11 October 2019

November Classical Music Concerts in Singapore

As ever, November is a very busy month for classical music lovers in Singapore, and my list this month is both full and, I fear, incomplete.  I have tried to include all the concerts that have been brought to my attention but if I have missed any out, please get in touch.  I have also included in the listings the name of the ticketing agency (in blue capitals).  Concert ticketing in Singapore is an absolute pain since it is in the hands of largely commercial organsiations with non-existent musical or artistic consciousness.  So looking up these events on their website is only marginally more informative than looking them up here!

The venues this month are;
ESP = Esplanade Theatres on the Bay Concert Hall
ESP RS - Esplanade Recital Studio
ESP AN - Esplanade Annexe Studio
VCH -Victoria Concert Hall
OCA - Auditorium, Studio 10, Orchard Central
VOS = Voices of Singapore, Waterloo Street, Bencoolen
YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music Concert Hall
YST OH = YST Orchestra Hall (3rd floor)
UCC = National University of Singapore Cultural Centre
SOTA = Singapore School of the Arts, Bras Basah
AAC = Aliwal Arts Centre

Friday, 1 November 2019
  • 7.30pm ESP To My Friends Pictured Within - Rachel Barton Pine (vln), SSO, Andrew Litton (cond.)   SISTIC                  
  • 7.30pm VCH Brahms 4th With Neil Varon - Musicians' Initiative, Neil Varon (cond.)   SISTIC                  
Saturday, 2 November 2019 
  • 5.00pm OCA The Experiment - Amity Chamber Orchestra, Muhamad Yusri (cond.), Hoang Van Hoc, horn   PEATIX                  
  • 6pm & 8pm ESP RS Mozart 36 - Shuxiang Wang & Cherie Khor (pno)   SISTIC                  
  • 7.30pm VCH Alexander Malofeev (pno)    MW                  
  • 7.30pm ESP Schnee - London Sinfonietta   SISTIC                  
  • 9.30pm ESP AN After Hours  Steve Reich Double Sextet - Opus Novus  ESP                  
Sunday, 3 November 2019 
  • 5.00pm VOS Roaming Soundscapes  - Voices of Singapore   PEATIX                  
Tuesday, 5 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm YST OH The Silent Cry - Chamber Singers, Chong Wailun (cond)   YST                  
Friday, 8 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm ESP Harmonies of the Universe - SSO and Chorus, Andrew Litton (cond)   SISTIC                  
  • 7.30pm ESP RS Voice of Bernard Sabatier -  Serine de Labaume & others (violin and string instruments)    PEATIX  
  • 7.30pm VCH Gala Concert - Singapore Lyric Opera SISTIC                
Saturday, 9 November 2019 
  • 5.00pm UCC Celebrations for Prof. Ho Hwee Long - NUS Wind Orchestra, CFA
  • 7.30pm YST Fascinating Sounds and Rhythms - Opus Novus   YST                  
  • 8.00pm ESP RS Mozart 36 - Siew Yi Li Mozart Violin Sonatas  SISTIC                  
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm YST Curtis on Tour - Jasmine Choi (flute), Ju-Young Baek (vln), Roberto Diaz (vla), Christine Lee (cello), Kyu Yeon Kim (pno)   YST                  
Wednesday, 13 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm YST Shlomo Mintz recital - Shlomo Mintz (vln)   EVENTBRITE                  
Thursday, 14 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm VCH French Connections - Jeremy Chiew   Voilah French Singapore Festival                  
  • 7.30pm YST Of Gypsies and Love - Cantiamo   YST                  
Friday, 15 November 2019
  • 7.30pm SOTA Les Elements - James Ng Les Surprises  Voilah French Singapore Festival                  
Saturday, 16 November 2019
  • 2pm & 4pm VCH Emily Saves the Orchestra - Yeo Xing Tong   SISTIC                  
Sunday, 17 November 2019 
  • 2.00pm VCH Emily Saves the Orchestra SSO,  - Joshua Tan (Cond)   SISTIC                  
Thursday, 21 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm AAC The Three Feathers - L'Arietta   PEATIX                  
Friday, 22 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm AAC The Three Feathers L'Arietta   PEATIX                  
  • 7.30pm VCH Pastoral Symphony - Lucas & Arthur Jussen (pno), SSO, Gabriel Bebeselea (cond)   SISTIC                  
Saturday, 23 November 2019 
  • 3pm & 7.30pm AAC The Three Feathers - L'Arietta   PEATIX                  
  • 7.30pm VCH Pastoral Symphony - Lucas & Arthur Jussen (pno), SSO, Gabriel Bebeselea (cond)   SISTIC                  
Sunday, 24 November 2019 
  • 12.30pm ESP RS BH Christmas Peace: The Music of Sylvain Guinet    SISTIC                  
  • 3.00pm AAC The Three Feathers - L'Arietta   PEATIX                  
Thursday, 28 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm VCH A Violin to Cherish - Akiko Suwanai (vln), SSO, Mario Venzago (cond)   SISTC                  
Friday, 29 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm ESP RS Due Senses: Harp & Piano - Laura Peh (harp), Azariah Tan (pno)   SISTIC                  
  • 7.30pm VCH A Violin to Cherish - Akiko Suwanai (vln), SSO, Mario Venzago (cond)   SISTC                  
Saturday, 30 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm ESP RS Due Senses: Harp & Piano - Laura Peh (harp), Azariah Tan (pno)   SISTIC                  
  • 7.30pm ESP SNYO In Concert - Elgar Cello Concerto SNYO, Ng Pei-Sian (cello), Peter Stark (cond)   SISTIC                  

Moody Bassoony

Stravinsky suggested that the bassoon solo which opens The Rite of Spring should be put up a semitone every year so as to retain its ability to frighten bassoonists and create a sense of unease.  Nobody does this (that I know of) but French composer Phillipe Hersant has gone some way down that path with his Niggun for solo bassoon, which seems to be an atmospheric reflection of Stravinsky’s solo coupled with all kinds of weird and wonderful effects which stretch the bassoonist’s technique to its limits but do rather get in the way of the music.  Introducing her debut album with Hersant’s daunting solo, Jo Anne Sukumaran, who styles herself “one of Singapore’s leading bassoonists”, shows that, if nothing else, she possesses as secure a technique as anyone, and while she conveys the sense of strain which Stravinsky – and, I imagine, Hersant – was after, she clearly has plenty of technique in reserve not just to play what is written but to make some kind of sense out of it.  In all fairness, the Stravinsky connection is one I draw myself; Hersant himself has built the piece on a Hasidic Hebrew song with the bassoon intended to “imitate the inflections and soulful quality of the human voice”.  Whatever you take from this seven-minute demonstration of bassoonism, the one unarguable truth is that Sukumaran delivers it with complete assurance.

As had Debussy before him, Saint-Saëns set out to write a sonata for every wind instrument but died before he could complete the project.  The last of these Sonatas was for Bassoon and Piano and dates from 1921; seven years after Debussy started on – but did not complete – a sonata for bassoon with clarinet, trumpet and piano, and only a few months before Poulenc wrote his Sonata for clarinet and bassoon.  The gentle, graceful and elegant musical language belies its relative modernity (let’s not forget this is a work written less than 100 years ago, so is firmly rooted in that fake stylistic period ill-taught music students and their ill-informed teachers like to label “20th century”) but transcends the fickleness of taste by being beautifully written for the instrument and masterfully combining impressive virtuoso display with real musical integrity.  Again, the virtuoso demands are amply met by Sukumaran, even if, at times, she seems to rely on her magnificent pianist, Kseniia Vokhmianina, to convey the musical substance – it’s as if Sukumaran deals with the individual technical features while Vokhmianina gels it all together.  I suppose this is evidence of an ideal partnership – complementary rather than duplicatory – so it is not something which detracts in any way from the overall performance.

With the exception of a flowing, eloquent, but ultimately uneventful piece of mood-painting, aptly titled Réflexion, by the Norwegian bassoonist Robert Rennes, France is very much at the core of this recorded programme.  In addition to the Saint-Saëns we have a Sonatine by the Polish/French composer Alexandre Tansman, three pieces for Bassoon and Piano by Charles Koechlin (whose musical life effectively began during a period of convalescence in Algeria, which may account for a certain exoticism in his music) and some Popular Spanish Songs by the French-trained Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla.  All of these are played with great precision and a strong feeling of security with Sukumaran’s impressive security of technical command complemented by Vokhmianina’s graceful pianism.  Why such Francophilia?  The answer seems to lie in the player’s own musical taste – she certainly seems to be quite at home in this early-20th century musical idiom, where the emphasis seems to be more on creating a mood than grandstanding expression or high drama.  But there appears to be nothing French in Sukumaran’s background – the nearest her biography gets to France is mention of a period studying at Lugano in Switzerland – and it is her Indian roots which she seems proudest to celebrate in a work which was specially written for this recording and gives the album its title.

Night Garden is a joint composition by Sukumaran and the tabla player, Sanjay Kansa Banik.  If, on paper, there might seem to be some kind of cultural and musical chasm between a Bassoon, Tabla and Tambūrā (the long-necked lute that makes that wonderfully buzzing drone noise which underpins so much Hindi music) in reality the combination works perfectly, the bassoon in effect revisiting its role in the opening Niggun as an imitator of the human voice rather than an instrument in its own right.  There is, however, a major problem with Night Garden.  Once it has started and created it effect, it simply stops, providing not so much a thoughtful and original experiment in this combination of instruments as a tiny, almost picture-postcard image of an attractive but ultimately sterile east-meets-west portrait.

As a debut disc this does what it should do; it presents a fine player in an attractive programme which makes one want to hear more of her.  As a musical presentation, it has a slightly superficial feel to it, and one hopes that when one does hear more of Jo Anne Sukumaran, it will explore more of her musical personality and individuality and possibly dig deeper into the obvious strengths she has both as a bassoonist and as an insightful musician.

09 October 2019

A Concert of Applause

Image result for nidaros cathedral choir
My musical background is firmly rooted in the English cathedral tradition of boys and men’s choirs accompanied by organ.  To this day, when all other musical ensembles have become my daily bread and butter, it is that unique sound which remains my true musical and spiritual home.  While I look back with a certain nostalgia to the great choirs of my youth – Guildford and later St. Paul’s cathedrals under the inspirational directorship of Barry Rose, one of the greatest of all choral directors – I still thrill to the sound when I get to hear it.  Recent visits to the cathedrals at Truro and Gloucester satisfy me that this great tradition, despite opposition from the equality brigade who seem to think that choirs MUST have girls in them to be politically legitimate, is still very much alive and kicking.

And it’s not just England that celebrates this superlative musical ensemble.  For the second time in as many years the boys and men of Norway’s Nidaros Cathedral took to the stage at Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall for a sold-out concert of sacred music. 

The Nidaros choir is far bigger than any English cathedral choir (even St Paul’s in its heyday), and the lavish programme book listed no less than 16 men and 31 boys.  How many boys actually took to the stage at the start of the concert I cannot say, but by the time the first half had run its course, two of them had dropped out, victims of a punishing schedule which had seen them leave Norway, perform in Taiwan and move on to Singapore all within a matter of days.  But perhaps the real reason for this outbreak of collapsing boys was not so much the travel schedule as the extraordinarily unsympathetic programme director Bjørn Moe had imposed on them.  The two-hour concert saw the entire choral forces singing in every single item.  Not even the most hard-core professional choral group would attempt such a feat of endurance without ever leaving the stage or sitting down once, and even those who stuck it out to the bitter end were showing very definite signs of fatigue.  By the end of the concert, it looked and sounded as if the singers were on automatic pilot, unable to do anything more than fall back on their intensive training to push them across the finish line.

The absence of any respite for the singers was doubly inexcusable since they had on stage with them an excellent organist – Magne Harry Draagen - who could easily have offered a couple of solos to take the pressure off the singers (as he had done at their last Singapore outing).  With the organ music of Norway’s own Egil Hovland hugely attractive but hardly ever heard in Singapore, this would have been a golden opportunity to do a little bit of national musical proselytizing.  On top of that Singapore’s own Sarah Wong was there with her harp to fill up the interval for those who did not make a headlong dash to the bar.  It was ridiculous to have such a talented player performing in the side-lines, when a harp solo or two embedded within the programme would not only have allowed more rest for the over-worked singers, but added a welcome new colour to the proceedings.

The first half of the programme was given over to 10 short pieces most of which, in one way or another, are natural territory for a cathedral choir, although spiced up by a particularly international flavour.  There were Norwegian items, all sung with an easy familiarity in both language and musical idioms; Norge, Mitt Norge by Alfred Paulsen, Nidelven Stille og Vakker du er by Chris Christensen, O Jesus Krist, jeg flyr til deg by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and two new pieces by Henning Somerro, a setting of the Latin hymn Te Deum and the world premiere of Predicasti.  A couple of English-language settings were also included; Howard Goodall’s popular theme music for the TV series The Vicar of Dibley which is actually a setting of the 23rd Psalm, and a setting of psalm 141 by the Russian Pavel Chesnokov, in which the absence of a properly weighty and resonant bass line was keenly felt.  Avoiding kitsch by a hair’s breadth – saved by the choir’s unemotional style of delivery and Draagen’s dispassionate organ accompaniment – we had a potentially hideous amalgam of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata with the Greek words from the Catholic Mass, Kyrie eleison, which text appeared in a far more worthy and inspired setting by Louis Vierne.  For my money, this extract from Vierne’s spectacular Messe Solennelle was the real high point of the first half, and while Draagen did a wonderful job of the sturdy organ accompaniment, how I wished I had been able to join him and present the work as it is supposed to be heard, accompanied by two separate organs spatially detached.  The other French work in the first half, Fauré’s popular Cantique de Jean Racine raced by with little sense of character or colour.  Indeed, the overriding feeling from the first half was that, while the choir is highly capable and makes a fine sound, it lacks the range of colours, tones and expressiveness we would expect in a concert setting; this sort of sound is fine in a liturgical context, but concert audiences need to have a little more to go on in order for the music to speak fully to them.

The choir had come on to the stage singing wordlessly and segued smoothly into the opening Predicasti.  This seemed to catch the audience by surprise, and when it was all over they sat in stunned silence, unsure whether it was polite to applaud in the middle of a concert of church music.  One can understand why Moe turned round and goaded everyone to clap (albeit somewhat embarrassedly) but he inadvertently was digging a grave for himself and his musicians.  Having been goaded to applause, the audience thereafter took anything which vaguely resembled silence as a cue for sustained applause. Thus, every time the music stopped for a breath or, even, subsided to something very quiet, up rose a wave of applause which after a time became intensely irritating.  What is wrong with Singapore audiences that they seem unable to listen intelligently to music? I am all in favour of spontaneous applause – I’m head of the queue when it comes to applauding between movements of symphonies and concertos - but if audiences would only make the effort to listen to music rather than merely let it wash past the ears, it’s pretty obvious when it has come to an end and when it is merely taking a breath.  A simple glance at the stage will also show whether the conductor is poised to go on, whether the violinists have their bows ready for the next note and whether the singers have drawn their preliminary breaths.  Here was a concert largely ruined by the ignorance and stupidity of an audience intent on causing maximum disruption for fearing of appearing to look uninterested. 

It was in the second half of the concert that audience intervention was at its most destructive, with every section of the Dvořák Mass in D interrupted by unwonted applause.  It disturbed the performers on stage to the extent that there were a couple of false starts and quite a lot of confusion, and it added a full five minutes at least to the playing time.  Whether it was also the cause of a certain listlessness which impinged on to the choir as the work progressed, I cannot tell, but certainly the Mass seemed to fade away after a very encouraging start.

Dvořák’s Mass in D is a woefully underperformed work.  Perhaps that’s because it is, at heart, an intimate and sincere work which does not easily lend itself to a concert setting.  He wrote it in 1887 for the dedication of the chapel at a friend’s ancestral home, and in the original performance the friend’s wife took one of the solo parts while Dvořák himself played the organ.  In 1892, during the white heat of Dvořák-mania in the UK, Novello’s commissioned him to bulk the Mass up with four solo voices, a larger choir and a full orchestra.  This is what we heard in this concert, and in the more intimate sections – notably the opening of the Kyrie - the sound was truly lovely.  The choral tone was well balanced, the diction exquisite and Moe’s shaping of the melodic phrases beautifully moulded.  Supporting the choir were members of the re:Sound chamber orchestra, and while they offered sensitive and alert response, the horns and trombones always merging into the texture with unerring acuity, I am not sure that communication with the conductor was always clear, leading to a little confusion at one point and a tendency for dynamics to be violently contrasted rather than subtly nuanced.

Unfailingly impressive, however, was the team of soloists.  As one Singaporean audience-member observed on the way out, “Felicia Two really held her own”, referring to the one Singaporean singer in the line-up.  Teo certainly did impress with the strength of her delivery and laser-sharp accuracy in the soprano solos, and she blended in well for the ensemble numbers. She rightly stood proudly alongside a team of really top-flight Scandinavian soloists.  Contralto Désirée Baraula had a lovely warmth and lyricism, while Thomas Ruud proved, as ever, to be a robust and intensely musical presence.  Anchoring the quartet with a rich, resonant and wonderfully characterful bass voice was the towering presence of Magne Frennerlid.

Whether it was general tiredness or audience intervention, the Dvořák was, for all its many good points, a bit of a disappointment.  However, the day was saved by two encores, attractive arrangements of songs in English and Chinese, the latter of which in particular helped boost the applause to music ration to somewhere approaching 50:50.

24 September 2019

October Classical Music Concerts Singapore

This is a very rich month for music lovers:

Wednesday, 2 October 2019 
7.30pm ESP         Staatskapelle Dresden\Myung-Whung Chung (cond), Sunwook Kim (pno)

Thursday, 3 October 2019  
7.30pm ESP         Romantic Spirits                Gautier Capucon (cello), SSO, Vladimir Ashkenazy (cond)

Friday, 4 October 2019  
7.30pm YST         Visiting Artist Series        Paul Lewis (pno)
8.00pm AHL        More than Music and Wine         More than Music

Saturday, 5 October 2019            
6.00pm SBG        Beethoven im Garten   YST Conservatory Orchestra, Nuremburg Symphony Orchestra, Kahchun Wong (cond)
8.00pm AHL        More than Music and Wine         More than Music

Sunday, 6 October 2019                               
7.30pm VCH       Bicentennial Tribute - Gala Concert  Braddel Heights Symphony Orchestra Tsung Yeh (cond)

Tuesday, 8 October 2019             
7.30pm ESP         Dvorak Mass in D              Nidaros Cathedral Choir, Re:Sound

Thursday, 10 October 2019          7.30pm YST         Of One Cloth      Alan Bennett (ten), Albert Tiu (pno)

Friday, 11 October 2019                7.30pm VCH       Tunes Full of Strings        SSO, Richard Tognetti

Saturday, 12 October 2019         
7.30pm VCH       Tunes Full of Strings        SSO, Richard Tognetti

Sunday, 13 October 2019             
5.00pm VCH       Sibelius Symphonies II   The Philharmonic Orchestra. Lim Yan (cond)
6.00pm AC          A Musical Sanctuary        Vocal Recital

Tuesday, 15 October 2019
7.30pm YST        Ones to Watch: Geneva International Music Competition Prizewinners Concert
Wednesday, 16 October 2019    
8.15pm VCH       A Very Singaporean Celebration                 Re:Sound, Ike See (cond)

Saturday, 19 October 2019         
7.30pm ESP         Hope and Redemption  Karl-Heinz Schutz (flute), Kahchun Wong (cond)
7.30pm VCH       Bicentennial Tribute       Donizetti - Don Pasquale

Sunday, 20 October 2019             
4.30pm VCH       Bicentennial Tribute       Donizetti - Don Pasquale

Saturday, 26 October 2019         
7.30pm ESP         Windswept Beauty, Sunset Nostalgia      Rachel Barton Pine (vln), SSO, Michal Nesterowicz

Thursday, 31 October 2019         
7.30pm YST         Chopin - Before and Beyond        Albert Tiu (pno)
ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall
YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Concert Hall.
AHL = Arts House (Living Room)
VCH = Victoria Concert Hall
SBG = Singapore Botanical Gardens, Shaw Foundation Stage
AC = Armenian Church

23 August 2019

Instrumental Integrity

All musical instruments in one?

Around 30 years ago I was on an examining tour of South Africa which involved a day examining in a violin teacher’s private studio.  The door list showed a plethora of early grade violins and, strangely, just one candidate listed as doing grade 5 piano, harpsichord and organ.  I assumed that the teacher had merely “invented” the three grade fives in order to meet the requisite number of hours needed to qualify for a personal visit from an examiner.  On arrival I did question the teacher about this and, much to my surprise learnt that they were indeed legitimate examination entries.  It appeared that her students’ accompanist was about to go off to university and wanted to equip himself with three more music certificates before abandoning music in favour of chemistry, law, horticulture, or whatever it was he was going to study at university.  I asked where the harpsichord and organ exams were going to be held and was told, “here”.  “Here” was a half-converted garage beside the teacher’s house equipped with a music stand and an electronic keyboard, which was to be used for all three non-violin exams.

Around 30 years ago, such instruments were quite unusual and examination regulations had yet to catch up with technology to the extent that they made few provisions for non-acoustic instruments.  I was able to say that the organ exam was not possible; the syllabus did specify an instrument with at least “two manuals and pedals”, and here we had a single keyboard. Despite protestations that the instrument had been “approved” by the exam board (it had not, although the local rep, unsure of the regulations, had said it “should be all right”) and that the requirements could be met using the single keyboard and its accoutrements, I was sure of my ground and refused to allow the exam to proceed.  I was on no such terra firma when it came to the harpsichord exam as no provision at all was made in the examination regulations concerning the nature of the instrument.  The candidate duly finished his piano exam, and switched the keyboard from “grand piano” mode to “harpsichord” for the next exam.

Around 30 years on, this horrific memory has re-surfaced because of two comments made this week by two colleagues.

Last weekend one of them posted a provocative piece on Facebook suggesting that there should be a competition in which contestants play the piano, harpsichord and organ.  That was like a red rag to a bull to me, and out I came, nostrils flaring and feet pawing at the ground, vehemently opposing the whole vile notion.  Organists continually suffer the gross ignorance of those who have a look at what they imagine to be their instrument, think it resembles a piano, and assume anyone who can play the piano can easily switch to the organ.  Piano teaching colleagues are similarly appalled when their students are press-ganged into playing the organ (or harpsichord) by those whose monumental stupidity cannot recognise that they are wholly different musical instruments.  The organ is demeaned by those who believe playing it merely involves pressing down the right keys at the right time.

It looks a bit like a piano?  Surely any pianist can play it?
Playing the notes is the least of the organist’s concerns.  An organist’s skill involves understanding registration, understanding the properties of the movement of wind through channels and pipes, manipulating the stop knobs, foot and toe pistons and crescendo pedals which direct the flow of air to specific ranks of pipes, and operating the swell pedals which regulate the volume of sound coming from certain ranks of pipes in certain physical locations within the organ case, which is as often as not, some distance away from the console – that box of keyboards, pedals and buttons which the unthinking ignoramuses assume is the instrument itself rather than simply its command centre.  And all that before you get to the issue of musical interpretation and accurate playing of the score.  In fact, playing the notes on the keyboard as one might play them on the piano is one of the very least of the organist’s essential skills. 

And, as if that was not enough to convince even the most stupid that the organ and piano are as different as chalk and cheese, an organist, unlike both the pianist and harpsichordist, is primarily concerned with the release of notes rather than the attack of them.  Articulation is the principal topic in any organ lesson, followed by registration, registration control and hand/feet coordination.  Do any of these feature regularly in piano lessons?

A second colleague asked me this week in all innocence if I was “going to the organ recital tonight?”  He was referring to an intriguing computerised presentation of light and sound in the conservatory staged by a couple of our more illustrious alumni.  I would have loved to have gone, but I had another concert elsewhere last night, and tonight (when the event is being repeated) I shall be flying off to a meeting in Kuching.  But I would not go expecting to experience an “organ recital”; for there was no organ present.  True, one of our alumni was playing some organ works of Bach on a computerised device which has been programmed to make a sound like a church organ; but it is not an organ and does not even begin to behave like one.

Where the sound emerges shows the REAL difference these two instruments
In a world where we regard music not as an art but merely as a sound, most people would regard my strong and heartfelt resistance to such machines being labelled “organs” as the last throes of an aged, out-of-touch old man, whose mantra is “things were better in my day”!  I certainly feel as if I am swimming against an ever-increasing tide where if the sound seems right, then it is a legitimate musical instrument.  And I do not deny that I hold dear to my very soul Sir Thomas Beecham’s amusing but deeply perceptive comment that people “don’t like music – they just like the sound it makes”.  But I hold firmly to the intense belief that music is something far more than sound, that sound is merely the means by which music is made manifest to humanity, and that musical instruments need to have true integrity to convey in the sound they make the essence of the music behind it.

Great organ music (and I put much of Bach in this category) is not merely about nice sounds, it’s about something rather more fundamental.  Pipe organs do not create sound so much as they create sensation.  Air is at the very core of their being – the movement of air through channels and pipes may produce a sound, but it also generates a series of vibrations and a total reorganisation of the environment in which the air is moving so that those within its physical range do not so much hear the sound as experience the sensation.  The speakers which serve as the conduits of sound manufactured electronically may move air, but that is a by-product not a fundamental generator of the sound; and while that difference may not be discernible to many untrained ears, it governs the whole complex process of playing the instrument. 

Alexei Sourin and his Theremin
Electronic sound-producing/musical-instrument imitating technology has developed in leaps and bounds over the past decades, and now we can imitate pretty convincingly the sounds of almost anything we care to mention.  On Tuesday, I attended a fascinating demonstration of the Theremin in which the presenter, the marvellous communicator Dr Alexei Sourin, was able to get this weirdest of all electronic sound-creating devices to sound remarkably like a soprano singer.  I myself have played synthesisers which give a pretty fair impression of the sound of string instruments. 

Now, around 30 years later, I am inclined to go back to South Africa, along with my two contentious colleagues, and meet again the violin teacher in her half-converted garage.  I’ll give a violin recital.  I can’t play the violin (I passed grade 3 and then gave up) but I can use a digital keyboard to make a sound like one.  Surely, if we accept that a computer can give an “organ recital” we must accept that one can also give a “violin recital”. 

I hope no violin teacher would accept my playing the Paganini Caprices on a keyboard set to “violin mode” as a legitimate violin performance.  So please, do not belittle us organists by claiming that making a computer sound like an organ is the same as playing an organ.  We must all preserve the integrity of our real musical instruments so that we do not lose sight of the fact that their prime purpose is to make music, not to generate sound.

20 August 2019

Who Killed Improvisation?

Listening to an interview with cellist Matthew Barley on his latest recording of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, the issue of improvisation came up.  In this wonderful new recording (and I wholeheartedly recommend it) Barley sets the Tavener work alongside, not the usual suspects (ie other works for cello or Tavener’s own music), but some of Tavener’s favourite poetry and, most interestingly, Indian music.  Much to the fore in the Indian music is improvisation, and Barley is keen for us to know that his performance with tabla player ‘Pinky’ Singh, was recorded in a single take, as were his own improvisatory additions to an orchestral arrangement of Tavener’s Mother and Child.  In the interview (with James Jolly on a Gramophone podcast) the question was asked, when did musicians stop improvising? (Hear the whole interview here - https://www.gramophone.co.uk/podcast/john-taveners-the-protecting-veil-matthew-barley)

As an organist, improvisation is not so much a part of my musical life but vital to it.  An organist who cannot and does not improvise is not an organist – they may be able to play music on it, but they cannot play it as a musical instrument.  It worries me deeply how many so-called organists there are who do not improvise.  Only the other day a few organists came to look at our tiny little chamber organ – five stops and a heavily truncated single manual.  Surely, with such a diminished instrument, the obvious way to explore its potential was through improvisation.  But did they improvise?  Not a bit of it.  They tried little bits of half-remembered hymn tunes and party-pieces designed for something with rather more resources.  Nobody thought to doodle around exploring how the stops in individuality and combination might sound in their own right.  A visiting so-called organist to a church I was attending was invited to play the concluding voluntary.  He asked for music, but music was there none.  So he fumbled his way grotesquely through a partially-recalled Bach Fugue much to the detriment of himself and the organ.  Why did he not just improvise?

That said, proper organists do improvise, proper organ teachers guide students on the joys of improvisation, and proper organ students seek out a teacher who can instil into them the confidence to become competent improvisers.  In the worlds of jazz and most non-western musics, improvisation is key to being a musician.  The question is, however, why have “classical” musicians lost the ability to improvise?  How many piano teachers, string teachers, wind teachers, brass teachers teach improvisation?  I suspect one in a million, if that.  And if I ask why they don’t teach it, the response is always “there is no need”.  Yet there is surely no better way to familiarise yourself with the instrument you play than through improvisation.

Apparently right up until the closing years of the 19th century, improvisation was part of every classical musician’s vocabulary.  I didn’t know that.  I knew, of course, that up to Beethoven pianists and other concerto soloists were expected to improvise cadenzas in concertos, and in the 17th and 18th centuries improvised ornamentation was expected of any player.  (And how puerile most modern-day musicians sound when they slavishly follow some desiccated pattern for trills, turns and the like as written out in theory textbooks, rather than fall back on their long-dormant musical instincts.) 

Whenever it was that the art of improvisation was no longer deemed a necessary part of musician’s skill-set, the fact is that hardly any students of western classical music are now taught how to do it.  Most amazingly, vocal teachers seem to avoid it like the plague.  A few years back when Trinity introduced Improvisation as an option in its grades 1-5 practical exams, resistance to it was strong – most notably from singers.  Yet singing is the most improvisatory of all musical disciplines.  One can joke that hearing some singers makes you wonder if they can do anything but improvise, but on a more serious note, with the human voice being such a unique instrument, no music can properly match an individual voice.  Improvisation therefore becomes an essential skill for the singer to transcend the limitations of the voice in its relationship to the written score. 

Two suggestions for the demise of improvisation were raised in the interview.  Jolly, as a former editor of Gramophone, understandably questioned whether the growth of recording might have had something to do with it.  Now that the vast majority of humanity gets its music from pre-recorded performances, improvisation has lost its allure.  After all, when the listener can re-hear the identical performance ad nauseam, that essential spur-of-the-moment inspiration which results in improvisation is lost, and the improvisation becomes as formalised and sterile as the music on the written page.  Indeed, recordings militate against improvisations, because they can be retouched to the extent that the listener is not certain of the credibility of what they hear.  Barley is at pains in his recording to point out that his improvisations were recorded in a single, unedited take. 

The second suggestion seems to me the more likely.  And that is that composers, from Beethoven onwards, have become so prescriptive in what they write that scope for a performer’s free expression is lost.  From Bach, who rarely offered tempo, dynamic or phrasing markings, to Boulez, who burdened every single note with so much detail and performing information that any chance of individual interpretation is lost.  Through the 19th and 20th centuries composers maintained an unwavering path from allowing freedom to the performer to trussing them up in tight, restrictive and unbreakable bonds.

A sceptic might also suggest that composers have a vested interest in closing the door to improvisation.  After all, when you earn your income from writing music down, the last thing you want is for musicians to realise that they can create music for themselves.  Perhaps now we live in an age where everybody thinks music is free and accessible to all (poor, deluded fools!), we will not be so easily seduced by the notion of everything we need to do in a performance being presented to us on a sheet of printed paper.

17 August 2019

September Classical Concerts Singapore

Sunday, 1 September 2019 11am & 2pm ESP Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood SSO, Joshua Tan (cond)
Sunday, 1 September 2019 5.00pm ESP Carmen Singapore Lyric Opera
Tuesday, 3 September 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Appassionata Alexander Souptel (vln), Seet Wen Kai (pno)
Wednesday, 4 September 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Association of Singapore Composers omposers' Showcase
Friday, 6 September 2019 7.30pm ESP Inspired by Leipzig Masato Suzuki (cond), Albert Tiu (pno)
Friday, 6 September 2019 7.30pm ESP RS 1919 Viola Sonatas Viola: Tan Wee Hsin, Nicholas Ong (piano)
Sunday, 8 September 2019 4.00pm VCH VCH Presents Organ Omakase Masato Suzuki (org)
Tuesday, 10 September 2019 7.30pm ESP Seong-Jin Cho in recital Seong-Jin Cho (pno)
Friday, 13 September 2019 7.30pm ESP French Connections Stephen Hough (pno), SSO, Andrew Litton (cond)
Saturday, 14 September 2019 7.30pm YST Telling Beyond Words Conservatory Orchestra/Jason Lai
Friday, 27 September 2019 7.30pm VCH President's Young Performers' Concert Kevin Loh (guitar), SSO, Joshua Tan (cond)
Friday, 27 September 2019 7.30pm AH By Candelight A Tapestry of Armenian Music
Sunday, 29 September 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Pinnacles of Romanticism Take 5

ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall
ESP RS = Esplanade Recital Studio
VCH = Victoria Concert Hall
YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory  Concert Hall
AH = Arts House Living Room

New Music in Singapore

Always trust your editor.  That's been a long-standing rule of mine.  After all, your editor is responsible for making sure your work doesn't break any laws, doesn't fall foul of overall editorial policies and is presented in a way which will be acceptable to the readership, about which the editor is uniquely qualified.  Occasionally sub-editors tweak your copy in ways which spoil it, or remove passages which you felt were remarkably clever and perceptive.  But, in the main, I accept what they do and rarely complain.

The other day, however, my copy came under the green pen of a sub-editor at the Straits Times whom I had not encountered before and who was clearly totally befuddled by my review of the first piece in the concert.  So many changes were made to my copy that it ended up not only being strangely incoherent, but, more significantly, saying something which I certainly did not want to be said in print.  For the first time ever, a protracted email correspondence went back and forth with me asking for changes to be reversed and original statements to be preserved.  In the end, I had so completely lost track of what I had written that I went back to the original and present it here for the benefit of anyone who can't quite fathom what the published version is all about!

Wang Jian – Flowing Sleeves

Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Wang Jian (cello)/Jessica Cottis (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday (15 August)

Marc Rochester

Despite both pieces in the first half of this concert being written by composers of Chinese descent within the last 18 months, they could not have been more different.

Joyce Koh suggested that her piece, “one”, focused on the triangle.  But after an initial tinkle, Jonathan Fox and his triangle were quickly overwhelmed by a huge mass of frenetic orchestral sound.  For the best part of five minutes, virtually every member of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was playing flat out, and if there was any kind of aural variety, it passed unnoticed.

The full title of Koh’s work refers to the mathematical Golden Ratio – one point six one eight zero – but its relevance seemed aurally obscure.  However, it is unfair to judge the work on the evidence of just the single movement we heard here (the second “one” of the full title).  If and when the complete work is performed, one certainty is that the fourth movement will not provide any moment of calm respite to either players or audience.

Nevertheless, calm respite was much in evidence in the next work.  Spearheaded by the current crop of outstanding Chinese cellists, Chinese-born composers have produced some exceptional concertos for the instrument in recent years, and Wang Jian is currently doing the rounds presenting Zhou Tian’s concerto Flowing Sleeves which he premiered in Hangzhou last July.  This was Singapore’s turn to hear this concerto, which was inspired by the flowing sleeves of the costumes worn by performers in traditional Chinese opera.

The musical language was rich, opulent, luxurious, infinitely varied and at times profoundly beautiful.  Wang is certainly a compelling advocate of the work, and his performance shone with an almost mystical intensity.  Conductor Jessica Cottis’s own jacket sleeves looked decidedly tight and restrictive, but her hands seemed to mould the orchestra around every nuance and gesture Wang produced.

This was a lovely performance of what deserves to become a classic of the cello concerto repertory.  Towards the end of its first movement, there was a subtle allusion to the most famous cello concert of them all, Dvorak’s, which effectively forged a tenuous musical link between this concert’s two halves - the second half was given over the Dvorak’s ebullient Eighth Symphony.

Ebullient seems the key word here, for Cottis was determined to give it all she had.  The dance passages were bursting with energy, the folk-like melodies laid the pathos on with a trowel, and the scintillating climaxes positively fizzed with supercharged enthusiasm.  All this came at the cost of clear inner detail and, especially in the second movement, secure wind intonation, but it seemed the perfect way to end a concert which had seen the orchestra pushed and pulled around in almost every conceivable direction.

03 August 2019

August Concerts in Singapore

Thursday, 1 August 2019 7.30pm VCH Spirit of the Violin Kerson Leong (vln), SSO, Hannu Lintu (cond)
Friday, 2 August 2019 7.30pm VCH Spirit of the Violin Kerson Leong (vln), SSO, Hannu Lintu (cond)
Sunday, 4 August 2019 4.00pm VCH Encounter Beethoven - A Midsummer Chamber Concert RE:Sound
Saturday, 10 August 2019 7.30pm ESP SSO National Day Concert SSO and Chorus, Joshua Tan (cond)
Wednesday, 14 August 2019 7.30pm YST Visiting Artist Series Roberta Rust (pno)
Tursday, 15 August 2019 7.30pm ESP Brush, Lift, Reflect, Dance Wang Jian (cello), SSO, Jessica Cottis (cond)
Friday, 16 August 2019 7.00pm YST OH 19th century Portuguese Music Marcia da Rosa (ten), Isabel Calado (hpschd)
Friday, 16 August 2019 7.30pm VT Britten A Midsummer Night's Dream New Opera Singapore
Saturday, 17 August 2019 7.30pm ESP OMM Zarathustra Orchestra of the Music Makers, Lu Shao-Chia (cond), Peter Sidhorn (baritone)
Friday, 30 August 2019 7.30pm ESP Moonrise and Aurora SSO, Robin Fountain (cond)
Friday, 30 August 2019 8.00pm ESP Carmen Singapore Lyric Opera
Saturday, 31 August 2019 8.00pm ESP Carmen Singapore Lyric Opera

VCH = Victoria Concert Hall
VT = Victoria Theatre
ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall
YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
YST OH = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra Hall

25 June 2019

Musicians' Feet

A memory which has stayed with me since the very early days of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra was of a complaint received after one of the very first concerts in the newly-opened Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS.  Please, the complainant wrote, can you ensure that the violinists clean their shoes before going on stage? 

Here we were with a brand new orchestra in a brand new hall bringing classical music to a city, a country and an audience which, in the main, had not experienced anything like it before. And what were the audience most concerned about?  Footwear!  It caused us a certain amount of amusement and incredulity.  But then someone had the bright idea of sitting in the concert in the same seat as the complainant had used (the complaint forms asked patrons to tell us their seat in anticipation of some issues concerning sight lines, audibility or comfort) and realised that in the direct line of sight were, indeed, the first violinists’ feet.  In fact, in the front few rows of the hall, all you could see without actually straining back to peer upwards, was the stage floor and that part of the violinists’ anatomy which went as high as the low shins.  With nothing else to see, little wonder that players’ footwear assumed disproportionate attention.  An instruction duly went out to ensure that shoes were immaculate before each concert.

Ever since then I’ve taken an interest in musicians’ footwear, and am delighted that so many orchestral players have now gone to patent leather, which shines so brightly and requires just a rub over with a duster to remove any unsightly blemishes.  However, it does not usually concern me, largely because I will never sit in the front few rows of a concert hall where players’ feet are, as it were, thrust at me due to the sight level of the stage from these seats.  There are those who like to sit up that close, but you can neither see nor hear properly, so I assume they are either foot-fetishists or egotists who like the rest of the concert hall to know that they are there. (Which is why, I assume, most late-comers have booked seats in the front row in the middle, where they can make their disturbingly late entry in full view of the assembled crowd.)

However, I was the guest at a concert over the weekend where I had no choice of seat, and found myself thrust right in the middle of one of the very front rows.  It was a terrible experience, and I took the first opportunity to nip to an empty seat I had spotted at a more realistic distance from the stage.  But for the time I was sat at the front, I found all I could see without straining my neck muscles uncomfortably, was the players’ feet.  It was a piano recital in which four different pianists took it in turns to come on and play.

There was one player whose black, lace-up shoes were highly polished, whose long black socks disappeared into the comfortably loose legs of his black trousers.  I liked this; it gave authority and distinction to the performances I could hear coming from the instrument.  There was another who had fairly clean if matt-finished black shoes, but socks of such minitude that I found myself staring at a bare expanse of ankle/lower leg before a tight trouser-leg hid the rest from view.  A third had clean enough shoes but oddly patterned socks which struck a discordant note with the black trousers, which seemed to have been applied with a spray can.  The fourth was astonishing.  From the high point at which his black trouser legs stopped, it appeared that he had long outgrown his suit (or borrowed one from a children’s store).  He wore tiny orange socks and bright brown shoes, which were so visually disturbing that I found it difficult to take his playing seriously.  So much bare, hairless ankle and leg were visible that  I wondered whether he had spent his pre-concert preparation waxing his legs, when I should have been concentrating on the music I could hear him play.

As I scurried to my better seat near the back, where such visual distractions were negated by the totality of my vision of the stage, I reflected on the whole subject of musicians’ footwear.  Inadvertently, I had been affected in my opinion of these players by what they were wearing below their trouser legs, and, indeed, on where the trouser legs had stopped.  For the first time, I really could appreciate how our Malaysians correspondent had been so disturbed by dirty shoes.  Fashion on the street or in the dance hall is all very well, but a concert hall, were the musicians’ demeanour should be entirely focused towards projecting the musical message, is no place for fashion statements in the foot department.  I say; ban bare legs and ankles, ban coloured socks, ban brown or dirty shoes, and, most of all, avoid any hint of showing bare skin below the waist.  Unless, of course, you are Yuja Wang where from any vantage point, the view is interesting!

24 June 2019

Taking Music into the Wider Community

One of my students recently penned a passionate piece about the growing trend of taking music out into the wider community.  While he thoroughly approved of initiatives aimed at spreading music to those sections of society who, for one reason or another, might not feel they have access to it, he bemoaned the fact that so many of those initiatives were not so much aimed at the wider community as one specific segment of it.  And more especially, that the focus seemed to be almost wholly on taking music to those which society labels as having “Special Needs”, a term he found deeply patronising. 

For some time this is an issue which has concerned me, although it was the catalyst of the student’s impassioned comment which really got me thinking about quite what is meant by these oft-use, politically-correct terms “taking music out into the community” and “special needs”.  I did a quick search and discovered that a clear majority of initiatives which aim to “take music out into the wider community” actually do nothing of the kind; they simply redirect music from one special group to another.  The principal beneficiaries of such initiatives are usually either those with a learning or physical disability or those suffering from some kind of degenerative condition such as Alzheimer’s or Cancer.  These are the so-called “Special Needs” people; who, by the very fact of being so labelled, are segregated from society.  In an age when we have trained ourselves to ignore people’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality, it seems perverse, to say the least, that we happily use their mental or physical condition as a conduit of segregation.  I can’t call someone whose skin colour differs from mine as “black”, without causing offence; why, therefore, is it correct to describe someone whose mental capacity differs from mine as “Special”?

Let’s not, for all the tempting avenues it opens up for a discussion on the confused state of our current society, bother about those labels.  Let’s merely say that every single person in society is special in some way – inasmuch that none of us is quite the same mentally, physically, emotionally or psychologically – so those with “Special Needs” constitute the totality of society and therefore the label is pointless (as well as offensive).

Instead, let me ask the question about the specifics of taking music out into “the wider community”.  What do we really mean by this?  And, is the taking of music into communities comprising those who differ in some mental or physical way from the norm, merely a palliative for those of us privileged to possess musical skills as well as both mental and physical characteristics which are seen by most of society as “normal”?  By focusing on music’s much-vaunted therapeutic qualities and flaunting them in front of those who have some kind of disability, are we not in danger of turning music from high art into a branch of medicine? 

Music, from its very beginnings, was not something which addressed the totality of society.  At one point merely the possession of gods, of the god-like and of the churches which worshipped God, music went on to become the unique property of earthly and spiritual rulers, of the aristocracy, of the extremely wealthy and subsequently of the educated elite.  It was really only in the 19th century that it spread to those who had neither the wealth to fund it nor the education to understand it, and it became primarily a form of entertainment rather than an intellectual exercise.  With the advent of recording and broadcasting, music suddenly was accessible to all, and music education flourished as a means of keeping alive the old elitist attitudes; the thinking was, you may be able to hear music, but do you know how to LISTEN to it and do you UNDERSTAND it?  With the 21st century such elitist attitudes have largely been swept away, and with it much of the mystique of music has been demolished. There is a dominant belief that knowing music and practising it should be open to anybody and everybody, and, as if to support this, in the last half-century, the idea that music has very definite therapeutic qualities has grown.

That belief that music is no longer an elitist art nor something requiring intellectual application has been superseded by a concentration on music as a health and well-being beneficiary.  Work out in a gym, follow sport, do any of those things that we are told are good for our health, and you find them invariably accompanied by music.  My father’s 101 healthy years and my recent phenomenally speedy recovery from a serious operation are explained by those who know us, not by our lifestyles (neither of us follows any of the advised health regimens) but by the fact that we are practising musicians.  And it might be right, although I am not at all sure it’s anything more than good luck.  Music is seen as an adjunct to good health.

The corollary of that is that if you are in bad health music can be of benefit to you.  Thus, we single out those in our society who seem physically or mentally less healthy than the norm, and throw music at them.  And it does seem to help, even if all the research suggests that such help is only temporary and primarily palliative.  Little wonder, then, that so many feel that by going to those groups and giving them music in one form or another, they are doing some good to society.  I believe that they are, and from the evidence of my own eyes, it does have a beneficial effect which is well worth all the effort and expense involved.  But does this constitute “taking music out into the wider community”?

It does not.  There are still huge swathes of society, rich and poor, educated and ill-educated, old and young, black and white, who feel alienated from music.  Now they feel alienated not because of their detachment from society’s elite, but because of their detachment from society’s disadvantaged.  If music belongs to the “Special Needs”, is it relevant for the rest of us?  What efforts are made to take music out to that section of society?  The answer is some, but not much.  And the way it’s done is simply to put music on in some kind of public arena (a park or a football stadium) and expect the musically-alienated to turn up.  Nobody actually thinks that there is anything odd about this.  Surely, if you don’t normally feel music has anything to offer you, you would not make the effort to go out and find it, no matter in which environment it is being presented?

People with “Special Needs” are easy to address – they are all lumped together in a single building, either as residents or as out-patients – but the real body of society, the vast majority of those for whom music seems an irrelevance, cannot be so easily located and therefore so conventionally addressed.  Much as I applaud efforts to spread music to other sectors of society, let’s not kid ourselves into believing that merely by going to the old peoples’ home or the cancer ward, we are truly taking music out into the wider community.