06 March 2017

The Problem with New Music

Why do musicians feel the need to apologise about presenting modern music?  In Singapore, where there is clearly an appetite for the music of our time and where mostly young audiences should not be hung up on the prejudices and pallid tastes of the past, it has become embarrassingly common for those putting on such concerts to envelop them within an almost fawning aura of apology and excuse.

Last night, for example, I attended a concert as part of the Esplanade’s excellent Spectrum series.  This is a series of concerts featuring music written within the last 100 years which, at the moment, is exploring minimalism – a musical genre which, perhaps more than any other of recent times, deliberately sets out to be accessible.  Last night’s concert was no exception, and even went further by including some not-really-minimalist pieces by iconic Singaporean composers.  The concert had an almost capacity audience. 

Yet the conductor devoted half of the time to flabbily apologising for the fact that the concert was made up of modern music, earnestly invoking the audience to open their ears to new ideas, not to feel intimidated or put off by “new” music, and to put aside their prejudices about all modern music being ugly and tuneless.  He even tried to show how much fun it could be by getting the audience to be involved in experiments as an appetiser to music by Arvo Pärt (82 this year) and John Tavener (who died over three years ago) – hardly men whose music can now be considered to be at the cutting edge of outrageous innovation.

Why?  Did he seriously believe that the audience had stumbled into the hall by mistake?  That they had bought their tickets believing that they were in for an evening of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven? 

I am sure he did not, but it has become endemic amongst those who perform and present the music of our time to pre-suppose that audiences are unwilling to accept it.  And on what grounds do they base that assumption?  On the evidence of audiences in the West who, having been subjected to the musical experiments and the Cult of the Unlistenable promoted by a group of composers who, in the 1950s and 1960s, set out deliberately to challenge and alienate in the wake of the Second World War, used to look on anything labelled as “modern” with the deepest of suspicion.  Even today, western audiences (which are demographically considerably older than Asian ones) have an ingrained suspicion of the music of the mid-20th century, even if they have no such hang-ups on the music of the early 21st. 

So why does a Singaporean audience (or a Malaysian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai or Indonesian one, for that matter) feel the need to ape their western counterparts?  The answer is, they do not, but those who put on concerts do; perhaps because of some poor experience during their studies overseas (which is a good reason why overseas study is not necessarily an entirely beneficial thing) or perhaps because they have heard second or third hand about audience reactions in London, New York and Paris to concerts of modern music put on in the 1970s.

Far from feeling alienated by the music created in our time and born of the society in which we live, we should appreciate it as far more accessible than that of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, whose lives and the societies in which they lived are so alien to our own existence that we cannot begin to comprehend what they were trying to convey in their music.  In fact, so horribly ignorant are many modern-day musicians of musical history, that their complete failure to comprehend the music of the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries results in performances which reveal a complete disregard for its original context and purpose.  Music students in south east Asia have learnt what meagre crumbs of historical knowledge they possess from equally ignorant teachers who, because the ABRSM and other examination boards do not include history in their syllabuses, feel that it is irrelevant.

Sadly it is not, and we live in an age where unthinking interpretations of old music are seen as preferable to considered and intelligent performances of modern music, simply because nobody understands what music is all about.  It does not help that modern music is so often put into a ghetto; performed in isolation of the repertory which forms its very foundations, and usually delivered in an unconventional way in a misguided attempt to detach it from familiar musical expectations.

We need to turn our way of presenting modern music around.  It is the music of earlier generations which needs to be prefaced by an apology and explanation – for all its familiarity, very few are really competent to interpret it properly.  As for the music of our time, it speaks so directly and immediately to audiences, that to try and explain it is, at best patronising and at worst, seriously alienating.

02 March 2017

Hong Kong's Revolving Ring

From the very opening moments it is clear that this is going to be a particularly fine Walküre.  The Hong Kong Philharmonic may have had a chequered past on disc (as well as in the flesh, it has to be said) but it has landed firmly on its feet with their current Wagner project and, under their musical director, Jaap van Zweden, they easily pass muster as one of the more instinctive Wagner orchestras of our time.  This is not just very good playing, it is outstanding.  It has a wonderful breadth of sound – superbly recorded in these live sessions taken from concert performances in the somewhat difficult acoustic environment of Hong Kong’s iconic wedge-shaped Cultural Centre – and Zweden masterfully manipulates the balance so that we have a gloriously rich and robust sound across the entire orchestral spectrum.  Brass is smooth and polished, never uncomfortably dominant, strings have a tremendously incisive cutting edge, especially in their lower registers, while the woodwind and percussion give it all a sense of great richness. 

Jaap van Zweden’s decision to perform Wagner’s complete Ring cycle in Hong Kong – the first time it has ever been done there and the first time ever by a Chinese orchestra – left many marvelling at his faith in an orchestra not in any way versed in the intricacies of such music, let alone in involving themselves in serious opera.  The four parts are being presented in instalments over a four-year period as concert performances.  Das Rheingold opened the proceedings in 2015, with Siegfried being done there this month and Götterdämmerung early in 2018.  Each of the four parts of the cycle is being recorded by Naxos who, let us not forget, is also based in Hong Kong. 

If Das Rheingold was good, Die Walküre is exceptional.  Much of that is down to the orchestral playing which never flags for a moment and produces a truly spectacular conclusion to Act 1 and a wonderfully exhilarating “Ride of the Valkyries” in Act 3.  Zweden’s sense of dramatic timing and overall pacing drives it all along with a growing feeling of inevitability.  His climaxes are reserved but skilfully managed, and the moments of real musical drama (as with the Wotan’s rage as he pursues the errant Brünnhilde in Act 3) are vividly conveyed.  As for the cast, Zweden has collected a particularly good team around him which may not all be at the very top of their game, but none of whom could be identified as a weak spot.

No reservations about Stuart Skelton as a gloriously robust, virile and assertive Siegmund, nor Heidi Melton’s delicious Sieglinde.  Matthias Goerne’s Wotan is uneven, often richly expressive and suitably commanding, especially in his Act 2 command to Brünnhilde to ensure Siegmund’s victory over Hunding, but occasionally he lacks the authority to be convincing, notably in his confrontation with Fricka, who, imperiously sung by Michelle DeYoung, is very much in vocal command here.  I am uncomfortable with Petra Lang’s almost screeching swoops as she sets out to do Wotan’s bidding in Act 2.  It sometimes seem that her recent switch from mezzo to soprano has left some of the control wanting as she moves from one part of the voice to another.  However, as with Falk Struckmann’s Hunding, the characters are vividly portrayed even if the voices have inconsistencies.  Particular praise must go to the group of Valkyries who sing with a remarkable sense of unity and vocal balance.  Between them they produce some of the most enchanting singing on the disc.

Any Wagner production is the result of a successful bringing together of many diverse strands, not all of which may, in isolation, withstand the closest scrutiny.  By extremely good fortune, what we have here is a Wagner production which has brought together some very impressive performers and created a singularly outstanding whole.  This Hong Kong production is turning out to be a Ring of exceptional quality.

 (This review appeared on MusicWeb International, from whom the CD set can be purchased)