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.