25 June 2019

Musicians' Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 June 2019

Taking Music into the Wider Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 June 2019

A Recommended Fauré Requiem

Of all the Requiems ever written, I imagine that by Gabriel Fauré is by far and away the best-known and the best-loved.  Since it was not written for a specific performance occasion, and appears to have been conceived simply out of a desire by the composer to assuage some inner yearning, it does not exist in a single authoritative version, and was changed quite substantial over a number of years to suit various performing occasions.  As a result, those who talk of an "authentic" performing edition are talking rubbish - there is no such thing.  One thing is for sure, we very rarely hear it today in any kind of performance which would have rung true to those listening to it during the composer's lifetime.  Here, however, is a recording which has deliberately tried to recreate the sound of one of the performances which took place under the composer's direction and although I have no way of knowing how accurate this is, as a performance in its own right, it rings unusually true to me.  I would suggest this is one of the most rewarding and illuminating recordings ever made of the work, even if it sounds quite different from the norm.  I reviewed it for MusicWeb International and I reprint my review below.  Go their website for details of buying the disc.

Because of its long drawn-out gestation as well as the various performing versions which appeared during the composer’s lifetime, there is no such thing as a definitive version of Fauré’s Requiem. For much of the 20th century the preferred performing version, certainly so far as commercial recordings were concerned, was that involving a fairly large orchestra published in 1900 (much of the orchestration apparently undertaken by Fauré’s pupil, Jean Roger-Ducasse). As the century wore on, it became more and more inflated with huge orchestras and operatic soloists transforming the work into something far weightier than the composer ever intended. With the obsession with authenticity which came in tandem with the CD revolution, some musicologists looked back to the very first version Fauré created, and while those musicologists fought esoteric battles over quite what Fauré had originally written, the so-called 1888 version found itself popularised on CD, albeit in more than one allegedly “authentic” scoring. In between both of these extremes, comes the version scored for a relatively small-sized orchestra (violas, cellos, double-bass, horns, trumpets, trombones, timpani, harp and organ) which was first presented, according to Gabrielle Oliveira-Guyon’s booklet notes with this CD, at La Madeleine in Paris on 21st January 1893 under Fauré’s direction. It is not only that 1893 version that is recorded here, but a deliberate attempt to recreate the sound of that performance. We cannot call this the definitive Fauré Requiem, but I reckon this profoundly impressive recorded performance gets closer than any other of the many dozens I have heard in a long reviewing career to revealing Fauré’s true intentions in the work.

With no definitive performing version, all we really have to go on as to the composer’s thinking are his comments that “I composed it…just to please myself”. While the context of this quote – responding to criticism that the work was not religious enough – causes us to treat it with a certain scepticism, there seems little doubt that his intention was to offer solace and ease in the listener, rather than an expression of religious faith in the hereafter or a dramatic response to the ancient Latin text. And this is certainly a performance which has neither devotional nor dramatic impact, but presents in a measured, unhurried and unexaggerated manner the detail of the score with impeccable control.

Yet this is far more than a mere performance of the music, or a carefully-choreographed re-creation of a particular performing occasion, it evokes with disarming openness the distinct essentially simple, direct and comforting musical language of Fauré’s work in a way which seems wholly in keeping with the sound-world of late 19th century Paris. The most obvious reason for that 19th century sound is the use of authentic late 19th century French instruments along with the playing styles of the time – something in which the period-instrument group La Siècle specialises. These instruments, especially the horns, add a wonderful mellowness and richness to the sound, and with the totally vibrato-less playing of Sébastien Richaud, there is a deliciously innocent piping violin descant to the Sanctus.
Historical authenticity is not confined to the instruments, however. The singers of Ensemble Aedes pronounce the Latin text with distinct French vowel sounds in the style of French Latin pronunciation in the days before Pope Pius X issued his advice in 1904 on standardising the pronunciation of Latin in churches. As Mathieu Romano suggests in his own booklet essay, “the word lux (light) sung with a French u reveals all the brightness of the sound”, and because it is so very different from the usual Latin sound we have come to expect, it seems to shed an entirely novel light on this familiar text.

Romano himself maintains generally moderate and stately speeds, which sometimes catch you by surprise, but which create not just an overall feeling of calm and repose, but which, by avoiding histrionics, give real point to the rare moments of dramatic impact. With trumpets and timpani reinforcing the choir, the words dies illa, dies irae have real potency, while the In Paradisum is shorn of any sentimentality and simply exudes transcendent beauty.

The two vocal soloists are drawn from the ranks of the choir, which certainly concords with the practice of the original Paris performance. But more than that, it creates a feeling almost of the soloist as an organic growth rather than a superimposed voice. This is particularly important with the Pié Jesu, added to the Mass movements for the 1893 performance, where Roxane Chalard’s endearing voice seems merely a continuation of the vocal timbre from the preceding movements. For me, the most jaw-dropping moment in the entire performance is Mathieu Dubroca’s barely perceptible entry in the Offertoire. He seems almost to float in and carry on where the choir has left off; it is a moment of pure magic in a performance which is, in any event, well-endowed with magical moments.

Eschewing the obvious and customary companions of the Duruflé Requiem or Fauré’s own Cantique de Jean Racine Romano reinforces the idea of the Requiem as a work which “addresses itself to every one of us”, rather than as an expression of specifically Catholic faith, by drawing on secular choral works from Poulenc and Debussy.

I have reservations about describing Poulenc’s Figure humaine as secular, since the intensity with which he sets Paul Éluard’s words and the powerful emotional impact it had on the Parisians during the Nazi occupation, is nothing other than an expression of great religious zeal. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast of performances than between the Fauré and the Poulenc: while the former was controlled, calm and collected, the latter has a passion and a fervently dramatic edge which at times seems to push the singers to the very brink. It does tend to go over the top in places, the choir’s barking out the sneering laughter of Première marche la voix d’un autre effectively brushing aside any firm harmonic basis, while the final Liberté feels to be straining just a little too hard at the leash for the full effect to come across.

What is certainly not lacking in either the Poulenc or the Debussy Chansons de Charles d’Orléans is a forthright and impassioned delivery of the texts. Diction is superlative across the entire body of singers, and Martial Pauliat’s tenor solo for the second song, Quand j’ai ouy le tambourin is a model of flawless diction and poised phrasing. And if some might be wondering what a tenor is doing singing a solo usually assigned to an alto, the answer lies in the fact that this is not the usual version we hear but Debussy’s first draft which exists only in a preserved manuscript copy, which is quite different from what he submitted for publication in 1908; Oliveira-Guyon suggests that this is “no evolution…but a complete rewriting”. The first two songs receive impressively secure and committed performances. I am less sure about the third (Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain) where a certain sense of communal excitement amongst the singers leads to a slight lack of collective control.

Nevertheless, all these performances of three key works in the French choral repertoire share a vivid commitment to the music, an absolute conviction and a degree of intensity which transcends any niggling concerns over technical issues.

Classical Music concerts in Singapore in July

Here is my monthly list which is as comprehensive as I can make it.  Do get in touch if there is anything to add or you want an event included in future months.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019 6.00pm EST RS International Piano Island Festival Achilel Gallo (pno)
Tuesday, 2 July 2019 8.00pm EST RS International Piano Island Festival Philippe Cassard (pno)
Wednesday, 3 July 2019 6.00pm EST RS International Piano Island Festival Dario Cantela (pno)
Wednesday, 3 July 2019 7.30pm VCH The Choir of Christ's College Cambridge David Rowland (cond)
Wednesday, 3 July 2019 8.00pm EST RS International Piano Island Festival Poom Prommachart (pno)
Friday, 5 July 2019 7.30pm PPC Radiance Hallelujah Singers
Friday, 5 July 2019 8.15pm VCH Standing on the Shoulders of Giants ReSound
Saturday, 6 July 2019 4.30pm SGS Choir of Christ's College Cambridge David Rowland (cond)
Thursday, 11 July 2019 7.30pm VCH L'Invitation au voyage Zhou Zhengzhong (bar)
Friday, 12 July 2019 7.30pm ESP AX Zemlinsky - The Dwarf The Opera People
Sunday, 14 July 2019 5.00pm ESP AX Zemlinsky - The Dwarf The Opera People
Monday, 15 July 2019 7.30pm VCH Not the Big Three The Philharmonia Orchestra
Friday, 19 July 2019 7.30pm SOTA A Summer Recital Samuel Phua (saxophone), Lin Xiangnin (pno)
Thursday, 25 July 2019 7.30pm VCH Stairway to Heaven Steven Osborne (pno), SSO, Carlos Kalmar (cond)
Friday, 26 July 2019 7.30pm VCH Stairway to Heaven Steven Osborne (pno), SSO, Carlos Kalmar (cond)
Saturday, 27 July 2019 8.00pm BAA Through the Looking Glass British-Indian Music ca 1800
Sunday, 28 July 2019 4.00pm VCH SNYO Chamber Concert Singapore National Youth Orchestra
Sunday, 28 July 2019 8.00pm BAA Through the Looking Glass British-Indian Music ca 1800

ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall
ESP AX = Esplanade Annexe Studio
ESP RS = Esplanade Recital Studio
VCH = Victoria Concert Hall
PPC = Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church
SGS = Steinway Gallery, ION Mall, Orchard Road
BAA = Bhaskar's Arts Academy, Bras Basah Complex