivan Lebrun, held a single note for the entire duration of the piece, he had by far and away the most difficult role.  For to maintain a single note on a violin, unchanging (apart from a gradual dynamic rise and fall) for 10 minutes is a pretty near impossible feat.  He did it, while Jeanne Maisonhaute provided strong percussive sounds from the cello and violist Maxime Desert and first violinist Antoine Maisonhaute provided the meat of the work through instruments tuned significantly out of their normal range.  To describe this as a moving and profoundly spiritual performance is barely to scratch the surface of the mesmerising effect it had on the audience.

They ended with Bartók’s acerbic Third Quartet, composed in 1928 and considered by some to be his greatest single work.  Again an eloquent spoken introduction from Antoine Maisonhaute gave the audience some subtle but valuable listening pointers, and the delivery of the work by the players themselves was little short of astounding.  The quality of tone, the variety of sounds (including, in the central movement, a passage which sounded for all the world like a muted trumpet fanfare) and the sheer commitment of the playing, meant that this was a performance in a million.

It is to be hopped that the Tana String Quartet can bring their refreshing brand of musical realism to Singapore again very soon, but hopefully with a little more notice to allow more than handful of conservatory staff and students to experience what great music making is all about.

17 April 2017

Singapore's Concert Hall Staff - A National Disgrace

A Facebook user from Brunei slipped this one past the G.E.S.T.A.P.O.
Anyone sitting in the Esplanade stalls for last Thursday's concert will have been all too well aware of the catastrophic error by the Front of House staff who, in the middle of the Barber Cello Concerto, opened the doors to several dozen late-comers.  As the Concerto's slow movement unfolded, an increasing disturbance spread across the stalls as late-comers, like locusts invading a field, made for their chosen seats.  Far from being encouraged to stay back, the ushers actively abetted the disturbance by flashing their torches like so many anti-aircraft searchlights across wartime night skies, pointing to empty seats and forcing concert goers to stand up and shuffle around to make room for the errant late-comers. 

Whoever made the decision to open the doors mid-work needs, at least, an immediate sideways promotion (possibly to oversee access to the disabled washroom), while I would earnestly hope that the organisation which booked the hall will demand some kind of financial reparation for the distress caused to those of its patrons who had made the effort to arrive and be seated in time.  It is utterly unforgiveable that Singapore's premier concert hall should treat patrons in such an appalling manner; staff changes at the highest managerial level are clearly long overdue.

For those who luckily missed this disgraceful spectacle, the Concerto had been running for about 15 minutes when there was a general pause to set the scene for the tranquil central section.  Possibly noting from the screens outside that nobody on stage was actually moving and no sound of any kind was coming out of the hall (not even a cough - so rapt was the audience in the music) some FOH official made the decision to open the doors.  The waiting crowd outside filed in even as the music was playing, but no attempt was made to hold them back or even direct them to a waiting area.  Instead, oblivious to the fact that there was a concert in full swing, the ushers studied tickets and directed, with the aid of flashlights, the late-comers to their appointed seats - inevitably centre row at the front.

The conductor should have stopped and waited - it was simply impossible to hear the music over the distraction of so many late-comers.  That he did not was an error of judgement on his behalf.  But he should not have been put in that position in the first place. 

If this had been a one-off error on behalf of the Front of House staff, it might be seen as an isolated, if catastrophic, mistake. But it was not.  Such things have become an inevitable feature of concert life in Singapore.  I have arrived late myself to concerts and been obliged to wait outside; and have witnessed the complete absence of any guidance given to those charged with the smooth running of FOH practices, on one occasion having to tell the staff who were about to open the doors, that the music had not finished - it was just very quiet.  From my own professional experience with a concert hall I know the pressure FOH staff are under from those who have bought a ticket and assume it gives them complete authority over the running of the entire event.  But good staff training should be enough to counter such attitudes.

And there you have the root of the problem.  Good staff training.

In the very early days of the Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in Kuala Lumpur, I was involved in training FOH staff and ushers and impressed on them that the environment in the concert hall during concerts was sacrosanct, and only a dire emergency could allow doors to be opened in mid-concert.  Staff were given explicit details of when breaks in performance were allowed - I even played recordings of the works to be performed to identify cues for preparing to admit late-comers.  Conductors and soloists were consulted about appropriate points when late-comers could be admitted, and ushers were told about discretion and unobtrusiveness within the hall.  We made mistakes and more than once I or someone else was called out from the office to explain to an angry late-comer why the member of staff at the door was denying them entry.  But generally it worked, and to my knowledge, we never once had the kind of catastrophe which befell the unfortunate audience and musicians on Thursday. 

I would say that it is purely an Esplanade problem.  But Victoria Concert Hall has its FOH issues too.

While the General Esplanade Staff Team Against Photographic Opportunism (GESTAPO for short) means that ushers spend much of each concert moving up and down the aisles and hissing across sibilantly to putative photographers, the VCH team are far more obtrusive, running up and down, climbing over seats and asking patrons to pass messages along to some camera-wielding fan in mid-row.  You do not attend concerts in VCH without being continually aware of the ushers running around in their crazed search for errant cameras.  It's a waste of time in both venues (see above) and an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction; if it matters that much, why not simply confiscate the cameras and phones  at the door?  After all, anyone attempting to gain entry to the Esplanade auditorium has to undergo a security check in which bags are opened.  The purpose of this seems merely to look inside the bags, but it is surely not beyond the wit of man to train the staff to identify cameras and phones and ask them to be left outside?  As it is I fear that if you had an explosive device in your bag marked "BOMB" they would simply look at it and let it pass.

The job of FOH staff is to assist in the smooth running of an event, not to disrupt it.  This is something which eludes FOH staff in Singapore's premier concert halls, and it is a national disgrace.  Even as Singapore is emerging on to the international scene as a major force in the world of music, it is becoming a laughing stock because of untrained and misguided concert hall staff.

15 April 2017

A Secret Stabat Mater

In that weird, mixed-up, disjointed way in which Singapore manages its classical music events, there was another concert in Victoria Concert Hall last night (Friday) billed as “Stabat Mater”.  It followed hot on the heels of last Friday’s, and for those people who knew of the second concert, it seemed as if it was simply a re-run of the first; a couple of regular concert-goers told me they had “already been” when I asked them if they were going last night.  Unless you were observant and knowledgeable, there seemed no clear distinction between the two.

Of course, hardly anyone knew about the second.  Dismally publicized, the organisers sent a round-robin email a matter of days before the concert, by which time most people would have already organised their weekend schedules.  Luckily, I had spotted a notice about this concert when I had attended last Friday’s, and manfully negotiated the almost impossible task of procuring a ticket from Singapore’s appallingly monopolistic and hideously obstructive ticketing agency.

I was certainly not the only person in the audience.  In fact it was very heavily attended.  But the majority of the audience was students from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts whose orchestra and choir were performing and who had, I assume, been given the tip-off about the concert long before it had been grudgingly brought to the notice of the general public.  That most of the audience comprised students was obvious by the fact that those of us who were not, felt we were intruding on some kind of internal party in which what went on onstage was peripheral to the comprehensive texting, selfies and chatter of the audience.  I sat by one particularly obnoxious example of studenthood – a diminutive girl wearing a white baseball cap pulled down over her eyes, a scarf pulled up over her nose, who spent the entire concert texting, giggling and turning around to whoever it was she was texting to make gestures. 

Badly behaved audience apart (I assume Nanyang – in common with almost every other tertiary musical institution - never teaches its students how to listen to music; train them to be manufacturers but not consumers is the policy when it comes to music colleges) this was an outstanding concert.

Conductor - and Dean of the School of Music - Lim Yau assembled a huge student orchestra on stage.  It was so huge that it had, apparently, been obliged to cut down in size and some musical re-arranging made by in-house composers.  They launched into a magnificent account of the Overture to William Tell.  Gorgeous cello tone, beautifully poised basses, some delicious woodwind solos and a totally riveting final romp which showed a perfect mixture of discipline and raw excitement.  The comment in the programme notes that Rossini had been “inspired by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony” in writing his Overture came as news to me, and I fear it is a claim which does not hold water; but it was very interesting idea which encouraged me, at least, to look afresh at this very familiar music.

Bartók’s rarely-heard Rhapsody No.1 for violin and orchestra showcased a superb young student violinist from Thailand, Nattawat Luantampol, who not only played the piece brilliantly, but seemed utterly at ease on stage, delivering a compelling and musically alert interpretation.  Tan Jie Qing added a strange Chinese/Hungarian colour with her excellent command of the Pedal Yangqin, taking the place of Bartók’s preferred Cimbalom, and the orchestral support was nothing short of magnificent. 

Before both halves of the concert, the oboe gave the orchestra a wide variety of A’s to choose from in tuning up, but somehow they all chose the same one, and there was impressive intonation conformity across the entire orchestra.  In fact, excellent internal tuning was one of the many impressive elements of the performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater which, in addition to plenty of exposed wind parts, involves quite a lot of unaccompanied choral singing – and this always stayed perfectly in tune.

I have had a great fondness for Rossini’s sacred music ever since first pedalling my way through the harmonium part of the Petite Messe Solennelle. The Stabat Mater is similarly operatic in character, wearing its religious devotion on its sleeve but not without a strong feeling of sincerity.  It was a work Rossini did not want to write, once written wanted to keep secret, and in the end fought legal battles to be allowed to complete and to bring out into the public domain; such is the off-stage drama which so often seems to surround Rossini’s music. Anyone performing it has to make the decision; do we play up the operatic or suppress it in order to convey the religious?

Lim Yau got it right (and how I wish last Friday’s loosely controlled quasi operatic attempt at Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater had shown such interpretative maturity).  His choral forces – a huge choir very top heavy on paper but actually much more balanced in reality – was responsive, alert and confident.  This was a very fine example of massed choral singing. 

The four soloists, described by some of the most outrageously conceited biographies I have ever read, were of varied vocal quality. But all of them were well up the task of bringing across the music along the lines defined by Lim’s whole approach.  Soprano Lin Ching-Ju (she is, apparently, “world-renowned”) wobbled a bit too much for my taste, vibrating across so many notes in the pursuit of one that it was not easy to pick out a melodic line.  Jessica Chen (who “frequently receives invitations to perform with eminent companies and orchestras”) was a splendid contralto, rich and robust, spot on in pitch and diction, and utterly self-assured throughout.  Lin Chien-Chi (“a secret star”) was an ideal Italianate tenor, strutting his superficial passion, putting the top notes on to isolated pedestals and generally doing all the things which Rossini would have expected.  Firm and vocally precise, William Lim (who modestly devotes his biography to a long list of past performances which seems to include every bit of music ever written for the male voice) had a few projection problems and looked particularly strained and nervous, rarely taking the risk of raising his eyes from the score.

There were balance issues – as there always will be when so many musicians are crammed on to the stage of a concert hall not designed, acoustically, for such big sounds – but while Lim Yau was demonstrative in trying to keep his orchestra down, they did not seem to respond.  And, perhaps, this was a good thing.  For this was a concert designed to show off what was an outstanding orchestra and a brilliant choir – projecting soloists above this, for all its stylistic legitimacy, would have stifled the overall sense of involvement which was such a powerful element of this performance.

It would be wonderful to hear this again.  Before that, however, someone might like to give a few basic lessons in marketing and advertising to those who put on classical music events in Singapore.  How nice it would be to attend concerts by design rather than accident.

12 April 2017

Paperless Programmes

Related image
A Paperless Concert Programme?
For the Millennials, reality only exists through the prism of their smart phones and tablets.  To engage with them you must address them through their devices, and to achieve this you need to understand that face to face, verbal and written interaction is meaningless.

Not my words but those of a marketing guru whose workshop on how to sell to the current generation of teens and twenty-somethings I attended on the basis that I occasionally do some advertising copy-writing and I wanted to get to understand how to communicate with the modern tech-savvy generation from whom I feel totally detached.

Clearly what the guru had to say made good sense, and armed with advice and guidance from one of the break-out sessions, I decided to do my own bit of “engagement” by starting, for the first time, a Facebook account.  Despite my protestations that I am a really with-it bloke who knows modern technology so well that I can administer a blog and, with a lot of trial and error, send a five word text message to the wrong recipient, I was told that this is passé.  With the tiny, visually-driven attention-spans of the Millennials whose world revolves around bite-sized morsels of dubious value (but elevated to importance by the mere fact that they exist on social media), I needed to exist in short sentences of such utter inanity that it would drive me mad but make me exist in their world.

Twitter is a drop too far intellectually, but Facebook, I was assured, would immediately ignite interest and growth. I would be inundated with “friends” and my blog and other writings would experience a sudden upsurge in traffic simply because of my recognised online existence.

Incredibly, this has turned out to be true.  Aiming to be the most friendless person on Facebook, I have accumulated them in their droves in the space of a week, and long lists of complete nonentities of whose existence I have remained blissfully unaware all my life, seem to be beating a path to my Facebook account to befriend me. 

Can I charge them a dollar each for the privilege?  Marketing guru’s assistant thought not.

The problem is I have a life to lead and it seems Facebook requires 24/7 attention (see, I am already writing like a true Millennial).  I can spend time there only once every few days, and good friends who leave messages give up when no reply is forthcoming by return.  So, sadly, while I’ll keep the Facebook going (it’s been wonderful to be reminded of old friends and heroes – Alyn Shipton and Barry Rose take me back through the mists of time) I don’t expect I’ll be able to engage with Millennials – only those who, like me, felt it was worth the effort (or, more likely, felt it was a way of pretending to stay young).

However, since the marketing guru drew my attention to the ways companies engage with Millennials, I’ve understood a lot more of what they are doing. 

Take, for example, the current trend to do away with concert programme notes and, instead, put a bar code by the door of concert halls and instruct audience members to scan it with their devices.  Apparently, as if by magic, this brings up the concert programmes on the screen of your device and you can happily sit in the concert, staring at the illuminated screen (and distracting everyone else’s attention from the action on stage), taking a few pictures and posting them on Facebook while the concert’s going – and if the phone rings (which is unlikely – Millennials, I was told, do not use the phone to make voice calls – ever) that’s a small price to pay.  Concert halls no longer tell you to switch your phones and bleeping devices off – simply to turn them to silent.

For weeks I berated the long-suffering staff at the Esplanade’s Recital Studio, where this is now standard practice.  Indoctrinated over the years to leave phones behind when attending concerts, I now am told that I MUST have my phone to experience the concert to the full.  Now, of course, I realise that this is for the benefit of Millennials for whom reality only exists through the prism of the smartphone or tablet.

However, this was not what I was told by the staff.  They proudly proclaimed that the whole reason for this policy of downloaded programme notes rather than printed ones was their way of showing their concern for the environment.


A few concert programmes printed on recycled paper does far less damage to the environment than the precious rare metals used in the manufacture of smart phones and tablets, the energy used to manufacture and power them, and the irreparable harm to the natural world created when they are discarded.  Batteries leak, harmful acids leach into the ground and plastic cases remain for thousands of years.  If I wanted to protect the environment, I would print programmes any day rather than encourage the usage of electronic and digital devices.

So angry have I been at this appalling piece of blatant hypocrisy, that I have vented my wrath on the issue tirelessly (and not through Facebook) and, perhaps I, and others, have scored a minor victory.  At last Sunday’s recital at the Esplanade Recital Studio in which I was by far and away the oldest audience member – the next being a colleague in his 30s who was, himself, twice the average age of the rest of the audience -  printed copies of the programme were available to all who wanted them.  I notice that even the fidgety kids who spent the concert texting on their smartphones, all had chosen the hard copy programme above the downloaded one.

May this continue.  By all means, attract the Millennials by addressing them through their devices, but please accept that some of us are not Millennials and in our huge, dinosaurian ignorance, we prefer something rather more tangible than a small illuminated screen to help us get to grips with music.

After all, if we geared everything around what the Millennials wanted, how could we cope with the younger generation (the Tenners as we might describe them) who will see Facebook, Twitter, and today’s electronic devices as yesterday’s technology.  Who knows what tomorrow holds, but let’s not abandon yesterday or the day before, just to satisfy a small group who will, in less than a decade, be dismissed as old-fashioned and irretrievably reactionary?

05 April 2017

How to Programme a Recital

During my time in the sixth form at school one of my fellow-students was also an organist, Michael Overbury.  He claimed that the ideal programming for an organ recital was to lead up to the Bach work.  He believed Bach to be second only to God in the hierarchy of human existence.  He argued that no music he would play was equal to Bach, so if you followed Bach with anything else it would be an anti-climax, while preceding Bach with other music created a sense of building to a climax. 

I thought he was mad.

But that was then.  At the age of 17, when Michael could toss of a Trio Sonata every bit as easily as he could Mulet’s Tu es Petra  - both of which I struggled to master then, and have never fully succeeded in mastering since – I was happy to disguise my envy with statements relating to Michael’s weird state of mind.  I regret my thoughts then, spoken and unspoken. 

But I still think he was mad.

I would not argue against his belief that Bach’s music was (and is) the pinnacle of the organ repertory and that everything else might be perceived as anticlimactic.  But I am even more certain now than I was back then that this is bad programming.  The trouble is not the musical quality, it’s the audience quality.   Audiences for organ recitals comprise mostly (if not exclusively) people who love the sound of the organ way and above the intricacies of the music it plays.  Why else do so many people drool over Cocker’s Tuba Tune, Widor’s Toccata or, really scraping the barrel here, anything and everything by Percy Whitlock?  It’s all third rate music.  As Arthur Wills memorably wrote, the trouble with organ music is that it is too ambitious for the organ but too weak to justify the time and effort involved in transferring it to the orchestra.

So, whether we like it or not, the best organ recitals stick Bach before the end (I usually put it in the middle – when I play it, which is not often, because I play it badly) and have as their climax some predictably uninventive French Toccata which is made up of the kind of material sixth form harmony students regard as juvenile, but which sends the shivers down the spines of otherwise spineless organ buffs.

However, Michael’s approach works once you get away from the organ.  I attended a short violin recital yesterday in which the Bach unaccompanied Sonata in D minor (BWV1004) was both the culmination and the climax of a programme so well conceived and executed, one wished it had been recorded as an example to others on how to do such things.

Musicians often fail to understand the value of good programme building.  Students fail their diplomas, young and unknown musicians find audiences unwilling to attend their recitals, and established figures earn a reputation for being tired, not because of their playing or their musicality, but because their programming is poor.  Anyone who argues that chronology makes logical programming clearly has never sat through the tiresomely boring and utterly unmusical sequence of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninov time after time.  When I examined diploma students, the one who might programme it as Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Bach got my vote simply because it showed musical thought rather than predictability – and that had to be mirrored in the playing itself, subconsciously or consciously.  It certainly made me sit up and listen more intently.

Unaccompanied violin recitals are fairly rare, but when they do exist, you can be sure that Bach will be there, and usually sitting right bang in the front.  When you hear it like that, Michael’s point that everything else is an anti-climax is vividly confirmed.  The Bach Violin Sonatas are pinnacles, and just as you don’t climb Mount Everest on your first day as a mountaineer and then boast about scaling Snowdon in the train, so you don’t play Bach and then let everyone know how brilliant you are by playing a new piece by an unknown student composer.  Putting Bach last really does work, and Ukrainian violinist Orest Smovzh proved it conclusively in his recital.

A former student in Singapore and now studying with Midori in Los Angeles, Orest is an outstanding player by any standards.  But he enters a world crammed full of outstanding players; how is he to make his mark?  Orest will make his mark, of that you can be sure, because of his intelligent, imaginative and inspired approach to programme planning.

He performed four works, and while there was a coherent theme linking them (which is a pre-requisite in any successful programme) it was the order in which he performed them which gave this recital great distinction.   He began with a work by a Ukrainian composer called V. Vyshynsky (we weren’t given the composer’s forenames and I am ill-equipped to transliterate them).  This was a fine piece modelled on a Baroque suite in reverse (it began with a “Giga” and ended with a “Sarabande”), and which, in its fairly light character, its short and varied sections, and its exposition of colours and techniques possible in solo violin playing, caught the audience’s attention, settled them down and got us all interested in the player. 

Late-comers (an essential aspect of any Asian event) missed that, but were seated in time for another Ukrainian work, a lament called Kommos by O. Bezborodko.  This was a deeply moving piece which clearly had a profound emotional impact on Smovzh and which he communicated with exceptional power.  With this the audience had a heavy dose of emotional intensity, and being quite short, there was an almost tangible sense of release when it came to the third piece, Remnants of the Spring by Singaporean Kong Meng Liew.  This was a clever placing for as the weakest work in the programme, its fresh qualities were uppermost in the aftermath of the seriousness of the Bezborodko while its musical weaknesses were easily overlooked in the audience’s over-riding need for something less emotionally draining.

But Liew, albeit inadvertently, brilliantly paved the way for the Bach.  We had settled down after the fun at the start, we had enjoyed moments of emotional intensity and musical superficiality.  Now, and only now, were we ready for the high intellectualism of Bach.

I spent more time looking at the audience than the player during the Bach Sonata, and every face was rapt and enthralled for the entire length of the work.  To achieve such a high level of attention from an audience, which included at least two under the age of 10, was a testament, not so much to the playing as to the ingenious programme building.

I would go to hear Orest Smovzh play again, not simply because he is an inspired player, but because I know his programmes will be interesting, finely-crafted and, above all, superbly sculpted to create the maximum musical effect.


04 April 2017

The Choral Scene in Singapore

From the outside, it all looks very healthy indeed.  Singapore is positively bristling with choirs.  Schools have them, community centres have them, churches have them and ad hoc groups pop up all over the place.  There is also a very active group of choral directors who have large-scale conferences and gatherings to discuss the finer points of their activity.

But from the inside it is all pretty dreadful.

Read any biography of any Singapore choir and you come across multitudinous references to "Choral Olympics", "Competitions" , "Eisteddfodau" and hardly a mention of repertory.  They dance, they stand around in cleverly contrived patterns, they go to town on the dressing and the colouring, and they commit to memory the most bland, featureless, meaningless drivel and present it as some kind of live musical wallpaper. In short, Singapore choirs compete but they do not sing.

In Singapore, promoted largely by the schools and that phalanx of choral directors, choral singing is a competitive sport, not a musical activity.  Like soccer, only without the physical exercise, the corruption, the loose women or the bags of money, good choral singing is defined by league placings and international triumph is lauded above internal satisfaction.  And, as a result, the connection between music, artistry and choral singing is lost.  There is hardly a choir in Singapore who could successfully cope with a hundredth part of the repertory any self-respecting British, French or German choir - or Australian or New Zealand, for that matter - and because of this, despite my absolute passion for choral singing, I avoid the activity in Singapore like I avoid swimming in crocodile-infested waters.

There are exceptions.  Sit in Mass at the Cathedral of The Good Shepherd any Sunday and Peter Low's choir will entrance with their singing of plainchant, even if some of the other music they sing is so vulgar that I cringe with embarrassment.  Today, at St Andrew's Cathedral, a choir of students gave a lovely unaccompanied performance of the Schulz St John Passion marred only by an amplification system which rendered much of it virtually indecipherable.  And if you wander in to the Esplanade on the evenings of the 21st and 22nd and the afternoon of the 23rd April, you will hear three ladies calling themselves  La Voix Médiévale performing music from the 10th to the 14th centuries - and I instinctively know this will be good.

And very best of all is The Philharmonic Chamber Choir.  I heard them do a programme of unaccompanied Asian works last Sunday and I have to say it was about the best piece of choral singing by a local choir I have ever heard in Singapore.  Here's my review from yesterday's Straits Times.


Never let it be said that the Singapore audience for classical music shies away from a challenge.  Here was over 60 minutes of unaccompanied choral singing in which almost every work was written in the 21st century and few of the composers were widely known, yet an impressively large audience sat enthralled through it all.

Even an interval which lasted longer than the entire first half of the concert was not enough to dampen their ardour and, unusually, the audience was as large for the second half as it had been for the first.

The one composer whose name should have been familiar to the audience was Singapore’s own Zechariah Goh.  His Three Refrains at Yang Guan was receiving its world premiere at this concert.  Its roots in a piece for Guqin were clear, but Goh skilfully weaved an intriguing choral work around it.  Perhaps because he had written it especially for The Philharmonic Chamber Choir and was not just present at the concert but actively participating as a member of the choir, it received here a particularly persuasive performance.

 The other composer present was Chen Shu-xi.  He was sitting in the balcony rather than singing in the choir, but his four Musical Impressions of Taiwan was given an equally committed and perceptive performance.

These were musically intriguing pieces, but the big challenge for the choir was that the texts were in the Amis language.  In fact, the programme involved texts in six different Asian languages and dialects, of which only Mandarin would have been generally familiar to the 26 singers on stage. The challenges in the music were, fortunately, not so much of the tongue-twisting variety, but were pretty daunting none-the-less.

 Indian composer Vanraj Bhatia probably stretched the choir the furthest in this respect and, in the rapid-fire passagework of his Monsoon, they very nearly came unstuck.  The pitch slides which featured so much in his Autumn were far more within the choir’s technical comfort zone.

Six settings of verses from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in Japanese by Takatomi Nobunaga wandered dangerously close to the atmospheric mood music and contrived athletic obstacles which those groups for whom choral singing is simply a static competitive sport enjoy so much.  But Lim Yau was never going to let his singers degenerate into competitive exhibitionism.

It was the very musicality of all these performances, coupled with a sumptuous choral tone and a control over the various technical footballs which would have been the envy of any Premier League Striker, which vividly demonstrated that under Lim Yau, The Philharmonic Chamber Choir is not just the finest chamber choir in Singapore but can easily hold its own with any in the world.


03 April 2017

Four Notes Good

It's been one of those marvellous weekends in Singapore which was literally bristling with music.  Setting the International Jazz Festival to one side, the place seemed abuzz with music.  Les Arts Florissants kicked it off on Thursday night with a magnificent selection of Monteverdi Madrigals, jazz legend Tony Makarone got the lunchtime crowd tapping their feet at the Asian Civilizations Museum on Friday, and that same evening saw a trio of Brahms Trios performed by various faculty members of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  Saturday at the National Gallery saw not one but  four different chamber performances, while in the evening Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony should have dominated the musical weekend, had it not been for the fact that The Philharmonic Orchestra was simultaneously beginning its Beethoven cycle.  And to top it all off, last night saw a performance of contemporary Asian choral works at Victoria Concert Hall, a review of which will appear in this blog tomorrow.
Not for the first time, those of us charged with charting the Classical Music life of Singapore through the pages of the Straits Times were stretched beyond breaking point and had to miss some out.  Nevertheless this morning's edition of the paper seems to carry a near record-breaking number of reviews, including one for a performance which, not just in its quality and its originality, but in its global implications, deserves to be reprinted here.
L'Arietta is a small professional company dedicated to making opera accessible through informal, not to say, casual presentations in out-of-the-way venues.  Which is not to say these productions are not of the very highest professional standard, and so good was their performance this weekend, that it demands the widest possible publicity.  What makes this of global interest is the presentation of an opera which, for some inexplicable reason, has never been caught by the radar of popular contemporary opera.  Tom Johnson's The Four Note Opera strikes me not only as one of the cleverest, but one of the most dazzlingly original and entertaining of all minimalist operas.
Here's my review from today's Straits Times;

In previous productions, L’Arietta have done opera without lots of singers or lots of instruments.  In this production they did it without lots of notes. Tom Johnson’s Four Note Opera is, as the name suggests, based on just four notes.

 Occasionally other notes did creep in for special effect, but this hour-long production involving one piano, four singers – plus a supernumerary bass – and four dancers serving as the singers’ Alter Egos, was neither musically tedious nor tiresomely repetitive.  And that was down to the sheer ingenuity of Johnson’s score and Mary Ann Tear’s inspired direction.

 So well cast were the principal singers that it seemed as if the opera had been conceived with them in mind.  In fact The Four Note Opera dates from 1972, when American composers were obsessed with minimalism, and while as a show it was side-splittingly entertaining, as a piece of music it was devilishly clever.

 Angela Hodgins as The Contralto (“actually I’m a mezzo-soprano” was one of her more memorable lines) was absolutely fabulous.  Bitchy in her relationship with The Soprano, oozing charm in the ensemble numbers, and nothing short of amazing in her unaccompanied aria.  Required to drift out of tune and then back in again, she performed this feat with such impeccable sure-footedness, that when Aloysius Foong, the insouciant but razor-sharp musical director, matched her final note on the piano, the resulting applause was so loud that, I am reliably informed, you could hear it the other side of Aliwal Street.

 As The Soprano, Akiko Otao exuded endearing charm while conveying a convincingly grotesque and egotistic diva.  Her double aria, sung slowly to “show my lyricism” and again quickly to “show my virtuosity”, was not just a masterly display of vocal control, but also a matchless example of exquisite comedic delivery.

 The two lead male roles, Brett Allcock as The Baritone and Leslie Tay as The Tenor, were each supremely commanding vocally.  Allcock was a marvellously poised presence, astonishingly precise in his incredibly complex aria involving lots of unexpected pauses and scripted false entries.  Tay brought wonderful richness and passion to his role as the frustrated Tenor denied his top C by a score which had no Cs in it of any type. 

Only Thomas Manhart, making a cameo appearance as The Bass lacked vocal presence, singing a line way below his range.  But he more than compensated for this lack by his gloriously melodramatic stage presence.

 Tear’s monochrome staging and lighting took its cue from the piano placed centre stage.  Unfortunately, the blue hair of one of the excellent dancers was a distracting spray of colour in an otherwise uniformly black-and-white visual production.

In every respect, this was a brilliant show, and one which will long stand out as a high point in the chequered annals of Singapore opera.