27 March 2019

Organists Just Like To Have Fun

It’s a thing we often say about composers and politicians; “They were the wrong person at the wrong time”.  We say it about Purcell, whose genius for opera was several decades too early for English tastes. We say it of Churchill, whose pre- and post-war political views were completely alien to the mass of the people.  I wonder if you could say that about me?

Egotistical as I am (I argue that to be a successful musician you have to be egotistical, so I make no apologies) as I grow older I look back not on missed opportunities but on opportunities which would have suited me perfectly had I just been born 50 years earlier.  I write not as an old crony who always bemoans the disappearance of the “good old days”, but of someone who made career and life choices which became redundant almost as soon as I made them. 

The two burning childhood ambitions I had were to be a bus driver and to be a cathedral organist.  Where the former came from, I don’t know, but from the age of 8, whenever a school holiday would come, my parents would send me off with a half crown in my pocket to buy a Red Rover, with which I could spend the day travelling the length and breadth of London on the red buses which dominated the streets (and still dominate, albeit with lots of garish decorations to celebrate their privatised status).  Along with my friend Peter Almond, we covered every London bus route and visited every nook and cranny of a city which was then busily rebuilding itself from the shattered ruins left in the wake of the Second World War.  I remember coming home one day and when my father asked where I had been, he seemed surprised that we had toured around the east end and the docks, around Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stratford; not because he felt I had been in any danger (which I most certainly was, but being unaware of it, it never crossed my mind to think of it), but because he hadn’t been there since the war and wondered whether anything was left.  I was able to tell him that the red RLH route (a great rarity) numbered 178 (I think), toured the deserted slums, the bomb-damaged warehouses and street after street of burnt out houses, and in its entire journey, never picked up another passenger – simply, nobody lived there, and nobody in their right mind went to that crime-ridden, sleaze-pot wasteland of abandoned industry.
My ambition to become a cathedral organist was more obviously rooted in my background.  Dad was an organist, we all went to church, I loved singing, I became a choirboy and gravitated, as if by an unstoppable force, to the organ.  I played an evensong in Guildford Cathedral when I was 16, and I was hooked.  Organ scholar at university (involving lots of playing and singing at Llandaff Cathedral until the ghastly Michael Smith came along and convinced us that not all cathedral organists were genial men with a passion for rugger and music), Sub-Organist at Bangor Cathedral (deputy to Andrew Goodwin who, despite being totally incongruous to the place, put down such strong roots he went on to become the UK’s longest-serving cathedral organist) and finally, at the age of 24, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Derry Cathedral in Ireland; the youngest cathedral organist in the British Isles at that point.

If I had achieved one of my burning ambitions at 24, I had achieved the other three years earlier when I got my licence enabling me to drive a manual transmission single decker of 12 meters length or more.  That I took my test on a single decked bus with a three speed crash gearbox did not exactly hinder me, but I needed the double decker licence as well, so a short spell with Cardiff City Transport got that sorted, and by my 22nd birthday I was a fully-fledged bus and coach driver.

Other ambitions came along and were all achieved remarkably early.  My desire to get into journalism and broadcasting was only made stronger after a disastrous interview with Robert Ponsonby, into which I was pushed by my university professor anxious to get sympathetic people into the BBC to help promote his music.  Again, the die was cast, and by a stroke of good fortune, my work as a music critic at the daily Western Mail opened up no end of doors with the Fleet Street press.  Being one of the few non-military English voices in Derry at the height of the “troubles” meant that the BBC snapped me up, first for daily arts programmes and then for more newsy stuff when an Irish accent would have immediately betrayed me as being on one side or the other (the English were universally hated, so we were seen as unreliable by both but, curiously, acceptable to both – they shared a mutual hatred of us which meant they would talk more freely in our presence).   

A desire to be an ABRSM examiner was realized two years earlier than the then permitted minimum age for examiners, due to the fact that Herbert Howells, on the appointments committee, was so fascinated by my coach driving (his father had been a coachbody builder) that our entire interview was given over to coaches, not a word about music, and at the end of it, he told the rest of the panel that they had to appoint me because he and I had so much still to talk about (which, sadly, we never did).  I loved my 18 years with ABRSM (and 16 more with Trinity), but I became disillusioned with both, as pressures to meet commercial objectives overran, as I saw it, both educational and musical ones.  The musical education of tens of thousands of young children were sacrificed on the altar of new ideas on business management, and I couldn’t live with that.  But I made dozens of wonderful friends, and visited dozens of marvellous countries, and to this day I still wake up in the night wishing I was about to head off for a day’s examining.  The lovely thing about it was that you never knew what you were going to hear, and in 100 performances of Petzold’s Minuet in G you would have at least half as many extraordinary re-interpretations and convoluted readings of the score; there really never was a dull moment examining.

But I was born in an age when the ABRSM was seen as the ultimate arbiter of musical ability; where the examiner’s word was final and where honest opinion was valued over mealy mouthed platitudes.  We may live in a kinder age, but we don’t live in a more honest one.  That conflict between the pressures of office-staff with a remit to ensure the machinery of exams run smoothly in accordance with high-flying business gurus brought in at great expense to streamline a perfectly serviceable operation, and the examiner determined to maintain clear and definite musical standards is something which came in the wake of Thatcherism, Reaganism and the computers; I wished I had not been around to witness it.

The excitement of seeing my name in print, of hearing my voice on the radio and of being listened to and read by thousands around the world made me determined to maintain an honest and clear-headed set of attitudes in my print and radio journalism.  If I felt the Irish hunger-strikers in the 1980s were committing acts against the teachings of the church, which was actively encouraging them, I said it loud and clear.  If I sincerely thought that Arvo Pārt and John Rutter were frauds, I wrote it, always sure to support it with carefully chosen opposing views; regretting the first ever since and facing a threat of legal action from the second.  My editors checked my copy, sometimes questioned it, sometimes demanded its change, but once through, always backing me to the hilt.  But it began to change 20 years or so ago when the editor was removed from the equation, and with it the need to be honest and fair.  Now, editor-less rantings and ravings in blogs and online chatrooms have taken over from reasoned and coherently argued discussion.  I wish I had disappeared from the scene before we lost the editors and allowed the opinionated bigots free rein on our media platforms.

Just as I was looking forward to another ten years’ happy bus driving in Scotland, the autonomous bus has arrived and my skill as a driver, honed over hours, days, months, years of careful training, is rapidly being replaced by a pre-programmed computer.  It makes things safer, I know, and is better all round for us: I just wish it hadn’t happened on my watch.

And then we come to the organ.  Last night I managed to avoid a concert given on a thing called an “electone”.  Apparently it is a digitalised machine with a couple of half keyboards and a row of stick like things which masquerade as pedals, from which, through the marvels of audio sampling, sounds can be coaxed which mimic and imitate those of other instruments.  A parasite, if ever there was one, feeding off the life blood of sincere, hard-working musicians and instrument makers in the headlong dash to achieve technological credibility at minimum effort.  Held in Asia’s premier music conservatory (a bit like holding a black mass in St Peter’s Rome) it apparently attracted a full house.  The programme even had the effrontery to include two pieces of organ music, one by Rheinberger described as “beautiful” (Rheinberger = dreary aimlessness), the other by Jehan Alain described as “beautiful” (Alain = pained and emotionally intense).  On top of that were orchestral transcriptions and just one original piece for “electone”. Students flock to learn his travesty of musical-type noise, and swoon and twitter over the remarkable way it sounds like a “real orchestra”.  And so they should.  Why bother with learning fingering, bowing, breath control, articulation, paradiddles, flams, and the like when you can just sit smiling at a computer and let it do most of the work for you?

To me it’s the last straw.  Once upon a time the organ was king.  Bach thought so, Mozart thought so, Beethoven thought so, Brahms thought so, Schumann thought so, Messiaen thought so… It’s not my place to disagree with them, but I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time: convenience and ease matter more than artistry and conscience, and the end is surely nigh for the organ.  We don’t have any students wanting to learn it in the conservatory, and public recitals, once the musical mainstay of society, are fading out of consciousness.

But the rot set in a long time ago.  My first main teacher had been a pupil of Thurston Dart, one of the pioneers of the so-called “Authentic Instrument” movement.  The organs of my youth were all being modelled on the “Baroque Tricks” expounded by Ralph Downes.  We learnt to avoid legato tone like the plague and to pedal just with our toes.  Orchestral and operatic transcriptions, once the mainstay of any organ recital, were out in that climate of musical purity and authenticity.  I rebelled against that, as did others, and from a few well-chosen teachers began to unbend the Holy Of Holies approach to “Baroque Tricks” and see the organ as a means for communication rather more than the ascetic mechanics of 18th century obsequies to music. 

And then, lo and behold, we learn that Dart and Downes got it wrong, and that they took an extreme view which was not supported by adequate evidence.  I loved playing Bach in Novello editions with swell pedals, big crescendi and huge rallentandi.  It was not “authentic” to the 18th century, but it was authentic to the 20th, with our love of big sounds and richly expressive music.   I loved being an organist then.  I learnt skills in programme planning and registration which ensured I could entertain an audience with good quality original music, well played (I hope) and ideally tailored to suit the needs of instrument and audience.  Serious and fun went hand in hand, although I have to say the serious was great fun for me as well!

All through my idyllic youth, however, there was an invidious sub-culture around; the Hammond Organ.  Identical in every respect to the “electone” except that it made a hideous sound which was unique rather than derivative.  Because it was called an Organ, it was assumed that it was the latest technological improvement on the pipe organ – easy sounds at a fraction of the cost, and who cares that those sounds are so vile?  Nobody promoted the Hammond Organ better than Monty Python, who moved from unconnected scene to unconnected scene by a back view of a naked man playing the Hammond Organ and turning to the camera saying “and now for something completely different”.  It became almost a catchphrase with organ recitalists (the phrase, not the nudity) and the seriousness at the core of the instrument was compromised.

It then went weird.  Jonathan Bielby, then organist of Wakefield Cathedral, released an LP of the organ music of Lefébure-Wély and it became a huge hit.  Suddenly all organists around the world were trotting out Lefébure-Wély to adoring audiences for whom the fairground cacophony, stupid at-console antics and dire melodic byways required no effort in listening and reminded us all of Monty Python.  Bach got shoved out of the way in this mad scramble for lowest-common denominator music from an age when musical standards were abysmally low and organists more showmen than artists.  Electronic organs of the Hammond and other varieties found their way into the traditional haunt of the church, and spotty youths were encouraged to have organ lessons because they had a Hammond at home.  Trying to convince them that the connection between a Hammond organ and pipe organ was as tenuous as that between an elephant and a postage stamp (remember those?), I met with blank stares.  To this day, outwardly intelligent musicians ask me if an “electronic” will do when an organ part is called for in a symphony or oratorio.  Students are taught on “electones” and think that they know how to play the organ, and audiences flock (apparently) to “electone” recitals because they think they are witnessing cutting-edge musical technology at work.

Meanwhile, players of pipe organs have gone back to the “Baroque Tricks” of Downes, but this time gone even further.  Now we don’t just want the organ to sound like an 18th century one, but look like one too.  Stops (those vital tools for manipulating the various sounds) are placed so out of the way that whole armies of people are called on to push them out and pull them in, tuning systems are brought out of museums so that the organ not only cannot be played with an orchestra but cannot be used with a choir.  No wonder we flock to the “electone” – at least it sounds nice, which is one up on most pipe organs today.  Today’s organists are serious, stiff and boring; you can’t imagine them having fun.

So here I am.  Irrelevant to the organ world until fashions change and for a fleeting moment my style of playing comes back into vogue, irrelevant to the bus driving world until such time as an autonomous bus does a Boeing 737max and forces everyone on board to die when the technology drives it over a cliff edge, irrelevant to a world where considered and honest views are drowned out by the noise of ill-considered bigotry, and wondering whether music is a commodity to be weighed in dollars and cents or emotions and intellect. 

Of course, there is one bright spot.  No editor in the world would permit me to write this self-indulgent, unbalanced rubbish without heavy editing and excisions.  I can, at least, embrace the brave New World by being yet another bigoted egotist assuming there is an audience for my pointless and rambling prose.

25 March 2019

Old Rugged Nostlagia

By a pleasing quirk of time zone differential, I wake up on Monday mornings to the inimitable Barry Humphries recalling his youth through a selection of “Forgotten Musical Masterpieces” on BBC Radio 2.  Of course, they are all Forgotten because they are very much not Musical Masterpieces and they evoke a bygone age in which society and values were very different.  But there’s no harm in the occasional wallow in nostalgia, and Humphries’ lovely delivery makes this an ideal way to break into the new week before I switch to hear the week’s parliamentary digest on BBC Radio 4 (a must-hear as Brexit adds a wonderful dimension of unreality to our lives) and then wander off to work.  Ah! The expat joys of BBC Sounds!

I was particularly taken this morning by one of Humphries’ reflections after playing us the long-forgotten musical non-masterpiece recorded in 1937, “I Wanna be in Winchell’s Column” sung by Eddie Stone with Isham Jones and his orchestra.  This foot-tapping but wholly unmemorable number prompted Humphries to bemoan the current trend for the promotion of nonentities; “Column inches used to be the main measure of fame, but now it’s Twitter, Instagram, You Tube-followers and hash tags.  It’s never been easier for talentless wanabees to broadcast their thoughts and inflict them on the masses”.

As one of those “talentless wanabees” (although quite what I wanabee, I myself don’t really know) I do occasionally broadcast my thoughts on social media, but I have never felt they have been inflicted on the masses – inflicted on a Baker’s Dozen is about the best I have ever achieved.  That all changed overnight when, in a moment of extreme boredom, I posted my thoughts about a certain hymn on one of those pointless Facebook Groups to which we belong merely to share our prejudices with like-minded bigots. This is what I posted to a group claiming to be fed up with bad church music (but no evidence has ever supported this; most posts celebrate the awfulness of modern church music); “Am I the only person in this world that loathes The Old Rugged Cross?  Musically turgid, theologically mawkish.  Why is it so popular?”

My post was merely an expression of frustration at having had to endure this grisly garbage in church for the zillionth time and having been surrounded by those for whom Palestrina and Parry had sparked not an iota of interest, but who took up this grotesque testament to self-indulgent sentimentality with obvious unbounded enthusiasm.  Not for the first time in my life, I felt completely alien to the world I was inhabiting.  By posting my thoughts, I merely wanted reassurance that I was not alien, or confirmation that I was. 

Since this is a musical blog, my Baker’s Dozen of readership will probably have no idea what The Old Rugged Cross is.  And until I was well into my 30s, neither did I. 

It is an old American Methodist missionary hymn which puts a sentimental gloss on the cross and is indelibly associated with a tune composed in 1912 by George Bennard.  The tune inhabits a remarkably low and grumbling tessitura until (as if fuelled by the kind of beverage to which all Methodists were once so strongly opposed) it heaves itself up to a top note or two a minor 9th above where it all started.  Brought up as a high Anglo-Catholic, such stuff never crossed my church-going existence, and I only knew it when the once-popular BBC Sunday obligatory religious hour of television started to play “Everybody’s Favourite Hymns”.  Up popped this awful thing with appalling regularity.  Now I find when I attend Catholic Mass in Singapore, it’s almost a mainstay, thrown in, I suspect, to satisfy the masses at mass ignorant of its powerful non-conformist associations.

So, for me, my opinion of The Old Rugged Cross is a personal taste thing, and as such of no conceivable interest to anyone else.  But as a “talentless wanabee” I wanted to broadcast my thoughts; I never dreamt it would be to such masses. As things stand at the moment, responses to my post are in the hundreds and growing by the second.  For what it’s worth, there is a clear 50/50 split between the loathers and the admirers, one admirer threatening to leave the group because even a hint that The Old Rugged Cross may be open to criticism is enough to shatter faith in continued existence, while another posted a somewhat tasteless image of someone vomiting on hearing The Old Rugged Cross.  Such is the intellectual furrow deeply ploughed by Facebook groups.

Many of the comments which my post prompted referred to the nostalgic associations of the hymn, the fact that for many Methodists and Baptists during the 1930s, it served as a beacon of light during the dark days of the great depression, and such a strong impact did it make, that they still cling to it affectionately.  A handful of comments popped up from Youngstown, Ohio, where it was written, suggesting it was the town’s sole claim to fame.  Several comments referred to it as a “Funeral Hymn” – in that it is often sung at funerals as the generation brought up in the 1930s dies away (sorry, “passes on”) – and others referred to it as being “loved by older generations for its sentimental associations”.  My trouble is, when I hear it live in church, I am surrounded by hundreds of under-30s; young people for whom it can hold no sentimental or nostalgic associations.  Nobody will tell me why it is so popular with the Singapore young.

Barry Humphries’ programme celebrates the nostalgic value of once-popular music which has all but passed from our modern consciousness.  But while there is a novelty factor in occasionally being reminded of the Bad Old Days through Isham Jones, Eddie Stone et al, is it good to try and keep alive something of little artistic value which was intended only for one time and place? Are hymns like this, devoid of artistic worth and preserved only for sentimental reasons, really relevant to 21st century society?  Despite the masses getting involved, I still don’t have a convincing answer.

20 March 2019

The Mozart Defect

 It used to be said that of no historical figure, other than Jesus Christ, had more words been written than Richard Wagner.  If that was ever true (which I somehow doubt), I’m sure it can’t be true today.  In the field of music alone, words devoted to Mozart seem long since to have outweighed words devoted to any other figure.  My own bookshelves are buckling under the weight of tomes devoted to Mozart.  And not necessarily books about music. I have one detailing all his female conquests, one giving in graphic detail suggestions as to the causes of his death, one devoted to the reasons behind his frequent use of foul language and his obsession with bodily functions, one illustrating his progress through the levels of Freemasonry, I even have a novel, picked up in the bookshop in Dallas Airport (where I remember being stranded for several hours) which has nothing whatsoever to do with Mozart other than the fact that the fictional protagonist is a former SAS operative hired to investigate the death of an opera singer’s brother (“A breathless pursuit which will enthral fans of Dan Browne, Sam Bourne and Ludlum’s Bourne series” – of which I am most certainly not).  There are books which tell you how to apply Mozart to your new-born (and yet-to-be-born) child, how to increase your brain-power through Mozart, and while I have yet to encounter a book telling you how a little carefully applied Mozart can heal the sick and raise the dead, or a recollection that he walked on water, there must be one out there somewhere.

Perhaps the most notorious writing on Mozart dates from 1993 when F H Rauscher and others published The Mozart Effect which claimed that, after listening to Mozart's Sonata for two pianos (K448) for 10 minutes, normal subjects showed significantly increased spatial reasoning skills.  This instantly led to a new industry of those ascribing amazing powers to Mozart and his music. Writing in the Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine, J S Jenkins suggested that an even “more impressive indication of a Mozart effect is to be seen in epilepsy. In 23 of 29 patients with focal discharges or bursts of generalized spike and wave complexes who listened to the Mozart piano sonata K448 there was a significant decrease in epileptiform activity as shown by the electroencephalogram (EEG)19. Some individual patients showed especially striking improvement. In one male, unconscious with status epilepticus, ictal patterns were present 62% of the time, whereas during exposure to Mozart's music this value fell to 21%. In two other patients with status epilepticus continuous bilateral spike and wave complexes were recorded 90-100% of the time before the music, suddenly falling to about 50% 5 minutes after the music began. The fact that improvement took place even in a comatose patient demonstrates again that appreciation of the music is not a necessary feature of the Mozart effect”.  In other words, you don’t even have to listen to Mozart’s music for it to do you good.  

Of course, in the case of Rauscher’s experiments, the effect lasted barely 15 minutes, while Jenkins ends his report by observing that, “the results are not specific to Mozart's compositions but the exact musical criteria required have not been completely defined”, but the impression given is that Mozart has powers other composers have not. 

In my case, the jury’s out.  No attempt was made in my daughter’s pre-natal existence to force-feed her, trapped in the womb, with Mozart, but living in a household where frequent, loud parties involving orchestral musicians took place, she must clearly have been unwittingly exposed to everything from Bach to Reich with plenty of Mozart thrown into the mix.  If it had a lasting effect on her, it has been to head her off into the direction of, first, One Direction and latterly BTS.  Mozart has no effect on her whatsoever.  Yet, astonishingly, she does well at school, shows above average intelligence, is pretty and popular (my wife has started fending off the boys with a maternal determination I remember only too well from my youth, when it was directed against me) and appears to be mentally well-adjusted.  She is living proof that you can succeed as a child without the influence of Mozart. Yet I do not totally repudiate all the claims about the Mozart effect, and if nothing else, I am conscious that in certain graffiti-strewn, beggar-encrusted, urine-scented underpasses in Northern England, the playing of Mozart’s music through loud-speakers has driven away the vandals, drug-addicts and knife-wielding youths.  So it does have some effect on those unwittingly exposed to it.

All pretty harmless, you may think, and if there is a chance that Mozart might have a beneficial effect on individuals as well as on society as a whole, then why not give it a go. But as with all these things which are supposed to do you good (think Atkins’ Diet, which killed off an acquaintance of mine and caused me one of my few visits to hospital) it has serious side effects which are easily overlooked in the mad chase after the supposed beneficial effects. 

Mozart, so the common wisdom has it, was a Child Prodigy.  It’s not quite as simple as that.  Yes, his musical father pushed him mercilessly to pursue the only activity Mozart’s father really knew about, and through intense early lessons, the young Wolfie did show an above average musical ability at an early age.  He certainly did not have the natural infantile prodigious musical talent of, say, Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns or Samuel Wesley, all of whom showed far more early musical talent with far less force-feeding from a pushy parent than Mozart, but he was doing musical things before his 10th birthday which to most of us seem extraordinary. 

We forget, of course, that Mozart was destined by virtue of his birth to be a musician, his education was focused totally on music, and the concept of general schooling and preparedness for life which is the norm in 21st century society, was unheard of in the 18th century.  So, in the context of the day, Mozart was bound to develop musically long before his modern-day counterparts; on top of which, the attention span of today's 5-6 year-olds stretches to 15 minutes; in Mozart's day, with less distractions to contend with, the 5-6 year-old seemed equipped with a somewhat longer attention span (although that is an assumption not supported by any facts I can find).  Yet some modern-day parents, especially from Chinese backgrounds, are so keen that their off-spring should excel in one particular area of human endeavour as soon as possible in order to secure their (the parents’, that is) financial security in old age, that they see in Mozart a useful role model.  Here was a kid who, with much encouragement from his parent, was able to support said parent in later life.  Sadly, for so many Chinese parents, the story of Mozart begins and ends with the Child Prodigy bit, and the debts, poverty and deprivation bit gets missed out of the popular narrative; that’s the bit the Westerners focus on, as they love to hear of those who fall from grace.

So, knowing only that Mozart’s musical talent flourished at an early age as a result of strong parental encouragement, and that Mozart went on to become world famous (world-famous equals highly-paid in this narrative), parents look for the slightest chink of musical aptitude in their new-born offspring and, once glimpsed, exploit it for all its worth.  Private music schools pop up like dandelions along the verges of English country-lanes, buying into the Mozart myth by calling themselves “Little Mozarts”, “Amadeus Academy”, and the like, or hawking themselves on the idea that prodigious talent needs nurturing (the Singapore Government, no less, talks about “nurturing young talents”, as if it is a responsibility of government to force its children to go down the Mozart path).  The end result is a culture where it is felt music must be force-fed to any under-five who can stick a sticky finger on a keyboard and gurgle at the noise it makes.  Crowds of kids with about as much music in their brains as meat in a burger gather on a regular basis in these schools and are pushed beyond all reason to reveal their prodigious talents by passing, at incredibly young ages, those artificial steps to greatness which Mozart, sadly, was never able to experience; the graded music exams and the recital diplomas.  “My daughter did her grade 8 when she was 14”, “MY daughter did hers at 13”, “MY DAUGTHER did hers at 12, and has just done her ATCL”, “Well MY DAUGHTERS both passed their grade 8 at 8, their ATCLS at 9 and are doing their FTCLs at 10”.  I just know that, had the ABRSM been around in Leopold Mozart’s time, he would have boasted that “My Wolfie done his grade 8 when he was 6, and as an encore played the first book of Bach’s 48 Preludes with his feet, standing on his head”.

So the legend grows, and what was an inevitable consequence of being a talented son of a musician in the 18th century, has become an ideal to which so many parents aspire on the behalf of their children.  But they need to know the rest of the story.  Yes, debt, poverty and deprivation are one of the consequences of following the Mozart path, but so too is social and personal failings.  Mozart may have been a musical genius, but he was also a thoroughly awful person; unable to manage his affairs, dishonest, unhygienic and with a number of personal traits which, by today’s standards, would put him on the periphery of legality.

When I was young, my Saturday evenings were much brightened by a couple of talented entertainers whose television shows were unmissable.  There was Rolf Harris, whose infectious high spirits and brilliant method of painting – in which, over huge canvasses, he would paint live on TV something which, only with the very last stroke of the brush, revealed itself – made his shows unmissable, while Jimmy Savile, sitting in his luxurious leather chair and smoking his vast cigars, made the dreams of children come true before our very eyes.  There was the child who wanted to spend a day with the Prime Minister – Jim fixed it for her – and the one who wanted to drive a formula 1 car – Jim fixed it for him too. Every Saturday the tears would flow as yet another child’s life was unforgettably and very publicly enhanced by Jimmy’s intervention.  But we can’t talk of these things now.  Rolf Harris was accused of child sex, sent to prison, and is today regarded as a near-monster the very mention of whose name strikes terror into the hearts of all right-thinking people.  And as for Jimmy Savile, recognised today as probably the greatest sex predator of the modern age, were I to post this on Facebook, it would instantly be taken down as celebrating a man whose bad deeds shook civilized society to its core.  (This is the same morally-degenerate Facebook which, even today, still happily gives the oxygen of publicity to that deranged maniac who ran amok with his guns in Christchurch in a woefully misguided desire to achieve the kind of international publicity his mediocre existence up to that time had denied him.)

Nobody suggests that Mozart ran amok with any kind of weapon (although you could find Islamophobia in Così fan tutte if you looked closely enough), but there are suggestions that he indulged in sexual activities which in today’s society would make him a pariah, and which, had he lived in an age where his talent was exposed weekly to millions through the medium of television, he too, like Harris and Saville, would now be a name banned from public utterance.  But because he lived a long time ago and we choose to ignore his faults by focusing on his good points, he is still seen as a role model.

Mozart’s legacy has provided millions with real comfort and joy in the centuries since his death, but in his day that talent was recognised by only a very few.  Most people recognised him as a selfish, weak and disreputable individual.  We must not make the mistake of judging Mozart as we judge those talented people of our day who balance their talent for spreading happiness with one for spreading misery, but neither should we elevate him to godlike status when he was in life so deeply flawed.  If parents want their children to emulate Mozart, they are in effect, sentencing them to a life of social dishonour, misery and shame.  Let your children enjoy music for what it is, not for what it might bring in the way of fame and fortune, as fame and fortune all too often also bring shame and disgrace.

14 March 2019

April in Singapore

This is by way of an experiment.

There is no one-stop shop for classical music events in Singapore and while friends of performers know all about what their particular associates are up to, for those of us who (like me) have no friends or who come from outside Singapore and have no idea where to go for comprehensive information, I'm going to put up my list of events in their "raw" form.  I compile this list somewhere around the middle of each preceding month based on information available to me, and make my concert-going choices based on it.  Let's see if others find this useful - if you do, please let me know and I'll keep it up.  And if I've missed anything out, let me know and I'll add it.

For your information, SSO = Singapore Symphony Orchestra, SCO = Singapore Chinese Orchestra, SOTA = School of the Arts, SCH = Singapore Conference Hall, VCH = Victoria Concert Hall, ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall, YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall, GAC = Goodwin Arts Centre, OH = Orchestra Hall and RS = Recital Studio.

Monday, 1 April 2019 12.30pm VCH "No Orchestra? No Problem" VCH Organ Series Martin Setchell (org)
Wednesday, 3 April 2019 7.30pm VCH "Springing" YST Graduating performers          
Friday, 5 April 2019 7.30pm ESP "Video Games Classics" SSO Eimear Noone (cond) 
Saturday, 6 April 2019 7.30pm ESP RS "Much A-dur About Nothing" Lee Shi Mei (vln) and Lim Yan (pno)   
Saturday, 6 April 2019 8.00pm tba "Vexilla Regis" Capella Martialis               
Sunday, 7 April 2019 5.00pm VCH "The Complete Sibelius Symphonies (1)" The Philharmonic Orchestra             
Sunday, 7 April 2019 7.45pm GAC "All About Love" The Mad Scene               
Sunday, 7 April 2019 8.00pm tba "Vexilla Regis" Capella Martialis               
Tuesday, 9 April 2019 7.30pm ESP "Intersections" YST Orchestra Jason Lai (cond)             
Friday. 12 April 2019 7.30pm ESP "Dark Majesty, Wild Excellence" SSO
Saturday, 13 April 2019 7.30pm ESP RS "Music Romantic and Modern", Kenneth Hamilton (pno)            
Thursday, 18 April 2019 6.00pm YST OH "Visiting Artist Series" Kevin Thompson and Chris Moyse Brass Duo Recital              
Thursday, 18 April 2019 7.30pm YST "Masters of American Opera" Cantiamo            
Thursday, 18 April 2019 7.30pm ESP "Song of the Nightingale "SSO Choo Huey (cond)
Saturday, 20 April 2019 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 5 hour-long viola recitals
Sunday, 21 April 2019 5.00pm SOTA "Old Worlds for New" Braddell Heights SO & Joy Chorale
Monday, 22 April 2019 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 6 hour-long cello and bass recitals
Tuesday, 23 April 2019, 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals"  2 hour-long piano recitals
Tuesday, 23 April 2019, 4.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 2 hour-long voice recitals
Tuesday, 23 April 2019, 7.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 2 hour-long percussion recitals
Wednesday, 24 April 2019, 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 2 hour-long piano recitals
Wednesday, 24 April 2019, 4.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 4 hour-long violin recitals
Thursday, 25 April 2019, 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 3 hour-long violin recitals
Thursday, 25 April 2019, 6.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 3 hour-long brass recitals        
Friday, 26 April 2019 7.30pm VCH "Music of the Spheres" Aurora Orchestra Pekka Kuusisto (vln), Nicholas Collon (cond)
Saturday, 27 April 2019 1.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 2 hour-long violin recitals
Saturday, 27 April 2019 4.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 4 hour-long piano recitals         
Saturday, 27 April 2019 7.30pm ESP "A Scottish Journey" SSO
Saturday, 27 April 2019 8.00pm SCH  "Homecoming" SCO
Sunday, 28 April 2019 (my 65th birthday - so music concerts are all cancelled today!!!)
Monday, 29 April 2019 1.00pm YST  "Senior Recitals" 6 hour-long woodwind recitals
Tuesday, 30 April 2019 2.00pm YST "Senior Recitals"  2 hour-long oboe recitals
Tuesday, 30 April 2019, 5.00pm YST "Senior Recitals" 4 hour-long French horn recitals

08 March 2019

Concert Promotion Singapore Style

The Sixteen's Singapore debut subjected to a press blackout

It usually works like this.  When an artist or concert promoter puts on a concert, they make early contact with critics to ensure that someone will attend and report in a public arena on the event.  The artist or concert promoter usually hopes for a positive review which can then be used in future marketing materials, but opening the doors to critics – even inviting one and offering them free seating – does not absolve the critics of their responsibility to provide fair, impartial and honest assessments, nor ensure that the artist or concert promoter will receive unequivocally positive feedback.  It is a gamble, but one most are keen to take, since the mere fact that the performance is reviewed imbues it with both professional legitimacy and helps raise the performing profile of the artist.  A review also has that wider reach, going far beyond those who attended or even were interested in the performance, to provide a thermometer for the musical health of a venue and its location.  In short, even a bad review is a winner, since it both keeps the artist’s name in the public eye long after the actual event and lets the wider world know of the musical climate in a particular place. 

In Singapore it works rather differently.  Artists rarely make direct contact with critics, and when they do it is usually on the basis of a perceived personal friendship which is erroneously assumed to ensure a kind and sympathetic review; in my case such artists have all too frequently quickly learnt the error of this approach, and only a few really outstanding concert promoters and artists now get in touch with me directly, knowing that I will be fair and honest rather than kind and sympathetic.  Instead artists and concert promoters rely almost wholly on word-of-mouth to keep their activities in the public eye.  Most concerts now are shared only by means of social media, which has the advantages of being free and effortless, but the big disadvantage of being accessible only to those who already know what is going on.  I suppose, since Singapore is so tiny, that is an understandable practice; there is an assumption that everyone in Singaporean music circles knows each other, so there is no need to open the eyes of a wider public.  That was driven home to me a couple of years ago when I accidentally stumbled across a concert in a studio off Orchard Road, went in, and found myself in a select group of barely a dozen enthusiasts.  The concert organiser opened the proceedings by saying that it was “unusual” to find “our usual audience” so big!  I felt unwelcome and slid away as quickly as I could after the concert ended.

Too many musical events in Singapore are run as private parties, and when, along with a couple of colleagues, I tried to start up a concert listings site, we quickly found strong opposition to it from those who did not want their concert activities to be publicized.  For the outsider, trying to find out what is going on and when in Singapore is impossible.  Private ticketing companies promote only the events for which they have been contracted to sell tickets, while many of the educational and amateur groups who stage concerts seem only to decide to do them at the last minute.  NAFA regularly invites me to concerts the day before they take place, and just this week I have been told of two concerts this weekend, which had only been planned a week ago.  I even had an invitation to one from the artist, unaware that less than a week’s notice for a concert was far too little for me to make space in an always crowded diary. 

But, you may think, at least we have a couple of big public, world-class concert venues.  They, surely, know how to put on and promote their concerts.  In the case of the Victoria Concert Hall, that is certainly true.  Being run by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, it handles its publicity professionally, it does all it can to promote its events to the public and it is welcoming to critics to whom it customarily offers support irrespective of the occasional brickbats we throw at tit.

Sadly, the same is not the case with the other major Singapore concert hall, the Esplanade.  When it opened in 2002, it sent out invitations to critics around the world (I was invited as a representative of a London-based newspaper for whom I was then writing) and made sure its opening festival was made known to the wider world.  It has never, so far as I am aware, ever invited international critics again, and is now positively anti-critic, effectively banning us from concerts it promotes. 

In Singapore, we critics band together once a month and go over the concerts we have heard about in the coming month. We then argue about which ones deserve a review and argue even more energetically on who will cover which concert.  Then we contact the national newspaper (the Straits Times) and try to “sell” these to the relevant editor.  She invariably pares them down to a bare minimum, and we then go about obtaining tickets and informing the relevant organisers that we will be there in an official critical facility.  I managed to bag the review of The Sixteen last night, and was duly thrilled, since I have reviewed in a whole range of international publications and on radio The Sixteen ever since they were first created, and was eager to be the person who reviewed their Singapore premiere performance. 

For those who don’t know, The Sixteen is the finest chamber choir in the world today, its director, Harry Christophers, one of the most unassuming and talented of all choral directors, and his singers include the very best voices on the British vocal circuit.  I may have heard them, live and recorded, hundreds of times, and the programme they presented in Singapore I have heard and reviewed elsewhere before.  But last night was still a major event in Singapore’s musical calendar and warranted all the publicity and media attention it could get. The Esplanade was the promoter and handled the publicity for the concert.  They never invited a critic, and I found out about the concert from The Sixteen themselves.

In the past, when I have been assigned to review a concert promoted by the Esplanade, I have found it difficult to get them to agree.  I have resorted previously to buying my own ticket and turning up incognito.  But as a single ticket-buyer, it is virtually impossible to select a seat of your choice using the SISTIC ticketing company which has exclusive rights to selling tickets for Esplanade events, and as all of us who are regular attendees at the Esplanade know, there are seats which are aural blind-spots.  When I have found myself in one of these, I have commented adversely on the hall’s acoustics, which in turn has led to much anger from the Esplanade management.  So now I am careful always to let them know that I intend to turn up and review a concert, and they provide me with a ticket in a prime aural location. Even then, it doesn't always work; last time, I turned up and they had no ticket for me, and refused me entry until the performers’ agent intervened and gave me one of their complimentary tickets. (I also got a glass of champagne or two in the interval from them, so that made it all worthwhile!)

For The Sixteen, however, the Esplanade was having none of it, and after telling them that I intended to attend to review the performance, they contacted the Straits Times and demanded that they would only allow me to review the concert if the paper also ran a feature on the event.  No newspaper editor will ever allow anyone to dictate what goes into the paper, and so the Straits Times quite rightly refused.  The Sixteen, therefore made its Singapore debut to a press blackout, and Singapore’s musical credibility has consequently been compromised. 

Is it not time that the powers-that-be who run the Esplanade came clean and confessed that they are not interested in classical music, or indeed, in promoting any artistic activities other than the plethora of free, amateur shows put on in public areas in the hope of attracting large crowds to spend their money in the various retail and food outlets within the complex?