31 July 2018

Thinking Out Of The Musical Box

I have just finished reviewing a hugely enjoyable disc of Dohnányi’s chamber music vivaciously played by the Nash Ensemble and splendidly recorded (as ever) by Hyperion.  In due course my review will appear on the pages of MusicWeb International.

But I mention it here because of something I read in the booklet notes commissioned for the release by Veronika Kusz, a specialist in Dohnányi’s music who teaches at the Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest.  As with the very best CD booklet notes and essays, this one not only illuminates the music and makes you want to listen to it, but it also introduces ideas and makes statements which encourage the reader to think more deeply and consider issues from a new perspective.

The most contentious thing that Dr Kusz writes is actually a quotation from a source she describes as “Dohnányi expert James A Grymes”.  He came up with the outrageous description of Dohnányi as “a forgotten hero of the Holocaust”.  We are all guilty of making exaggerated statements in support of those we perceive to be lost causes, but this one takes the biscuit and is, for me, so ridiculous as almost to warrant blind dismissal.  (The quote is taken from Gryme’s blog post "Dohnanyi and the Hungarian Holocaust”, and we all know how unreliable blog posts are!)

Hero of the Holocaust?
Kusz uses the Grymes quote to support her own claim that “the name of Ernö Dohnányi…almost disappeared completely a couple of decades after his death”, and that the prime reason for this was “a result of the political situation in his home country”.  This may be correct from a Hungarian perspective, but most certainly not from a British one.  The West tended to have a lot of sympathy with the Hungarians; while the Russians, it was felt, had brought their own terrible regime on themselves, the poor Hungarians had been ruthlessly overrun by an ideology to which they did not, by and large, subscribe.  We were certainly more open to Hungarian music, and so far as I recall, Hungary and Hungarian artists were more accessible to us.  We certainly knew of Dohnányi, his recordings circulated widely, and, if nothing else, his Variations on a Nursery Theme vied with Rachmaninov 2 as the most popular piano concerto of the 20th century.  In fact, when I was growing up in London in the 1960s and 70s, the name of Ernö Dohnányi was more often to be found in record collections than that of Dmitri Shostakovich.

What really had me thinking deeply, however, was the secondary reason Kusz identified as the cause for Dohnányi’s obscurity in the late 20th century.  “Dohnányi’s musical style”, she writes, “was considered obsolete and anachronistic by audiences of his day”. 

It is very true that in the latter half of the 20th century, an age musically infused with the Second Viennese School and its aftermath, with the avant-gardists and the electro-acoustic experimenters, and with (to use my favourite phrase coined from elsewhere) “the cult of the unlistenable”, the self-appointed musical intelligentsia declared that anything which showed allegiance to the established conventions of harmony, melody, instrumentation or structure, or, worse still, was enjoyed by the masses rather than an elite minority, was bad.  Music critics came under pressure to celebrate this love of the obscure and inaccessible and to dismiss the conventional and accessible, university music departments pushed their students to test the limits of musical experimentation without regard to commercial or public acceptance, and music publishers spewed out reams of wholly unplayable and even more wholly unlistenable music.  What hope was there, in that environment, for a composer whose music was tuneful, expressive, harmonically driven and recognisably part of the great river of tradition stretching back over the centuries?

The 20th century was also an age in music education where everyone believed as an inalienable truth that music fell into clearly defined musical periods.  If music was written between 1600 and 1750 we called it “Baroque” and judged it according to its proximity to a set of rules and regulations we ourselves imposed on it.  As a result composers such as Purcell, Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Handel were regarded as lesser to the great Johann Sebastian Bach because their music did not conform to his style (he was held up as the exemplar of “Baroque”).  Similarly, the so-called “Classical” era was defined around the music of Haydn and Mozart, leaving no room for other composers to be regarded; yet this was one of the most productive periods of musical creation in the history of Western Music.  Similarly, anything written during the 20th century had to conform to the ideals established first by Stravinsky and later by a whole range of composers each of whom had in common a desire to go beyond the bounds of expressive utterance which had dominated music in the 19th century.  Thus when a Sergei Rachmaninov, a Richard Strauss or an Ernö Dohnányi came along, their music was instantly dismissed as “irrelevant”, a sterile throwback to a long dead age.  Our 20th century fad for placing music in categories denied us access to some of the great creation of our time, simply because it did not meet the artificial criteria loudly proclaimed by those who convinced us they were our musical and intellectual betters.

Fortunately, in most right-thinking musicians and music educators of the 21st century, such pointless labellings and stylistic boxes are an anachronism; not for nothing is one of the most annoying, irritating and platitudinous idioms of or time “thinking out of the box”.  In the 20th century, we spent all our time thinking inside the box – the thing being we constructed our own boxes to suit our own ends - and that was to music’s great detriment.

We now live in an age when we accept anything musically on its own terms.  We can say that John Stanley was as great a composer as J S Bach, even though he never wrote such good Fugues or indulged in such contrapuntal labyrinths.  We can proclaim J M Kraus the equal to W A Mozart, even though his name was not Mozart.  John Field gets elevated on his own terms, not just as an appendix to Chopin. And we can celebrate the genius of Ernö Dohnányi, even though his music is accessible, tuneful and utterly enchanting. 

30 July 2018

Can We Teach Improvisation ?

When Trinity introduced Improvisation into its examination syllabus, many of us rejoiced.  Much as the exam boards protest that they offer a syllabus rather than a curriculum, in reality we all know that most teachers around the world teach to the exam syllabus and no further; if it’s not in the syllabus, their thinking goes, there’s no reason to teach it.  So when improvisation appeared on the syllabus, many teachers felt obliged to teach it.  And that has to be a good thing.

Unfortunately, as with so much else that Trinity did at the time, improvisation was introduced to the exam syllabus with such crashing ineptitude that over the first few years at least, any beneficial effects were largely obscured by administrative idiocy.

For a start, no clear guidance was offered to teachers.  More seriously, so verbose and confusing were the instructions given to examiners that you could read into them whatever you wanted to read into them; if I remember rightly the phrase “appropriate length” cropped up!  The result was that most examiners took their own approach to improvisation as the yardstick and assessed what was presented to them in the exam room accordingly.   

The take-up by candidates was small and, perhaps inevitably, largely by those who already were gifted and experienced in the art of improvisation.  So for many of us examiners, our first experiences of improvisation in the exam room were wholly positive.  I remember a brilliant pianist in South Africa and a fabulous saxophonist in the USA whose improvisations were so fluent and accomplished that it seemed almost superfluous to add a comment to the full marks I gave.  Yet when I mentioned one to a colleague, I was told that she would have marked the candidate down because clearly the improvisation had gone on too long (I had let it run for the best part of 20 minutes!). 

At teachers’ meetings I was asked time and time again to offer advice.  “How”, I was asked, “do we teach improvisation?  What books do we need?”  Even more concerning was a question asked with rather disturbing regularity; “What exactly is improvisation?”  Eventually, of course, various books and tutors on the subject did crop up, but with a very unwholesome result.  Whatever stimulus you gave the student – the choice was a rhythmic pattern or a row of notes upon which they expanded and elaborated, or a row of chords above which they improvised a melody line (a gift to singers, although never once did I have a singer improvising in an exam) – they roundly ignored and presented their prepared “improvisation” in a key, to a time signature and with a melodic outline which bore no relation whatsoever to the stimulus.  I routinely failed these until a circular from Head Office told us not to; it suggested that since we could not know whether the student was improvising or not (unless, as some did, they had the written out copy with them) we had to let it pass, merely commenting that the relationship with the stimulus was unclear!

Last year Trinity completely revamped its Improvisation making it far more coherent for teachers and far easier to assess for examiners.  But in so doing, I wonder whether it has become too prescriptive, taking away the art and concentrating on the science – clearly defined chordal progressions, pre-ordained metres, repetitive rhythmic patterns.  In short, does it stifle creativity in its endeavour to be accessible?  Talking with former examiner colleagues, I get the picture that improvisation in the exam is now more in the manner of a prepared and rehearsed exercise.

As an organist, improvisation is a daily fact of life – as it is to jazz players – and the one thing that you quickly learn is that you cannot be too prescriptive.  So much depends on context and setting.  You improvise at a funeral in a very different way than you improvise in a bar.  At weddings, as the bride hovers around the west door having countless photographs taken and veils re-aligned, you cannot start on any kind of inevitable harmonic sequence when, at any moment, that light might flash and you have to launch into B flat major for the Bridal Chorus (please tell me brides never have that anymore!).  While the money is being collected (sorry, “offerings being made”) do you remind them that the organ find could do with a bit extra by making the instrument sound odd, or do you soothe them into a complacency which prompts more generous giving?  If you approach the improvisation with a pre-ordained set of harmonies, a strong melodic design or a coherent rhythmic pattern, will you be able to jump out of it at a moment’s notice and pass on to the next thing seamlessly.

When I was in Sydney for three months a couple of years back I regularly went to the spectacular St Mary’s Cathedral – my apartment was looking on to it, so it was but a short walk for me – not driven by profound religious observations, but by sheer admiration for the then assistant organist’s glorious improvisations.  He could go from a plainchant to a Victorian hymn, from a Haydn Mass to a Taize chant or from a children’s carol to a soft-porn “worship song” without dropping a beat.  Music flowed with such fluency and charm that I felt closer to Heaven then than I have ever done before or since.  I did once go to congratulate him after the service, but others were there including some appalling Poms who asked “What was that music you played during the collection?” and refused to believe he had simply made it up on the spot – I felt that nothing I said could have offered greater praise to a brilliant improviser.

We are blessed in the organ world with a lot of brilliant improvisers and a lot more, like me, who are barely adequate.  But we never did improvisation in our exams and many of us never studied it until we were already very well versed in its intricacies and simply wanted to increase our improvisatory vocabulary.  Which begs the question, is there any real value in teaching improvisation to young students?  Is it not something which comes with either experience or natural talent, and needs only to be guided rather than taught from scratch?  In which case, for all its good intentions, was the Trinity idea misguided?

27 July 2018

How Fake News Grows

Much to my surprise, I find myself at the centre of a tiny flurry of fake news.  While I have found it hugely entertaining and rather amusing, I have also been made aware of how pernicious it can be and how it can spiral out of control with unforeseen and unexpected implications.  I might be accused of a persecution complex or, more realistically, undue egotism, but by sharing the experience I vainly hope that those who sit idly at their computers happily typing whatever they want and then thoughtlessly posting it to the outer world, might realise that it can backfire terribly.

It began with a review.  A fairly innocuous one, I have to say, published in the Straits Times of Singapore and concerning a performance by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  As ever, I would have expected some involved to disagree, some to agree, and most to let it pass unnoticed over their heads.  I might have expected the conductor to take issue with my comments on his interpretation or some of the brass players to accuse me of an excess of superlatives on their playing, but not a single comment reached my ears from any of the performers or those directly concerned with the concert.  Reading the review again, I am struck by its generally positive and, at times, excessively enthusiastic tenor, not least in my unstinting praise of the combined choral forces of three different choirs in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.  I certainly stick by every single word I wrote and every single word that the edited Straits Times version presented to the newspaper-buying public (I never saw what they posted on the online version, but I assume it was more-or-less the same as the print one).

Within 24 hours of the review’s publication, however, an acquaintance forwarded to me a comment which had appeared on Twitter (I’m not a Twitterer – it strikes me as a wholly ridiculous concept aimed at the illiterate and those with limited attention spans, and Donald Trump’s excessive use of it only proves my point).  Editing out the weird linguistic abbreviations and incoherent abuse, the gist of it was that I was guilty of reviewing a concert I had not attended.

Shortly afterwards, a more extended comment appeared on Facebook (again sent to me by an avid Facebookista) which hurled invective at me for rubbishing the Singapore International Choral Festival in my review of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  Literally minutes later, my editor at the Straits Times passed on to me for comment a virtually identical letter to the Facebook post, but purporting to come from a wholly different person. 

It was obvious that an orchestrated campaign of misinformation was underway, suggesting that I had not attended the Singapore International Choral Festival but had criticised it in my review.  Neither is true.  The Singapore International Choral Festival ran for several days, and, at the invitation of one of the overseas choirs participating, I had attended several sessions as well as the final concert and prize-giving (which took place the day after the Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert).  I had fully intended to write an enthusiastic piece about it on this blog – I had very much enjoyed everything I heard and had been hugely impressed by many of the choirs.  I will not be doing that now!

I was able to tell my editor that the letter they had received was promulgating a totally false story.  I suggested that it had been prompted by the fact that I had praised generously the choirs taking part in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert, which probably rankled with those organising the Singapore International Choral Festival, who probably felt that the Straits Times had not given them the publicity they craved.  On top of that, after the personal abuse and invective thrown at me, the letters sent rehearsed in some detail the timetable and ideals of the Festival, leading to the obvious conclusion that they were merely writing in in order to gain some free publicity.

As a great supporter of choral singing, I had in my original review felt that it might be nice to mention the then ongoing choral festival as a way of underlining the world-standard quality of the home-grown combined choirs performing with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  Thus I had written; “In another part of Singapore this weekend, an International Choral Festival was taking place, but I doubt if any of those choirs exhibited the discipline, richness of tone and sheer professionalism of this 95-strong body of singers”.  I think that’s a great way of killing two birds with one stone – emphasising the outstanding quality of local singers brought in for a one-off concert, and pointing out Singapore’s vibrant choral scene to those many Straits Times readers who do not live or work in Singapore (the paper is available freely to all passengers on Singapore Airlines) – and were I to write the review again, I would use EXACTLY those same words in EXACTLY that context.

It was this comment which was seized upon by the fake news people who, determined to promote their agenda as the truth and all others as false, went on with the online campaign, now that the print media had closed the door to them.

Abusive posts have appeared, fake news-sites have pushed the issue as if it is significant, and people who have never met me, heard of me or have ever even been interested in what I do, now feel empowered to hurl personal abuse at me for the ultimate incompetence of reviewing a concert I did not attend (while I did not review a festival which I did attend!). Someone even found an online profile of me dating from the 1990s to show how unqualified I was to review the Singapore International Choral Festival (which I did not!).  I was accused of dismissing every choir outside Singapore as second rate, of being rude to foreign choirs visiting Singapore and of ignorantly claiming that every choir participating in the Singapore International Choral Festival was second-rate and that its adjudicating panel was stuffed with musical ignoramuses.  In short, within days of an innocuous review praising three Singapore choirs, I was being accused of being both vehemently anti-Singapore and aggressive pro-Singapore, of being ignorantly anti-choir and blindly pro-choir, and of possessing extreme ignorance and showing calculated rudeness.  I’d like to think none of those accusations has even a scintilla of truth about them.

With any orchestrated online campaign against something, eventually a counter orchestration will arise, and, true enough, recent posts have appeared rubbishing those who rubbish me.  Both sets of rubbishers are guilty of peddling fake news, for one comment made suggested that the real reason behind the abuse hurled at my original review was that the person orchestrating it had a particular axe to grind and was using my review as the whetstone.

And here we have the real danger of fake news.  A real person was named, the name being the same as the name on the letter sent to my editor at Straits Times.  This person has some official connection with the Singapore International Choral Festival and is also fairly well known in Singapore choral circles.  Whether or not they were the orchestrator of the campaign, or even the true originator of the letter sent to Straits Times, I have no way of knowing  - I imagine most online abuse hides behind false names and aliases – but the damage is done.  It has been said that this person was rejected as conductor of one or more of the combined Singapore choirs brought in for the Polovtsian Dances and by abusing the choirs in that performance, they were attempting to undermine the successful candidate as music director.

So, from a single ill-conceived and iller-considered Tweet to a flurry of online abuse on a plethora of platforms, the abuse has moved on from me and turned back on to my apparent abusers.  What gets lost in all this squalid and puerile name-calling is the one basic fact that the combined choirs of the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Singapore Symphony Youth Choir and Singapore Symphony Children’s Choirs are fabulous and that the Singapore International Choral Festival was a brilliant display of excellent choral singing. 

I hope this blog post goes a little way to restore some kind of sanity and remind us that we should all be working in concert for the good of music.

21 July 2018

Concert Behaviour - Embracing Change

Last weekend my critic colleagues in London were much exercised by the issue of the audience applauding between the movements of Holst's Planets at the First Night of the Proms.  I can't see what the fuss was all about; Holst never intended his Planets as a single, continuous work - indeed, at its first performance it was not even presented in its entirety - and there is no artistic reason why the audience should not regard each individual piece as a stand-alone concert work, and respond accordingly. 

On a wider level, I have no issues at all with audiences applauding between movements or at breaks in a work.  I wouldn’t mind were audiences to revert to the 19th century habit of stopping a performance mid-way to express their admiration for a particular moment (as César Franck famously did when sitting in the audience of a performance of his own Symphony in D minor) or, as in opera, a particular feat from a singer. 

What is the value of applause if it is not spontaneous? The regimented and polite clapping at a pre-ordained point some time after the end of a work seems entirely false and without purpose.   I know, however, that there are those who disagree with me on this point, and I certainly once considered the complete musical entity as sacrosanct.  Ageing and understanding have brought about not just increasing tolerance but a fundamental shift in my perception of the purpose of a live concert.

Singapore audiences have long been cowed into submissive silence by the concert police who "sh" loudly and stare daggers in the direction of whichever poor soul has deigned to show approval of a performance when they themselves have not.  Annoyingly, even performers have taken it upon themselves to stifle applause and thereby shame the audience into silence.  At last night’s Singapore Symphony Orchestra season-opener, for example, after a singularly lovely bit of saxophone playing from Daniel Gelok in "The Old Castle" from Pictures at an Exhibition, some in the audience (led, it must be said, by some of the orchestra themselves) broke into spontaneous applause to register their approval at what was undoubtedly a wondrous musical moment.  Conductor Lan Shui was having none of it, and effectively stifled their joy by launching precipitously into the next (unrelated) section of Ravel's orchestration of the piece.

I noticed a few in the audience shaking their heads with dismay that other audience members had shown such ignorance as to register their approval of a lovely bit of saxophone playing.  The issue is certainly a divisive one, and I accept that there are some who like their concerts delivered in absolute silence while others prefer to enjoy the atmosphere of sharing a musical treat (or otherwise) with others, even if those others do not always behave as we would wish them to.

My tolerance, however, is sorely tested by a growing and immensely irritating practice prevalent in Singapore concerts not from the audience, but by concert hall management.  Auditorium stewards have been instructed, it would seem, to stop photography by members of the audience at any cost. 

At the slightest hint that a camera or mobile phone is being pointed in the general direction of the stage, eagle-eyed stewards rush down the aisles, clamber over seats, make noisy protests and generally disrupt the concert in a way no humble photographer or applauder ever does.   Those unfortunate enough to be seated near to where a steward is stationed will know that they are continually scanning the audience for signs of photographic intent, and often radio to their colleagues giving the location of a potential miscreant. 

I’ve given up ever expecting to enjoy a concert at Victoria Concert Hall because of the aggressive anti-photography campaign which takes precedence over the music.  But last night at the Esplanade it was downright embarrassing.  A children's choir was on stage and proud parents keen to preserve the moment in the family archives, found themselves shamed and embarrassed by highly visible remonstrations from stewards.  Worse still was the closing concert of last month’s Singapore Performers’ Festival when, with dozens of children appearing on stage to present the fruits of their hard-earned labours (and the results of their parents’ financial sacrifices), cameras and phones were primed, only to be forced down again by over-zealous stewards.  A friend had one steward actually interrupting a performance to ask him to tell someone along the row to put their phone away. 

It is certainly hugely annoying when some selfish oaf starts clicking away during a concert; but satisfying one's own desires with no regard for others seems to be part of the Singaporean DNA, so we should not be surprised when it happens.  And the concert hall authorities themselves positively encourage concert-goers to leave their phones switched on during concerts.  So they can hardly complain when those phones’ camera and messaging functions are employed. 

What is so wrong about taking photographs of musicians in action?  After all, a concert is as much a visual as an aural experience, and in presenting themselves on stage, musicians are implicitly accepting that they are the centre of attraction, with all that that entails.  Flash photography can be distracting, but does a simple non-flash photograph really need to be stamped out by such vigorous and aggressive stewarding?  If it is that important that photographs are not taken, then it is a simple matter to ban photo-taking equipment at the door of the hall; after all, in Singapore (as in London) concert-goers have to go through a security screening during which such equipment could be identified and confiscated.  I’d far rather have someone taking a photo beside me, than have a steward rushing up and down the aisle signalling frantically to all and sundry.  And I’d far rather have someone applauding enthusiastically when I don’t than feel obliged to join in the applause at the end when nothing on stage has warranted it.

Applause, photographs…issues which reflect a fundamental change in what concerts are all about, and a change which many are loathe to accept.  There was a time when we needed to listen to music in silence and without interruption.  But things have changed.  If we want silence around us and no distraction, we have recourse to music in whatever environment we wish, thanks to recording technologies.  A live concert is no longer the only venue for accessing music.  The function of concerts has changed.  Now concerts are social occasions, where we share the experience of music with others.  As with soccer matches or cinema presentations, we have to accept that in sharing socially, we open ourselves up to exposure to behaviours we ourselves would not do, but to which we cannot object since there are no doubt aspects of our own behaviour which irritate others.

Let’s stop trying to impose our particular ethics on concert audiences, and accept that if others are drawn into hear the music, they should be allowed to do so on their own terms.  Most of us professionals and dedicated music lovers have the opportunity to access the music we want where we want it and how we want it; we should not deny the pleasure to others who, perhaps, are less well versed in the traditions of concert etiquette than us.