28 November 2018

More Lovely Hymns!

This is subtitled “Favourite Hymns”, but the issue of what is a favourite and what is not is entirely subjective. Many of us have our favourite hymns and will bemoan their absence from this CD; even now I can see the “customer reviews” flooding the online sellers’ portals listing all the hymns that the individual writers of such things feel ought to have been included. Such an activity is utterly specious; in an hour’s programme you cannot hope to do anything but very lightly scrape the surface of a vast and almost bottomless resource.

As it is, Richard Pinel and the choirs of Jesus College Cambridge have come up with a well-varied programme combining some stirring words and some fine tunes, ranging from the 16th to the 21st centuries. But not everything is beyond reproach, the inclusion of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony sung to words which sound more like a nature trail than a hymn, simply emphasises what a lousy hymn tune this makes, and it certainly seems odd to have that splendid tune by Cyril Taylor, “Abbots Leigh”, sung to unfamiliar Marian words from the 20th century writer G B Timms. I’m not sure that, wonderful though the tune is (“Cuddesdon” by William H. Ferguson), Christopher Idle’s precis of the Gloria (“Glory in the Highest”) will be widely known even to the most ardent hymn singing communities, and I certainly had never before heard “How Shall we Sing Salvation’s Song” nor the tune to which it is sung here (“Llangarron” by David Manners); my loss, both are absolutely magnificent and have instantly found a place in my personal pantheon of favourites. Other more established personal favourites are here (“For the Fruits of his Creation” sung to Francis Jackson’s splendid tune “East Acklam”) and “All my hope on God is founded” (sung to Herbert Howells’ excellent “Michael”, although sadly not with the composer’s own spine-tingling final verse re-harmonisation and descant but with a much less impressive one by John Rutter. And with “Eventide” (“Abide with me”), “St Anne” (“O God our Help in Ages Past”), “Crimond” (“The Lord’s my Shepherd”), “St Clement” (“The Day Thou Gavest”), “Nicea” (“Holy, Holy, Holy”), “Petra” (“Rock of Ages”), “Monk’s Gate” (“He Who Would Valiant Be”) and “Rockingham” (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”), there are undoubtedly a great many universal favourites here.

What is important though, is not so much the choice of hymns as the fact that the entire disc is devoted to hymns, that the hymns are sung robustly and with great attention to detail, and that they are delivered in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner with firm organ accompaniments featuring judicious use of re-harmonised and descanted last verses. Where some interpretative licence is taken to vary the choral sound, it is done with great taste. Perhaps the delivery of the canon for “Tallis’s Canon” (“Glory to thee, my God”) is a trifle too obvious, but I particularly love the innocent-voiced trebles, Theo Amies and Tobias Fitzgerald, who perfectly convey the essential simplicity of Gibbons’ “Song 46” and the introspective character of the text “Drop, drop slow tears”. I also find George Raikes’ baritone solo (against a hummed chorus) in the fourth verse of “Abide with me” most effective. There are two choirs associated with Jesus College – the men and boys Chapel Choir and the mixed voice College choir – and it is impressive how unified the tone is, the bigger College Choir singing with such supreme sensitivity in Crimond that this somewhat over-stretched Scottish tune is delivered with real distinction.

I have long argued that hymnody has been one of the greatest contributions to the literature of music from English composers, and it is high time it was more widely celebrated, now that hymn singing itself seems to be a dying art in English churches (and has long since died a death elsewhere in the English-speaking world). All praise and glory, then, to Ricard Pinel and his gloriously full-voiced Jesus College choristers, not to mention his two instinctive and sensitive organist scholars, Jordan Wong and Dewi Rees, for creating this magnificent disc of fine hymn tunes, stirring words and outstanding music making. I hope it helps preserve a uniquely British musical genre and to increase awareness of it among those for whom hymn-singing has never been seen as a legitimate musical activity nor an entirely credible sacred one.

John Goss (1800-1880) - Praise my soul the King of Heaven [2:56]
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) - Glory to thee, my God [2:53]
Attr. William Croft (1678-1727) - O God our help in ages past [2:48]
Richard Redhead (1820-1901) - Rock of ages, cleft for me [2:38]
Maurice Bevan (1921-2006) - There’s a wideness in God’s mercy [3:19]
Clement Scholefield (1839-1904) - The day thou gavest [3:26]
John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876) - Holy, holy, holy [3:18]
William Ferguson (1874-1950) - Glory in the highest [2:14]
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - Joyful, joyful we adore thee [2:14]
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) - All my hope on God is founded [3;29]
Francis Jackson (b.1917) - For the fruits of his creation [2:28]
Trad. Arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams - He who would valiant be [2:09]
Edward Miller (1731-1807) - When I survey the wondrous cross [3:38]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - My song is love unknown [ 4:45]
Cyril Taylor (1907-1991) - Sing we of the blessed Mother [4:39]
Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) - Drop, drop slow tears [1:21]
Jessie Irvine (1836-1887) - The Lord’s my shepherd [3:02]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Come down, O love divine [3:35]
David Manners (b.1975) - How shall we sing salvation’s song? [2:42]
William Henry Monk (1823-1889) - Abide with me [4:33]
John Barnard (b.1948) - Christ triumphant, ever reigning [4:00]

26 November 2018

Encourage Coughing in Concerts

“Mummy, why is everybody coughing?”

The entire audience seemed to have been gripped by a bout of uncontrollable coughing after the slow movement of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, and it was then that I heard the young voice pipe up from the row seated behind me.

In the time-honoured way of parents faced with a child’s question to which the answer is either not known or too complicated to give, I heard Mummy say “shhh”, and with that the Symphony continued.  But it was a good question and one which deserves an answer; even if the child who posed it will not only have forgotten the question but will never in a Month of Sundays read this blog.

There are two reasons why audiences cough so profusely, and neither has anything to do with smoking, weather, air-conditioning, dust or simple ill-health. 

The first is simply that it is the perfectly natural release of air after the suspension of normal breathing which affects everyone who finds themselves entranced by something very special.  Without being aware of it, we tend to suspend normal breathing practices when listening to a quiet and moving piece of music such as the slow movement from the “New World” Symphony.  When we find ourselves entranced by such music we become terrified of breaking the spell by making any sort of noise.  Since our own breathing seems unconscionably loud to us when our ears are straining to catch every nuance of the music,  we simply hold our breaths.  And as soon as the spell is broken, and the music fades away, such is our relaxation, that we expel the held in air in a burst which, as often as not, catches in the throat which we then clear by coughing.  And few things are quite so contagious as coughing, so when others around us cough, we start to do the same as if in sympathy.  I teach my own students that when they are performing, an outbreak of coughing after a particularly moving section is, far from a distraction, a priceless indicator of approval.  I tell them that their aim should be to inspire uncontrollable coughing from the entire audience – that way they show that they have managed to get the musical message across effectively.

The second reason is rather more complicated and stems back to the change in audience attitudes which came about in the early 20th century around the same time as the gramophone record became the universal medium by which music was disseminated.  Applause was no longer used as an indicator of general approval but as a badge of respectability; Richard Strauss was one of the first to note this change in behaviour and to object to it.  We don’t applaud music because we like the performance, we applaud it because it shows that we understand it.  How else can you explain why audiences no longer applaud spontaneously but only at pre-determined moments in a concert when, perhaps (as at the end of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony), it would seem wholly inappropriate?

You see it at the Proms in London, you see it at the Esplanade in Singapore, you see it wherever audiences like to show off their collective musical knowledge and create that very obvious barrier between the experienced concert-goer and the shame-faced newbie.  Spontaneous applause between movements of a multi-movement work is so often quickly suppressed by a barrage of “ssshhs” or a forest of glowering eyes turned in the direction of the nearest applauder, that few have the courage to continue no matter how inspiring the performance has been.  I read critics getting into a lather over what they, in their total ignorance, perceive as “misplaced applause”, and I see music students, scores on laps and knowing looks in their eyes, turn with ersatz-horror on those who have committed the ultimate solecism of showing appreciation for a fine performance while it is still in progress.  The golden rule seems to be, Don’t Show Appreciation, Show Knowledge!

Few of the great works in musical history were ever intended to be heard in silence.  The first performance of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony was notable for the rapturous applause which greeted every movement.  We read of how public attending rehearsals interrupted movements with their applause.  All of this thrilled Dvořák.  What would he have thought had he attended the concert where a Singaporean audience sat in apparent utter disinterest as his music was playing, only to burst into applause long after all his good ideas had been worked dry? 

Music intended to engender a response from an audience has a certain feel to it that positively encourages some audience reaction when the work is still in mid-flow. Indoctrinated by the ignorant “know-it-all’s” who castigate spontaneous applause, audiences have to find other means of registering their approval; and nothing is more effective than the clearing of the throat, or a sustained bout of coughing.  Trombonist Kevin Thompson has pointed out to me in the past the obvious contradiction between a beautiful musical moment and a few hundred people slamming their hands together in a violent, percussive manner, so perhaps coughing is a more effective and appropriate means of showing appreciation.  However, the Concert Etiquette Police are getting wise to this, and now insist on pre-concert announcements which tell people to smother their coughs with handkerchiefs.  Indeed, so ingrained is this anti-appreciation mentality amongst Singaporean concert audiences that the pre-concert announcements which give this message are more roundly and robustly applauded than the entry of the concert-master or conductor.  In Singapore we have become a society where enjoying a concert seems bad manners.

So to answer our young questioner.  People are coughing because they like the music.  Singaporeans and others should throw out those cough sweets and those Fishermen’s Friends, the unwrapping of which has so often disturbed concert-goers, and cough away to your heart’s content before that, too, gets banned.  It’s about the only way we have left of letting the musicians on stage know that we appreciate them and the music they are playing for us.

Straits Times Review - Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra wrote to "correct" errors in a review of mine concerning their concert last Thursday.  Having been away over the weekend, I have only just returned home and accessed the review I sent to the Straits Times at 23.22 on Thursday night.  Here it is; it does not seem to be the same piece the SSO was complaining about!

Dvorak Cello Concerto

Ng Pei-Sian (cello), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Pavel Baleff (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday (22 November)

Marc Rochester

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra chose to celebrate St Cecilia’s Day (the patron saint of music) with an all-Dvorak programme.  Dvorak himself, a profoundly religious man, would doubtless have been touched by this, even if it the significance of the date seemed to have passed the SSO by.

None-the-less, there was a tangible sense of celebration and festivity about the hall, reinforced by a boisterous and excitable, if somewhat unkempt, performance of the Carnival Overture.  Possibly taken too fast for the orchestra to keep itself perfectly in step, it nevertheless provided a pleasingly rowdy opener for the capacity crowd.

 So many people at a Thursday night SSO concert might have been down to a celebration of St Cecilia, a love for Dvorak’s music or even the anticipation of a Black Friday shopping bonanza.  But probably it was the evening’s soloist who was the irresistible draw to Singaporean music lovers.

The SSO’s own star cellist, Ng Pei-Sian was clearly both inspired and deeply moved by the reception he got both from his orchestral colleagues and his large fan-base in the hall.  The result was a performance of the Cello Concerto which was seething with passion and boiling with emotional turbulence.  Ng gave it his all, rapturously bursting in with his first solo entry, caressing the gorgeous theme of the central movement like an intense lover, and joining in with gusto the dances of the finale before his moment of deep introspection which reduced him to tears, and got the audience exploding with admiration.

 It was probably just as well that Bulgarian conductor Pavel Baleff did not try to tame things or put the orchestra under any kind of restraining leash.  This was above all an emotionally-charged performance which overflowed with so much expressiveness that the rough edges were effectively smothered.

Throughout the concert, Baleff’s speeds veered rather disconcertingly from extreme to extreme.  But if nothing else, he inspired the SSO to throw off  their inhibitions to the extent that, at times, they rather left him behind as they rushed off chasing their next big moment.  This relatively hands-off approach from the conductor turned the performance of the ubiquitous New World Symphony from the potential such a popular work has for sounding routine (after all, the SSO give it an almost annual work-out) into something which had an edge-of-the-seat sense of adventure.

 Dvorak wrote the Symphony in New York and was inspired by the sights and sounds of America, all of which were  quite novel and strange to him.  It was this sense of awe-struck amazement that Baleff brought to the Symphony and, indeed, to this entire concert. Saint Cecilia might not have approved of such earthy pleasures, but everybody in the audience most certainly did.

21 November 2018

Boys and Girls Come Out to Sing

I was brought up in the English tradition of all-male church and cathedral choirs. I began around the age of six as a treble (memorably singing the solo of “Brother James’ Air” at my sister’s wedding in London – which coincidentally took place the same day as Singapore achieved its independence from Malaysia), went on to become a tenor and finally an alto cathedral lay-clerk.  I also served as a church organist, an organ scholar, a cathedral sub-organist and finally secured my own positon as Organist and Master of the Choristers at a British cathedral.  All this time, all I had ever known within the context of church and cathedral were choirs of men and boys, sometimes just boys, sometimes just men, but always exclusively male.

Which is not to say that I led a monkish existence completely removed from the presence of singing women.  I sung with a mixed group called the Cardiff Palestrina Choir which regularly performed a cappella church music of the Renaissance (once famously doing the ITV Christmas Day television broadcast at which a cameraman confessed to me that he had not wanted the assignment since he had thought we were all going to be Palestinians – Palestrina/Palestine, an easy mistake to make). I also conducted a number of choral societies - in Cardiff, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno and Aylesbury - where women rather seriously outnumbered the men.  I was well acquainted with female singers socially – one of my early university girlfriends was an opera singer - and had no issues with the idea of women and singing.  It was just that I distrusted the idea of girls in a church/cathedral choir.

That church and cathedral choirs are now mixed-sex is an inevitable consequence of EU gender equality legislation which bans the gender exclusive practices of the past, no matter how successful they had been.  In Europe (and elsewhere) it is no longer legal for churches and cathedrals to stipulate male only voices in their choirs, and from the enthusiastic uptake of places in choirs by girls, it is clear that this legislation has had the desired effect. 

However, when I look long and hard at my feelings about mixed choirs in the choir stalls, I realise that it is not merely prejudice (although that does play a very big part).  There are some purely musical issues which create my sense of unease.  The most serious is the worry for the future.  I went from treble to tenor, to alto.  Friends went from treble to bass.  In short, with a preponderance of female voices in choirs, might we be looking to a day when there are no tenors or basses to support them?  It is a sad fact that where boys and girls are mixed in a church choir, it is the boys who eventually succumb and fade away, and I wonder whether boys would so willingly head towards developing their mature voices when they have not had the long exposure to the discipline of singing gained in cathedral choir stalls.  EU laws cannot, despite the best efforts of EU law-makers, force women to develop the necessary physical attributes which would allow their voices in maturity to reach down to the C below the bass clef (or anywhere near).  The flow of former church and cathedral choristers into the ranks of Oxford and Cambridge Choral Scholars, the rigorous musical training of being a cathedral chorister might produce only top voices in our opera houses.  Am I looking at a low-voice Armageddon or merely using an imagined crisis to obscure my very real prejudice?

Less open to question – if ripe for debate and argument – is my sense that there is a fundamental difference between unbroken boys’ voices and those of girls.  Over the past few weeks I have been trawling through the regular crop of Christmas CDs; recordings released for the Christmas market by school, chapel, college, church, university, cathedral choirs usually containing the same things but largely intended for distribution amongst families and friends, for whom critical assessment is alien in the face of social loyalty.  Since many of those recordings have been released into the general market, it has been my lot to listen to them with a more objective ear, and while I never cease to admire the range and scope of choirs tackling the same old Christmas favourites, and their unceasing ability to find anew the magic in timeless carols, this year brought me face to face with the stark realities of single sex and mixed choirs.

Boys’ and Girls’ only choirs (they get round EU legislation by having one of each under a single banner) make very different sounds.  Boys certainly have a richer vocabulary of tone and expressive nuances, but this can lead to rough edges and inconsistencies with (a common failing) top notes forced in an almost hooting manner.  In comparison, girls sing with an amazing purity of tone and security of pitch, but lack the timbral depth or the expressive range, and often produce a sound which is so well blended and manicured that it comes across almost as bland.

Ironically, some of the best new Christmas discs have been with mixed boys/girls choirs, where the girls tend to moderate the boys’ excesses, while the boys add colour and depth to the girls’ monochrome sound.

This was reinforced to me when I attended a live performance last night of a choir from Lyon, Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc.  This was a mixed group of girls and boys who produced a very strong and confident sound, and at their best produced some fine music-making.  They were hampered by some pretty dreadful arrangements – Schubert’s Ave Maria delivered in the minor key and Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei turned into a soft-core jazz number in which Barber’s contribution was a couple of notes heard in an obbligato oboe descant eloquently played by Singaporean Quek Jun Rui.  There was also a version of my all-time favourite Welsh melody, Suo-Gan, which was so dreary as to seem quite boring (and what language the children were singing in defied recognition; it certainly was neither Welsh nor French – could it have been Breton??).  But what fascinated me was the effect of a deliberate juxtaposition of boys and girls voices in a choir where, clearly, enthusiasm was rather more strong than musical or technical finesse.

Once or twice a boy’s voice would squawk out harshly at the top, but was quickly covered by a rich tone in which the girls clearly kept the focus on pitch and ensemble while the boys added the colour and expression.  It was interesting to read that nobody remains in the choir beyond the age of 14, and since boys have to drop out of choirs when their voices break while girls can go on and on for ever, this is important in preventing the choir becoming dominated by the girls.  It all worked enormously well and was clearly far better than had this been a choir of boys or a choir of girls;

It may well be that my prejudices are slipping, but I’m coming round to the view that mixed voice children’s choirs can be rather better than single sex ones, provided the choir’s director has the ability to achieve the perfect balance with neither sex having dominance either numerically or in longevity.

19 November 2018

Pianists from China, Choirs from Britain, Conductors from Holland

It could often be said to be the result of one particularly inspirational teacher, or even a single figure who becomes an inspiration to others; the latter certainly explains the immense profusion of young Chinese learning the piano, inspired by the example of Lang Lang.  The fact is, though, that certain nationalities have a disproportionate representation at international level in certain musical disciplines.  When the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra was set up, with a totally clean sheet and the pick of the best from all over the world, it seemed that the brass was dominated by North Americans (which is still very much the case with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra).  Perhaps it was geographical location and regional connections which meant most of the woodwind section were Australians.  But other factors saw many string players coming from Russia and Eastern Europe, notably Hungary.

Whatever the reason, Great Britain produces the very finest choirs and orchestras in the world (I accept no dispute over the choirs - I am right! - and those who query my statement about orchestras I can only counter with sets of initials - BBCSO, LSO, LPO), France has historically produced the greatest organists in the world, and the USA reigns supreme in the field of jazz singers. We could look back into history and identify Austria as producing a disproportionate number of great composers and Italy a disproportionate number of great opera singers.  And for over a century, some of the finest conductors in the world have come from The Netherlands.

Eduard van Beinum
Willem Mengelberg

Eduard van Beinum, Willem Mengelberg, Bernard Haitink, Edo de Waart and Frans Brüggen will be known to all, while very much a rising star on the scene is another Dutchman, Jaap van Zweden, whose work with the Hong Kong Philharmonic has shown him to be a true star, even if (according to my colleagues) he has yet really to make his mark with the New York Philharmonic.  And there's another. 
I well recall an occasion in early 1997 when I was in for a lunchtime meeting in the old Petronas HQ at Dayabumi in Kuala Lumpur.  Ian Smallbone, who was then heading up a small office of IMG Artists working with Petronas to set up the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, greeted me excitedly; "We've got our conductor!" he beamed, but refused to tell me more until we were at lunch.  This was a great celebration since not only was the choice of conductor pivotal to the success of this new orchestra, but they had been searching high and low for the right man.  I could barely contain my own excitement, but when Ian blurted out the name at lunch - Kees Bakels - my reaction was, who? I had even forgotten the name by the time I got home, and had to phone the office to get them to remind me. 

Well, the rest is history, and while the name of Kees Bakels may still not command the respectful recognition of thousands of music lovers worldwide, in my book, and in the books of many who witnessed the miracle he performed with the Malaysian Philharmonic, Bakels is every bit as fine (I would say finer) than any of his more famous compatriots.  I cannot speak of Mengelberg or van Beinum, whom I only heard on record (and a recording is no reliable indicator of the ability of a musician on a live stage) but Bakels for me gives Haitink more than a run for his money , we can't compare him with the more specialist Brüggen, but give me a Bakels performance over a de Waart or a van Zweden anyday.

And my opinion is not merely based on the incredible work he did in Malaysia, but on hearing Bakels with other orchestras, notably in the UK at Bournemouth and Leeds and, just last week, in Singapore with the usually frayed Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  Here's my Straits Times review.


More than a dozen years have passed since Dutchman Kees Bakels left the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra which he founded in 1998 and took, against all the odds, to the very peak of international excellence.  So it was good to welcome him back to South East Asia.  The big question was, could he work his magic on the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
The answer was a resounding yes.
Rossini’s Overture to Cinderella opened this programme of Familiar Favourites – none of which seemed at all familiar to many in the audience.  Nobody does a Rossini crescendo quite like Kees Bakels.  He starts it on his knees, hardly moving his upper body, and then draws himself up to his full height opening his arms wide as he does so.  The response from the SSO was spell-binding.
But that was only the tiniest of tasters.  The true magic came with the second half. 
Familiar tunes from Tchaikovsky’s ballet score, Sleeping Beauty, occasionally pop up in concert programmes, but here we had all of the Prologue as well as a great chunk of the first act - as Bakels told the audience after their enthusiastic applause had interrupted the performance after one brilliantly measured climax, they could have had acts two and three as well, only he had left them back home.
 With fluttering hand gestures which you would never find in any tutor on conducting, and often not using his hands at all, merely directing the orchestra with a shimmy of the hips or a raised eyebrow, Bakels conjured up playing from the SSO which almost defied belief.  Exhibiting a precision and clarity of detail, and producing a meatiness of string tone one did not think possible from this orchestra, they gave a performance as scintillating and exhilarating as it was joyous and foot-tapping.  Here was a brilliant demonstration of a master conductor at work and an orchestra raising its game beyond all expectations.
 Between these ravishing displays of orchestral brilliance, came an equally impressive display of violin virtuosity. 
 Richard Lin’s biography tells us that he has been busily amassing "a startling collection of top prizes at major international competitions".  And it showed in a performance of the Korngold Violin Concerto which seemed more concerned with judge-impressing technical prowess than interpretative insight or real musical  involvement.  Unquestionably Lin possesses unbridled virtuosity, but it was left to Bakels and the SSO to create the richly romantic atmosphere which lies at the heart of Korngold’s Concerto.
Managing to avoid making the work sound like the hotchpotch of Hollywood movie themes of the 1930s and 40s which it really is, Bakels pushed it all along purposefully, letting the big tunes soar and never allowing emotional self-indulgence to get in the way of Lin’s glittering, crowd-pleasing virtuosity.

16 November 2018

100 Years of Nine Lessons and Carols

It's one of those things which has been around so long that we take it for granted and imagine that it's always been there.

Christmas in our family has never been Christmas until we've heard the annual live broadcast from King's College Cambridge Chapel in Cambridge of the Christmas Eve service of Nine Lessons and Carols.  Memories flood back of Mum busily making mince pies and preparing the turkey in the kitchen of our London home to the accompaniment of King's carols; of sitting in my isolated house in North Wales with the fire crackling in the grate, listening to King's before heading into Bangor for our own cathedral carols; of sitting in my car looking out over Lough Foyle in Ireland as I filled the time between services at the cathedral where I was Organist and Master of the Choristers, not daring to travel home over the border since the BBC FM signal once you had crossed into Donegal was always a bit ropey; of lying in my bed in Sarawak, sweating like a pig in the humidity of an equatorial night, ear pressed to my shortwave radio trying to catch King's which goes out there at around midnight; and particularly of the telephone calls immediately after the broadcast service to my father and to my choir friends and colleagues to discuss the finer points of what each year's service has brought.

I have not always liked what I have heard, but as a tradition and as a moving indicator of stability in an often unsettled world, I treat the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's as something almost sacrosanct.  This year it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Receiving the two-CD anniversary set for review was something I never would have dreamt as a young boy in the late 1950s experiencing the King's magic for the first time, and determining from what I heard to become a cathedral choirmaster myself.  I know now I could never have done it better (or even anything like as well) as the Willcockses, the Ledgers or the Cleoburys of this world, but decades of experience as a critic has allowed me to listen to this objectively, even if, emotionally, it remains an unimpeachable treasure.

Here's my review published this week from MusicWeb International, from whom the disc is available for sale.

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This is a notable year for King’s College Chapel Choir, Cambridge.  It marks their final Christmas under their long-serving director, Stephen Cleobury, who retires next year after 37 years in post, it sees the 90th anniversary of the first BBC broadcast of the Christmas Eve service from the chapel (a worldwide broadcast which has made the chapel choir not just internationally famous but the yardstick against which almost all other choirs are measured), and it celebrates the centenary of the first ever service of Nine Lessons and Carols devised by Eric Milner-White for annual use in the college chapel.  It will not have escaped anyone’s notice that this year also marks the centenary of the ending of the First World War, and the fact that the first King’s carol service was in the month following the signing of the Armistice is no mere coincidence.  As Timothy Day’s fascinating booklet essay on the history of the service makes plain, Milner-White “was fired by his love of this place [and] the horror he had experienced in the trenches”.  Day goes on to illustrate just how vital the annual service has become in creating a sense of unity and hope even in times of great international upheaval, and how iconic, and vital to national identity, the annual broadcast of the service has become.

Although one must assume that many of the BBC broadcasts have long been lost – do there exist anywhere copies of the broadcast made under the directorship of A H Mann (I’d love to sample his “Dickensian drama and vehemence, with pianississimos and fortississimos all over the place”, as Day enticingly describes his style of  conducting), and while I believe a 1954 recording under Mann’s successor, Boris Ord (“with ‘t’s’ and ‘d’s’ synchronised with unerring precision”) is in the possession of the BBC, are there any others? - one assumes most of the broadcasts made between 1957 and 1982 under David Willcocks and Philip Ledger survive.  The first of this pair of CDs has rooted out carols broadcast from King’s in 1958, 1963, 1978 and 1980, as well as seven of the broadcasts from Cleobury’s term in office (1985, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2007 and 2017).  For those of us brought up in the Willcocks era, the fact that just five carols from his broadcasts are included (Ledger is even less well represented, with a mere three from his era) is a disappointment; but perhaps now that the vault has been unlocked, we might have access to more of this priceless archive in the years ahead.

We will all have our minor quibbles about the historical balance or the inclusion/exclusion of certain favourites; while it is good to hear the 1985 broadcast of the premiere of Judith Weir’s excellent Illuminare, Jerusalem there is no shortage of commercial recordings of it sung by the King’s choir, one wonders at the inclusion of Bach’s Passion Chorale to the words “How Shall I Fitly Meet thee?”, against which it would not only have been good to have an “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in any of the various versions broadcast over the years.  And given that this year also marks the bicentenary of the composition of “Silent Night”, it would have been appropriate to have one of the many versions of that popular carol sung by King’s over the years.  But such quibbles should not cloud the sense of sheer delight which courses through everyone’s veins at this generous mining of the archive. 

In the Willcocks era the choir had a wonderfully smooth and richly blended quality (Day rightly describes it as “other-worldly”), perhaps emphasised in these BBC broadcasts; which also serve to remind us of the general ill-health of a nation where smoking was still the norm – it is a long time since I have heard so much unrestrained coughing from a congregation, even in the depths of an East Anglian winter.  It is good to hear the Willcocks descant and re-harmonisations of the last two verses of “O Come All Ye Faithful” sounding fresh and committed from his 1963 broadcast, as well as his glittering arrangement of the Sussex Carol from the same year (the organist, unattributed on the recording itself, would have been, if my memory serves me correctly, none other than Andrew Davis who has gone on to somewhat greater things on the conductor’s rostrum).  From the Willcocks broadcasts, we also have Boris Ord’s “Adam Lay yBounden”, a carol which has been something of a fixture in the annual broadcasts ever since.

Philip Ledger created a sound with rather more edge than Willcocks, and that is beautifully demonstrated in a neat, manicured performance of In Dulci Jubilo, taken from the 1980 broadcast.  His own musical arrangements are restricted to his descant to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (from the 1978 service, and something which has never really broken out from under the shadow of Willcocks’ famous one) and his rollicking arrangement of “I saw Three Ships”, which is included in the second disc of this two-disc set, not taken from BBC broadcasts but recorded mostly in July of this year.

The initial impression from the Cleobury broadcasts was just how feminine the boys sound – in “The Holly and the Ivy”, taken from the 1994 broadcast, the treble soloists sound remarkably like female undergraduates.  But perhaps the most obvious changes documented by this disc is the expansion of the carol repertory through commissions.  In addition to the Judith Weir premiere, we hear specially commissioned carols from Thomas Adès (The Fayrfax Carol, 1997), Bob Chilcott (The Shepherd’s Carol, 2001), John Rutter (Dormi Jesu, 2007), Arvo Pärt (Bogoróditse Djévo, 2007), Michael Berkeley (This Endernight) and Huw Watkins (Carol Eliseus).  In addition, new carols by Carl Rütti (his superlative version of “I Wonder as I Wander” taken from the 2000 broadcast), James Whitbourn (The Magi’s Dream), John Joubert (There Is No Rose) and Richard Elfyn Jones (Adam’s Fall) pay testament to the focus on contemporary Christmas music which has been such a major feature of the King’s legacy in the Cleobury years.  On a personal note, I’m delighted that they have included the jovial arrangement of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” by my former organ teacher, Martin Neary, as well as “Can I not Syng with Hoy” composed in 1972 by that veritable and venerable living legend amongst British organists, Francis Jackson.

There are some duplications between carols taken from the BBC broadcasts and those included on the newly-recorded second disc.  These mostly are in different arrangements – Simon Preston’s virtuoso (for the organist) “I Saw Three Ships” (slightly chaotic in the 1994 broadcast) is countered by Philip Ledger’s on the second disc, while Cleobury closes the second disc with his own descant to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.  But to have Willcocks’ “O Come All Ye Faithful” twice, in performances made over half a century apart, only goes to show just how iconic this has become, and also how significant has been King’s College Cambridge’s contribution to the core repertory of Christmas music.  Without King’s, Christmas just would not be the same, and this wonderful treasure trove of outstanding singing and superlative music making merely scratches the surface of what is a major musical legacy.

12 November 2018

Nobody Loves Music

The Five Foot Shelf is a programme broadcast by the BBC1 in which visitors at a bookshop in the UK are asked to name a book they think would be indispensable on any self-respecting bookshelf.  It’s a lovely idea, and while the original inspiration might have been the five-foot shelf on which an early 20th century president of Harvard placed the volumes which he maintained contained all the knowledge anyone seeking a liberal education would ever need, the modern version finds people making the most weird and wonderful choices. 

Whether or not the books selected by the bookshop visitors (ordinary members of the local community) impart valuable knowledge is not the point.  Here we have a tangible example of the deep affection people have for books; not so much a specific book as books in general.  It seems that many of us have a deep affection, not so much for literature, as for the physical substance of a book.

When we are in town with my 10-year-old daughter, she invariably wants to find a bookshop.  We never ask her what she wants to buy, because we know she simply likes to be surrounded by books.  She, like us and many of the people we know, simply loves books for their own sake – and if they contain something interesting or entertaining, so much the better.

People buy books by the yard to give distinction to their houses and offices, you can buy wall-paper designed to look like shelves of books, and one famous coffee shop I visited in Folkestone in Kent had more books in it than you find in the average public library.  We have a love affair with books, and seem to feel more at ease in their company, whether or not we actually actively engage with them.

Of course, many of us have our favourites; books which we hold particularly dear and which we are eager to share with others.  In my case, the novels of Alexander McCall Smith make me feel good even before I’ve read a word; there’s something I find infinitely soothing in the utter niceness of his characters and his complete love for humanity even at its worst (what other author could create a Glasgow gangster by the name of Lard O’Connor with whom the reader develops such an affection that we regret the day he slips down the stairs of Big Lou’s Coffee Bar in Edinburgh and dies?).  If I hadn’t kept lending copies to friends, I’d have The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom on any shelf along with any of the Scotland Street, Isabel Dalhousie and, especially, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels.  But then would I have room for my Trollope, my Rose Tremaine, my Evelyn Waugh, my Anthony Burgess, my Brian Friel or even my Tolkien?  And that’s before we go to the complete set of Grove which, while available online, does not exist in my consciousness unless I see its physical presence on the shelf.  And I would not like to be without my assortment of Hymnals, Psalters, Ian Allen guides to British Bus Fleets, the children’s stories of Arthur Ransome and William Mayne (to remind me of my youth) or Shakespeare, from whom I can always find some suitable quote when all else fails.

Nevertheless, it seems to be the physical presence of books that we crave and enjoy, rather more than the actual books themselves.  And it is not just the English-speaking world that has this deep-seated affection for books.  Look at the crowds that assemble every time there is a book fair in Hong Kong or Singapore, go into the Chinese and Indian bookshops and see the vast numbers of young people sitting cross-legged on the floor totally engrossed in a book.  We all love books.

But do we have the same affection for music?

You could argue that books embrace the world of knowledge, and to hold a book is to possess the key to that knowledge.  But does not music embrace even more the world of human existence?  After all Victor Hugo told us that “Music expresses those thoughts which cannot be put into words”.  Against that, books surely do not have the same potential as music to resonate deeply with our innermost souls?  By all the laws of logic, we should feel a much closer bond to music than we do to literature.  But we don’t.

As with the relationship between literature and books, so is the relationship between music and recordings, be they the LPs of the analogue age or the CDs of the digital one.  We can attend book readings by authors or fine actors, just as we can attend concerts directed by the composers or performed by great musicians, yet to have our own personal unlimited access to literature through the physicality of a book is important to us.  Is the same true with music? 

Many countries have lost their record shops – there is not a single one left in Singapore, a place which claims to love music – and the days when you could happily pass a few hours simply browsing through shelves of LPs and CDs, maybe even sampling a few, have long gone.  It might be said we buy our music online, but we also buy our books online.  Why, then, do most towns still possess a bookshop or two while few have even a single record shop? Is it because we really do not care about recordings, that we take them for granted or even dismiss them as irrelevant?  Surely for people who claim to love music, the physical representation of that music in recorded form is as much symbolic as it is practical.  We have an affection for books, but we certainly do not have an affection for records.
Why is this?  Is it because the dissemination of recorded music has been so dramatically affected by recent technological developments?  I remember when the CD burst on to the scene in 1983, friends bemoaned the fact that they would “have” to update their recorded libraries by changing all their old LPs into CDs.  Have we simply become tired of adjusting to such technological changes, or lost our interest in good quality recordings in the face of a tide of poor performances badly recorded but with the virtue (if that is what it is) of being free-of-charge?  Or is that, at root, we regard music, not so much as an adjunct to life to be treasured and valued, as something which is so ubiquitous that we do not see any value in preserving it?  Is there just too much music in our society for us to develop a personal relationship with it?

It might be argued that since language is in use every day, that, too, is too ubiquitous to warrant the affection we see in those who love their books.  Yet while everyone uses language, the joy of language in its written form as found in books is the way in which that language is used.  Much to music’s detriment, that, too, is an everyday, mundane object, heard (but by no means listened to) by everybody going about their daily lives.  It often is an irritant and a distraction, rather than pleasure (just as language can be), but it misses that vital step which literature takes in transforming the mundane into the elevated.  What we hear in our supermarket aisles, our hotel lobbies and our aircraft as they taxi for take-off, is the same as what we hear pulsing into our inner ear from the little ear-buds firmly affixed to our digital devices as we move through life, and the same as what we hear when we access online music sites where, at least, we have made the conscious effort to find a specific piece of music.  But what we do not have any more is the ability to assess what we hear critically, or to judge its worth in the company of others.  Music has become a solitary activity in a way which sharing the love of books is not, and while I sometimes enthuse over certain pieces of music and recordings (is there a friend of mine who has not been driven to distraction by my advocacy of Stanford’s Third and Seventh Symphonies, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria van Weber or Telemann’s Suite in A minor as recorded by Il Giardino Armonico – my favourite recording of all time?) what I enjoy more than anything else is having myself surrounded by CDs and other recordings.  When we lost everything a few years back, I could cope without the family photos, the piano, the furniture, the clothes the art works, but I have never come to terms with the loss of my vast record collection – I am busily building it back up now, but with a few thousand CDs compared with the 10,000 plus at the bottom of the Atlantic, the loss still affects me profoundly.

Of course there are significant differences between the relationship between books and literature, and records and music.  Generally, one creative literary outpouring produces one book, whereas one creative musical outpouring can create hundreds of records, each re-interpreting the original creation in a way which often becomes more significant in the ears of the listener than the original creation does.  I have a friend whose obsession with the tempi at which Beethoven symphonies are taken has him collecting every Beethoven symphony recording he can find and analysing the speeds to the exclusion of the original musical message.  I know enthusiasts for the piano who discuss Chopin in terms of how different pianists play his music, rather than what his music is trying to say to us through the pianists.  In short, music enthusiasts are so taken up with the interpretation of music, that they cease to value the creative impetus behind those interpretations.

Classical musicians no longer value recordings in the way they once did.  I despair that students’ critical faculties are numbed by excessive exposure to bad performances, badly recorded, but available free-of-charge and easily through such online portals as YouTube, while in the pop world, most enthusiasts now use the word “see” to refer to a recording rather than “listen”; the visual element of pop recordings not so much the equal of the sound as taking priority over it.  Visible image is important, not aural quality. 

The one exception still seems to be the aficionados of jazz, whose affection for recordings is manifest through what is, to me, the essential musical event of the week; the Saturday braodcast2 of Jazz Record Requests when you hear just how deep the affection is for the physical presence of records amongst enthusiasts.  Like The Five-Foot Shelf. Jazz Record Requests symbolises a level of affection for a physical representation of an art form which we in the classical musical world have lost.


1 For reasons best known to themselves, the BBC have chosen not to add this to their BBC radio i-Player.  But you can find details of it on the Radio 4 page

2 Alyn Shipton’s weekly broadcast is always on the BBC Radio i-Player (Radio 3).  Don’t be tempted to seek it out on BBC Sounds – that is not available in south east Asia.

10 November 2018

TV Themes from the SSO

The Straits Times is having some problems finding space for classical music reviews, so this one only appeared online last Friday.  Here it is for those who do nto subscribe to the Straits Times online edition;

Happy Days – Favourite TV Themes

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Salonga (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Wednesday (7 November)

Marc Rochester

It seems odd to fill a two-hour formal concert by a symphony orchestra with TV theme tunes.  Culled from American and British shows screened, not originally in Singapore, over the past 50 years, these ranged from the sixties hit show Hawaii-Five-O, to the cult cartoon of our own time, The Simpsons.

But what might have seemed like a nostalgic indulgence for the few expat over-60s in the audience who’d spent their adolescence in front of the telly, was actually powerfully engaging for an audience largely made up of young Singaporean families and empty seats.

TV themes are of necessity very short, and to bulk them up, all were presented in arrangements which often added so much baggage that it was not always easy to know what the original theme was.  Dallas sounded more like an out-take from West Side Story, while it took almost 10 minutes of atmospheric rambling before Trekkies got their fix of the iconic Star Trek theme.

Three things transformed this concert into two hours of sheer fun.  The first was the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, clearly having a real ball in repertory they don’t usually encounter (with some awesome percussion playing for Sex and the City).  The second was a quintet of local vocalists who added informality to the proceedings.  And thirdly, and most importantly, Gerard Salonga who, making his conducting debut with the SSO, had clearly won the hearts of the orchestra and established such an easy rapport with the audience, that he seemed more like an old friend than an unfamiliar guest.

Salonga had devised the programme so well that it all ran like a well-oiled machine, but double-act Jack and Rai were on hand to smooth down the few lumpy joins with some easy banter.  They also joined in the singing of the theme song from Friends, along with three other vocalists – Hazrul Nizam, Benjamin Chow and Alemay Fernandez – who had individually added their voices to other theme tunes.

Excellent as the male vocalists were, all were eclipsed physically, aurally and visually (she positively dazzled in a generously-sequined white gown) by Fernandez whose personal command of the stage and of the audience showed us all what real star quality is all about.

The production staff had done their bit to transform the concert hall into a TV studio, bathing the stage in a veritable rainbow of coloured lights, so it seemed unfortunate that the conductor and orchestra were all dressed in their formal white tie and tails (which Salonga cheekily suggested was their “smart causal”).  All became clear in the second half with one of the TV themes they played.  They were not dressed as formal musicians at all, but extras on the set of Britain’s much-loved period drama, Downton Abbey.

06 November 2018

The State of Opera in Singapore

This Friday, I am acting as Master of Ceremonies for the Singapore Lyric Opera's Gala Concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall.  It will feature a host of popular opera extracts sung by soprano Nancy Yuen and tenor Lae Jae Wook, the Singapore Lyric Opera Chorus and Children's Choir, and with the Singapore Lyric Opera Orchestra.  By a strange coincidence, yesterday a group of students doing a project asked me to answer four questions about opera.  It struck me, having answered their questions, that perhaps their questions had a wider resonance outside their project, so I thought I would publish their questions and my responses.  I would hope that, for my sake and theirs, some opposing or additional views might be added from others!

  1. Given the varying definitions of western opera we found online, such as a genre of classical music or a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, is there a true definition of what opera is?

If you have found a definition of “Western Opera”, it is wrong! There is no such thing as “Western Opera”.  So far as I can see, the term originated from an anonymous Wikipedia contributor and has been adopted by those for whom Wikipedia is a prime source of information.  Opera is an art form derived from Ancient Greece and revived in the Italian Renaissance. In essence it is a dramatic staged presentation involving representative visual and aural elements involving some or all of the following; speech, movement (action, dance), music, dramatic gesture and scenery.  The notion of “Western Opera” seems to derive from a confusion over the use in Renaissance and post-Renaissance opera of “Western Music” (ie. music disseminated by means of a notational system derived in Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries) and the rise of “imitation” operas in other cultures combining traditional musical and dramatic elements with Opera (in the Greek sense).  Correctly, there is Opera and its derivatives which include Peking Opera (which dates back only to the late 18th/early 19th centuries) and Carnatic Opera (which is an even more recent creation).  Singing is not essential in opera, although music in one form or another is an integral element.

  1. What is the difference between opera and musical?
The growth of Opera since the Renaissance has seen various subdivisions evolve.  These include Opera Seria (tragedy), Opera Buffa (comedy), Singspiel (characters speak as well as sing) and Operetta.  This last was devised in Paris during the 19th century and was taken up with enthusiasm in late 19th /early 10th century Vienna.  Operetta focused more on visual than aural elements, with dance an integral part of this.  It also preferred to be based on humorous and light-hearted stories, or those of a serious nature treated semi-seriously.  Many of the leading Operetta composers in early 20th century Vienna were Jewish, and with the rise of Austrian Nationalist sentiments (defined by the growth of the Nazi political party) they fled mostly to the United States.  The burgeoning Hollywood movie industry had created an appetite among the domestic audience for “live” theatrical presentations which were visually spectacular and colourful (Hollywood movies were then monochrome) as well as aurally vivid (Hollywood soundtracks were limited by primitive recording and suppression techniques).  The émigré Operetta composers recognised this potential, and adapted their Operetta styles to meet the American demands for such lavish musical shows.  Broadway in New York became the theatrical homeland of these shows, which, because the emphasis lay primarily on visual and aural effect, with dancing at least equal, but often dominant to vocal elements, was no longer called Operetta, but became its own opera subdivision, Musical.

  1. Is there a clear line draw between opera and other forms of music?
Yes.  Opera combines elements, most of which are not to be found in other musical forms; for example, dramatic presentation (action, costume, scenery).  Musically, modern opera emphasises vocal prowess in solo and ensemble activity, in a way not to be found in any other musical genre.

  1. How has the western opera scene in Singapore evolved over the years?
I am conscious of a relatively active Peking Opera scene in Singapore, but beyond this Opera is basically alien to the Singapore arts scene.  Various amateur companies have attempted to create a base for Opera here – the most successful of which are the Singapore Lyric Opera and L’Arietta Opera – but none is able to sustain anything beyond an occasional performance.  There are theatres (Victoria and Esplanade) able to stage full operatic productions, and L’Arietta in particular have experimented with opera productions outside traditional theatres, so this is not the issue.  What is the issue, is the economic viability of staging opera in Singapore.  Even Hong Kong, where Western Music is far more advanced and embedded within the domestic population than in Singapore, cannot sustain professional opera companies.  Costs are inflated considerably because the expertise for staging and singing opera is found only overseas (because there is no effective training ground for such skills here), and since staging an opera is not like putting on a concert where a performance can be made viable after just a few hours’ rehearsal in situ, such skilled individuals need to be brought over for many weeks at a time.  On top of that opera requires vocal techniques few, if any, Singaporean choirs possess.  Some pocket productions (notably by L’Arietta) have encouraged Singapore composers to write mini-operas, but with the dual limitations of restricted skill sets from the performers and a demand for local interest stories from the native population, such new local operas must remain relevant only to Singapore with its tiny market for any kind of musical presentation. So, in my view, the opera scene in Singapore has not so much failed to evolve over the years as never really existed in the first place.  

As a postscript, I would add that I believe that  Opera is alien to Singapore – but that is a state of affairs I regard as being neither a bad thing nor something which needs addressing.  We are too small to accommodate professional opera, and those with a taste for opera now have unlimited access to performances of it - which far exceed in quality anything Singapore could ever hope to stage - through recordings and the vast resource of filmed and live transmissions from major opera houses around the world online.  We do not train opera musicians here, and were we to set up an opera school, I doubt it would attract students of sufficient quality to warrant the investment required.  Musically in Singapore we have our own skills which are manifest in one of the most active Western Musical scenes anywhere in south east Asia.  I do not think we need to add another string to our already well-filled bow.

And as a final postscript.  Can I point you in the direction of the Grand Gala Concert being staged by Singapore Lyric Opera this Friday evening at the Esplanade.  I think you will find in it the best we can realistically expect from today’s Singapore opera scene – small extracts from major operas presented in a concert setting.