24 April 2019

What Makes a Good Recital?

This seems to be Recital Month.  Over the past few weeks I have sat in on more recitals than at any other time in the year, and while many of these have been the usual end-of-year student recitals, there seems to be a fair proportion of professional, public recitals thrown into the mix for good measure.  And all this recitalising has got me thinking; about what makes a good recital?

I come out of some recitals feeling I have had a wonderful, rewarding or stimulating experience and others where I come out earnestly wishing I had never been.  The old Trinity College London assessment criteria for a Fellowship recital – - would you have paid money to hear that?” -– is a really good one, but easier to answer than to define.  So I’ have been thinking I liked some recitals more than others?  Was it the music they played, the way they played it, or something else?  Certainly a recital is a total package which involves a great many things beyond repertory and performance, so here’s a kind of check-list.

Performance: The actual quality of the performance plays surprisingly little part.  An ugly voice, a stumbling technique, split notes or even a complete breakdown cause minor irritations at the time, but are quickly forgotten and ultimately overlooked.  We might remember these things later, but often they do not affect our overall feelings about the recital.  Indeed, a memory slip ingeniously covered can make a recital even more memorable and rewarding;: there was that famous one in Berlin by Ella Fitzgerald in which she just threw in all kinds of random names to cover her complete memory loss in Mack the Knife, – and that flawed performance has gone on to become a classic.  I’ have never forgotten leaving a Rachmaninov recital given in London by Artur Rubinstein in which, as one fellow-audience member put it on the way out, you had to “spot the right note because so many of them had been wrong.  Another great 20th century pianist, Shura Cherkassy, was renowned for his bad technique yet, as he himself put it, “””’’”””””Some people like my playing and some don’t, but nobody can say that ‘I’m boring.”  And that’s the key.  The audience does not want clinical accuracy, polished tone or impeccable technique (although they are quite nice to have), they want to be entertained.

Spoken Introductions: The most obvious way to entertain an audience is to speak to them, but so very few recitalists ever do this.  There is good reason not to.  You have to remember the notes and in your nervous state you do not want to have to carry around in your head the baggage of a few words to remember (and it is utterly fatal to read from a prepared script, even if some key points need to be scribbled down and referred to), and maybe your command of the audience’s language is not good.  But I urge every recitalist to try, – even if it i’s just a smile and a word of welcome.  But for goodness sake, do not tell them to Enjoy (that’s the job of your performing) and please do not suggest you will get down to playing Without Further Ado”, – it makes it sound as if you are grudging about playing to them. 

Programme Notes: All good recitals have programme notes to serve as both guides to the audience and souvenirs of the event.  Without a programme note, the audience is lost during the recital– and has nothing to remember it by when they have gone home.  You may be lucky enough to find a professional programme note-writer to do this (my fees are reasonable!) but mostly, you will do it yourself.  It makes sense, since if you are serious about your recital, you will have prepared the programme exhaustively not just as a performance but as an interpretation.  And you will have read about and researched the background to the music. Programme notes are also invaluable in linking the works together so that you do not create the impression of simply having thrown your favourite pieces together to form a programme. Back stories are invaluable in getting an audience into a receptive frame of mind, so the more interesting things you can find out, the more amenable the audience will be to your performance.  Frankly, if I read that Dvorak was rescued from a burning inn when he was less than a year old by his father, and forged his butchery certificate, my ears prick up when it comes to listening to his music.  And when it comes to+ describing the music, do not alienate an audience with dry technicalities - he wrote such-and-such a piece in Rondo form and it modulates during it to the dominant, subdominant and relative minor -– but give them a few notable points to listen out for.  Audiences want to know when to clap, so tell them what to listen out for which will signify the ending (is it loud, soft, big or small?) and give them an accurate timing to within 30 seconds. 

Stage Presentation: So few recitalists realise that they are responsible for this, and so need to instruct those concerned in setting up and sharing the stage.  How is the piano to be positioned?  Where are other instruments to be placed to create the right sense of intimacy (if that’s what you want) or distance (if that’s your choice)?  And what does the page-turner do?  Does he come on and bow, does he leave and bow, does he bring in the music, does he take the music out, does he stay there until the applause has died down or walk off with you as it still rings?  Where i’s the piano lid going to be - – fully open, half-stick, quarter-stick, closed? – What is everybody going to wear?  A page-turner, accompanist, and fellow musician must all look as if they are part of the team and not odd-bods brought in off the street.  In any recital there is one principal – do not allow anyone to eclipse the principal - and that goes for printed biographies too;;: I have lost count of vocal recitals where the accompanist warrants less space than the singer, and while the accompanist is vital, it is the singer whom the audience has paid to hear and see.  If you have hired a Master of Ceremonies for your recital, chain them to a chair off-stage before the recital starts, for; an MC in a recital is always an acute embarrassment and distraction, no matter how good they are.

Repertory: I a’m inclined to think that this is the real key.  Certainly analysing the recitals I have attended recently, without a shadow of doubt the most memorable have been because of repertory.  As I see it, there are three golden rules for choosing repertory. 

·         First, choose music you want to perform. There is nothing more contagious than indifference, and an audience quickly recognises when your heart is not in it.  You may play a piece well, but if you do not like it, do not perform it.  It is not necessary to adore everything you play, but you must really want to share it with others. 

·         Secondly, there must be some coherence to the programme.  Random pieces thrown together because you like them does not make for a good recital.  Forge a connection between them and make this clear in the programme notes so that the audience feels they are sharing a journey with you and not merely sitting in the hall as outside observers.  The more imaginative the connection, often the more fascinating a programme you can build.  How about a recital comprising entirely works which are “Opus 40, or one where all the works were written in the same month (regardless of year), or all written in the same year?  How about a recital made up of works written in 1519, 1619, 1719, 1819, 1919 and 2019?  Celebrating an anniversary is always a good thing.  As I write this, for example, I note that today marks the birthdays of Giovanni Martini (an Italian composer who lived between 1706 and 1784) and Roxanna Panufnik (the English composer, noted for her choral and vocal works, born in 1968). On this day exactly 100 years ago the French composer Camille Erlanger died at the age of 56.  It’s also the birthdays of singers Barbara Streisand’ (1942) and Norma Burrows (1944), while tomorrow marks the 101st anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald. It doesn’t take too much brainwork to devise a programme which includes something with a connection to at least one of these, and if I were a singer, I could construct an entire recital just around these six names.   

·         Thirdly, avoid the predicable, especially pianists.  Everyone who has ever shown even the vaguest interest in the piano will have heard the famous Beethoven Sonatas, as well as most of the music by Chopin and Debussy.  If you put it in, all that will happen is that people will compare your performance (unfavourably) with another they have heard.  I live in continual despair that, while the piano boasts one of the largest solo repertories of any single instrument, fewer of those works are programmed into recitals than for any other instrument.  What is it about pianists that predisposes them towards a mentality which avoids exploration?  Some of the best piano recitals I have been to recently have been presented by Stephen Hough who invariably finds something unusual to play and often devises whole programmes of almost forgotten music.  Why not Pierne instead of Debussy, John Field instead of Chopin, or Rossini instead of Beethoven?  A bit of programming imagination can transform a recital from tiresome predictability to absorbingly intriguing at a stroke, and unlike a concert where audiences like to the familiar, a recital hinges on the individual rather than the repertory, so to be adventurous is good.  Speaking for myself, I will avoid any recital (no matter who gives it) of Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy, simply because I’ have heard it all so many times before it’ has lost its allure for me.  Conversely, I will beat a path to something more unusual.

So with all that in mind, I should perhaps come clean and suggest which of the two-dozen or so recitals I’ have so far attended this month, stands out as the best.  It was, ironically, the one I was looking forward to the least.  A trumpet and trombone recital given by two members of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Chris Moyse and Kevin Thompson, – with Nicholas Loh as their accompanist.  In a funny way this was the perfect recital.  The playing was not flawless but oozed enjoyment and enthusiasm.  The spoken parts were informal, easy and informative.  The stage manner was beautifully relaxed (especially from Loh who had an instinctive understanding of his role which played into the narrative of the whole recital).  But most of all, the repertory comprised totally music I had never heard before, yet I felt was well worth hearing, even if it was, ultimately, unmemorable.  Moyse and Thompson told how they had scoured the music shops of Hong Kong looking for unusual things, and you got the impression they were really enjoying exploring this music and sharing it with us.  That, in turn, led to the audience falling into the mood and clearly enjoying the totality of the recital.  This is what makes a good recital.

17 April 2019

Adult Learners, Tigers and Goats

A presentation by a colleague on approaches to teaching the piano to children was quite an eye-opener.  Although I spent the best part of 20 years working as a private piano teacher, I never taught really young children (or “kids” as they are called in Singapore – I always thought a kid was the young of a goat, so perhaps that explains why the song Chan Mali Chan is so popular in Singapore.  But I digress.).  My speciality then and now (I still have a few private pupils scattered around the globe) is in guiding the niceties of interpretation and musical insight in more advanced level students.  I suppose the youngest pupil I ever had was aged 12, so to hear about teaching approaches to younger ages than that was fascinating.  I have nothing but admiration for those who can somehow impart the knowledge of piano tuition to those who can barely walk and talk – which seems to be common practice here in Singapore as well as in Hong Kong and China.

One of the more memorable comments my colleague came up with was in response to a question about children lacking the life experience to cope with the full emotional range of music.  She suggested that sometimes imagination was a form of experience, and sometimes imagination served the purpose better than real-life experience.  I liked that idea, and realised how appropriate it was for young children.

But as the presentation continued with fascinating examples of how young children had been encouraged to express music through movement and how the principal focus in all teaching was to make it “fun”, my mind began to wander.  It had not been advertised specifically as being a presentation about teaching piano to children, but that is what everyone expected.  In Singapore society “teaching music” means teaching the piano, and teaching the piano is something which is almost exclusively done before one reaches puberty. 

I am currently working on an article for an educational magazine in which I address the idea that “music” is such a wide-ranging term that, in education, we need to use it with extreme care.  After all, both the kid learning the piano and the teenager being taught how to lay down song tracks in a recording studio are being taught music, even if they are mutually incompatible.  So it concerns me deeply that teachers so freely use music as a synonym for piano.

Even more so, it concerns me that we assume “music” is best taught when the student is young.  There are elements in music which can only be taught to those of more mature years, and even the laying down of a technical foundation for pianists is not something which should be the sole preserve of the under-fives.  And as my mind wandered even further, I suddenly realised that, while in most societies of my experience, adults – even the very old – are encouraged to learn a musical instrument, that is not the case in Singapore, Hong Kong or China.  Piano lessons here are the preserve of the young and represent an alien culture to most over-30s.

In my examining life, I examined in some places where adults formed a majority of the candidature – notably in the West Indies and parts of India – and the exam boards have done much to encourage the adult market by introducing such things as performance certificates.  I have been to conferences in the UK which have concentrated on the techniques of teaching adult beginners, and I can look back over my past students and realise that a majority of them has been adult.  Indeed, one of my first ever students was a lady of 65 who passed her Grade 3 after a couple of years work; and the achievement for her was more glorious than that for the 6-year-old kid and Tiger Mum whose real satisfaction was getting past Grade 3 a year before anyone else in the class.

True, if you start learning the piano at 65 you are unlikely to become the next Lang Lang; but, to be brutally frank, if you start learning the piano at 5, it’s still extremely unlikely that you will be the next Lang Lang – as my colleague pointed out, many of those who start young see success in graded exams as an opportunity to quit and move on to things other than playing the piano.  But the therapeutic, psychological and all-round mental health benefits of learning a musical instrument at an older age equal, if not outweigh, the physical, emotional and competitive values of learning it as a child.  Yet so skewed is the Singapore/Hong Kong/China mentality to piano lessons as a childhood thing, that few adults or teachers even contemplate it.

Musical activities for older people here tend to look towards communal things like choral singing and orchestras, but the experience from other countries shows that there are huge benefits for the individual in taking up the piano (or other instrument) in later life.  Perhaps if this idea could be implanted into Singaporeans, we might find our musical climate a little healthier.  After all, we are only young for a short time in our lives – we are old for ages!  If you have given up the piano after grade 8 at 14, you are looking at a bleak musical future; if you take it up when you are 55, you are looking at a wonderfully fulfilling retirement.

16 April 2019

Forgotten Madness

On 30th April our 3rd year student, Lee Hui, is going to present a paper on the issue of mental health and music.  Called "Does Music Make Us Mad?", she takes as her focal point the issue of Schumann's mental decline.

It has been my extreme privilege (along with my revered colleague Prof Craig de Wilde), to guide Lee Hui through her Musicology module and I am hugely looking forward to her presentation.  I hope lots of people turn up as it is not only a fascinating subject, but one which she has shown immense sympathy towards.

By a strange twist of odd coincidence, I accidentally came over a blog post from 2015 which, in my own personal madness, I had forgotten I had ever written.  It seems rather nicely to set the scene!


Surviving the Ashes

The superstitious will be having a field day.  A fire broke out in Paris’s St Sulpice Church four weeks ago, another one broke out last Saturday (the eve of Palm Sunday) in New York's Cathedral of St John the Divine, and yesterday saw Notre Dame in Paris go up in flames.  All this is happening in the church’s season of Lent when Christians remember Christ’s period in the wilderness with a sustained period of prayer and reflection.  So what does all this ecclesiastical burning tell us?  That churches are an abomination in the sight of the Lord, that Christians are misguided in their beliefs, that God is reminding the world of the existence and value of churches, or merely that today’s workmen are prone to carelessness with their oxy-acetylene torches?

News of each fire reached me, not through my addiction to 24-hour news services from trusted organisations, but via my subscription to an organists’ group on Facebook.  I’m not one to check Facebook very often (once a day is excessive for me), but a sustained period of “pings” on my phone woke me up at night as each organist-member wanted to get in with his or her expression of sorrow and regret.  It amuses me that the first question raised in the case of each fire has not been “were there any casualties?”, but “has the organ suffered any damage?”.  That’s not to say me and my fellow organists are heartless; merely that for us, the organ is a living, breathing animate object.  Like other - ostensibly “normal” -  people who post endless pictures of cats, dogs and babies along with grotesquely mawkish comments for their friends to share, we do the same with pipe organs.  I’d like to think our comments are more elevated, but in truth, they’re not.  We love our pipe organs, just as others, inexplicably, love their cats, dogs and babies.

And among all organists, there can be very, very few who do not love the sound of the wonderful instrument in Notre Dame, which has now been utterly destroyed and lost to us forever.  It was the organ at which Louis Vierne died while giving an organ recital, and on which Pierre Cochereau effectively re-defined the art of improvisation.  Hearing it live pouring out its soul in the vast, dark recesses of Notre Dame was an experience I could and will never forget, and to realise I will never experience it again is very much akin to losing a dear friend. 

But as with all deaths, the legacy of memories ensures that death does not mean an end, but a beginning of new kind of relationship in which only the best aspects survive.  Since Notre Dame was such a magnificent instrument, it was frequently recorded, and between church fires, I was privileged to be sent for review what must be now the last ever recording of the instrument; Olivier Latry’s “Bach to the Future” on La Dolce Vita (LDV69).  That review is slated to appear in June’s copy of Gramophone magazine, so I will not reprint it here.  Suffice to say, that it was heading towards one of my all-time favourite organ recordings before the emotional fillip afforded by yesterday’s fire.  It won’t be leaving my CD player now for a good few weeks – unless, of course, the CD player itself overheats and the inevitable ensues.  Luckily CD players are replaceable, as are organ CDs, which means that the irreplaceable lost in the Paris inferno, can live on long after the ashes have been swept up and the rebuilding completed.

In the spirit of love and bonding which follows such a catastrophe, I offer up some pictures which other people than I will enjoy, as well as one for my organist friends with whom I share a deep sorrow and a recommendation that, if they have not already got it, Olivier Latry’s spectacular all-Bach recital from Notre Dame – “Bach to the Future” – is just released on the La Dolce Vita label and needs to be snapped up with all haste.


15 April 2019

Examining in Brunei

An assassination attempt was made on me in 1997.  Attending the annual luncheon of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in London, I was pulled aside by the CEO who introduced me to a man from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  I was informed that they had “credible evidence” that an attempt would be made on my life during my forthcoming examining tour to India.  I was advised to “think about it” and, if I withdrew from the tour, the Board would understand, although they were anxious to increase their presence in India and this tour was a key part of that strategy. 

It seemed from the threatening letters received that a man with a grudge against the English and their colonial activities in India (a grudge with which I am not unsympathetic especially in this centenary year of the terrible Amritsar Massacre for which the English have, disgracefully, yet to offer a full apology) saw me as a “soft” but legitimate target on the basis that I represented a “Royal” organisation (the Royal name has gone now that the official name has changed to ABRSM).  Since the Indian Nationalist would-be-assassin’s anti-English correspondence was conducted exclusively in English, I rather felt it was a hoax and chose to continue with the tour.

Meetings in the Board’s then headquarters in Bedford Square followed, during which I was given updates on the efforts being made at the Indian end to identify the would-be-assassin, and various diplomatic people and Scotland Yard operatives gave me instructions designed to ensure, as best as possible, my own personal safety.  On arrival in Bangalore, the Board’s representative thrust a bundle of papers in my hand, told me that she wished “to God you hadn’t come” and sent me off to my hotel; we never met again. 
I was assigned a huge Sikh driver/bodyguard who accompanied me throughout the tour, but the intelligence was that the assassination would be carried out in the hill station of Ootacamund, so it was there that the full force of the Indian army and police service took over.  An entire wing of the Holiday Inn was emptied of guests and filled with armed guards and me.  And I was transported to and from the examination centre in a convoy surrounded by armed guards, who were so twitchy I suspected that I was more likely to be shot by one of them than any crazed anti-English Indian nationalist.

On my third day there, news reached me that a car had been stopped a short distance from the hotel and a heavily armed man arrested.  I lived to examine another day (or, to be precise, another 20 years).  The Board refused to prosecute the would-be-assassin, and instructed me not to do so either for fear of undermining confidence in their burgeoning Indian operation.  As an interesting postlude to all this, a decade later I found myself once more in Ootacamund, this time examining for Trinity, and was told that one of my candidates was the daughter of the would-be-assassin. 

The point of all this autobiographical preamble is to point out that, as with any international occupation, there are dangers which those of us who undertake such work recognise and accept.  Sometimes the British Government intervenes and specifically instructs exam boards not to allow its people to travel to certain places, and insurance companies occasionally make certain overseas tours impossible.  Rarely it goes wrong – as in a visit to Sierra Leone when I arrived just in time to catch a military coup, or when a plane-load of colleagues landed up in Kuwait at the same time as invading Iraqis – but we all know the dangers and live with them.  For an examiner, the importance of giving a keen young musician the chance to prove themselves is incentive enough to undergo a whole array of real risks.

So it is a matter of the most extreme concern to me, and to all my former colleagues, that one of the examination boards has cancelled exams in a loyal territory, not because of any risks, but because of pure social and commercial pressures.

When the Sultan of Brunei announced that he was going to impose full Sharia law, the world was outraged.  My feeling is that Sharia Law is primitive, medieval, inhumane and barbaric, but that’s because my cultural heritage ingrains in me a belief in the supremacy of tolerance, justice and common humanity.  It certainly is not for me to criticise a culture simply because it differs from my own, although I am totally at liberty to express my personal feelings, should I so wish, by refusing to visit Brunei or any of its overseas assets.  That, though, would be driven by my own conscience, not by pressure from others.

Trinity College examiners are not allowed the luxury of personal consciences on this matter, however.  Trinity College London has withdrawn its examinations from Brunei at very short notice this year on the grounds that examiners might feel under threat by the exigencies of Sharia Law.  Perhaps the examiners’ profile has changed since my day, and Trinity examiners are now more prone to indulging in public acts of homosexuality, adultery and theft (the issues which have most exercised the collective objections of those in the West), but somehow I doubt it.  Which means that, without any justification from the British Government or their insurers, Trinity have decided to oppose a purely internal Bruneian concern by withdrawing their services.

Candidates, having spent months and weeks preparing, have now had all their hard work negated because of some ridiculously narrow-minded, culturally intolerant and politically-correct imbecile in the Trinity headquarters.  Presumably pressure came from big customers in the UK who, probably unable to identify the Sultanate of Brunei on a map, think that it is peopled by darker skinned English-like people whose natural human rights are being denied them by a despotic government.

22 years ago I felt the commitment we as examiners owed to young musicians was worth putting my life on the line for; it seems that Trinity is more concerned in looking good in the eyes of the cossetted western campaigners than in fulfilling its moral duty to young students. This astonishingly weak action by Trinity College London will surely get everyone who lives in any territory where standards of English governance are not the norm, to ask whether there is any value at all in preparing candidates for Trinity music exams when a bit of public pressure from disinterested sources can lead to those exams being cancelled at a moment's notice.

11 April 2019

Singapore Classical Concerts May 2019

Here is the most current list of classical music events in Singapore during May.  Please let me know if anything's missing.

ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall
ESP RS = Esplanade Recital Studio
VCH = Victoria Concert Hall
YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
SBG = Singapore Botanical Gardens
TTP = The Theatre Practice, 54 Waterloo Street
SSO = Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Friday, 3 May 2019 7.30pm ESP Red Balloon series  Rhythms, Rites and Renewals SSO
Friday, 3 May 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Bence Szepsi (clarinet)
Saturday, 4 May 2019 6.00pm SBG Songs at Twilight New Opera Singapore
Saturday, 4 May 2019 7.30pm YST Nobuko Imai in concert Nobuko Imai (viola/Albert Tiu (piano)
Saturday, 4 May 2019 7.30pm ESP Improvisations Adam Gyorgy (pno), Bence Szepsi (clar)
Saturday, 4 May 2019 8.00pm TTP Very Venetian Vivaldi string concerti Cappella Martialis
Sunday, 5 May 2019 8.00pm TTP Very Venetian Vivaldi string concerti Cappella Martialis
Friday, 10 May 2019 7.30pm ESP Missa Solemnis SSO Masaaki Suzuki (cond)
Friday, 10 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Oriental Strings Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra Gabriel Lee (violin)
Saturday, 11 May 2019 8.00pm ESP RS French Operas - Ecstatic Moments
Sunday, 12 May 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Enchanting Evening 6 The Chamber Musicians
Friday, 17 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Death and the Maiden SSO Chamber Series Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 18 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Temptation of the Saintly Plot SSO Chamber Series Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Sunday, 19 May 2019 4.00pm VCH Brass Ensemble of the SSO SSO Chamber Series Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Sunday, 19 May 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Bolling Suite for Jazz Ensmeble re:mx
Monday, 20 May 2019 12.30pm VCH If with All your Hearts VCH Organ Series Evelyn Ang (sop), Joshua Chang (ten), Phoon Yu (org)
Saturday, 25 May 2019 7.30pm VCH How Far I'll Go SLO CHildren's Choir
Saturday, 25 May 2019 7.30pm SOTA Songs of Love and Despair T'ang Quartet
Sunday, 26 May 2019 4.00pm VCH Song Bridges Singapore Symphony Youth Choir Wong Lai Fong (cond)
Thursday, 30 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Singapore International Piano Festival Sa Chen (piano)
Friday, 31 May 2019 7.30pm VCH Singapore International Piano Festival Ronan O'Hora (piano) ) 

09 April 2019

Sibelius Symphonies Concert Review

Having clearly whetted some appetites (and got someone in Baltimore on the warpath over some questionable content in the concert's programme), I give here the original version of my concert review, published in today's Straits Times.

They completed their run of the complete Beethoven symphonies a few months back, so Lim Yau and the Philharmonic Orchestra have now turned to Sibelius and a year-long series performing all seven of his symphonies.

 There is some sense in following Beethoven with Sibelius - even if you miss out such significant 19th century symphonists as Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky - since Beethoven’s and Sibelius’s Firsts were, respectively, the first and the last major symphonic premieres of the 19th century.

 Lim, however, chose not to start this Sibelius cycle with the First, but launched straight into the Third Symphony.  A sensible choice, since the Third is Sibelius’s most accessible symphony, brim full with great tunes and glorious moments.  In the first two movements the Philharmonic Orchestra were producing some fabulous playing, and Lim was inspiring them to impressive heights of excellence.

 It was neither entirely the orchestra’s nor Lim’s fault that the third movement often seemed rather shambolic.  You get the impression that Sibelius got a bit bored after producing such wonders earlier in the symphony, and it ended decidedly lamely.

 Never mind, high ranking professional orchestras and top-flight conductors have come to grief over Sibelius symphonies, so it was to their eternal credit that these Singapore musicians not only produced very creditable performances but showed some glimpses of a real affinity with the music. 

Every section of an orchestra is projected in a Sibelius symphony, and strengths and weaknesses are cruelly exposed.  The Philharmonic Orchestra were certainly producing some top-class playing here, but in the First Symphony, which followed the interval, a couple of weaknesses were revealed.  A little more time spent tuning the wind on stage would not have gone amiss, as things were very ugly for a moment in the second movement, while a serious shortage of cellos was the one obvious indication of an orchestra which does not play in public with any real frequency.  Given the lovely collective violin and viola sound and a disarmingly powerful double bass one, a couple more cellos at least would have given a wonderful richness to the string sound.

 Lim’s direction had the great benefit of purpose and fluency, and where things wobbled, he kept them on the straight and narrow, and where things shone, he did not hesitate to give extra lustre through an expansive approach to dynamics.  Great big climaxes and intimate little passage of self-reflection brought the symphony vividly to life. 

Symphonies 2 and 4 will be in the next instalment of this series, and while you will have to wait for October for that, the wait will certainly be well worthwhile.

08 April 2019

Music and Politics

Sibelius - Not a Political Man?
Sunday saw the first in a series of concerts by the amateur Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore presenting all seven Sibelius symphonies.  It was impressive – but if you want to know what I really thought about the concert you will need to look at my review in tomorrow’s Straits Times.  A beautifully produced programme booklet included a fascinating essay on the Finnish symphony, but brought me up short with an astonishing statement; “Like most artists, Sibelius was not a political man”.

Was I reading that correctly?  Was there a misprint and the word “not” added by some inebriated editor?  I am still convinced the person who could pen such a perceptive essay on Finland and the Finnish symphony (forget the really irritating habit of presenting history in the present tense) could not possibly have committed such a blunder.  But let us, for a moment, suspend logic and imagine, incredible as it may seem, that the writer meant what she said.

I am not the world authority on Sibelius – not by a long Finnish mile – so I defer to the wisdom of Veijo Murtomäki who, in 2015, published an essay entitled The Responsibility of an Artist. “Sibelius and his fellow artists – such as painters Axel Gallen(-Kallela) and Eero Järnefelt, author Juhani Aho, poet Eino Leino and many others – had a classical education, and their readiness to fight for Finland’s independence stemmed from the spirit in which the Classical heroes of Antiquity defended their poleis. Finnish artists were patriotically active especially during what are known in Finnish history as the ‘years of oppression’ (1899–1905, 1908–1917).  Between 1898 and 1920 Sibelius wrote some two dozen pieces in which he addressed the nation either directly or through allegory, expressing the common sorrow and hope under the difficult political circumstances that all Finns felt. This had the result of making Sibelius a symbol of the awakening of Finland”.  That, surely, makes him a political man?

But what of other “artists”?  I shall let the painters, the sculptors, the poets, the authors, the film-makers and theatre directors, the rock bands and the installation artists fend for themselves.  My interest is in classical music and musicians.  Was there ever a more political man than Beethoven, often held up as a champion of democratic ideals and the enfranchisement of the common man?  Haydn’s fascination with English politics (and that was before Brexit) is well documented, as is Mozart’s intrigues with the political life of 18th century Europe.  Bach found himself caught up in the political situation of his time, and Handel was not the only artist to get so involved in politics that he put his whole career on the line; his abrupt departure from Hanover to London can best be explained by his secret role as an emissary (aka spy) for his employer’s political ambitions with regard to the British throne.  Others who were professionally involved in political activities included Domenico Scarlatti (who came from a family with strong political associations in their native Sicily), John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and Josquin Desprez.  What was Sir Arnold Bax if not a leading political figure and activist on both sides of the Irish Sea?  What was Michael Tippett if not a passionate advocate for left-leaning politics?  Whenever I met Malcolm Williamson he was always sporting a very large badge proclaiming his membership of the Communist Party, and when, as a student, I campaigned for a Welsh language television channel, I was aware of the active support of both Alun Hoddinott and William Mathias.  Did not Wagner get himself wrapped up in the political demonstrations of 1848?  Was not Schumann deeply affected by them as well?  How about Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, whose opposition to the politics in their native Russia saw them flee into exile, while Shostakovich and Kabalevsky became politically pawns in the new world of Soviet Communism?  And talking of political pawns, we cannot overlook Richard Strauss.  Carl Orff’s posthumous reputation suffers largely because of his right-wing political affiliations, but somehow Puccini has escaped the censure of the left-wing despite a letter he wrote in 1922 in praise of Mussolini – “I hope he will prove to be the man we need”.  Boulez once described his politics as “very Leninistic”, and even the apparently innocuous Mendelssohn wrote “art and life are not two different things”. Whenever a Conservative Party politician utters some nonsense about music education, you can be sure Sir Simon Rattle will be quick to jump on to the airwaves and enter into a passionate political debate with them, followed by a host of other passionate political artists.  My difficulty is finding a classical musician who is NOT a “political man”.

And while the gender-specific originated from the female author of the essay, I am happy to open it up to female artists.  Was not Dame Ethel Smyth a leading figure in the suffragette movement?  Facebook friends Roxana Panufnik and Judith Bingham are never short of opinions on major political issues. 

Not to be involved in or, at the very least, passionately interested in politics is, to my way of thinking, and abrogation of artistic obligations.  You cannot regard music as an isolationist art form; it is a product of society and reflects society.  As an old Latin teacher from my school will no doubt be quick to point out, the word politics originates from a Greek term which translates as “affairs of the city”.  (If I’ve got that wrong, the fault will lie with own my old Latin teacher who has long since died; his colleague, still alive and kicking on Facebook, is not to blame!) So, in its broadest sense, we can take politics to mean “the activities involved in running a state”.  And since we all have a vested interest in that, and since it is the job of artists to reflect and illuminate the society in which they live and work, it follows that it is not so much incumbent on the artist to be politically aware as an absolute obligation.

I worry that music students often show little interest in politics.  Perhaps in Singapore, where politics is outwardly bland to the point of tedium, there might just be some excuse for that.  But we no longer live in an isolationist world, and surely everyone is affected by political events in Libya, Rwanda, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, China, New Zealand, the USA and Europe (mentioning just the countries covered in today’s world new headlines)?  I would go so far as to say that unless you become political men and women, you will never become true artists.  Sibelius was most certainly a “political man” – that’s why we still listen to his symphonies 100 years on and in a country almost 10,000 kms distant.

04 April 2019

It's Only Music

In an essay he wrote for last month's magazine, the hi-fi editor of Gramophone bemoaned the habit people have of talking over music.  In his job he attends plenty of hi-fi shows where the latest audio playback equipment is demonstrated, and he is becoming increasingly bemused by “those uncontrollable visitors who seem to have developed a penchant for having a bit of a chat during demonstrations”.  He goes on; “I get that you might want to share one’s enthusiasm for what you’re experiencing, or indeed express your criticism if you’re less than delighted, but surely that’s something that happens at the end of what’s being played, not during it”.  Puzzled that when people are presumably contemplating forking out extortionate amounts on domestic audio equipment (the same issue of the magazine reviews a pair of speakers costing £59,995.00) they can’t even be bothered to listen to them in action, he ruminates on how we have changed the way in which we consume music; “in the age of ‘free’ music online, albums giving way to ‘songs’ and everything reduced to bite-sized chunks, the new normal is that music is in the background, a wallpaper against which one lives one’s life”.  As if to test this theory, he put it to a younger friend; “The response wasn’t, ‘How rude of them to talk over the music’, but ‘What’s the problem? It’s only music”.

I’m not a regular attendee of hi-fi shows – the last one I went to was in Hong Kong in 1991 – and when I recently went out to buy some new audio equipment, the hi-fi dealer I visited in Singapore did not even have a listening room in which I could try it out; luckily the recommendation from Gramophone was good enough, and I have it now happily installed in my own listening room.  But I am an extraordinarily active attendee of concerts – five this week and six more before bedtime on Sunday – and a connected issue affects my enjoyment of those.  People do talk during concerts, but not that often.  What seriously disturbs me are those who spend the entire time while music is playing engaging with their mobile phones.  The disturbing pin-pricks of bright light, the irritating clicking of thumbs on screens, the periodic elevation of the phone in order to take pictures over the heads of those in front, the serried ranks of heads bent over screens when a bunch of hardworking musicians is working tirelessly on stage; all of this is a major distraction to me and a symptom of a society in which music is not an art or an entertainment, merely something which exists.

Audience research statistics in Singapore compiled over the last two months have shown that a majority (roughly 82%) are there to “support” friends and family on stage.  The National Arts Council indicated this with its own set of statistics which, improbably, claimed that;

·         80% “Attended at least one arts event or activity in 2015”

·         40% “are interested in arts and cultural events”.

The obvious incongruity here is that why would so many people attend an arts event when they express no interest in the arts?  Initially, we might be inclined to doubt the veracity of the government’s statistics – after all no government on earth seriously associates statistics with reality – but other commentators than myself have suggested this discrepancy is caused by the habit Singaporeans have of attending something merely to offer support to friends and family involved in it, rather than for their own pleasure.  And the statistics my students have unearthed in their extensive fieldwork researches bear that out pretty conclusively.


So we can, possibly, understand - if not excuse - why so few concert attendees engage with the music being performed.  I still suggest that it is the height of bad manners to support your friends and family by ignoring them and, effectively, forcing others to ignore them, but I am not privy to the social mores of average Singaporean families and perhaps such behaviour is not seen as offensive.  For me, if my friends and family turned up to my concert to support me by pointedly ignoring me and my music-making, I’d ban them from future appearances.  The invidious performance photograph, snatched during the performance to the endless frustration of the over-zealous concert hall staff, the extreme irritation of fellow concert-goers, and the endless mortification of those on stage, is a symptom of this preponderance of “supporters” over “audience”.


However, it is not just the supporters who do not listen.  It has become the norm across all audience profiles.  Whenever I play a musical extract in a lecture to music students, that is an immediate cue for them to start talking.  Imagine; the very people for whom catching and retaining the total attention of a paying public is an absolute professional necessity, do not even begin to recognise their responsibility as audience members to their professional superiors, whether they can see them or not.  “Music is free, music is everywhere…it’s just music, who cares?”  A mantra of society, sadly, but disastrously, a mantra of music students too, who fail to recognise the terminal futility of entering a career in which they themselves have no apparent interest.


Last night I attended an amazing concert in which graduating students curated and presented a highly visually imaginative and aurally spectacular programme.  Such was the incredible standard of performance by all the musicians, that I personally felt deeply disappointed that all we had were tiny bite-sized extracts of larger scores (Oh, to have heard the whole of Schubert’s priceless Octet with such a vivacious and committed ensemble performing, to have heard the other two of Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano with such a fabulously vibrant orchestra and such a perceptive conductor and, biggest regret of all, not to hear ALL of Poulenc’s Un Bal Masqué when the performers had not only got into the style of the music so totally, but delivered it with such polish and professionalism I can honestly say I would have no hesitation in recommending it to any producer keen to bring a powerful new interpretation of this marvellous work into the record catalogues.)  But the bite-sized chunks were an inevitable consequence of having to give so many highly talented young individuals their moment in the spotlight.  What’s more, it harked back to the 19th century concert practice of taking isolated movements and extracts to make a more attractively kaleidoscopic experience to the musically uninitiated; something that went when the gramophone (as a machine rather than a magazine) brought musical accessibility to the masses.  Nevertheless, my hope is that in the not-too distant future, each of these performances might be publicly revisited as part of a more sustained musical experience. 


Looking at last night’s audience, there were probably a good 82% supporting friends and family on stage, taking the inevitable photographs to the inevitable accompaniment of clicking heels as ushers rushed to prevent this (on the grounds of copyright infringement over public inconvenience, I assume). So, if - and hopefully when - these talented musicians put themselves back into the spotlight as performers with music-making of this quality, I suspect they would do better to go outside Singapore where a true audience can be assembled to appreciate their collective brilliance undisturbed by the hordes of supporters who populate most concerts here.  But while the preponderance of concert “supporter” does seem to be a peculiarly Singaporean phenomenon – at least in the proportion of supporter to audience – has the art of listening, as my Gramophone colleague implies, generally disappeared from society at large?


I hold on to my belief that music is something we should nurture and care for by intense and dedicated listening, but I realise that in this I am at odds with society.  Denigrating music to the function of aural wallpaper and an accompaniment to other activities is something I abhor, but throughout history the way we engage with music has never been constant.  I have already mentioned the 19th century practice of bite-sized chunks in concert, and concerts themselves are essentially an 18th century innovation.  Bach’s secular music was often played in coffee shops or out of doors to accompany people getting on with their lives in other ways.  Non-performers’ engagement with music is a continually shifting thing, and if some of us are left behind by the change, the fault is entirely our own.  I’ll never be able to accept that great art is merely wallpaper, but I must not criticise those who do; they are merely keeping up with society.

03 April 2019

Singapore's 200 Years of Music

It must have seemed so easy for the Singapore Government back then, when the established historical narrative was well enough known and widely accepted.  In 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore, claimed it for the British, and thereby set in progress a chain of events which led to this tiny island, which seems physically to be dropping off the bottom of the Malay Peninsula, becoming the modern city-state it is today.  Modern Singapore has an economic wealth, a stage of technological development and a visible infrastructure which is the envy of the world.  Even the former colonial power has in recent years looked on Singapore as an icon, especially in the fields of education and financial management.  What could possibly be wrong with celebrating that turning point in Singapore’s history by having a grand bicentennial in 2019?

As everyone who dabbles in history knows only too well, history is not about dates and people, it is about a continual reinterpretation of events as viewed through the prism of contemporary ethics and sensitivities.  At school we may have been taught dates, but in life we learn that history is not about what happened in the past but how we view in our time what happened in the past.  History, as they say, never stands still.

So the inevitable happened.  As soon as the events of 1819 were put into the spotlight in the run-up for the bicentennial, questions were asked and the old narrative shown not to be as straightforward as we once thought.  Forgetting doubts raised over Raffles’ physical involvement in 1819, or the questions raised over the year itself – did not a Scot named Hamilton come here earlier and try to claim Singapore for the British? – there were two elements in that narrative which no longer sit comfortably with the ethics and sensitivities of 2019 Singapore.  For a start, there is the idea that a “foreign” race should be responsible for Singapore’s development over the past 200 years.  That certainly does not play out with the current conviction that Asian people are fully equipped to handle their own destinies and can most certainly not be regarded as the chattels of, or inferior to, a peoples from Europe.  Then there is the very uncomfortable concept for a Chinese majority 21st century population, that it was the British who settled here before the Chinese.  Who can blame anyone for wanting to reassess history when the current narrative suggests that those who regard themselves as Singaporeans actually have shallower historic roots in the land where they live than those whom they regard as foreigners?

Consequently, we now have the ridiculous spectacle of the bicentennial desperately searching around to give credibility to Chinese roots in Singapore above British ones.  The world must find it extraordinarily funny when they see the banners, the posters, the postal frankings which advertise the Singapore bicentennial as celebrating “700 years of history”.  It’s unfortunate that just as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of what was once considered an important milestone in Singapore’s history, contemporary ethics and sensitivities demand that this was neither important nor a milestone.

But in one area we can still recognise 1819 as a turning point in Singapore’s history which had a beneficial effect on subsequent generations of whatever race and creed.  Whoever it was landed here in 1819 and claimed Singapore for the British crown, that person brought with him his military garrison which included a military band, and thus was brought into Singapore the first Western Music and the concept of music as an international, cross-cultural, non-ethnically-specific entertainment medium.  The rest is, as they say (wilfully ignoring the horrible implications of the word) history.

I read in one of the desperate strivings to distance Singapore’s last 200 years of development from European influence, that what came with Raffles was “English music”; as if, by some quirk of society, English music was of less significance than music from other countries.  (To give the exact quote from Loretta Marie & Audrey Perera’s Music in Singapore: from the 1920s to the 2000s; “With Sir Stamford Raffles came the first English music, and shortly after that, came Chinese and Indian music, with the immigrants of those two countries”.)  In 1819, nationalism had yet to rear its ugly head in music (ugly it most certainly was, since nationalism in music implies a supremacy based purely on nationality and a consequent diminution of other nationalities’ musical worth).  Certainly the Indian military bands which first provided musical entertainment to Singaporeans – and one of the first I can find recorded was the 58th Regiment Bengal Native Infantry Band who were stationed here in 1823 – may well have played some marches by English-born composers.  But I imagine they also played music by composers born elsewhere, and would not have felt that they were promoting a purely English music.

What defines Western music and effectively separates it from “Chinese and Indian music”, and equally the music of the once indigenous people of this island who are largely ignored in the popular narratives – perhaps because they were comprehensively overrun by invading Arab traders who took for themselves the term bumiputera (“people of the land”) – is that it is universal.  It uses a widely understood system of notation to transmit it across national, physical, cultural, ethnic and linguistic barriers.  Equipped with the ability to read musical notation, a Sierra Leonean, a Syrian, a Swede, a Singaporean are all equally able to recreate in sound not so much a musical idea as a whole art form, complete with its emotional significance.  There may be nuances of interpretation which differ, but in essence the original is recreated in sound every time anyone reads the notation.  That is unique to Western Music.  Other musics may have their own notational systems, but where these exist they are largely confined to those of the culture from which the music originates.  And the vast majority of non-Western musics (often loosely lumped together as “ethnomusic”) do not have a written system of notation, but rely on inter-generational one-on-one communication within the specific culture in which the music originated.

So, while we argue about who did what, when and why in Singapore’s history, let us celebrate 200 years during which one of the world’s most wonderful art forms embedded itself in Singapore society and has so greatly enriched the lives of Singaporeans, regardless of their ethnic, cultural or linguistic origins.  The best thing that could possible come out of this bicentennial is an awareness that Singapore has developed into a global power within the world of Western Music.  It is a huge part of the Singaporean heritage and needs to be celebrated as such.