22 December 2019

Classical Music Events Singapore - January

Relatively meagre pickings for Singapore classcial music afficionados this month because of various new years, but here's the list of those that have announced their intention to perform in public.

Saturday, 4 January 2020           

7.30pm: BMW : An Evening of Romanticism - Lily Yee (violin), Benjamin Goodman (pno)

Sunday, 5 January 2020  

4.00pm: ESP: Wagner's Die Walkure – Orchestra of the Music Makers, Chan Tze Law (Cond)

Friday, 10 January 2020  

7.30pm: ESP: The Maltese Tenor - SSO, Joseph Calleja (ten), David Gimenez Carreras (Cond)

9.00pm: AHC: By Candlelight - Beethoven's Fidelio - Pamela Krakauer (pno), various singers

Saturday, 11 January 2020         

9.00pm: AHC: By Candlelight - Beethoven's Fidelio - Pamela Krakauer (pno), various singers

Wednesday, 15 January 2020    

8.15pm: VCH: Inner Worlds - ReSound, Igor Yuzefovich (von) Ng Pei-San (clo)

Thursday, 16 January 2020        

7.30pm: LFT: Nanyang International Piano Academy Opening Gala Concert        

7.30pm: VCH: Piano Recital - Yevgeny Subdin

Friday, 17 January 2020  

6.00pm: AAC: CabaRed 2 - New Opera Singapore

7.30pm: ESP: Kavakos plays Korngold - SSO, Leonidas Kavakos (vln), Hans Graf (Cond)

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

7.30pm: YST: Of One Cloth - Alan Bennett (ten), Albert Tiu (pno)

Thursday, 23 January 2020

7.30pm: YST: Duo Piano Recital - Lim Yan and Lee Shi Mei

Tuesday, 28 January 2020          

8.00pm: ESP: Seven Days Walking - Ludovico Einaudi (pno), Redi Hasa (clo), Federico Mecozzi (vla)

BMW = Bechstein Musical World (Singapore Conference Centre)

ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall

AAC = Arts House Chamber

YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall

09 December 2019

Choral Directors' Foibles

 Over the weekend I attended two concerts.  They could have been very similar; both featured well-established choirs, both involved a small band of specialist instrumentalists, both took place in churches and both featured sacred music with a Christmas theme.  There was even  one piece of music common to both.

But in actuality the two could hardly have been more different, and that was largely down to the unique character of their respective choral directors.  Choral directors are responsible for the sound the choir produces and the way they deliver the music, for the musical insight shown in the performances, for the overall choral balance and blend and for the way their choirs address the audience from the stage (and we must consider church chancels as performance stages).  Every Director does things differently, and that personality informs the whole spirit of the concert for good or ill, especially where the Director is a powerful personality.

Cappella Martialis is unique in the Singapore choral scene in being a choir which concentrates exclusively on music from the middle ages to the 17th century.  Their concerts are marked by intense scholarship and a thematic approach which involves a single theme placed in a historical context.  They are proud to describe themselves as HIP (a handy acronym, much beloved by acronym-laden Singapore musicians, for Historical Informed Performance) and certainly much attention is given to pronunciation of the texts and the contextualizing of the music performed (see at the bottom of this post).  On Saturday they were accompanied by a band of period instrumentalists – including violas de gamba, recorders, theorbos and lutes – in a programme recreating, as the concert title had it, “a German Baroque Christmas c.1620”.

Those of us in the know attend a Cappella Martialis concert for the music (and, it must be said, for the magnificently illustrated and beautifully presented programme booklets – a mine of really fascinating historical detail), but not for the quality of the music making.  For one thing Cappella Martialis is not is a polished, professional, technically adept choir: it is a bunch of dedicated enthusiasts whose enthusiasm communicates itself sufficiently strongly to overcome the frequent musical failings of their performance.  On Saturday we had our fair share of collapses, false starts, breakdowns, distorted balance and wobbly intonation (in some cases pitch its very self), at times the musicians seemed unsure of what they were supposed to do next or where they should be standing, and at one point the concert was held up while the organist searched around for his music.  But all that caused little unease amongst the listeners who were lapping up a wonderful and historically informed glimpse of Lutheran music as it was (and, I suspect, as it sounded – warts and all) 400 years ago. 

Appropriately the Cappella Martialis concert took place in a Lutheran Church.  However, as we were told in the interesting pre-concert talk (a welcome feature of all Cappella Martialis concerts), the Lutheran Church of 1620's Germany was very different from this clean, modern, warm (hot) and airy 1966 Singapore building (complete with large cockroach which crawled out mid-concert on to the wall above the choir to see what all the fuss was about before scuttling back to its dark harbour), and that rather negated the sense of context which might have come from using such a building. (I found it oddly disturbing that I was sat next to a vast multi-channel mixing desk, implying that the amplification of sound has almost as much significance to Singaporean Lutherans as the visual celebration of God. I hasten to add that the mixing desk was not in use, and the sound the choir and instrumentalists produced was easily audible on its own terms.)

I enjoyed it a lot, as did the large audience, and once again I came away, not so much musically enriched, but with a feeling that I understood a little more about German Lutheran music of the early 17th century.  But one of the Choral director’s foibles annoyed me intensely.  His choir struggled hard and his musicians laboured with devotion to bring the music across to the audience, who responded after each item with plenty of generous and sincere applause.  Yet choral director Yeo Ying Hao studiously refused to acknowledge any of this. As we showed our appreciation he kept his back firmly turned on us and shuffled his music or got his choir to move around as if we simply did not exist.  I found that rude.  And to compound the affront, at the very end when Yeo did, eventually turn round to face us, instead of acknowledging our applause, he raised his hands and flipped his wrists in that kind of faintly dismissive gesture so many Choral Directors have got into the habit of doing so that the singers all bow together.  I hate this.  In the world of orchestral playing, the conductor acknowledges the applause on behalf of his musicians; Choral Directors who so obviously instruct their singers to do the bowing seem to imply that they, as Directors, are in some way above the mucky business of pandering to an audience.  It looks horrible, for not only is the wrist-flipping gesture capable of mis-interpretation as a rude gesture aimed at the audience, but while it may get all the choral heads bowing simultaneously, it does not bring them back up together.  The ensuing staggered re-erection of necks is made all the more ragged by the emphasis on precision in the initial bow.

On Sunday it was the turn of the Cathedral Choir of the Risen Christ which was formed in 1970 and has now grown to become one of the most impressive church choirs in Singapore.  They were on their home turf - the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd – for their traditional annual Christmas Presentation at which, as the years have gone by, more and more members of the diplomatic community have seen fit to attend.  On Sunday night no less than 40 ambassadors, high commissioners, or representatives of various embassies attended, along with a Singapore government minister and a huge, capacity audience.  In honour of these diverse national representatives, the choir sang at least one item in each of the national languages; a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that they did it entirely from memory and (I was reliably informed by any of the national representatives I met at the post-concert reception) had been trained to get the pronunciation and accents just right.  By request, apparently, they had been asked not to sing in Ukrainian, and since Kazakhstan appears to have no suitable Christmas music of its own, a piece of Gregorian chant sung in Latin was used instead; much to the considerable amusement of the country’s ambassador and his loquacious wife, who were sitting right in front of me.  Also in front of me was the South African ambassador who clearly loved every single minute of the presentation and seemed almost uncontainably enthused by the choir’s wonderfully invigorating singing of a song from his own country (Bayété!, Bayété! – I’m not sure in which of the South African languages that is).  As if the huge musical repertory (64 individual pieces sung over the course of two and a half hours) and range of languages was not enough, most were performed with some suitable prop and/or costume, and often with some exquisitely choreographed dancing from a choir which showed themselves not just to be musically adept but tremendously accomplished all-round-performers.  This truly is a wonderful choir, capable, talented, musical and drilled to  state of near perfection by their dedicated and deeply committed Choral Director

The first half of the concert was a celebration of Singapore’s bicentenary (why is everyone calling it a “Bicentennial”?) and this was where some of the more “serious” (for want of a better word) music was presented.  There was a wonderfully buoyant performance of “God rest ye Merry Gentlemen”, a searingly gorgeous performance of Poulenc’s Quem vidistis and a surprisingly moving performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pié Jesu.  I was deeply impressed by a beautiful Irish carol (“Carol from an Irish Cabin”) by Dale Wood which I had not heard before, despite having spent six unforgettable years living in Ireland, and I even found the obligatory performance of Dick Lee’s “Home” quite touching.  The towering success of the first half has to have been an absolutely riveting performance of Adiemus by Karl Jenkins which transcended the usual glib rhythmic delivery and became something of real musical substance.  Other gems from the concert included a rich performance of Rachmaninov’s Bogoróditse Dyevo, a lovely performance of the Swedish Santa Lucia, a magical performance, complete with dimmed lights and ersatz candles, of Stille Nacht, and a hugely effective Jordanian carol Ya Mariamo el Bekro fokti.  Germany was represented by Praetorius’s Es ist ein Ros in a performance as polished and historically inauthentic as Cappella Martialis’s performance of it the night before was not. Among the instrumental support were various ethnic instruments from south east Asia which proved to be hugely effective, even out of context, and the whole presentation was adorned by a continually changing series of PowerPoint slides projected on to the wall behind the choir.  No space for any cockroaches here! Among the large and intensely loyal choral members are a body of really young singers obviously well below the age of 8; under which, according to the concert notices, no child was to be admitted.  While this handful of tiny children elicited the necessary “ah” factor from admiring adults, they actually delivered their solos (in very strange languages from them) with impressive confidence and security.
Choral Director, Peter Low is supremely gifted  in the art of stage presentation, and the fact that this was such a slick, polished and absorbing performance which ran without a single obvious hitch, is entirely down to his leadership.  But he is not without his own minor but nevertheless irritating and distracting foibles.  He has an almost obsessive sense of performance control which occasionally becomes counter-productive; attempting to slow down the person announcing the members of the diplomatic corps in procession, he waved his hand so grandly that it stopped one ambassador in his tracks.  Low is too accomplished a choral director and performer to make the mistake of waving his wrists about to get the choir to move collectively, but his way of doing it is equally disturbing; he claps his hands sharply.  The first time I heard this I thought he had lost his temper and was admonishing an errant singer - and I lost the next few pieces in the performances while I strained my memory to try and work out who and what had gone wrong.  It eventually dawned on me that it was his way of getting them to move together, but in a concert, like this one, which celebrates peace, this almost rifle-like retort is deeply disturbing.  Perhaps a little bell would achieve the same effect on the choir with rather less of a disturbance to the audience; and would turn a necessary instruction into an integral part of the performance.

Choral Director foibles aside, both concerts were in their own way hugely impressive, and I only wish I had seen in the audiences more of Singapore’s musical fraternity (although a notable presence at the Sunday event was Singapore's great musical luminary, Bernard Tan - whose lovely setting of "The Peace of God" was included in the concert).  They would have learnt something from both, be it an insight into 17th century German music or 200 plus years of Singapore history as revealed through music.
A taste of the historical detail to be found in a Capella Martialis programme book - would that more of Singapore's musical groups took so much care over their own programme book

19 November 2019

December Classical Music Concerts Singapore

Christmas is coming and, curiously, concerts are getting thin on the ground in Singapore.  But here's the list of those that have come to my not

Sunday, 1 December 2019 7.30pm ESP RS EBM Christmas Concert 2019    PEATIX
Thursday, 5 December 2019 7.30pm ESP Artistry and Poetry Zhang Haochen (pno), SSO, Thomas Dausgaard (cond)   SISTIC
Saturday, 7 December 2019 8.00pm QLC In Dulci Jubilo - A Baroque Christmas Cappella Martialis   EVENTBRITE
Sunday, 8 December 2019
8.00pm CSPP In Dulci Jubilo - A Baroque Christmas Cappella Martialis   EVENTBRITE
Thursday, 12 December 2019
7.30pm ESP SSO Christmas Concert SSO Chorus, Joshua Tan (cond)   SISTIC
Friday, 13 December 2019
7.30pm AHL By Candlelight - A Baroque Christmas Red Dot Baroque, Reuben Lai (ten)   PEATIX
7.30pm ESP SSO Christmas Concert SSO Chorus, Joshua Tan (cond)   SISTIC
Wednesday, 18 December 2019
7.30pm ESP RS Harmonies through Time Wendelin Kwek (pno), Edward Auer (pno)   SISTIC
Thursday, 19 December 2019
7.30pm ESP The Music of Star Wars SSO, Christopher Dragon (cond)   SISTIC
Sunday, 22 December 2019 
4.00pm ESP RS Anime and Classical Music on Piano Hong Xian, Chien Tat (piano)   PEATIX
7.30pm VCH Christmas With Tchaikovsky Kids Philharmonic   PEATIX
Tuesday, 31 December 2019 
10.00pm VCH New Years Eve Countdown Concert Philharmonic Orchestra   SISTIC

ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall
ESP RS = Esplanade Recital Studio
VCH = Victoria Concert Hall
QLC = Queenstown Lutheran Church
CSPP = Church of Ss Peter and Paul, Victoria Road
AHL = Arts House Living room

23 October 2019

A Potential Opera Star

For those who do not know it, Singapore has its own unique musical micro-climate.  While the rest of the world seems to be suffering falling attendances at live concerts and a perceived loss of interest in classical music, in Singapore concert audiences show a year-on-year growth, the number of live events increases several times over each year, and dedicated as well as newly-imagined performance spaces are popping up with alarming frequency.

Taking the last part.  It is worth noting that all Singapore's major performance venues (2 public concert halls with attached theatres, at least four fully-kitted-out concert halls in educational establishments, and various recital studios) were either conceived of or have been put into their present-day form since 2000, and more are in the pipeline. 

As for the first part, we can suggest that the partial cause for this exponential growth in attendance for live concerts is driven by two things which are distinctive to the Singapore scene.  Firstly the graded music exams are so ingrained into the Singapore educational psyche that a substantial proportion of young people have developed an awareness of, and interest in, classical music (over 4% of under-20s do ABRSM exams here compared with 0.86 in the UK), and, secondly, for various reasons (interesting but too complicated to go into here) neither recordings nor broadcasts are seen as a significant source of access to classical music performances.

Unfortunately, when it comes to growing number of live performances, the situation has become so chaotic as to risk becoming self-defeating,  Rather like the immediate aftermath of the deregulation of bus services in England (I would use that comparison, wouldn't I?) the emergence of so many young practical musicians on to the scene, cast out from their regular musical fix by having passed their Grade 8 (after which, in the Singapore psyche, practical music-making ceases to have any purpose) has led to an explosion of ad hoc performances put on often at a moment's notice and advertised only through sharing with friends on social media.  Thus, far too much goes by without the general public knowing anything about it.  My attempts to set up a monthly calendar on this blog typify the problem.  After posting each month's events (usually around the 20th of the preceding month) I am made aware of more than a dozen events which had not been publicly advertised anywhere that I had searched.  Uniquely, some even ask not to be publicized since the performers only want their friends and supporters to attend.

But, all in all, the climate for classical music here is very healthy. What is lacking is outstanding home-grown performers.  They will, it is hoped, emerge with time, but so far the best Singaporean musicians are pianists, conductors and violinists, and in total their numbers can be counted on the fingers of less than two hands.  What has not come to my attention so far is any truly fine Singaporean singer.  There are plenty of singers here, choirs are supported with the fanaticism of a soccer team, and there is a very big appetite for home-grown opera performances.  Yet none of these is really world-class, and none has ever made any sort of a splash on the international performing scene, even if some have achieved spectacular success in the competitive arena.

That may be about to change.

Over the weekend I attended a semi-staged performance by a local group of a Donizetti opera.  Typically, the advertising for this was so dismal that hardly anyone turned up for it (and wanting to review it, I had to call around every singer I could think of in Singapore before I was given the contact details of someone whom they thought might be involved).  Those that did witnessed a great moment in Singapore musical history; the appearance of a singer I would like to suggest has everything in place to become a true international star.  Look out for the name  Teng Xiang Ting, I think she might be going places. 
Here's my Straits Times review of the performance.
Don Pasquale

Joshua Kangming Tan (conductor)

Victoria Concert Hall

Sunday (20 October)

Marc Rochester


Just three short years into its existence, the Arts Place and its Artistic Director, Martin Ng, have achieved something remarkable.  They have presented a major opera in a performance which can only be described as outstanding.

Although this was a semi-staged, concert performance with few props, costumes or actions, so ingeniously simple was Yang Xinxin’s production that it needed nothing more in the way of visual spectacle than Aaron Yap’s seamless lighting.

The drawback of opera in a concert hall setting is that the orchestra is placed centre stage and, both visually and aurally, tends to dominate.  As it was, the assorted musicians brought together to form the orchestra for this production, were so impeccably prepared by Joshua Kangming Tan, that they very quickly blended into the production. 

The orchestral playing was unfailingly self-assured and capable, and the chorus, superbly coached by Terrence Toh, brought much humour and vitality to the opera’s third and final act.  Ensuring that everything went musically without a hitch, Tan proved once again his innate feel for opera and his instinctive sense of dramatic timing.

However, the bulk of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale rests on the four principal soloists. A fifth, a cameo role of a fake notary, was taken in Sunday’s performance by David Tao Chen Ming, who, for all the brevity of the part, invested it with real vocal and dramatic personality.

Ernesto, the lovelorn nephew, was sung by Peruvian tenor, Oscar Ruben.  He sometimes seemed strained and unconvincing, but he came into his own with a deeply affecting second act aria pouring out his sorrow after being made homeless and disinherited by his uncle.  His off-stage serenade in the third act was also a real delight.

Ernesto’s uncle, the eponymous Don, was performed by Ming-Mou Hsieh.  He certainly conveyed many facets of Pasquale’s character, at his best when tearing into the sheaves of bills detailing his wife’s unfettered spending.  But he was also at times a stiff and rigid presence on stage, and vocally he was not always able to hold his own against the orchestra.

Alvin Tan had no such problems.  He seemed utterly comfortable and at ease in the strangely ambiguous role of Malatesta, and vocally was a commanding, powerful and precise presence.  His gloriously flexible articulation in Donizetti’s hallmark patter-songs was one of the more memorable musical elements in this performance.

Without in any way diminishing the impact of the other singers, by far and away the most impressive – to an almost jaw-dropping extent – was Teng Xiang Ting.  She took to the complex character of Norina - part nun, whore, penniless widow and selfish society butterfly - with relish, switching effortlessly from one persona to the next.  Whenever Teng was on stage, she became the focal point around which everything else revolved.  Add to this a voice of stupendous strength, laser sharp focus and impeccable control, and the Arts Place may have found Singapore’s first true opera star.

22 October 2019

The Debut Disc

It is often said that in our age of social media, up and coming musicians have in YouTube and other platforms a wonderful channel through which to promote themselves and their art.  That is all quite true, although in reality, YouTube and social media postings are usually only read by those who know the poster and, probably, already have their views on their musical abilities.  To get the widest reach, to get into the consciousness of strangers and to cross beyond the confines of that clique of followers who access individual media platforms, there is still no substitute for the Debut Disc.

It remains the best way of getting your music – as either performer or composer – out to a public you could never reach by any other means   A professionally produced recording allows you to spend time getting the ideal sound, polishing up all the little defects in any performance, and using the booklet to provide a full and detailed background of you and your work.  Getting an established label to produce your debut disc also ensures you get promotion on the back of their well-established marketing and distribution network.  And a CD will attract professional criticism and review.  It usually costs money, unless you are singularly fortunate in being signed up before you make your debut disc, but that is money well spent in that it reaps dividends far beyond anything you could hope to achieve with the shoestring budget of a social media posting.  Unquestionably YouTube is vital as a means of having something for people to access when they know of you and want to find out more about your work, but it’s the issue of getting out into the global music market which makes the debut disc so essential.

It also provides an invaluable learning experience.

Anyone who has spent any time involved in recording knows that nothing ever goes to plan, that tensions can overwhelm even the most placid of artists, that panic and crisis are a daily occurrence and, more than all that, the simple matter of performing to microphones and an invisible audience is a world apart from performing to a live one.  Live audiences quickly forget – possibly do not even notice – small slips and misreadings; those who listen to recordings have zero tolerance for any kind of flaw or smudge.  As a result, recordings invariably require a certain amount of patching – going back over small passages which had not gone quite right previously – and innumerable re-takes when whole works and movements need to be done again often for reasons which have nothing to do with the musicians involved.  You can’t go back over things in a live performance; yet you have to do it many times in a recorded one.
I well recall my Debut Disc; although it was back in the days of the Debut LP.  After years of intensive training, cutting my teeth on recitals and concerts, and even making several recordings as an accompanist and orchestral player, I decided that if my career as a solo performer was ever going to take off, I needed to have a solo record out there in the shops.  I approached a new record label which was making something of a name for itself as a specialist label in organ and church music, and put forward my pitch for a debut album.  Recognising that my name alone would unlikely prove a major draw for them, I hit on the idea of offering repertory which was not mainstream but sufficiently familiar to attract the knowledgeable listener.  I tried to balance works which had never been recorded before – for me, an essential to make a new recording distinctive, and often a big attraction for adventurous record labels – with those which were already in the catalogues but in performances to which I felt I could offer something different.  I avoided the kind of repertory which was already saturating the market in performances by far better players than me; why would anyone want to hear me play Widor’s Toccata when so many other famous names were out there offering more accomplished takes on it?

And I had an ace up my sleeve. 

Those who buy organ recordings do not just buy them for the artist or the repertory (as is the case with most recordings outside the organ world) but for the instrument.  The secret is to find a spectacular instrument which has never been recorded before and which will, in itself, attract attention.  My good fortune was that I was going to make this recording shortly after the unveiling of the dazzling new organ in St David’s Hall, Cardiff.  Already creating a stir in the organ world, I was able to get in first with my pitch for recording it, and the record company duly took the bait.  What was more, they were willing to do the thing as a commercial venture, which meant all I had to do was guarantee the purchase of a number of records (250, I think it was).  That suited me fine as, in those happy days, I had almost that number of friends and family (today the family is depleted and the friends long since lost!).
If nothing else, the St David's Hall organ made for an eye-catching cover
That was the easy part.  What came next set the scene for a chapter of frustrations and crises which, perhaps now, I could have foreseen, but then hit me with all the force of a rampaging elephant.  What is more, it was only after the record company re-issued several tracks from the original LP with a recollection of the recording session, that I realised just how close to disaster the whole venture had come.

Like any concert hall, St David’s Hall had a pretty full calendar, as did the record company and myself.  In the end, after much negotiation, a Sunday in February 1983 was fixed for a single recording session lasting from 9am to 4pm; and no right thinking musician today would reckon that laying down around 50 minutes of performance in that time was remotely possible (you might as well suggest sealing a Brexit deal in 48 hours!). 
(By an odd coincidence, 23rd February was also the birth date of my daughter, although this record pre-dated her by a quarter of a century!  And as she is now something of a performer in her own right - a dancer rather than a musician - I am indulgently adding a picture of her in action at the foot of this blog.  Fathers are allowed to be proud of their children!)
Some of the background came out when the disc was reissued in 2004 (and that's me in 1983)

When the day arose, I had to drive from my home on the Isle of Anglesey in the far north west corner of Wales to Cardiff down in the south east, a journey on winding, twisting mountain roads of almost 5 hours.  I set off with all my music in hand at 3am and an hour into the journey, just as I was descending a steep hill into the village of Trawsfynydd, my brakes failed.  Luckily my bus driver training kicked in, and I completed the rest of the journey without ever once using the brakes – but with my nerves shredded.  But far from being sympathetic to my plight, the record producer and engineer were too busy with issues of their own – the St David’s Hall staff had not let them in to set up their equipment until spot on 9, and they were buzzing around frantically trying to get it all set up in time for a prompt start.  Luckily that gave me a chance to do some extra practice; I had learnt all the pieces thoroughly but had only been allowed a couple of hours a few weeks before to try out the organ.  It didn’t go well.  The organ was in a dreadful state, with notes sticking, pipes not sounding, stops shooting out of tune and half the electrics not working at all.  When the record company was ready, the organ was not, and the wisdom of having asked the organ builder to be there for the recording sessions was a sure sign of the record company’s experience.

Luckily we got one piece into the can immediately – a short Prelude by Bairstow – with the intention of going back at the end of the session.  But things went from bad to worse and, in the end, the organ builder took out the surrounding of the console and literally sat in it, pushing up the notes that stuck down and operating the mechanical bits that failed while I was playing.  All this time, the security staff were walking into the hall and asking the record company how much longer they were going to be.  I lost count of the retakes occasioned by an intrusive footstep or voice, usually coming just as the final notes were being committed to tape.

It was released and sent out to the critics, who generally liked it.  They didn’t rave over it, but they didn’t pan it either, and that was good enough for me.  I was happy, and felt that all the stress and strain had been worthwhile.  I never tried my hand at another solo disc, however; once was enough!

At no point did it ever occur to me – nor has it occurred to me seriously until now – to explain the circumstances of the recording session.  I felt that the record company did a fine job and if the playing was not up to much, it was my fault and nobody else’s.  I’d decided to do the recording, and would have to live with the consequences.  Things seem very different now.

As a professional critic (the questionable success of my organ playing career now a distant memory) I get to hear a lot of debut discs, some sent to me by the record labels and others posted to me by the performers themselves.  In most cases, I review them as positively but as truthfully as I can, and almost always I get a nice note back from the artist thanking me for taking the trouble to review their debut disc. 

But they don’t stop with that. 

They go on to offer often long, detailed, and usually convoluted excuses as to why their recording was not as good as they had hoped.  They even ask if I will change my review as they don’t think a certain phrase puts their playing in the best possible light.  I even had one writing just recently saying that, while what I had written was quite true and he could not argue with it, would I change one section since, in the future, people reading the review might get the wrong idea. 

I suppose this comes down to the fact that we now live in a blame culture where, if something is not quite right, it has to be somebody’s fault.  But music is not a definitive art.  In an age of snap sound-bites, where if something is not absolutely brilliant it must be dreadfully bad, nuances of opinion and shades of appreciation have no value.  The fact that anything posted on social media has a reputation of staying there forever (which is not true – even those platforms which do not allow earlier posts to slip out of view, rarely attract readers into the depths of the archive) drives debut artists to think that in the years ahead, people will have nothing better to do than to look up old reviews and use them as guidance for their contemporary abilities. 

In one week alone, two performers whose debut discs I reviewed in different publications have written to me to ask for changes and to explain why their performances were not as good as they would have liked them to be.  I will think twice before reviewing recordings by those artists again, not because I feel their work is in any way poor (indeed, both showed exceptional talent in their debut discs) but simply because I have no wish to run the gauntlet of such emotional plea-bargaining.  When a review is written, its honesty lies in the immediacy of its response to what is heard.  Any subsequent tweaking of those initial impressions renders the review false.  I do not retrospectively adjust reviews for any reason.  If you want someone to do that, my advice is to find a social media “review” page and do what everyone else does; assume a false identity and anonymously review your own work through the prism of your aspirations rather than through the evidence of your ears.
The best picture you will ever see on this blog.  Prisca Rochester (Aged 11) performing in the musical "Favourite Things".  Catch her on stage in the Christmas Pantomime at the Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, and in dance shows in both Rome and Orlando next year.  I'm happy to have passed the performer's baton on to her.

17 October 2019

The Orchestra of the Year 2019

Photo Credit: Cheung Wai Lok/HK Phil

At last night’s Gramophone Awards held in the opulent splendour of London’s Connaught Square Rooms, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was named Orchestra of the Year 2019.  This is a great accolade for an orchestra just 45 years old, based in a city well away from any of the traditional centres of musical excellence, and especially when you consider that other contenders for the award included the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Rome, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Les Siècles.  The Gramophone Orchestra of the Year Award is made on the basis of recommendations from Gramophone magazine critics and editorial staff who base their selection on recordings released over the past year.  Once they have drawn up the shortlist, it is left to the public to vote for the winner after having, we would hope, carefully listened to the year’s recordings from all 10 shortlisted orchestras.

For many, the award going to the Hong Kong Philharmonic will come as a huge surprise.  After all, unlike many of the other contenders, they are not a major recording orchestra; indeed, to date their recording output has been notably unremarkable and dominated by niche repertory in indifferent recording and performing quality.  Many of the early recordings they made for the nascent Naxos and Marco Polo labels were not so much unremarkable as downright poor, and rarely even made it into the review columns of Gramophone magazine.  Even today, a basic search of recordings by the Hong Kong Philharmonic on any of the international sites yields a lot of recordings made over the past 40 years few of which have ever impinged on to the consciousness of serious collectors. 

But it was a remarkably brave idea from the orchestra’s current music director, Jaap van Zweden, which suddenly rocketed the Hong Kong Philharmonic not just to international fame as a recording orchestra, but got the music-loving public flocking to Hong Kong in their droves to hear them live.  In 2015 he embarked, with the orchestra, on a four-year project to perform the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in concert performances on the stage of the Hong Kong Cultural Arts Centre, which has been the performing home of the orchestra since 1989, and is now showing its age both visually and aurally.  Built at a time when few other cities anywhere in Asia had a state-of-the-art concert hall, the Cultural Arts Centre was one of the parting gifts from the British in anticipation of their handover of their former colony to Chinese rule in 1997.  It has done well, but with its tiles that look increasingly like the walls of a 1970s British public toilet (with, sometimes, the aroma to go with it), a weird wedge shape (it was described at the time as a symbolic representation of China’s claim that they would govern Hong Kong with a “One Country, Two Systems” policy) and an acoustic which does nothing to enhance the music for the audience and incorporates a number of pretty significant blind spots to those attempting to perform on stage, it is now very much the poor man of the region; especially considering the splendid concert halls which have since sprouted up in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and all over mainland China.  It seems hardly the ideal venue to record something which is going to take the musical world by storm.

Each opera of the Ring was presented twice in live concerts, one a season, from Das Rheingold in 2015 to Götterdämmerung in 2018, and each performance was recorded by Naxos who then released each opera as a separate box set.  As the cycle progressed, so word spread around and more and more took an interest in what Hong Kong was doing.  On top of that, speaking with my critic’s hat on (or through it, as some might say) as the cycle progressed, each performance seemed more polished and secure, until with Götterdämmerung we had something which was really, really special.  So it was that opera, which attracted the Gramophone team and prompted them to put it up as a nomination for Orchestra of the Year.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic has been keen to point out that they are the first orchestra in Asia ever to have been nominated as (and now awarded) Orchestra of the Year.  That, again, may cause some surprise. What about those excellent orchestras in Japan, Qatar, Malaysia and Singapore, not to mention those notable ones in China?  Many of them have a much higher recording profile than the HKPO – the NHK Symphony seems to have been a fixture on the recording circuit for decades, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra produced a series of absolutely fabulous CDs for BIS in the early noughties, while the Singapore Symphony have been churning out well-received CDs (again, mostly on the BIS label) for years.  And the Shanghai Philharmonic has just been signed up to be an exclusive recording orchestra by Deutsche Grammophon. 

All this goes to show just what a remarkable achievement van Zweden’s Ring Cycle has been.  While one can argue that a great recording of an opera is far more than a showcase for an orchestra (something van Zweden was himself anxious to stress in his acceptance speech for the Gramophone Awards) a comment that has resonated in almost every review of the HK/Wagner cycle is typified by this quote from Andrew Clements in The Guardian; “Some elements have remained at a high standard throughout [the cycle] – namely the quality of the playing of the Hong Kong Philharmonic”.  Looking back over the reviews I’ve written about the orchestra, I note that in Gramophone magazine as far back as 2013 I was writing (with reference to a recording of Tan Dun’s music newly released on the Naxos Label); “This is a vivid demonstration of true orchestral virtuosity”.  (I like to be proved right once in a while!)

I first heard the Hong Kong Philharmonic in the late 1980s, and I was left pretty unimpressed.  As one colleague suggested, it comprised largely dispirited players who would never get a seat in a world-class orchestra and increasingly disillusioned young players who aspired to one.  I’m not sure that was a fair comment, but it certainly was difficult to argue with when you heard them on occasions.  At one point, after the departure of David Atherton as its principal conductor, there were even doubts about its sustainability.  But first Edo de Waart and then Jaap van Zweden revitalised it, brought in some brilliant players, and now, after seven years at the helm, van Zweden has completed the task most thought impossible; to make it the finest orchestra in the world (in the view of Gramophone magazine’s readership – and they comprise some of the world’s most perceptive and demanding music lovers).

So what comes next?  Will the orchestra start attracting the same level of international attention for its mainstage week-by-week season concerts as it did for the one-off, but headline grabbing Ring cycle?

No mention of Hong Kong today can pass without comment on the fragile political situation which is unravelling there.  With street demonstrations happening on a daily basis and the world holding its breath to see what China will do to stamp its authority on its recalcitrant Special Administrative Zone, how is the Hong Kong Philharmonic coping?  Diplomatically, a press release issued from the orchestra to coincide with the Gramophone Award points out that it allows its players and staff to express their own views on the current situation peacefully and holds no official position itself.  But it is being affected with concerts cancelled or re-timed in anticipation of civil unrest.  And the postponement this year of the orchestra’s biggest annual event – the Swire Symphony Under the Starts concert held against the spectacular setting of the Hong Kong Harbourfront – shows just how fragile its future might be.  This is by far and away the highest profile event it stages, and while the financial loss cannot be insignificant, the loss of prestige may be even more daunting.  So much is riding on how the current political climate in Hong Kong resolves itself, and that includes the very future of the orchestra.  Unless and until Hong Kong comes to its senses and starts behaving once again like a civilised city in the 21st century, visiting music lovers are not going to risk running the gauntlet of violent protestors and violent police retaliation, even if the prize is as artistically enticing as the Ring Cycle.

One thing is certain, however.  With this Award to its credit, the Hong Kong Philharmonic suddenly has a lot more friends in lot more high places than it had before, and if nothing else, it tells the world that there is more to Hong Kong than tall buildings, tourist kitsch, shopping, tear gas and face masks; and that, alone, sets it way above the other nine orchestras in this year’s shortlist.

16 October 2019

Disgusted of BIS writes...

As a critic I never set out to shake the prams of record company executives (or artists, for that matter), but when I accentually do, the results can be pretty spectacular.  None, so far, has matched the remarkable hissy fit of Robert von Bahr of BIS records.  He not only threw all his toys out of the pram, but the blankets, pillows and his clothes as well!  This letter goes to the head of my pile of amazing over-reactions;


Dear Mr. Rochester,
while you are obviously entitled to your thoughts, however ill-informed, I would be very grateful, if you checked your facts before going in print with them.

 Firstly you call this a CD.  It isn't - it is an SACD, which, to some people, is an important factor  (yes, I see that you later actually write SACD, which makes it even more confusing).

Then about BIS ecopak.  Here I need to take issue with you, since what you write doesn't amount to any logical reasoning;  rather the contrary as I will show.
- Yes, we have spent a long time on flights to be able to record the organs, Masaaki Suzuki wants to record.  In the end, it is easier to transport us to the organ than the organ to us.

Does this fact, which is quite true, absolve us from the goal of making as little environmental damage as possible?  I find this a most illogical and - frankly - unpleasant way of reasoning, especially in this day and age.  So just because we are necessarily wasteful in one area absolves us from trying our best in another?  Oh dear!!!
- And, then, since you open the box and are talking about flight kilometers:

We produce the entire BIS catalogue new releases in ecopaks now.  We're talking a good 100'000 discs/year now, gradually going up to c. 300'000 in a couple of years, saving c. 42% weight.  Most of our shipments go overseas in either direction, to the same places as our recording personnel, so our numers are entirely comparable.  We are saving c. 45 grammes per SACD.  This means now c. 4'500 kilos in less weight, going up to way past 10'000 kilos/year in the near future.  That is rather more than one person's c. 75 kilo, going the same way, even if you multiply that with our c. 60 recordings/year.  So your reasoning is actually to our favour!

So, Mr. Rochester, if you want to dazzle people with your mathematical reasoning, do think it through to the logical conclusion!  That's what I would call intellectual honesty rather than your snide remark.

 - OK, you don't like the ecopak.  Your privilege.  But don't call them flimsy, because they are NOT.  And, if you don't believe me, take an ordinary jewel case and an ecopak and drop them on the floor.  I'd bet I know which will withstand it and protect the SACD, and which will not.  Add the lesser place on the shelf and the much more beautiful surface, and the fact that the ecopak is made entirely from renewable and ecological sources, whereas the jewel case is made from plastic, and there we are.  If you cannot remove the detachable paper sticker with your nail, something that takes me all of 3 seconds, then why not cut it open with something sharp?
It is one thing to instinctively dislike something new, and quite another to invent unfair reasons for doing so.

I am sorry to be so upset, but, in the end, it is initiatives like the BIS ecopak, in all kinds of walks of life, that will do something tangible to save this planet.  Your review is doing nothing to further that cause.
Robert von Bahr, CEO, BIS records


So, that's me put in my place!

I’m sorry Mr Bahr never got round to that bit of my review (see below) when I commented on the music, the performance and the recording quality, but perhaps record company CEOs have different priorities to critics.  I’m pleased, however, that he praises my mathematical reasoning - having got 17% at my mock Maths O Level, my school forbad me from sitting the real one; how my old maths master would laugh to learn that a company CEO seems impressed with my maths today!
For the record, I have always hated CD plastic jewel cases, and any alternative is welcome.  If the “Bis ecopak” is the way to go, so be it, although even after a month, mine is already beginning to look very tatty.

Feel free to comment – but ONLY after you’ve bought the disc.  It’s really well worth buying and listening to, even if the company’s CEO feels that is not so important.


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

  • Prelude & Fugue in C. BWV531 [7:30]
  • Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, BWV537 [8:48]
  • Chorale Preludes on “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr‘“, BWV 717, 711 and 715 [8:48]
  • Chorale Partita on “Ach was soll ich Sünder machen?“, BWV770 [12:11]
  • Toccata in C, BWV566a [10:24]
  • Prelude & Fugue in C minor, BWV546 [10:58]
  • Chorale Preludes on “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend“, BWV 709, 726 [4:24]
  • Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV582 [14:36]
Masaaki Suzuki (organ)

rec. May 2018, Freiberg Cathedral, Germany

BIS BIS-2421 [79:07]

Denied the obvious choice of presenting Bach’s organ works in any kind of chronological order – although booklet-note writer Albert Clement tries his best to date the works on this disc – Masaaki Suzuki has tried a few tricks to present single disc compilations which are both attractive and coherent in his complete cycle for Bis.  For disc 3 he adopts, as he had for the two previous issues in the series, a mix of chorale-based pieces framed by larger works incorporating fugues.  But he has done something different here; he has fixed the programme tonally on C.  To maintain the C tonality Suzuki includes a C major version of the Toccata in E BWV566 (Clement argues that the two versions are “equally authoritative”, but I have my doubts). Another programming innovation is the inclusion of multiple chorale preludes based on a single chorale. 

A less welcome innovation comes from Bis, who have elected to issue the CD not in a traditional plastic jewel case but in what they trendily describe as a “Bis ecopak”; basically a flimsy cardboard cover held together by an adhesive label of such strength that to get to the CD you have to tear the cover.  A minor irritation, no doubt, but enough to sour the experience of an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable CD.

Since Suzuki is not recording his Bach series in close proximity of both place and time - by my reckoning he (and the Bis team) have already built up a carbon footprint of some 18,000 kms flying between Groningen in The Netherlands (Vol.1), Kobe in Japan (Vol.2) and now on to Freiberg in Germany, and the recordings span some five years – each recording offers something very different in terms of sound and interpretation.  Here, on the magnificent Silbermann organ at Freiberg, Suzuki has such an opulent stoplist and sumptuous acoustic to play with, that he eschews the somewhat flamboyant ornamentation and extravagant tempi of the previous issues.  All of this wonderful sound is superbly caught in this Bis SACD recording.

As for the playing, Suzuki combines stylistic authority and musical insight with a fabulous technical mastery – there are some wonderfully florid flourishes in the third of the Allein Gott Chorale Preludes and some truly dazzling footwork in the youthfully exuberant, if musically meagre, BWV531 Prelude – and while he employs the full resources of this superb 1714 instrument, there is never any hint that registrations are dictated by the sound they produce rather than their musical suitability.

The climax of the disc is certainly the Passacaglia & Fugue, which is perhaps the work which might most attract the casual listener: the organ aficionado will need no enticement for this release other than the knowledge that a masterly Bach interpreter is presiding over a fabulous Bach-era instrument.  Suzuki’s is a vividly imaginative and wonderfully coherent interpretation, which flows easily through a glorious panoply of vivid organ colours.  He combines majesty and wit, strength and subtlety in a performance which is utterly compelling; the icing on the cake of what is a very fine release indeed.

Marc Rochester

As a pure sonic spectacle, Volume three of Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach organ cycle hits new heights, while as a masterly presentation of Bach in and around the tonal centre of C, it is simply peerless.