12 April 2018

Too Many Words?

An installation outside the concert hall seems to offer a
salutatory warning about the dangers of audience members
being given hefty books to hold (or perhaps it's a
warning about obese audience members - mea culpa)
Audience members filing into last night’s concert given by vocal students of Alan Bennett (collectively calling themselves Cantiamo) were issued with a huge programme book.  I always thought my programme notes were excessively verbose, but this gigantic tome stretched to 14 A4 sides (or, to our American friends, “kinda foolscap”) covered in close print with not an illustration or advert to break it up.  There were lists of items being performed (26 songs by 8 composers), lists of the singers performing (14), lists of the pianists accompanying them (5, although one – April Foo – was accidentally left off the list) and a very brief biography of just one of the performers, pianist Roger Vignoles.  That took care of 2 pages.  The rest of the book was devoted to the French language song texts and translations into a vaguely familiar language which, to be honest, was so inscrutable as to itself require further translation.  (I ask you, does any person even with the most elevated command of English utter such phrases as “They plod like pompous auctioneers attired in dumb ostentation”, “Malicious doubles sacrificed the one to the other immaculate brothers with confused shadows in a desert of blood”, “It resembles the soft noise that waving grass exhales”, ”A warm fragrance circulates about the turning paths”, or my particular favourite, “You had nothing but subterranean glows in your heart” - I think the medical term for this is atrial fibrillation.) 

The trouble with all these so-called translations available on the internet is that they have been largely created by online translations which, as everyone knows, are worse than useless. But what else is one to do?  I have over the years built up a stock of translations which I myself have made, but these not only do not attempt to match the rhythm, meter or word placing of the originals (I’m not that clever!), but many of them are very loose indeed.  Even so, for few of these songs had I my own translation available, and it would have taken me longer to come up with original idiomatic translations than I have time left on this earth (assuming I live, like my father, to be 100).  So we must be thankful for the hideously deformed travesties of linguistic beauty served up by these online translations since, without them, we would not have the vaguest idea what the words meant unless we ourselves were fluent in original language.

However, I question the need to provide texts at all, whether or not a translation is offered. 

So familiar to those of
us with our roots in the
British choral society.

I go back long enough to remember the days when British choral societies, putting on their annual oratorio performance, would hire the music (invariably from Novello who had the exclusive rights to Messiah, Creation, Elijah, Dream of Gerontius, et.al.) along with books of words which were distributed amongst the audience so that they could follow every word as it was sung.  We didn’t have the problem of translations – all great oratorios were in English (including the St Matthew Passion, which would have come as a surprise to Bach) and if they occasionally ventured into Latin, everyone in the audience would have learnt enough at school not to require a translation.  (An interesting issue I had with Welsh choirs I conducted was the preponderance of older singers who could only read in sol-fa notation.  Librarians had to find out how many copies of the vocal score were needed in sol-fa and how many in what the Welsh quaintly refer to as hen nodiant  - “old notation”).  Publishers had all these to hand (at a fee) as well as audience books printed in Welsh for those who could not read English – no side-by-side translations, merely the words in a different language to that which was being sung.  Cost considerations soon put an end to that and, in any case, most choral societies performed the same oratorios over and over again, so not only did the audience know the words off by heart, but most of the singers did as well. 
For the ignorant -
this is what Sol-fa and Welsh look like in juxtaposition

I wonder, though, what value there is in allowing the audience to see the texts as they are sung.  I have seen recitals where texts are projected above the singers (following on from the now common practice of surtitling in opera) and others where someone actually reads out the words before the singer sings them.  Do we need all this?  Surely following the words is as detrimental to appreciating the totality of a vocal performance as following the scores when you listen to a purely instrumental concerto (something which only a deaf person, someone suffering from an excess of musical pretention, or a down and out idiot would ever do).  Our job as an audience is to appreciate the performance on its own terms; and if the singer’s diction is that poor we can’t make out what’s being sung, then we are quite right in saying that the performance was not good without having to resort to documentary reference sources to realise the fact.

I frequently write booklet notes for vocal recitals – for some reason, especially in the Middle East – and my policy which is happily accepted without question by most concert promoters, none of whom seems to have received any notable adverse feedback from the audience, is never to print texts or translations but to write a short synopsis of the song.  This way the audience knows what the song is about and can appreciate it unencumbered by the minutiae of the complete text.

If presenting a song as a work of art, complete with its mingling of words, music and expressive nuances, is what singers do (and I would have thought that is what their function in life is) then we need to pay total attention to the performance and not follow the texts.  Pre-armed with a brief outline as to what the song is about, we can realistically assess how well the singer communicates it.

Last night, for example, it would have been useful to know that Kai-Song Chan was singing a song about a spurned lover who had turned to drink and was in an advancing state of intoxication.  When he suddenly hiccupped, covered his mouth and sounded as if his slurds were a bit worred (© Revd. Spooner) there were some in the audience who, struggling to understand the translation, wondered whether he was unwell.  I saw several suddenly look up from their intense study of the books to see why such a strange noise had come from a singer who had shown assured technical command throughout and whose voice otherwise had possessed an immensely comforting warmth of tone. 

Roger Vignoles had been working with the students over the days preceding the concert to encourage them to understand the complexities of a vocal recital beyond the mere technical aspects of voice control and projection.  A man whose understanding of singers and vocal presentations is second to none had considerable experience to share with these emerging voices, and many of them had clearly benefitted from this.  It would have been interesting to rip the books out of the audience’s hands and ask each time what they thought the song was about.  In some cases, I suspect nobody in the hall could have come close to guessing, but in others the meaning was clear merely through the posture, the vocal delivery, the facial expression and tiny but effective gestures from the individual singers.

Shubhangi Das was utterly in character as the ghostly revisitation in Berlioz’s Le spectre de la rose her voice portraying the uneasy, other-worldliness of the text, and her very posture interpreting the spirit of the words in a way no translation could ever come close; this was a highly effective delivery of one of the better known melodies in this all-French programme.  She also had a pleasing idiomatic feel to her French – even if one would have been hard-pressed to identify every single word. 

Even more impressive were Amelia Hayes, Alice Putri and Priscilla Fong who brought to life in a way which went far beyond mere singing, the very essence of their selected songs by, respectively, Chabrier, Chausson and Fauré.  We simply knew Hayes was telling us about fat and portly men, not just by the way she occasionally embraced an imaginary distended stomach, but through demonstrating an impressive level of vocal flexibility in making it actually sound fat and pompous.  Her French, too, had a strongly idiomatic feel to it.  Putri’s French took on a certain rustic quality, which was all part of a vividly compelling performance which was clearly telling us a funny tale about the simple country life.  Her amused and delighted demeanour was more vividly communicative of a mood than any mere words could convey.  Her extraordinarily powerful and beautifully controlled voice had that sense of arresting presence which is the mark of a true story teller.  Fong, graceful, poised and supremely confident caught the beautifully swaying feel of gently moving water in a particularly endearing and stylishly compelling account of Au bord de l’eau. If she can produce singing of this quality and exude such immense stage presence – in effect making these classic Fauré songs very much her own – at this early stage of her career, she surely has a great future ahead of her as a singer.

There were others, too, who brought their selected songs to life, not by the deliberate enunciation of texts as by immersing themselves so deeply in the spirit of the song that it flowed out of every aspect of their performance.  Jingyun Ng, and Jing Jie Lim were two superb singers whose performances impressed as being more than simple vocal presentations of what was written.  Sadly, however, I cannot enumerate every singer, every pianist or even identify every performance which impressed me in one way or another since there was one glaring omission from the heavyweight book all the audience had in their hands.  There was no list to tell us which singer was singing which song and with which pianist as their accompanist.

1 comment:

  1. Love the pompous auctioneers ! Sounds like a wonderful booklet of surreal poetry, with a concert thrown in for free.