16 February 2019

Trotter, Victoria, Bach and Raffles


To jaded old pros, like myself, going to an organ recital has long since lost its allure.  The prospect of hearing a player (whom we’ve usually heard before), playing music (which we already know) on an organ (the sound of which is familiar to us) is not in itself what keeps us going along time after time.  What attracts us is the unique juxtaposition of all three.  We are fascinated to hear what music (and why) such-and-such an organist has chosen to include in the programme, how it’s going to sound on the organ and what the organist does to the music and to the organ which make both sound different.

English organist Thomas Trotter is one of the really big names on the circuit, and his style of playing is deeply familiar from his innumerable live recitals, his large number of recordings and his many broadcast appearances.  A recital by Thomas Trotter is not going to spring any surprises; he’s not one to turn up in skin-tight white jeans and a tee-shirt playing Eminem transcriptions, nor is he going to administer to his audience an undiluted diet of Buxtehude chorale preludes in the belief that several hours of extreme monotony is somehow time well spent.  (There are organists on the circuit who frequently do both, much to the detriment of the organ’s public reputation.)  A Trotter recital is a guarantee of excellent playing, superb mastery of the instrument’s resources, and an interesting and listener-friendly collection of varied repertory which will include some Bach, almost certainly some big Victorian town-hall showpiece, probably some Liszt and without doubt, some transcriptions from the orchestral repertory.  We know we will admire his technique, enjoy his easily-communicative virtuosity and revel in his unpretentious musicianship, and most of all feel comfortable that his “common touch” will make for a pleasant hour-and-a-half’s listening.

Trotter was in Singapore last night for only the second time.  His previous visit was to open the Esplanade Klais organ in 2002 – a recital which in terms of pure sonic sumptuousness has not been equalled, and certainly has not been bettered, in the intervening 17 years.  Sadly, this recital promised no such sonic sumptuousness, for he was not playing on the wonderful and disgracefully under-used Esplanade organ, but on its older, smaller, and much less sumptuous, sister organ in the Victoria Concert Hall.  Built by Klais in the 1980s, this horrid and ugly little thing dates back to a period when shrill and piercing were considered preferable to mellow and soothing.  The hall’s rebuild and acoustic re-modelling in 2014 did it no favours, and the final nail in its coffin came when someone decided to suspend a dozen or so Perspex screens over the stage.  The jury is still out on these so far as the audience is concerned at orchestral concerts (and with their highly reflective surfaces, they provide a disturbing visual distraction by mirroring, upside down, everything that is going on on stage), but there is no question that their arrival signalled the final departure of any vestiges of acoustic breadth to alleviate the hard-edged, nasty sound of the organ.  Listening to it in the hall is not so much like receiving a punch in the face, as experiencing that sensation you have standing near the back of a Singapore bus; being blasted by an inescapable barrage of heat and feeling grubby from the perceived exposure to oil-fired fumes. (And I speak as a tireless admirer of Singapore buses.)

Trotter’s programme seemed to be planned with the Esplanade in mind, and I was not alone in wondering how big, aural spectaculars such as Liszt’s BACH Prelude & Fugue and Edwin Lemare’s classic transcription of Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March No.1 could possibly succeed on the Victoria Hall organ with its single-minded devotion to looking and sounding like people in the 1980s imagined the organs of Buxtehude’s time to look and sound.  But Trotter is not one of the world’s greatest and most communicative organists for nothing, and what he can’t do with an organ simply isn’t worth knowing. 

Perhaps he resorted a little too often to the full organ sound – with big pieces on a small organ, that is inevitable – but he managed to alleviate the fundamentally offensive quality of what organists describe as the “pleno” (basically, pulling out all the stops to make the loudest noise) by the ingenious device of surrounding each pleno with a little bit of space.  This not only took the strain off our ears, but more importantly, it prevented an inevitable consequence of wind-powered pipe organs (a problem those who play their electronic cousins do not have and do not even think about);  when you play lots of notes together with all the pipes sounding (and it is worth pointing out to the uninitiated that a single key depressed on the organ can send wind up several dozen pipes simultaneously, some of which are well over five metres in length) you use up a great deal of wind, and smaller organs (and quite a few large ones too) simply don’t have that much wind in reserve.  The result is a marked drop in pitch.  This happened time and time again when Trotter trotted out the pleno, but by his judicious use of pauses and small breaks in the flow, he was able to avoid that horrible moment when the drop in pitch is cruelly laid bare as intonation is restored to normal service.  It was little tricks like that, which are the hallmarks of a truly fine organist, which helped make the Victoria Hall organ sound quite acceptable.

I must have heard the Victoria Hall organ dozens of times (I even played it myself on a couple of occasions, when it was in the pre-rebuilt hall) and never, in all those performances, have I ever heard it sound so nice as it did here.  It’s still an ugly little instrument, but under Trotter’s infinitely caring ministrations, it revealed surprising delights. Trotter clearly felt that the soft flute stops of the organ were its biggest charmers, and he used them frequently to very great effect – even highlighting them in his encore, the inevitable Humoresque (Toccatina) by Pietro Yon, a composer known for just two works; the standard encore piece which all organists have up their sleeves, and a Christmas song which Pavarotti invariably used as his encore piece (Gesu Bambino).

As for the programme itself, it did come up with one novelty for me in the shape of a transcription for organ solo of J C Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto Op.1 No.6.  Using the flutes and playing with delightfully crisp and nimble fingerwork, Trotter opened my eyes to something I don’t think I had ever heard before – and something which I would very much hope to hear again.  For me, this was very much the musical highlight of his programme. 

The programme ostensibly celebrated the bi-centenary of modern Singapore’s founding and its absorption into the British Empire.  But drawing on his vast repertory, Trotter, opened the recital with a collection of party-pieces which had nothing to do with 1819, Singapore, or, indeed, the British Empire.  Their unifying factor was Bach, but not quite as you might expect. 

He began with a piece which was by Bach, if not intended by Bach to be heard as we heard it here.  Bach wrote all three bits of the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue (BWV564) at different times and for different purposes, and it seems they were only ever brought together as a unified work sometime in the early 19th century.  I’m not sure the Toccata, with its flamboyant manual flourishes, extended pedal solos and complete lack of real invention, can be held up as an example of Bach at his greatest, but the enchanting Adagio and its gloriously tongue-twisting Fugue add substance to the frivolity of the Toccata.  As an opener, it provided the perfect vehicle to showcase Trotter’s immaculate fingerwork and his crystal clear articulation – you could, indeed, hear every single note, and you could hear that every single note was not just correctly played, but perfectly placed.  Some of the echo effects in the Toccata did not quite work, but they served their purpose in taking some of the pressure off our ears in an otherwise very forthright and sustained outburst of loud organ tone.

Deliberately modelled on Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, Alberto Ginastera’s Toccata, Villancico and Fugue on BACH (Op.18) dates from 1947 and is often trotted out by organists because, like similar pieces by Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich, it is the only organ work by a notable 20th century composer.  I’m not sure it has many other selling points, although in his charming spoken introductions to the programme, Trotter did suggest that we listen out for a moment which was his particular favourite in the piece (and, yes, it highlighted the soft flutes).  The mere fact that he had told us to listen out for this, helped most of the audience get through what was really a rather unattractive if (for organists) interesting piece of music. 

It was lucky for us that Trotter did offer fluently delivered and easily-grasped spoken introductions, for the printed programme notes offered nothing of interest and were embarrassing by their peddling of basic errors and misinformation. Few other organists, however, could have got away with telling his audience that “they were in for a treat” when describing the way he was to play his next work.  But even the most ardent Liszt-iophile would hardly say that their God-like Hero was at his best in the Prelude & Fugue on BACH, with its obsessive, manic reiterations of the four-note figure which, in German notation, spells out the letters B-A-C-H.  It’s certainly a popular organ piece, because it makes lots of noise and goes very fast.  Trotter did not disappoint in either regard, and his virtuosity, as well as the incredible clarity of sound, meant that we did, indeed, hear, as promised, “every single note”. 

If the first half of the programme had celebrated Bach in various guises, the second did, at least, manage a peripheral nod towards 1819 and Sir Stamford Raffles; no music from 1819, but two pieces incorporating a tune familiar throughout the British Empire.  “God Save the King” was first written to be played after performances at two London theatres in September 1745 following the catastrophic defeat of King George’s troops under Sir John Cope at the Battle of Prestonpans.  When J C Bach arrived in England just 17 years later, “God Save The King” had still not been elevated to the status of official national anthem, so he didn’t think twice about using it as the theme for a set of variations in his Harpsichord Concerto, but by the latter half of the 19th century it was not just the National Anthem of Great Britain but of the whole Empire, and had been re-worded to accommodate the fact that Quest Victoria was on the throne as Empress.  The connection between Empress Victoria and Victoria Hall in Empress Place was too strong to be missed, so Trotter gave us a suitably empirical account of W T Best’s classic Introduction, Variations and Finale On "God Save the Queen”. 

He ended his programme with transcriptions of works by composers who were born in England at the height of the British Empire – although none actually dated back as far as 1819 and neither, so far as we know, ever set foot in Singapore.  Holst was represented by Trotter’s own transcription of “Jupiter” from The Planets.  Holst’s orchestral version (which, interestingly, was not the original – he conceived it for two pianos) is a dazzling kaleidoscope of aural effects and ever-changing colours.  Here, surely, was something which would defeat even Trotter’s unrivalled skill at handling recalcitrant organs.  Not a bit of it.  Whilst he spent much of his time darting his hands over to the stops to pull them out and push them in, and stamping with his feet on combination pedals (pedals which add extra stops when you can’t reach them by hand, which are situated above the pedals which produce the notes and beside the pedals which create a crescendo and diminuendo effect) he did have to bring in the services of his page-turner to pull and push a few stops as well as stamp on a couple of combination pedals when his own hands and feet were otherwise occupied.  Having someone to do this is a last-resort (a bit like a pianist asking someone to operate the pedals for them) but on the Victoria Hall organ it’s a necessity since the design of the instrument is such as to render it virtually unplayable by a single person.  But the page-turner did a marvellous job – as unobtrusive visually and aurally as it was possible to be, never missing his cue, and standing out of the way so that visibility from the auditorium was never impeded.  And the result was well worth it – I simply did not imagine the Victoria Hall Klais had it in it to make such a splendid variety of sounds.

Ending with a couple of Elgar transcriptions, there was a welcome sense of release and celebration, which is not to say that they weren’t both brilliantly played and magnificently brought across on the organ.  But by that time we had all become so accustomed to Trotter’s effortless virtuosity and easy communication, that we neither noticed the breath-taking virtuosity nor the limitations of the organ, and simply revelled in superlative music-making.  That was an organ recital well worth going to, even for us jaded old pros.



 

14 February 2019

Classical CD sales up

This report appeared in this month's issue of Gramophone magazine
I read this with huge interest, not least because I have been convinced over the past few months that there are more classical CDs coming through and that other forms of listening are not necessarily retaining their allure.  What makes me even more excited is the fact that I have reviewed two of the five Top-Sellers listed. 

13 February 2019

Collaboration or Separation?


“When”, an American colleague whispered to me during a student recital, “did soloists stop standing in the crook of the piano?”  He went on to ask me whether it was the way things were done in Europe because, “It sure isn’t the way we do things in the States”!

I had no answer.  The practice of standing with your back to your accompanist is one that has seeped into collaborative music-making without my ever really noticing it before, but my colleague is quite right.  Sometime in the past few years the standard practice of an instrumental or vocal soloist standing in such a way as not only to have almost physical contact with the piano, but also obvious visual contact with the pianist, has gone out of the window.  And I can’t remember when it happened.  It might be a geographical thing – I really can’t recall where the soloists were placed in the few recitals I’ve attended recently outside south east Asia - I must make a point of seeing if it is widespread or merely a regional aberration.

What's that woman in black doing behind me?
At today’s recital three instrumental soloists – two of them violinists and one of them a cellist – placed themselves centre stage with their backs to the pianist and as far as possible (without it looking totally ridiculous) from the piano.  Rather than present themselves as an integral part of a duo, they stood out front with neither physical nor visual relationship with their collaborator.

I look back to some of the great recitals I’ve attended which are still fresh in my memory.  I recall a few stunning vocal recitals in which the singer not only stood in the crook of the piano, but sung with a hand - sometimes even a whole arm – embracing the edge of the piano and often focusing their visual attention as much with the pianist as with the audience.  I recall cellists sitting at 45 degrees to the audience so that the pianist was well within their range of vision, and I recall violinists, oboists, flautists and clarinettists often quite mobile on their feet, but keeping within that invisible area defined by imaginary lines drawn from the top of the keyboard to cross at 90 degrees one drawn along from the longest part of the piano case.  That interaction not only with the pianist but with the piano itself was often a major feature in making these historic recitals so enticing and enriching.
Physical and Visual collaboration

So why has the habit grown whereby the soloist not only physically distances themselves from the piano, but positions themselves so that they are, in effect, standing with their back to their musical partner.  How come back to back has taken the place of eye contact in what should be a collaborative relationship?

I can think of three possible reasons.  Firstly, they rehearse at home not with a live pianist but with a machine; and they do not think to adjust when the machine is replaced by a living, breathing human being (which is what collaborative pianists generally are).  Secondly, they are so focussed on their own instrument that they do not even notice the presence of a second one.  And thirdly (and here I feel I may be getting closer to the truth), they are so indoctrinated in their lessons towards competitions, that they believe an audience is only interested in watching and listening to them.  In a competition, the accompanist merely serves as a regulating backdrop to throw the spotlight on the competitor; the solo performer (who thinks of themselves as exactly that) sees no reason to involve the pianist when the focus of the adjudicator is 100% on them.

I can see you - you're all around me
Whatever the reason, now that it has been drawn to my attention I find it deeply disturbing.  Sadly, the third of our instrumental solos in today’s recital came after my colleague’s observation, and I was struck how often ensemble between pianist and soloist – both excellent players in their own right – fell short of perfection.  How can the pianist be there when the violinist ends a particularly flamboyant passage of display, if there is no visual contact?  To see the violinist, the pianist would have had to turn so far round on the stool that the hands would have been forced out of position. 

Diploma examiners were always instructed to take the accompanist into consideration when assessing recital diplomas.  We were told to comment on attire and stagecraft, and if there was no visual contact between the two, then criticism should be made and marks deducted.  Do we no longer worry about such matters?  Have we become so focussed on individual achievement that we have lost sight of the collaborative effort which is, in most cases, what the music was originally intended to provoke?

Whatever the reason, and why ever it’s done, I don’t think it is a good thing for the future of music, and I hope that we might soon revert to the logical and visually attractive habit of seeing musicians work in collaboration rather than in divorced isolation.

 

12 February 2019

Dysonian Ethics



 
My good friend Peter Almond was so smitten by a recording he had come across of George Dyson’s Choral Symphony that he sent me not one, but two copies (thanks to Amazon, whose respect for the environment is equalled only by their respect for the tax laws in the various territories in which it operates, and who sent me two copies in two different and extravagant packages which travelled separately from an address less than 10 kms from my home in Scotland to Singapore).  I almost joined Peter in my admiration of the Dyson Symphony, but found it a little uneven with many passages of sublime beauty and power countered by one or two rather weak and insipid gestures where, one suspects, a need to set the text overcame the seam of musical invention. 

But then you can’t register any surprise at that, since the work was written as a graduation exercise at Oxford University in 1917 and was never intended either for performance or publication.  Indeed, it was a Dyson enthusiast, preparing a biography of the composer, who unearthed the manuscript in the Bodleian Library and, seemingly dribbling at the mouth with excitement, prepared it for posthumous publication.

Should he have done so?  Is it fair to put up to public scrutiny a work which, it would seem, was merely prepared as an academic exercise and never expected to be used to assess the quality of a composer’s work over half-a-century after his death? Dyson went on to become a significant figure in British choral music, and in my days as a choral conductor I frequently programmed his music, knowing that choirs would love singing it and audiences would enjoy hearing it.  I reckoned he was one of the great unsung heroes of British music who, along with Stanford, Parry and Bax, deserved then, and deserves even moreso today, recognition on the international front.  But does that mean that every single note he ever committed to paper is worth preserving and, if necessary, unearthing?

Surely there is no such thing as a composer who has written something and not regretted it?  How often do we hear of composers substantially revising works for publication after having heard them in performance?  Yet Dyson’s Choral Symphony was neither performed nor published, and so the composer never had the luxury of revising it and putting it into a state whereby he would feel it could be passed down to posterity to his professional advantage.  From my point of view, the world is better for having Dyson’s Choral Symphony in the public domain, especially given this outstanding recorded performance from David Hill, the Bach Choir, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  But while I am prepared to overlook the obvious weaknesses in the score, presumably resulting from the extreme inexperience of the composer as well as from his inability to have heard it performed live, others are not.  I read reviews from those who do highlight its weaknesses and use them as a stick to beat Dyson’s reputation into the ground. Andrew Mellor in Gramophone writes of its “dullness and impressionability” and its “parochial rum-ti-tum”, and the danger is that those to whom the name George Dyson is an unknown quantity will read this and assume Dyson is a third rate composer.  Mellor is not wrong; it is just that he is forced into a position where some may read his justifiable criticism of an immature work as an ultimate assessment of an entire compositional output.   

So we have an ethical issue here, which extends to much of the repertory musicians now regard as their own property.  Mahler’s 10th Symphony (indeed, we could also suggest the Ninth), Mozart’s Requiem, symphonies by Bruckner, Elgar, Schubert, concertos by Bach, the list goes on and on.  All these would be lost to us if we insisted on performing works which existed only in a format which the composer decided was finished and complete.  There is a strong case for taking unfinished works by established composers and getting some scholarly authority to turn them into performance-ready artwork.  But should we do that with the juvenilia of a composer whose maturity produced well-rounded works by which the world can more fairly assess him?  I think most student composers would be horrified to imagine that exercises submitted to their professors might one day be wheeled out by over-enthusiastic researchers intent on laying bare their every musical utterance to the world at large.  Is it right to make an exception of Dyson just because his music has recently run out of copyright protection?

That said, I would strongly urge anyone to listen Dyson’s Choral Symphony.  I’d far rather you called me a hypocrite, than missed out on the opportunity to hear a wonderful, if not perfectly-formed, musical work.

11 February 2019

Did Mozart Play the Bassoon?


(C) REBaroque
A student asked me what I would have replied had I been asked a question which she was asked.  After playing Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, the question was posed, “Do you think Mozart would have played it that way?”  I know exactly what I would have said; I would have pointed out that Mozart did not play the bassoon, so he would never have played it in any way.  This, it seems, is exactly what she said, and incurred some displeasure as a result!

The question seems to me a rather daft one in the context of the Bassoon Concerto – there is absolutely no evidence that Mozart played the bassoon nor had any interest in it beyond earning some money by fulfilling commissions involving it, and it seems he had no real affection for it either – but at its heart is a deeply intriguing one.  Do we need to know – is it even helpful to know – how a composer might have played something in order for us to come up with a viable interpretation of it ourselves?

The answer to that question is rather less easy.  Major performers of our time do strive to achieve some kind of authenticity in their performances by finding as much as they can about how the composer performed it; what instrument was used, what clues were left behind in written form, what comments exist from those who were there at the time, and so on.  As a music historian (I loathe the word “musicologist” and even more the current in-vogue trendy-term “artistic researcher”) I find this fascinating and an endless source of interest.  Yet as a performer, how much should I let it influence my personal interpretation?  Is my job as a performer to interpret the composer’s music to an audience of my time and place, or to recreate as closely as possible the original performance as a kind of museum piece? 

I think it is incumbent on any performer to know as much about the origins of the music they play as they can.  It is clearly not enough merely to play the dots and squiggles on the page, but to make some sense of them.  To do that, the performer should have the fullest knowledge of why the composer put down those dots and squiggles in the first place.  This understanding of the composer’s intentions helps us give credibility to our own interpretation, while an understanding of how the music was originally played helps us appreciate that indefinable but vital element of any performance, style.

But that said, knowing why, how and when the composer wrote the work, and knowing why, how and when it was first performed, is sterile if we merely leave it at that.  Rather than interpreting the music to an audience who do not necessarily share our inside knowledge (which, let’s face it, is just about 100% of all audiences), we should do something to make it relevant to our time.  All performers recognise that an audience contributes significantly to a performance; their very presence affects our approach to communicating the music.  If we merely set out to recreate the original performance we are discounting the presence of a very real, living audience (one which has invested their time – and often their money – in our performance).  Any performance is a compromise between respecting the composer’s wishes and communicating to a living audience, and performers are effectively the middle-men in the transaction between composer and public, who often need to adjust their marketing strategies to entice the public.  To put it at its most basic, you don’t sell a left-hand drive car to a right-hand drive market simply because that’s how the car was originally intended to be, so why go all out to preserve the original in music to a market which does not necessarily share the ethics and cultural mores of the original?

My thoughts are that the more we know about the original, the more we can validate our own interpretation, but we must see it as a validation process rather than a defining and confining one.  Music is a performance art, and all performance arts thrive on dynamism.  If every performance was the same, or even set out to be the same, that vital element of dynamism will be lost.  What would the point of 100 pianists all playing Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto be if they all confined themselves to merely recreating how Mozart would have played it.  The performance loses its relevance to the audience and, most of all, to the player. 

The more I have spoken to living composers, the more I am convinced that they need to let go of their creation once it is out there in the public domain.  Some composers never did this (Bach, for example, passed on to posterity virtually none of the music he himself played in his lifetime), but others have seemed almost cavalier in forgetting their music almost as soon as they have sent it off to the publisher (I recall William Walton once remarking after hearing one of his works, “Did I write that?”).  Some composers were also performers, writing for their own gratification; others openly confessed that they could never hope to play a note of what they had written.  But once that music is out there, subsequent interference either in person or from beyond the grave, is wrong.  The child has been born and nurtured, and now it’s time to let it make its own way in the world, its shape, ideas and potential moulded and realised by others.  We must honour the dots and squiggles, and we must try to respect the essential style, but whether or not the composer would have played it that way, should be totally irrelevant to a living, breathing, dynamic performance to our time.

Mozart did not play the bassoon, but even if he had, knowing how he played the Concerto to the audience in his day is of no relevance to playing it to an audience of our day.

07 February 2019

You Don't Know What You're Talking About


Reports have reached me that a visiting conductor, whose schedule was sufficiently free to allow him to spend a few days here relaxing after his gig, saw a review I had written on his concert and commented “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about”.  He is not unique!  I don’t suppose any review I have ever written has not elicited that response from at least one person.  Indeed, if any critic exists who has not heard those words uttered in response to one of their reviews, that person must be either very deaf or write such innocuous and bland drivel that nobody ever bothers to read it.  Being accused of not knowing what we are talking about is not so much an occupational hazard as a fact of daily life.  Indeed, so common is that accusation, that we never think of responding; after all, we all know that the phrase “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” is really shorthand for “his opinion differs from mine, and as mine is the only valid opinion, it follows that his is wrong and therefore he is ignorant”; and put like that, nobody will give credence to such a statement.

Last night I attended a fabulous Chinese New Year party with a phenomenal range of really interesting guests.  We had nothing in common other than our friendship with the host, and as a result the conversation was amazingly wide-ranging, centring mostly on our natural inquisitiveness with other people’s occupations.  I had an intriguing and highly illuminating conversation with the Cuban ambassador about a country which, for much of my lifetime, has been the subject of suspicion and fear (I made a tactless joke about this being the Year of the Pig, which will mean nothing to those of us who weren’t alive in 1961), I reminisced about my honeymoon in Sri Lanka at the height of the civil war with a retired Sri Lankan businessman, and had a mouth-watering discussion on where to find the best spices in Singapore with an Indian husband-and-wife who have lived in Singapore for well over 60 years.  And when the spotlight fell on my occupation, we had a long and interesting chat about critics and how critics are treated by those about whom they write.  There seemed a consensus that fairness and honesty were more important than praise and platitude, and the fact that some musicians do not like fairness and honesty seemed genuinely to surprise the non-musical fellow-guests.

Sadly, for some musicians (our visiting conductor included, apparently), “fairness and honesty” is synonymous with “not knowing what you are talking about”?  It is not only amateur musicians who are terrified of fairness and honesty and belittle it by suggesting that it is an expression of ignorance.

Some years ago I gave a talk on music criticism at a London music school.  I dug out my script and found that I had begun with these words: “It is an unfortunate fact that the word ‘criticism’ has negative connotations.  Dictionaries define it as a word meaning ‘to indicate the faults of (someone or something) in a disapproving way’. This negativity implied by the term ‘music critic’ has led to much misunderstanding of the critic’s true function.  The critic is more rightly described as an ‘assessor’, providing a valued commentary on a musical activity, which is supported by knowledge, understanding, awareness and an instinctive personal response”. 

That being the case, it is quite legitimate to accuse a critic of not knowing what he or she is talking about in some key areas.  There may be gaps in the critic’s knowledge and flaws in their awareness.  Indeed, especially when working under the extreme pressure of deadlines, mistakes are made, and I am worse than many for making basic errors (all of which are avidly pointed out by my readership).  But is making a mistake of fact tantamount to not knowing what one is talking about?  The stories are legion about critics who have reviewed concerts without ever turning up (one I knew in London, regularly used to tune into the live relays on the BBC rather than go to the effort of turning up to the concert venue in person – he was found out when the live relay broke down and a pre-recorded concert broadcast in its stead), and in my early days reviewing productions by the Welsh National Opera, I usually had to leave before the end in order to meet my 10.45pm deadline (which involved dictating copy off the cuff down the line using a public telephone).  That immediately leaves the critic open to wholly justified accusations of not knowing what was really going on at the event.  These instances, however, are not what is meant by those who accuse us of not knowing what we’re talking about. 

The review which sparked the visiting conductor’s recourse to that tired old cliché, contained just a handful of statements of fact, all of which were derived from either what he had said on stage (he proved to be quite loquacious from the rostrum) or what the orchestra had printed in its programme booklet – and as a matter of course I had double-checked with these before writing my review.  On top of that, I had so much time between the end of the concert and the deadline, that I even had time to snatch a bite to eat and drink before heading off to write my review.  So in those areas where knowledge was revealed, I am 100% certain that there was no failing on my part. I stand by every word I wrote as being absolutely and irrefutably correct.

So that leaves my assessment of the performance – a personal opinion supported by decades of experience in attending live concerts and my wide-ranging knowledge of music and music practices honed over almost five decades in the music business as performer and observer.  And that can be the only area where I seem to be accused of not knowing what I’m talking about.  Yet it is my opinion: nobody on this earth can utter an opinion without knowing what they are talking about.  Nobody has greater knowledge of one’s own opinions than oneself!  Agreement or disagreement with someone’s opinion does not legitimise or illegitimise it.  To describe someone’s opinion as invalid is as clear a sign of ignorance and stupidity as you could get.

We live in an age where, thanks to the proliferation of social media channels, everyone can broadcast opinions which, hitherto, they were only able to internalise.  Seeing what you and others think neatly presented on an illuminated screen as if sanctioned by some higher authority leads people to the belief that their opinions suddenly have become more valid and, therefore, are invested with more authority.  Hence personal opinions have become unassailable facts which accept no opposition.  A generation is coming to terms with the fact that their cherished opinions are actually not shared by others.  We critics have known that all our lives, and proudly stand by the irrefutable fact that we know what we are talking about.  That’s why we say it.

04 February 2019

Is Bach Relevant?


 
 
Performances of the music of J S Bach in this part of the world are sufficiently few and far between to be regarded as something of a novelty, and are treated as special occasions.  Invariably when there is a Bach performance, you hear the familiar paeans of admiration for Bach and his music; how he is the “greatest composer” and a man who “speaks to all humanity”, how his music is “universal”, “timeless” and “beautiful”.  So common is this lavish deification of Bach that as often as not, such phrases are preceded by the words “of course”, as if they are unequivocal statements of unquestionable truth.  But do those who utter these phrases really believe them, have they really thought through the implications of what they are saying, or are they merely rehearsing empty platitudes because that’s what they think they are expected to say?

Let me put forward an idea which I have never heard anyone else utter in a public forum, but which is worth throwing into any debate on Bach and his music.  Most will regard it as stupid, several will regard it as mildly sacrilegious, while some will see it as such extreme blasphemy that I can almost see the death threats rolling in:  If Bach were brought back to life today and saw his music being performed in our concert halls, he would fly into one of his famous beer-fuelled rages (which got him into so much trouble during his own lifetime), physically assault those who play his music, and angrily rip to shreds every copy of his music he could find.

Many will find that notion laughable, yet I put it forward in all seriousness.  My argument is that Bach (like God) is so removed from our own time – historically, physically, culturally and ethically – that we cannot begin to understand him.  As with all “old” music, we compensate for our total lack of sympathy with the age and society in which the composer lived by imposing the ethics, culture and concepts of our own time.  With Bach (as with others) we do have some historical records which lead us to think that we might know a little bit about what he wrote, when he wrote it and for whom he wrote it, plus we might have an idea of what the instruments he wrote it for looked like, and we might have a picture of what the venue looked like in which the music was first performed.  But we have no idea whatsoever how Bach thought, what his own feelings were about the music he produced and, more especially, how those who were present at its first performance reacted. In short, because we don’t have any physical evidence about the psychology behind Bach’s music, we juxtapose our own assumptions based on our own ethical standpoint.

So why might Bach object so much to us playing his music?

The 21st century obsession with fame and celebrity status means that many of us find it inconceivable that somebody might not want any memory of them or their legacy retained by posterity.  Surely, our 21st century minds tell us, nobody would expend the sheer mental and physical work Bach did without secretly hoping it will make him famous and keep his name alive long after death?  Similarly, in our age when religious faith is a matter of personal conscience, we cannot get to grips with a society where a strict set of specific religious principles was imposed on a population who accept them without question, and we certainly cannot understand how individuals within that population could never have believed that there was any alternative to those religious principles.    

My argument is that if we can somehow consider Bach and his work without going through the prism of our own age, we find something very, very different.  Far from being “universal” and “timeless”, we find something which is so specific to a particular time and place that we cannot begin to comprehend it, let alone find that it “speaks to our age” (whatever that may mean).  In short, Bach’s music could be seen as being totally irrelevant to 21st century Singapore.

An academic acquaintance, whose views and opinions I admire even if I do not always subscribe to them, suggested that a Bach Cantata was not a musical work, but an integral part of a religious ceremony and therefore has no viability outside its original context.  Again, seen through the prism of our time when the church actively tries to go out into the community and spread its message beyond the walls of the physical institution, we understand sacred music to be something which has a proselytizing role; exposure to it can convert the unbeliever.  In Bach’s time, there were no unbelievers, there was no proselytizing, and it was not so much the duty as the natural instinct of the faithful to seek the sacred only within the walls of the physical church structure. 

We might hear of a Bach-like figure of our own time, and make the pilgrimage to his church in order to hear his latest cantata.  But that was not the case in Bach’s time.  He did achieve a certain amount of local fame and respect, and at the very end of his life he capitalised on that by publishing some of his music (none of which, I must add, was ever performed at the time in the form in which it was published), but that did not extend to people flocking to his church to hear his music.  You went to the church where you belonged, and you went for absolution from your sins and to pay homage to God – not to enjoy the sound of the music being performed.  The music was there to help support your endeavours in getting to contemplate the mysteries of God – it served no other purpose whatsoever.  Bach would be horrified to think his music was regarded not as superior to, nor separate from, but as anything other than integral to the sacred rites being performed.

So taking Bach out of the church is to rip out his very heart.  Would we - could we - expect it to keep on beating?  We might enjoy the spectacle of having Bach’s heart preserved in aspic in our time, but what purpose does it serve?  Lots of people (myself included) derive an enormous amount of satisfaction, both emotional and intellectual, from Bach’s music, so even if that was not Bach’s original intention, is it wrong for us to hear his music today, especially if we try to make it sound like we think it might have sounded in Bach’s day? 

Think of it like a cat playing with a small bird.  We assume that the cat is enjoying itself, having a lot of fun.  Lucky Pussy – what’s wrong with that?  But in playing with the bird the cat is not only demeaning the bird, but defacing and, possibly ultimately, destroying it.  Whose side are we on?  Do we let the cat carry on enjoying itself with the bird, or do we stop it out of sympathy for the bird which, certainly, will not stay around long enough to thank us for our concern?

That may seem an extreme argument, especially when Bach’s music is so “beautiful”.  To our ears, accustomed as they are to the hideous noises and cacophonies of 21st century existence, the sense of calm, inner reflection and emotional uplift we experience when hearing Bach’s music means that it can reveal to us a degree of beauty we otherwise find elusive in life.  Again, that surely, renders performances of it valuable and important, even if the more enlightened among us recognise that our enjoyment of it is nothing other than selfish self-gratification.  Yet Bach lived in an age where “beauty” did not exist beyond the “beauty” of God, and self-gratification was a mortal sin.  Bach only ever used terms equivalent to beauty when referring to God.  He would be appalled to think that we see in his music something which, for him, was the sole preserve of God.  He would be even more appalled to think that we were likening his music to the outward and entirely superficial appearance of objects encountered in our daily secular lives.  To call Bach’s music beautiful, is to belittle it and to misunderstand its purpose.

If we can expunge our 21st century ethics from appreciating performances of Bach, we should realise that we are seriously defacing a Cantata by performing it out of its context, and that the simple fact that we like it, is not sufficient justification for us to carry on performing it.  If we can accept that Bach was writing, not for musical gratification, but out of profound, inner religious duty, perhaps, we might begin to realise that there is a strong case against us attempting to perform it today.

There is an argument that in its very Christianity Bach’s music transcends the limitations of musical performance and thereby becomes a universal possession.  Yet there are some places which ban Bach’s music for the very reason that it is so unequivocally Christian.  In Malaysia during the 1990s and 2000s, I had to fight very hard to get a Bach performance past the Islamic censor, and then it had to be purely instrumental music.  And we must not be so arrogant as to assume that Christian ethics are shared by others.  There are communities where peace, love and sacrifice are not welcome; and with it, Bach’s music which has long since assumed those qualities, even if Bach never intended it to. One thing Bach’s music can never be is “universal”.

I could take almost every one of my arguments, turn it around, and with equal authority and conviction, argue the case for the opposite point of view.  But the fact remains that to blindly rehearse the usual laudatory comments on Bach and his music, shows a basic failure to comprehend a society and age other than our own.  The story of Bach and his music is far too complex to be reduced to a series of glib platitudes.

Why Do We Need Music Critics?


How many other music schools publish an in-house
journal as professional as this?
There's a very enterprising music school in Singapore which publishers its own quarterly in-house journal which not only keeps everyone up to speed about the school but broadens the students' (and others') minds by including a whole range of articles on a whole range of different topics.  This time, the focus of one of them was on me!  The lady in charge came to interview me about my work as a critic, but ended up getting so overwhelmed by the barrage of words I threw at her, that she decided not to write up the interview, but asked me to write a piece myself.  Knowing the target audience was children and their parents, I kept it quite simple and quite simplistic, but I think it's worth reprinting here;
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What is music criticism and why do we need it? Those are questions which I have been asking myself at least once a week ever since I penned my very first piece of music criticism back in 1972.

My musical career began at the age of six when I started singing in a choir. I went on to learn the Piano, the Violin and the French Horn before studying the Organ. In all that time living in London, I was a frequent concert-goer, getting permission (sometimes) to skip rugby practice on Wednesday afternoons at school to go to the Royal Festival Hall, a 15 minute train ride away, to attend the early evening recital and evening orchestral concert. I also spent most of my Saturday afternoons in the local record shop, where we were allowed to listen to whatever records we wanted before choosing one or two to buy.

So it was that by the time I went to study music at University in Cardiff, I had already heard many of the world 's greatest musicians perform both live and on record. The combination of my first-hand experience as a performer and of listening to other people making music, made me an obvious choice when a local paper was looking for someone to review local concerts.  In fact I enjoyed doing this so much that my university tutor, a man called Arnold Whittall, commented that my essays read more like journalism than proper academic writing.

But Prof. Whittall went on to tell me that while there were hundreds of people around who could write complex academic treatises accessible only to other academics, there were very few who could communicate ideas about music to the general public. He encouraged me to keep writing in this way, and recommended me to the editor of the Cardiff-based daily newspaper, the Western Mail, when they were looking for a music critic.  My name was also suggested to the editors of two major musical publications, the Musical Times and Gramophone, and they took me on as a reviewer. From that day to this I have continued to write and present music criticism in parallel with my careers as an organist, choral conductor, music examiner and university lecturer. Sharing my enthusiasm for music remains a deep -seated passion.

The question is, why do we need music criticism at all? Surely nobody needs to be told what to like and what not to like? Music, you would think, speaks for itself.

And so it does. But while we all have our own personal tastes - we don't need anyone to tell us what we like - an understanding of the music we hear, whether we like the sound of it or not, unquestionably enriches our listening experience; and it certainly helps the performer.

Most people hear a piece of music merely as melodious (or otherwise) sound, but if someone points out and explains some of the less obvious elements that have gone into creating the music and in producing the sound, they will appreciate and understand it better. That certainly helps with recorded music, and many people buy recordings only after they have read what the critic has to say about them.

However, most criticism of a live concert appears only after the concert, and you might think that there is little value in telling people about something they have already heard or have missed hearing completely. The value of such retrospective criticism is two-fold.

Firstly, it informs readers about the general musical environment; that is why we have music criticism in our daily newspapers. Newspapers reflect the daily happenings of the world in which we live, and in Singapore music is deeply woven into the fabric of our society. (Did you know, for example, that on average there are over two classical music concerts in Singapore every day of the year?) Only a very few of them are reviewed, but the very fact that reviews of classical concerts appear in the paper tell both the people of Singapore and the world at large that we have an active and healthy musical environment here.

Secondly, every performer hopes that the audience will take some lasting memory away from their performance. By describing and commenting on the performance, the critic helps prolong the experience in the memory of the listener and, hopefully, encourage people to remember, rethink and, most of all, talk about what they have heard.

Criticism is essential in enriching our musical lives. Critics do not want people to accept their opinions or even agree with them. Their aim is to get people to think about music and to appreciate and value the hard work and effort behind any public musical performance.

28 January 2019

Singapore Symphony Orchestra Turns Round


This weekend just passed witnessed the final concerts of Lan Shui’s tenure as Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  He was not the first - nor will he be the last - outgoing Musical Director of an orchestra to select Mahler’s Second Symphony as his swansong.  There’s something about its message of life after death, its over-the-top emotional musical language and its requirement for huge musical forces to be controlled by a single conductor (and a couple of off-stage monitors) which makes it irresistible to those who want to say their goodbyes with a flourish.  And however good or bad the performance, however accepting or resisting the audience is to Mahler’s idiom, its final moments never fail to stir an audience into a frenzy of applause and ovation.  I first heard it when Otto Klemperer directed a performance in London with the (then) New Philharmonia Orchestra.  I was bowled over, and there was no doubt that the occasion – Klemperer reduced by illness and old age to an immovable, static hulking presence on the podium – was highly-charged with emotion, it clearly being his own personal swansong (I can’t recall whether or not it was billed as such, but I don’t think he conducted the orchestra live again).  I sat through other performances – Charles Groves, Eugene Ormandy, Jascha Horenstein – which induced an emotional response above and beyond what the music had to offer, and was involved in several more myself as organist (I never sung in it) which affected me very profoundly.  So I can readily understand and appreciate the huge upwelling of emotional hyperbole which those who performed in or attended the Shui performances have registered on various Facebook posts.

For my part, Mahler 2 lost its hold over me after the iniquitous Gilbert Kaplan got his hands on it (and I had the dubious privilege of playing in it under him once).  For those who may have forgotten – or perhaps never known – Gilbert Kaplan was an American businessman, with a great deal of money to burn and a burning desire to conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony.  Indeed, for many years, he conducted nothing else.  It was an obsession with him, and he went to extraordinary lengths to try and recreate exactly the kind of performance he earnestly believed Mahler himself would have created.  As with all such single-minded obsessives, he went wildly over the top, twisting and distorting tempi in a way no natural musician (and I am sure Mahler was one of these) would have done, and taking almost vicarious pleasure out of doing the most unexpected things.  I am sure much of what he did was prompted by a sincere belief that he was basing his interpretation on Mahler’s, but as with everyone who tries to replicate someone else’s musical interpretation, he did it without the soul or understanding of the original, so it came across as ridiculous and weird; rather like Dick van Dyke attempting a Cockney accent in the original Mary Poppins.
Gilbert Kaplan - obsessing over Mahler 2 (picture from Washington Post)

Sadly, I can never now hear Mahler 2 without it bringing to mind those grotesque Kaplanisms, and I look suspiciously on any conductor who attempts to impose an element of “interpretation” on the performance of a work which, in most cases, needs only to be kept on the straight and narrow to yield up its full glories.  On Friday night, I couldn’t help thinking that Shui was trying just too hard to make something of it, and I failed to fall under the spell.  I was otherwise engaged on the Saturday performance (see the earlier post to find out what it was, and what in my opinion so totally eclipsed the Mahler), but reliable witnesses attest to the fact that Saturday’s was, by any standards, a truly magnificent performance.

But there was one thing which Shui did in his performance which really opened up my eyes and ears and made a major impact on me; tired and jaundiced as those eyes and ears are when it comes to Mahler 2.  He turned the orchestra around.

Of course, Shui has done this in more ways than one.  He has turned the orchestra round from the mediocre regional band it was when he took over in 1997 to what it is today; in my view one of the four finest orchestras in Asia (and I would not like to attempt to put the Shanghai Phil, the Hong Kong Phil, the NHK Symphony or the Singapore Symphony in any kind of pecking order).  Enthusing from the platform before Friday’s concert about the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s development under Shui’s tenure, Chairman of the Orchestra’s Board of Governors Goh Yew Lin described it as “one of the world’s great orchestras”.  That’s a wildly exaggerated assertion, but the fact that he could make it without laughter breaking out in the hall (and I daresay some who have never heard a truly great orchestra would have accepted his word at face value) pays ample testament to the extraordinary achievement of Shui in turning the Singapore Symphony Orchestra around.

This, though, was not Shui’s masterstroke on Friday.  It was the physical turning of the orchestra, so that the cellos were ranged along the front of the stage instead of the usual layout of violas at the front and cellos tucked into the middle.  The issue of how orchestras sit on stage has become a much debated and often heated issue in recent years.  The Singapore Symphony has spent most of the past decade with its violas out to the front, and to hear it in the so-called “English” layout with, additionally, the harps at the front beside the cellos and the double basses buried deeper into the body of the orchestra, was a revelation.  It opened up the sound, it gave real balance to the tone and it added a depth and richness to the overall sound quality that made it seem like an altogether different orchestra.


How it looked on Friday (picture from SSO)
Kaplan had studied intensely how Mahler had set out his orchestra, and it was not the same as Shui’s plan.  But Shui’s plan worked magnificently, because he knew both the hall and the orchestra, and had clearly realised that in a work of these dimensions, this particular layout would work best.  Orchestral layouts seem to follow trends, and it is in any case impracticable to turn an orchestra around for each individual work merely to present it in its best aural manner.  But having heard just what a huge difference (improvement) this layout made in this case, I would hope we might find such thinking in the new Musical Director, whoever and whenever someone gets to follow in Lan Shui’s footsteps.

27 January 2019

Musical Authenticity - An Impossble Dream


 
 
Playing old music on old instruments does not result in an “authentic” performance.  One of my major issues with the Period Instrument movement is the tendency of so many groups and individuals to believe that just because they are playing the notes on an instrument which was either made during the composer’s lifetime, or is a copy of one, their performance is thereby legitimised as authentic.

It is certainly an intriguing experience to hear Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven et al played on the kind of instruments which the composers knew and wrote for, but too often it is no more than that.  We become enchanted by the novelty of the sound and, since it is so different from the norm, we take it as a legitimate recreation of the music as heard at the time of its composition.

Concerns of tuning are frequently ignored.  So many period instrument enthusiasts expend hours over sterile debates on the pitch of A in 1700, and never once thinking of its implications.  Were instruments tuned meticulously to that pitch, and if so, how?  Did they tune to another instrument? Did they use a tuning fork?  (I well remember a fascinating exhibition in the Royal College of Music of old tuning forks which posed a lot more questions than it provided answers.) Can we really believe that 17th century Lutheran services were delayed before each musical interjection in order for the musicians to re-tune their instruments?  Did aristocratic patrons in 18th century Vienna sit idly by while their court orchestras painstakingly tuned to an A?  And in the days before heating, air-conditioning and de-humidifiers and humidifiers, did everyone stop to retune when the inevitable happened?  In short, did the “early” musicians (and their listeners) give a fig about unified pitch or consistent intonation?

Then there are the matters concerning methods of playing.  Where did the bow touch the strings, how were the reeds prepared, how individualised were the mouthpieces, which fingers were used to strike the keys, and how did organists select and manage their registrations?  We have some answers to these questions, but by no means a totally comprehensive understanding, and merely to suggest that because one contemporary commentator thought to make a note about a one-off experience we can safely project that on to all music of the period is a nonsense.  Look around and see the huge variety in playing techniques, orchestral layouts and interpretative nuances in our own time; are we to assume that earlier ages were more universally consistent in these matters than we are?

Even where we can be fairly certain that we are playing the right instruments, the right way and in the right tuning temperament and pitch, we cannot perceive the music through the ears of an earlier age.  Not least in a society like ours, swamped by a persistent exposure to music of all sorts and overwhelmed by the sheer cacophony of daily existence, there is no possibility that we can hear or even perceive music as earlier generations did.  In short, it is so thoroughly inconceivable that we can recreate a performance from an earlier age in a way that can rightly be described as “authentic”, that one wonders why so many bother. Yet groups still invest in a few natural horns, buy gut strings for their violins, get hold of a modern copy of a fortepiano and remove the spikes from their cellos in order put it about that they are “Period Instrument” bands, while their performances do not have even the merest whiff of historical authenticity. 

Image result for Ensemble DialoghiDuring my stint with the now sadly defunct International Record Review I found myself at one point inadvertently thrust into the position of the magazine’s Early Music Specialist.  In that capacity I was regularly exposed to the finest, most deeply thought-out and perceptive performances of early music – using period instruments -  and I came to love, not the sound of these instruments, but the immense musicality which the leading figures in the Period Instrument Movement possessed.  That was over a decade ago, so what a lovely surprise to stumble across a Period Instrument group which not only saw their instruments as vehicles through which to interpret music (rather than as vehicles to make a novel sound) but had such towering musicality that the novelty of the instrumental sound was quickly subsumed within an all-embracing interpretative outlook which, while it was certainly informed by some historical understanding, was dominated by a powerful communicative zeal aimed unequivocally at 21st century ears.  Three minutes into the Mozart K452 Quintet, we had quite forgotten that we were hearing instruments of Mozart’s time, and were absorbed into a world of timeless musical intrigue which had every ear in the hall totally captivated.

Not for nothing was this ensemble called Ensemble Dialoghi, since a sense of dialogue, between all five musicians was the most obvious thing about their playing.  Sitting through their performance of a Haydn Trio was like eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between lovers, the oboe and bassoon at times animated, at others entreating, and at others in happy concord.  The historic instruments certainly added an intriguing dimension to the performance for those of us with an interest in such things.  How wonderful, for example, to hear the inevitable timbral fluctuations from the natural horn as it created its full pitch range through hand-stopping, affording such a clear insight into the kind of sound Mozart was clearly aiming at; a sound which cannot begin to replicated by modern instruments, yet one which many in the audience will most probably not have noticed given the amazing fluency and command of the ensemble’s hornist, Pierre-Antoine Tremblay.

As I went into last night’s concert, I was harangued by a colleague when I told him I had never previously heard Ensemble Dialoghi.  “What?”, was his incredulous response; “But they are so famous!”.  Not to me, I regret to say, but the loss is mine and they have immediately shot up to the top position in my pantheon, not so much of great period instrument groups, but of great chamber groups.  Their music-making transcended the compartmentalising of them as a Period Instrument group.  Whether or not their ability to communicate their love and affection for the music they played is in any way “authentic”, I very seriously doubt, and with their informal, casual concert clothes, in which no 18th century court musician would have been seen dead, and playing from modern printed editions under bright electric lights in an air-conditioned, humidity-controlled space to a hall full of ordinary Singaporeans sitting intently focussed on their music making, nobody could have regarded this performance as anything remotely “authentic” to the time of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

For me, it was a wonderful palate cleanser after the previous evening’s gorging on the deep-fried and battered, cholesterol-filled Mahler Symphony.  For all the emotional upheavals in the Mahler (and more of that in a later post), I have to say the deep sense of satisfaction I experienced from the Ensemble Dialohghi’s programme and performance utterly and completely annihilated from my mind any lingering memories of Mahler.