28 January 2019

Singapore Symphony Orchestra Turns Round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 January 2019

Musical Authenticity - An Impossble Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 January 2019

Music: an act or an art?

A lecture on Bach’s Kunst der Fuge (“Art of Fugue”) given by the Australian music scholar Daniel Herscovitch, was without doubt the most enlightening, interesting, absorbing and compellingly presented lecture I have attended in many a long year.  He followed it up with a complete performance of the Art of Fugue on the piano, but sadly I had to miss that as I had a performing engagement of my own to fulfil.    There had been an audience of 20 or so at his lecture – mostly local music enthusiasts and supporters from outside the university, but also a sprinkling of staff and a couple of students.  My esteemed colleague, piano professor Albert Tiu was there, and he did go on to the performance, following which he felt compelled to post on Facebook his dismay that, not only had so few piano students attended the lecture, but that, apparently, none of them went on to attend the performance.  I understand his frustration.  When so much is invested in bringing in outstanding lecturers and performers for the benefit of the students, it is a matter of the gravest concern when those students fail to respond.  Albert went on to bemoan the fact that this was by no means the only piano-orientated event this week which had failed to attract piano students into its audience.

Albert is, however, barking up the wrong tree.  We should not complain when piano students do not support special events which feature their instrument, but we should complain, and complain bitterly, when brass, string, percussion and voice students do not attend piano-themed presentations.  We should complain bitterly when piano students do not attend brass-themed presentations, brass students do not attend string-themed presentations, string students do not attend percussion-themed presentations, percussion students do not attend voice-themed presentations, and so on, and so on.  And especially, we should complain loud and long when all instrumental and vocal students do not attend presentations about music theory, history and pedagogy.  In short, why do we expect students only to derive benefit from presentations focusing on their major study area?  There is an argument (which I wholly reject) that it is up to their respective professors to teach them what they need to know about their principal area of study, while they need to look elsewhere to benefit from that broad field of study which is at the very core of a university education.  So we might (just) excuse piano students from absenting themselves from Chopin performances, but we can’t begin to condone them absenting themselves from a lecture on the brass music of, say, Edward Gregson.

When I was studying music at university, all students were obliged (as were all staff) to attend weekly chamber concerts.  I was an organ student – what possible benefit could I derive from such exposure to Haydn string quartets?  Yet when I went out into the world of employment with my university music degree, the fact that I had been exposed to such a broad spectrum of music in my years as a student gave me a huge head start over those of my peers whose training had been bounded by the limitations of their instrument and its repertory.  I could never have lived the life of a critic, lecturer, music administrator and writer on music that I have without that truly universal music training university afforded me.

We no longer live in an age of compulsion, and while we might encourage, we cannot force students to attend anything which is not directly concerned with their obtaining a degree at the end of their period of study.  Yet that very freedom should be seen as a glorious opportunity.  For the keen student, eager to steal a march on contemporaries when it comes to the highly competitive world of a career in music, what better way is there to obtain a real advantage over others, than to take every opportunity presented to broaden and expand one’s musical horizons?  We can’t see into the future, so surely it is best to equip ourselves with every conceivable tool in order to amass an armoury to meet whatever challenge faces us in later life?  The thousands of piano students each year who are cast out into the world of paid employment won’t get far if all they can do is play Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu faster, louder and more accurately than anyone else; they will get a lot further if, in addition to being able to play the Chopin, they can talk coherently on Palestrina, Webern, Gregson, and all those myriad other composers whose music they will not have encountered as piano students, but might have encountered had they taken the effort to seek out and attend the free lectures and recitals open to them during their time as undergraduate students.

Our trouble, especially in south east Asia, is a belief that education is not about learning but about gaining qualifications.  The 60,000 Singaporean students each year who sit for graded music exams (a majority of them in piano) learn nothing other than how to pass a graded music exam.  Their skill set is of absolutely no value once it comes to the world of mature employment.  Yet teachers still focus on this and parents still buy into the myth that, in some way, they are advancing their children’s prospects by forcing them to play Purcell’s Prelude in C week in, week out until the moment comes for them to play it in front of bored and irascible old man in the examination studio.  Only a very few of the multitude of piano teachers in this region seem willing to expand musical horizons by exposing their students to non-piano music, or even share enlightened thinking on music history and context. (I still cringe with horror every time I read the misguided, ill-informed programme notes of diploma and degree students.)  I well recall an occasion when we brought in a world-famous pianist to give a recital at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur.  A few weeks later I was giving a talk to Malaysian piano teachers (about how to prepare students for graded music exams) and asked how many had attended the recital.  Not one.  When I asked why when the pianist was world-renowned and tickets had been available at discounted rates from teachers and their pupils, the response was frightening; “He wasn’t playing anything from the exam repertory, so it was not relevant to us”.

I doubt very much whether a single student from any of those Malaysian teachers has gone on to any kind of musical career.  By the time students reach their tertiary/university level, they are surely seriously contemplating such a future.  They stand no chance if they refuse to open their eyes and ears to the wider world of music into which they are so shortly to be plunged.

Until such time as students are willing to see music as something other than the mechanics of performing, their future prospects are bleak.  We should be encouraging, not just the “Act” of music, but the “Art” of music.  Daniel Herscovitch pointed out that the word Kunst (“art”) had not been in Bach’s vocabulary; we need to make sure it is in ours.

21 January 2019

Two Musical Thefts

Gregorio Allegri

Wolfgang Mozart
Sistine Chapel
Malcolm Boyle

George Guest

Chester Cathedral
Hardly a rogues' gallery, but the six pictures above introduce us to the protagonists and locations of a pair of significant musical thefts for which the musical world must for ever be grateful.
Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) wrote a setting of Psalm 51 (Miserere mei) which has gone down in legend for reasons which have nothing to do with Allegri himself.  Basically a simple antiphonal setting for nine voices, it was intended to be sung only by the Papal choir which, over the years, added decorations and embellishments to their annual Holy Week performance of it and, in 1713, added a new ornate setting by one Tommaso Baj (1650-1714).  With the music unavailable to anyone other than the Papal choir (and how much of it was actually written down at the time is a matter for speculation), the performance of the Miserere Mei in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week, complete with its decorations and ornamentations, became something of a musical attraction.  In 1770 Mozart, then aged 14, attended the service in Rome at which the Miserere was sung, and was so moved that he wrote it down in its entirety from memory.  Various uncorroborated reports tell of how Mozart incurred ecclesiastical displeasure for so apparently “stealing” music which was the sole preserve of the Papal choir, but he was also responsible for putting out to the outside world a piece of music which, whether really by Allegri, Baj or any number of unknown singers, has become one of the great sacred classics of today.

Much of this story and its various embellishments (which Ben Byram-Wigfield tried to unravel in his Musical Times article of August 1997 - “An Unknown Quantity”) has assumed a romantic quality because of the idea of a famous composer hearing music which was meant to be kept secret and putting it out into the public domain in the face of official displeasure.  But, as it turns out, this story is not unique in the annals of church music history.  The Anglican church has a very similar story to tell.

In 1937 Malcolm Boyle, who had been appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Chester Cathedral in 1932, wrote an anthem for his choir, Thou, O God, art praised in Sion.  He never got it published and when, in 1948, he broke the church’s rules by remarrying after having divorced his first wife, he was dismissed from his post.  His anthem was boxed away in the cathedral’s music library, where it gathered dust (we can assume that for a few years after his departure, at least, the name Malcolm Boyle was not approved by the clergy for inclusion on the daily music lists).  It was, in effect, a work which was being kept officially out of the public eye by the church.

However, in 1946, Boyle appointed as his assistant organist one of his former choristers, a lad from Bangor by the name of George Guest.  Guest was the nearest thing the Chester music scene had ever had to a true genius, and he was not destined to stay at the cathedral long.  He went off to Cambridge to lecture in music and eventually achieve international renown as the Director of Music at St John’s College.  He had obviously accompanied – possibly even directed performances of – Thou, O God, art praised in Sion at Chester, and was keen to get it into the St John’s College choir repertory.  But the music was in effect locked away by the Chester Cathedral authorities.  So Guest simply rewrote the entire thing from memory and taught it to his choir.  Those who went to St John’s to hear the choir, which was rapidly building a reputation under Guest’s directorship, heard Boyle’s anthem, and asked Guest about it.  Soon a kind of illicit market in smuggled Guest manuscript copies of the anthem had grown up.  Guest presented one to Bangor Cathedral during my time there as sub-organist, and I remember being charged with photocopying the Guest copy for the choir’s use.  I illicitly copied a few for my own use, and thus it spread to choirs where I later held sway. So it was that Boyle’s Thou, O God, art praised in Sion, found its way into the repertory of a growing number of British cathedral choirs.  Eventually, it was published by the Paraclete Press in 1987 and has, in the words of their website, become their “no.1 best-selling piece”. 

Numerous scandals have rocked Chester Cathedral in the decades since Boyle was dismissed, and it may seem to us that in comparison with some of those, Boyle’s misdemeanour was really nothing of the sort.  But in the climate of the day, a man who so blatantly broke the church’s teaching in order to satisfy his personal desires, was to be officially shunned and if, as a consequence, English cathedral music should lose one of its gems, that was a small price to pay for upholding the teachings of the church.

Chester Cathedral is now working to redress some of that damage, and in a new disc released by them on the Priory label (“Choral Classics from Chester”) they not only open with the Boyle anthem, but give it a truly stirring performance.  Mystery and espionage might have given Allegri’s Miserere a following it might not otherwise have earned; it would be nice to think that scandal and illicit dealings will do the same for Malcolm Boyle’s Thou, O God, art praised in Sion.

18 January 2019

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra at 40, and beyond

Image result for Singapore Symphony orchestraJanuary 2019 is a significant month in the annals of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  24th January marks the 40th anniversary of their very first public concert, while the 26th January sees the Orchestra’s Music Director, Lan Shu, presenting his final concert after 22 years in the post.  The first of these is, of course, a matter of considerable celebration, and the second is tinged with regret, but both events prompt me to look forward and suggest some of the issues facing the Orchestra if it is to survive and flourish over another 40 years.

The story of how the Singapore Symphony Orchestra came into being is well-known.  In 1973 the then Deputy Prime-Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, gave a speech in which he famously declared that it was a “scandal” that Singapore did not have a symphony orchestra of its own, and went on to claim; “The Singapore government believes that there is more to life than making money, and an orchestra would be worthwhile as it would raise the standard of culture of Singaporeans”.   Of course, Goh’s use of the word “scandal” (even if modified by the word “minor”) has caused much comment over the years, but many seem to have forgotten the historical context in which Goh was speaking.

Since breaking out on its own from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore had been engaged in the single-minded pursuit of creating an identify and forging a unique character.  The obstacles facing it were immense; a tiny land mass, no natural resources (including water) and a population comprising almost entirely immigrants most of whom felt more allegiance to their country of ancestry than the place where they happened to live and work.  In the eyes of the international community, Singapore had become something of a laughing stock as it engaged in what appeared to be the headlong destruction of its heritage in its clamour to position itself as a global haven for absorbing and generating money.

The briefing I had before coming to work in Singapore for the first time in the mid-1980s was that it was a place which not only had no culture but treated its people only as pawns in the game of making money.  Health care, social benefits, cultural activities and efforts to create some sense of national identity and unity (beyond a shared interest in amassing wealth) were not, I was told, part of the Government’s strategy, and although I was coming to Singapore as a music examiner, I should expect a pretty desultory musical landscape.  Lots of children did music exams but only to feed the competitive obsession which, so I understood, was positively encouraged by the government.  I was told that there was a professional orchestra, but both those briefing me and those who had been here previously, assured me it was “pretty dreadful”.  These briefings may not have been particularly correct or fair, but they reflected what was then a pretty universal global view of Singapore.

In a bid to shake off that international perception, Goh made his speech in 1973.  Yet it was another five years before it yielded any real concrete results; a delay which would have been inconceivable had the intention been to build a new bank or create a new financial hub.  So I am tempted to conclude that the creation of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was not really done to satisfy a domestic need, but to make a political statement on the world stage.  And the fact that within a year of its creation the Orchestra undertook its first foreign tour, and has continued to tour internationally to an extent no equivalent symphony orchestra in the world has ever done, underlines that sense that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s politico-ambassadorial function is as important (if not more so) as its domestic artistic one.

But whether or not one believes that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was created for external political reasons or for internal artistic ones, the fact is that it has now become a major artistic force not just in Singapore, where it remains the only truly professional orchestra (despite the specious claims of others), but in the region, where it stands as one of Asia’s finer symphony orchestras.

I cannot recall whether my first experience of hearing the Singapore Symphony Orchestra live was in 1985 or 1987, but I can recall that it was a pretty desultory one.  The programmes were ambitious beyond the scope of most of the players and the conductor (the first Musical Director, Choo Hoey, faced an uphill struggle to overcome a very variable level of musical talent both within his players and himself), and it seemed impossible to inspire an audience who seemed to see orchestral concerts as social events with indifferent musical accompaniment.  Unquestionably, however, Choo Hoey did a wonderful job in keeping the orchestra going in the face of often unhelpful and destructive official and unofficial “support”, and his replacement in 1997 by a man almost wholly unknown to the musical community outside China, did not seem to augur well. 

But there was something else on the horizon which was to project both Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra into an orbit of musical brilliance which nobody could ever have foreseen during the 1980s.  Within the first decade of the 21st century, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra transformed itself into an outstanding orchestra in its own right, attracting an enthusiastic a dedicated following at home and prompting some pretty extravagant reviews from certain members of the world’s press – reviews, which in the main, were fully justified.

People often regard a symphony orchestra as a kind of musical island, solely responsible for its own successes or failures.  But that is not the reality of the situation, and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra has faced and will face issues which, by itself, it cannot resolve.  Certainly the change of Music Director in 1997 coincided with a huge transformation in status, moving it from a small provincial orchestra with limited appeal domestically and regarded by many outside observers as a slightly ridiculous orchestra trying hard to punch well above its weight, into a highly credible ensemble well able to hold its own on the biggest international stages.  But that transformation was brought about, not by Lan Shui, but by the 2002 move into the Esplanade, with its wonderful purpose-built facilities, its enticing musical acoustics and its international-standard performing environment.  Such a top-class performing home served to raise the orchestra's profile at home and abroad, allowed it to broaden its repertory, and attracted players of a calibre who might not have felt that the Victoria Concert Hall and its cramped, dated and un-musical environment offered much inducement for their future careers.  More importantly, the Esplanade attracted a larger audience than had ever been able to attend VCH concerts, and the larger audience as well as the higher profile the orchestra was attaining, was the major factor in increasing standards.

Lan Shui was, certainly, the right man at the right time to capitalise on this sudden physical change in the musical landscape of Singapore, and he has clearly raised the playing standards of the orchestra phenomenally.  He has done so by focusing on big late19th/early 20th century repertory - significantly, his final concert this month will be a performance of one of the iconic works of the great Romantic repertory, Mahler’s Second Symphony - and many might argue that both in the recording studio and on international tours, Shui has reached his (and his orchestra’s) zenith, in performances of Rachmaninov.  This concentration on a relatively small, if high-profile, part of the repertory does, however, cause problems.  Outside the big works of the late 19th and early 20th century, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra often seems uneasy.  A concert earlier this month when they performed the music of Steve Reich was notable for the complete lack of sympathy the orchestra showed for this repertory (“they just could not seem to get into the groove”, was the comment of one of my colleagues), while the foundations of orchestral repertory - Haydn, Mozart, et al - do not feature prominently in the orchestra’s schedule and when they are performed, usually come across as lacklustre and undistinguished.  This gives the orchestra a slight sense of musical instability; they easily scale high mountains, but can't till the fields or nurture the orchards, and fight shy of exploring new territories. On top of that, increasing ventures into the world of locally-sourced new music too often ignore musical standards in the interests of domestic appeal. Specialised concerts of old or new music usually see the Singapore Symphony Orchestra revert to the kind of playing levels more akin to their 1980s persona than their 2010s one. 

As a result, I see the orchestra as having entered a period of stagnation, where it produces world-class performances of big, romantic music but wobbles once it moves out of this repertory.  The change of music director will not in itself solve this problem, and there is no major new performance venue on the horizon which might goad them into refreshing their musical outlook. If the Singapore Symphony Orchestra wants to break out from this period of stagnation and produce consistently world-class performances at home and abroad, there needs to be a change of mind-set in its audience and management. 

Much as he loved music, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew did the Singapore Symphony Orchestra no favours in some of his utterances, and helped give root to a common perception amongst Singaporeans that classical music is an alien culture.  This is not true, but many believe it is and regard the Singapore Symphony Orchestra as a foreign body importing a foreign art form.  This creates a certain barrier between the audience and the orchestra.  Classical music supporters in Singapore (which includes much of the orchestral management) are enthusiasts for music rather than hard-nosed music professionals.  They listen to the great orchestras and musicians on record, flock to performances when big names appear, and enjoy spectacular orchestral showpieces rather than the kind of orchestral bread-and-butter which truly tests an orchestra's ability to communicate with its audience.  For them an orchestra is great if it does a Mahler Symphony; but they ignore one that plays Haydn.  Until such time as the Singapore audience can be more musically-open-minded and educated, there will be no incentive for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to move on.

This, perhaps, is the greatest challenge facing the incoming music director.  His or her energies need to be channelled not in improving the orchestra (which, certainly on a good day, needs very little improvement) but in improving the audience; not numerically but mentally.  There needs to be active engagement with education.  Not the token gestures afforded by random (and, on occasions I fear, cringe-makingly bad) pre-concert talks and cut-and-paste programme notes, nor the occasional schools’ concerts which aim not to educate, but to show how much “fun” there is in classical music.  There needs to be a consolidated attempt to address the omissions in the current music education scene in Singapore, where music teachers rarely teach proper listening skills (not the silly aural tests of graded music exams, which serve no purpose whatsoever, but proper, systematic training in critical listening) and where the physical act of making music is taught without adequate reference to its aural and intellectual aspects.  Social, religious and political context needs to be taught so that audiences can contextualise the music they hear and not merely accept it as a kind of therapeutic noise.  An educated and aware audience recognises that the greatest benefits to be drawn from an orchestral concert are intellectual, emotional and sensual in equal proportion.

If we look at Hong Kong, where an orchestra of similar age (45 this year) has progressed and continues to progress into one of the finest orchestras in Asia, we see huge numbers of similarities but one key difference.  The Hong Kong audience is highly critical, musically savvy and cerebral while the Singapore audience remains fixated on spectacle and superficial display.  In Singapore we teach music students how to play instruments, sing, pass exams and win competitions, but we don't teach them how to appreciate music as a purely aural activity.  It is up to the incoming Music Director to help find a way of solving this issue and building up an audience of educated, musically literate and critically aware listeners to support the orchestra.  If that is not done, I do not see them progressing much beyond where they are now. 

So happy birthday Singapore Symphony Orchestra, may you have decades of musical excellence ahead of you.  And in bidding farewell to one Musical Director, I praise him for his incredible achievements in transforming the orchestra into the enviable force it is today and in leaving it in such excellent health.  Now, though, is not the time to rest on laurels, but to address those issues which have not hitherto seriously been addressed.  To paraphrase Dr Goh, it is something of scandal that such an excellent orchestra does not yet have the domestic audience it truly deserves.

14 January 2019

Concert Times

Secreted away on the top floor of Singapore’s Victoria Concert Hall is a visual exhibition – I would say an audio-visual one, but someone has vandalised the audio devices – which presents a skeletal but informative outline of the building’s history as a concert hall, theatre and public meeting place.  It is well worth seeking out, especially for those who regularly visit the place and never think of looking beyond the auditoria and toilet facilities.  Having turned up too early for Saturday evening’s concert and finding the doors barred, I took the opportunity to revisit some of the exhibits and was struck by a faded newspaper page from the 1930s which noted that concerts given by the Singapore Musical Society had brought the starting time forward – from 9.55pm to 9.45pm (I think – I know it was sometime well after 9pm!).  As the concert I was too early to attend was due to start at 7.30pm, this set me wondering about changes to concert-going habits in Singapore.

For the past five years I have been heavily involved in a major research project into the role of western (classical) music in Singapore society and in the history of its practitioners and performance venues.  That research has amassed a huge body of data gathered by students interviewing concert-goers at every kind of concert and in every venue imaginable.  To date, I have material from 1092 individuals, covering such things as dress code, musical quality, performance expectations, audience behaviour and programme choices.  I have tried not to tie the hands of those students who collect this data by giving them specific goals; instead I have sent them out with a general request to find out what Singapore audiences like and dislike about attending classical concerts.  

Without wishing to pre-empt the research findings, which I expect to publish in the next two or three years, one issue which is hardly ever raised by audience members is the starting time of concerts.  It seems that Singaporeans are happy with the current near-standard start time of 7.30pm.  When one of Singapore’s newer orchestras, re:Sound, declared that they were going to “break with tradition” and begin their concerts at 8.15pm, some comments were made, but it’s too early yet to find any quantifiable resistance to this later start-time.  In any case, Singapore concerts notoriously start later than advertised and audiences seem to make a point of arriving even later.

The Thailand Philharmonic starts its evening concerts at 7pm, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s concerts usually start at 8pm, while the Malaysian Philharmonic begins its main stage concerts at 8.30pm (in its very early stages, part of my job was to run down to the bar in the shopping complex outside the hall to warn them to remain open beyond their usual 10pm closing time on those weekdays when concerts were held; and the fact that they did has kept them securely in business for the last 20 years).

What dictates the ideal concert start time and why does it vary from country to country?  The answer is simple; local lifestyles.  The 7.00pm start time for the Bangkok orchestra is necessitated by the problems of getting around the city after dark, while the 8.30pm start in Kuala Lumpur was decided upon to avoid any potential clash with Muslim prayer times.  7.30pm seems to suit Singaporeans, who finish work usually around 6.30pm. and like to catch the concert before going on to eat or heading off home.  But while nobody in our research registered any strong feeling about the 7.30pm concert start time, many showed a distinct preference for knowing in advance concert ending times.

When I wrote the programme notes I made a point of putting in the most accurate timing for each individual work I could find, based on previous performances by the conductor or messages coming out of rehearsals.  But this only told people who were already at the concert, and only now are the powers-that-be putting out estimates of concert ending times in advance for potential ticket purchasers.  Our research has shown that this is something Singapore concert-goers would dearly appreciate; yet it seems beyond the wit of anyone to get it right.  Most announcements about concert length are grotesquely inaccurate - the idiocy of looking at the CD tracklist and assuming it works in a live concert is still very much the way many concert-organisers in Singapore guess timings.

The ultimate failure of this came on Saturday’s concert.  Billed as lasting 60 minutes, it actually lasted 100 – and did not even have an interval.  Quite how such a monumental miscalculation over timing was made defies belief.  After all, this was new concert series, modelled on the “Swire Denim” series in Hong Kong, where evening concerts offer unusual repertory but encased tightly within a 60 minute time frame.  Those who might have been tempted to attend in the knowledge that they would still be able to catch a movie or an extended dinner after the concert, will know better next time. 

Back in the 1930s people worked later, dined longer, and ended their evening with the concert.  We live in a different age, and the idea of grabbing a bite to eat both before and after the concert is the norm; as is the idea that the concert comes at the beginning of the evening, not at its climax.  It is time we appreciated this change in lifestyle amongst Singaporeans and looked to a more precise and reliable way of letting them know, not when the concert begins, but when it ends.

I reviewed Saturday’s concert for the Straits Times.  A sub-editor didn’t like my piece as it “didn’t say enough about the music”; I would argue that my job is to review the performance not the repertory, but changes were made to the published piece (not all by me).  Here’s the original;



Reich in 60 Minutes

Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Brad Lubman (conductor)

Victoria Concert Hall

Saturday (12 January)

Marc Rochester


The first of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s new Red Balloon concert series did not quite go according to plan. Billed as programmes of unusual repertory contained within an hour’s concert, instead of the promised 60 minutes of Reich, we had 40 minutes of his music and around another 40 of music by Bela Bartok.


Add to that the concert’s late start and two extended on-stage commentaries given to drown out the clutter of major stage reorganisations, and we had a concert which lasted as long a full-length evening concert.


A part of the plan which did survive was that of lifting the SSO up and above its familiar territory of late-19th/early-20th century repertory.  The music of Steve Reich may be about the most accessible there is by a contemporary composer, and it has already attracted an enthusiastic following in Singapore in the wake of recent visits by high-profile Reich-performing ensembles.  The Great Man himself came here a while back and performed before a packed and adulatory Esplanade audience.


But Reich’s music is not a frequent feature of the SSO repertory, and we might have hoped that Brad Lubman, who has regularly collaborated with Reich, could have inspired the musicians to find something in this music other than sheer hard labour.


Pulse, apparently receiving its Singapore premiere, carried on relentlessly above a pounding bass guitar – incongruously played by a bald-headed guy in white tie and tails – but lacked any variety of tone or colour, while the famous City Lights, cleverly intermingling sampled sounds from the New York streets with orchestral effects, never fails to amaze, but managed, here, to sound remarkably ordinary despite Lubman’s obvious involvement in the music.  What emerged most powerfully from these performances was a sense of such intense concentration from the players that one expected to see smoke billowing from their ears.


There was plenty of musical smoke wafting around, but that was part of the weird, almost spooky soundworld of Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.  The sole reason for its incongruous inclusion in this concert appeared to be that it was written the same year that Reich was born.  But it was a good choice in that it gave the SSO the opportunity to play something more firmly in their comfort-zone.


From the desiccated, eerie viola theme which opens the work to the raucous razzmatazz of the finale, the orchestra was clearly in its element.  The gentlemen of the percussion section delivered their parts with the flair, dynamism and brilliance we have come to expect of them, while Shane Thio was a rock-solid presence on the piano.  Whether or not Aya Sakou was equally adept must remain a mystery – from my vantage point in the balcony, her celesta was totally inaudible.


Only one person seemed uneasy with all this musical fun; Maestro Lubman.  His rigid, sharply-focused beat gave the work a certain militaristic character, but marched right past all the many moments of musical magic with barely a sideways glance.