29 January 2018

Competitions - A Parallel Universe?

The Singapore International Violin Competition started over the weekend and will run on until February 8th.  I have nothing whatsoever to do with it, but as it is mostly taking place in the building where I work, I take every opportunity I can to drop into the hall and listen to the action.  I like competitions.  The spectacle of the cream of young talent appearing in close succession and performing to the best of their abilities is one I never fail to appreciate.

The cream this year comprises 32 young violinists from Bulgaria, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland, Ukraine, the UK and the USA, each of which is hoping to secure the first prize of US$50,000, a loan of a 1680 Stradivarius and a number of performance engagements. 

I would hope, however, that their real ambition is to win the Audience Prize; their future musical careers will depend on audiences liking the way they play, and if they have that magic touch which gets the audience on their side, that is worth far more than any financial award.  As an occasional adjudicator myself (I will be adjudicating at no less than three competitions during the course of this year) I know how intimidating an Audience Prize can be; you desperately hope that your choice matches that of the audience, but it rarely does.  What adjudicators see in a performance is rarely the same as what audiences see.

Sitting in on the First Round performances, I was very conscious that many in the audience were taking their role seriously, and while during the performance I saw copious notes being taken and assessments made, I overheard some intense discussions between sessions over the relative merits of the players.  Whatever result the panel of adjudicators comes up with, it can hardly have been more assiduously contemplated than the audience’s ultimate decision.

Looking around the audience, however, I was conscious of something interesting. 

Singapore is fairly small place, and as a very frequent concert-goer here, I get to recognise the habitués of a local audience.  At the competition, the handful of people, like me, who go to just about everything was there, but the vast bulk of the audience was made up of people who I never see at public concerts.  They were listening in rapt attention and were eloquent in their reserved and undemonstrative applause to most of the performers.  It struck me then that music competitions (and it is phenomenon by no means unique to Singapore) inhabit a kind of parallel universe; a performance sub-genre which seems to be moving further and further away from its parent, the public concert.  It attracts a very different audience, who are there to witness top class playing regardless of player or repertory, and very confident in their own minds about what constitutes a winning performance.

This idea is reinforced by those who are performing in the competition.  In the booklet with the competition, each of the players had provided a biography.  I found it slightly unnerving to read through these and realise that, for some of them, it seems as if their entire musical world revolves around competitions.  Biographies listing innumerable first, second and third places in competitions held in remote places, along with the names of strings of teachers (why do so many of today’s aspiring professionals seem to change their teacher every few weeks or so?) gave a vivid impression of a life bounded by preparing for and participating in competitions.

(Never let it be said that I am cynical, but I wonder whether the profusion of biographies which mention teachers and competitions are encouraged by teachers themselves - if you can show that your pupils consistently do well in competitions, how valuable is that as a marketing ploy when trying to attract new students – but that’s an unworthy comment.)

As a young player I took part in plenty of competitions myself.  Invariably I came out second or third; the same people turned up at each competition, and one fellow always came first, while I along with another seemed to take it in turns to come second and third.  I can hardly think that, had I been asked to write a biographical note then, I would have bothered to mention this; it seemed such an obvious occurrence that it barely warranted comment.  Much more interesting for me were the performances I gave, often, it must be said, drawing on the repertory I had been obliged to learn for the latest competition (and that’s another reason why I like competitions – players are rarely allowed to wheel out their particular party-pieces, and need to learn something special for the event).

Yet there were biographies in the programme here which never mentioned a public performance at all.  If these players had performed to a live audience in a non-competitive environment, they seemed to regard it as of peripheral interest. 

Significantly, the page which recounted the achievements of the laureates from the previous Singapore International Violin Competition informed us that of the six listed, most had gone on to participate in further competitions, some had won prizes and scholarships, but just one confessed to having made an “appearance with the Philadelphia orchestra”.  Is the result of winning a competition the opportunity to participate in another?  Competitions seem to have become self-sustaining, with no need for young musicians to move away from the competitive environment and put their playing out into the public arena.

We might suggest that this is the standard practice in competitions, and we should not question it.  Yet biographies in programmes exert a subtle but undeniable influence over audience perceptions.  We know from research, that most members of an audience (competition or concert) read the biographies first (and often read nothing else in the programme books) and that these biographies affect their perceptions of an artist’s ability.  I am very well aware of this, yet even so, I cannot help myself when I read a biography which suggests the performer only participates in competitions beside one which talks of major performances in iconic venues with leading musical partners and orchestra, of falling into the subconscious expectation that the latter performer will be better than the former.  I assume the latter will have mastered the art of satisfying and appealing to an audience; the former will still be obsessed with the kind of technical minutiae which impresses adjudicators but passes over the heads of most audience members, and I have to battle against this prejudice in order to assess fairly the performances I hear.

It would be good to think that performers and audiences alike see competitions, not as an activity detached from public performance but as one supporting it.

25 January 2018

What's In A Title?

A Musical Chastity Belt?
When I used to do a lot of piano teaching, I would spend a great deal of time on sight-reading.  Partly this was because I, myself, am (or was) a very good sight-reader and really enjoyed it, but largely because pianists are notoriously bad at it; so many regard it as an onerous examination task rather than a vital musical skill.  I would tell my students that before they even looked at a note of the music they should study the title.  I sometimes went so far as to suggest that, armed with the title, the tempo marking ,the expression markings, the time signature and the tonality, you could have a pretty fair idea of what the piece was going to be like without even looking at the minutiae of the notes.  Titles, I would tell my students, were the key to a composer’s intentions.

Now that I seem to have moved away from instrumental teaching and spend my days philosophising about music – trying to decipher what music is, why it exists, why people write and perform it, how we relate to it as both performers and listeners, and how best to respond to it so that we can appreciate its true purpose and the composer’s real intentions – I often find myself pondering over the significance of titles.  And I am not sure that the advice I gave my poor piano pupils was entirely sound.

 Pianists are unusually fortunate in that so much of their repertory has descriptive titles which do, indeed, open the door to an appreciation of the music’s character.  Even where titles seem routine or formulaic – like Sonata in G, Prelude in C minor, Piece in D – to those who understand, the titles still yield a great deal of information.  For certain composers and in certain western musical cultures, tonality assumes great significance, implying a specific mood or character, while words like Sonata, Prelude and Piece often have very clear implications on purpose and design.

 However, a real danger of titles is to assume they were given by the composer in the first place.  A classic example lies in the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.  He would be hugely surprised to learn that he had composed 555 “Sonatas” when in fact what he had written were Essercizi.  With his true title, we recognise the purpose of these pieces – for private use in developing technical facility – while with the incorrect title, we think he intended them as substantial works for public consumption.  It’s not just a semantic issue, the wrong title can lead to serious mis-interpretations of the music itself.  Not helped by Ralph Kirkpatrick who argued quite convincingly in 1953 that Scarlatti designed them in pairs or in groups of three, I have come across countless people who should have known better, believe them to be substantial works, precursors of the “Romantic” Sonata, rather than small intimate finger exercises.  I even read a detailed analysis of Scarlatti Sonatas contorting them to fit into the theoretical concept of “Sonata Form” (a form which was only codified in the 19th century and certainly utterly alien to composers on the Iberian Peninsula in the early 18th century).  By combining “Sonatas” following the Kirkpatrick thesis, this misguided soul had shown how Scarlatti, unbeknownst to himself, had devised a clear, tonally organised Exposition, Development, Recapitulation and Coda.  The result was so totally alien to Scarlatti’s intention and style as to be an insult to those who have a relationship with the music.
The Scarlatti issue is indicative of a problem which I realise is more widespread than I ever appreciated as a piano teacher.  How legitimate are titles? 
We tend to assume, unthinkingly, that composers always put a title on their music; I will often ask a living composer about their choice of title for their music.  But many of the titles we associate with specific works had nothing whatsoever to do with the composer.  There are obvious ones like Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, but many more which slip under the radar.  What about Beethoven’s Bagatelles, for example?

 “Bagatelle” finds itself in music dictionaries usually defined as “a short, inconsequential, light piece”.  The implication is that it is a specific musical term and that Beethoven used it in the full consciousness of its interpretative implications.  Certainly it is a title we associate almost exclusively with Beethoven (as we do “Nocturne” with John Field, “Mazurka” with Chopin, “Romanze” with Schumann, “Humoresque” with Dvořák and “Intermezzo” with Brahms), although we first find it a century earlier in French keyboard. 
And here we must pause to recognise the invaluable work François Couperin did in elevating the title from generic to specific in his L’Art de toucher le clavecin of 1716, the first major tutor on keyboard playing ever to have been published.  In what seems like an extraordinarily perceptive bit of innovation, he realised that young pupils would more readily respond to music with a title vividly describing the mood and character of the piece than through the implications of its tonality, so many of his instructional pieces carry evocative titles.  It is in his 1717 publication of more keyboard exercises that we find a piece called Les bagatelles.  But was explaining the music’s meaning for young players really Couperin’s intention?  As Angela Hewitt wrote in a piece she penned for The Guardian back in 2003, not all of Couperin’s titles were as obvious as they might at first seem;  “I have found internet chatrooms discussing the various possibilities of [Les Baricades Mistérieuses]: some think it alludes to the player's two hands ‘barricaded’ in the lower half of the keyboard, a recent book by Jane Clark and Derek Connon says it has something to do with a divertissement called Le Mystère played to relieve a duchess's insomnia. I have even heard it explained as ‘ladies' underwear’ or, to be more precise, ‘chastity belt’. Couperin left no clues and asked to be forgiven for not explaining”.

 To return to Beethoven and the Bagatelle, he wrote 24 which appeared in three groups published during his lifetime.  The first was a group of seven published in 1803 as his Op.33.  Obviously they had been written at various times before then as stand-alone pieces.  One of them Beethoven claimed actually dated back to 1783, when he would have been just 12.  Some have suggested that is unlikely, but we know that Beethoven was something of a child prodigy; it’s just that, unlike Mozart, Beethoven’s prodigiousness has been eclipsed by his maturity.  The next was a group of 11 which appeared in print in 1823 as Op.119, again dating back over a period of years, the earliest piece dating from 1794.  Five of these had been written for the Viennese Piano School published in 1820 by Friedrich Starke, and were rejected by the publisher Peters as being too simple.  From this we can draw the conclusion that for Beethoven, the title “Bagatelle” meant short, simple, inconsequential pieces, and implied immaturity of invention and technique.  He himself used the German title Kleinigkeiten (which is usually translated as “trifles”), so “Bagatelles” seems close enough to his intention.   
Beethoven's contributions to Starke's Wien Pianoschule

But what, then, are we to make of the six Bagatelles published in 1825 as his Op.126, his last numbered composition for solo piano?  They are certainly quite short and none lasts much over 4 minutes.  But not only are they recent compositions, wholly typically of late Beethoven (the Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony, the Late Quartets and the Grosse Fuga) but they are quite complex.  More than that, they were conceived as a set, not as stand-alone compositions.   Beethoven certainly did not use the title because he considered them trifles – he actually described them as “quite the best pieces of their kind that I have written”.  Nor did he use the title to imply any sense of immaturity.  So the question has to be, why did Beethoven call them Bagatelles? 

There are, as I see it, two possible answers.  First, he did not give them the title, but it was applied by his publisher on the grounds that they were not Sonatas nor sets of variations – the two extended solo piano genres with which Beethoven was most closely associated - and that the public associated Beethoven and simple piano pieces with the name “Bagatelle”.  On a purely commercial basis, they would sell as “Bagatelles” even if, once the purchase had been made, the purchaser realised they were not Bagatelles at all.  The second answer is less palatable to us, but more likely. It may be that Beethoven simply did not care about titles, and could think of no better label to apply to a group of six individual pieces.  In either case, to use the title as a guide in interpreting the music’s character, scale and scope and the composer’s intentions would be wrong.

Even more puzzling is Brahms and the Intermezzo.  He wrote 18 of them, the earliest in 1871 as part of his Op.76, but the majority are contained in four consecutive publications which appeared as opp. 116,117, 118 and 119 between 1891 and 1893, which were Brahms’s final piano works.  So in an interesting parallel to Beethoven whose Bagatelles were associated with youth and immaturity, Brahms’s Intermezzi are associated with old age. 

It would be nice to define Brahms’s use of the title Intermezzo as being a reflective, retrospective, nostalgic work; and those who play the Op.118 no. 2 could be forgiven for using that idea as their interpretative guide.  But what did Brahms really mean by the title? 

Its origins lie in opera, where it was used to indicate a short scene or mini-comic opera performed between the acts of a bigger opera.  (Richard Strauss famously wrote an entire opera called Intermezzo, using the title for its comic allusions.)  But opera and the comic are two things we most certainly do not associate with Brahms, and it seems perverse that he should have used a title with such implications for a piano solo piece with such serious intent.  Philipp Spitta, the 19th century German music scholar, wrote to Brahms after reading through the Op.118 set; “They are the most varied of all your piano pieces and perhaps the most rich in content and depth of meaning.  Ideally they are to be absorbed slowly and in silence and solitude, and they are appropriate not only for meditative afterthought but also for contemplative forethought.  I believe that I have understood you correctly when I suggest this is what you meant by the term Intermezzo“.  Let us not forget that Spitta was a leading exponent of the concept of Hermeneutics, much in vogue in 19th century German musical scholarship, in which abstract concepts were interpreted by descriptive analogies, and it would seem that we have to take his interpretation of Brahms’s use of “Intermezzo” more as a piece of fanciful imagination than a dispassionate definition.

 If Spitta is being more fanciful than realistic, what are we to make of Brahms’ use of the title Intermezzo with so many of his later piano pieces?  When he presented the Op.76 set to his publisher, Brahms had been unable to think of a suitable title and asked for suggestions, and the publisher suggested “Intermezzo”.  In this case, the Intermezzi did indeed come between other works in the same set.  But why that title?  It had only been used for the first time in purely instrumental music a few years earlier (by Mendelssohn) and to that point nobody had written a piano solo piece with the title.  Publishers are not known for having original ideas, preferring to attract customers on the basis that familiarity attracts. 

Where and how the original idea of calling piano pieces Intermezzi came about is still a matter of conjecture, but the reason why Brahms continued to use it even when the pieces he called Intermezzi had moved far beyond the characters displayed in the original ones is, sadly, horribly prosaic.  A simple look through Brahms’s work list will reveal that he had no interest in titles, generally restricting himself to the general and formulaic; Sonata, Waltz, Rhapsody.  It seems that, having come across a new title, he simply did not think to come up with anything more appropriate.  For Brahms, titles meant nothing; should we persuade young pianists needing guidance for sight reading that he was wrong?

22 January 2018

The Art of Programme Planning

Programme planning is a much underrated, misunderstood and, sadly, rarely practised art.  It’s certainly not something which most instrumental or vocal teachers seem to think worth bothering with, if the endless stream of uninspired and uninspiring programme choices presented for diploma examinations is anything to go by.  For decades as a music examiner I maintained the forlorn hope that a candidate would present a programme which, by its very content and construction, would make me really want to listen to the performance; but I don’t recall it happening more than a handful of times during the several thousand diploma examinations I sat through.  The mantra seemed to be; if you can play it, perform it.  Soul-destroying successions of tired piano restatements of the unenticing sequence of HanBachatti, Mozaydoven, Chopussy were the order of the day, and candidates (and their teachers), if they thought about programme planning at all, seemed to think such desultory thinking was going to impress the examiners.  I can tell you, such programmes were pretty well doomed from the start and could only succeed if the performance itself was something exceptional. 

Of course the examinations boards didn’t help by giving no guidance whatsoever.  In the case of Trinity, the instruction was to present a “balanced programme”, which is as good as saying nothing at all.  And examiners got no guidance either, and what was a balanced programme for one was not for another.  No wonder candidates played safe with predictable and uninspiring programme choices; it would be just your luck to spend hours devising a tantalising sequence of Hindemith, Zipoli, Cage and Franck only to be faced by an examiner who believed that a programme built around a staple of the repertory was the only way to attain balance.  I did everything in my power to get students and their teachers at least to think about programme planning and not simply to put down their party-pieces in an unmusical chronological sequence, but I was fighting a losing battle, and usually by the time anyone came to me asking for advice, it was too late and with the diploma looming, the opportunity to learn something new to fit into an exciting programme had passed.  Does anybody even learn a piece of music so that it can form part of a tantalising and distinct musical programme?  It is for this reason, more than anything else, that the world of classical music stagnates around the repertory of the accepted “great” composers, and rarely ventures (in a live concert) along the byways of wonderful yet unrecognised musical invention.

If teachers don’t teach programme planning and students do not think about it, is it any wonder so many professional concert programmes are unenticing?  Of late, orchestras seem to have woken up to the value of programme planning, and while there is still plenty of mileage in the safe old sequence of Overture, Concerto and Symphony (it does, after all, work very satisfactorily so far as the audience is concerned – and they are the ones that matter), it is good to see most orchestras moving away from the hoary old chestnuts in order to create themed and coherent concert experiences.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra was finding the connecting thread between the works chosen for a concert, drawing the thread together in my notes, and then devising both a title and a short descriptive blurb to put into the marketing materials.  I was lucky, the Music Directors with whom I worked understood successful programme planning, and I was rarely lost for ideas in drawing all the works together under a general theme.  I think, however, I might have a few headaches were I invited to do something similar for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (unlikely – I am clearly persona non grata with them!).  Obviously their marketing people face a terrible struggle in finding coherent threads in many of their concerts, and concert titles often are little more than a list of works and/or artists featured.  The trouble is, while they have shown some imaginative repertory choices in recent seasons, they do not always create coherent concert programmes.

Last week, for example, we had a concert with the clumsy title “Scheherazade – Kari Kriikku”.  But what other title was possible?  It comprised just two works, both of almost identical proportions, both featuring a prominent part for a solo instrument, but both so musically disconnected that the only word to describe the programme was “eccentric”, and I doubt anyone would have allowed that to be put in the marketing materials.

The thinking clearly followed the tried and tested recipe of sugaring the pill of a contemporary work by placing it in the same programme as something hugely popular.  But – and here was an act of almost mind-numbing eccentricity – they put Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade first and the Singapore premiere of Kimmo Hakola’s Clarinet Concerto second.  Cue the exodus of a sizeable chunk of the audience after interval drinks.  Yet, they could hardly reverse the order, since the Concerto ends with such an outrageous display of showmanship (brilliantly executed by the astonishing talent of Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku) that anything after it would have been a terrible anti-climax.

In such a programme, something is bound to be the loser, and I’m afraid it was Scheherazade which wallowed around with such extremely eccentric tempi that it was difficult to follow any narrative thread.  Igor Yuzefovich, the usually stunning SSO leader, seemed a little out of sorts with such eccentric speeds, and the sultry, exotic, sensuous violin solos were just too urgent and fussy.  The undoubted winner was the Hakola, which pretty well erased any lingering memories of Scheherazade – not least when, in honour of Kriikku’s unstoppable dancing feet (he refused to play an encore, choosing instead to do a little more tap dancing on stage), Yuzefovich led the orchestra off stage with a little dance of his own.  Good programme planning is not about eclipsing one work with another.

The Hakola is an eccentric work, full of fun and bristling with musical, aural, virtuoso and dramatic display, but it is just 40 minutes long.  That’s long enough for any clarinet concerto (is there a longer one?  I don’t think so.) but not long enough to sustain an entire programme.  So what to put with it?  Scheherazade didn’t work because it was just too different musically but too equal in terms of proportion, so the audience had no idea on which work to pin their main focus.  Given the vast scope of the Hakola, one felt that a first half made up of short and snappy pieces would have been more appropriate.  Gershwin, Grainger and Grieg could have worked well, and maybe carefully chosen Telemann and Vivaldi would have made for an attention-grabbing programme on paper.  Perhaps some Sibelius to give the programme a Finnish feel, or some Steve Reich to keep it up to date.  And how much fun it would have been for the marketing people to devise a title for any of those.

The fact remains that for all the dazzling brilliance of the Concerto and its performance, there was a slightly strange taste left in the mouth after the concert, which was the result of a bit of programme planning which just did not work.

(You can read my Straits Times review of the concert here; http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/motley-crew-in-harmony)