Musical Riots

Whenever anyone observed that classical music was boring or elitist, someone else would usually counter with the tale of The Rite of Spring causing a riot at its Paris première in 1913.  I remember a colleague at university in the 1970s taking part in a radio phone-in which asked why classical music seemed to have such little effect on people’s lives; he told about Stravinsky’s score stirring up civil unrest, and voiced regret that modern music no longer had such power over its listeners.  You don’t hear people drawing attention to the Rite Riot so much these days, probably because riots are two-a-penny and they seem to be caused by nothing more than a bunch of bored lads getting drunk. 

Of course, it wasn’t Stravinsky’s score which caused the riot but the ballet that it accompanied.  And that, in its way, is even more remarkable.  That people should riot because a stage production involved a certain amount of open sexual antics and included an orgy seems astonishing in an age where people would be more likely to riot when a stage production does NOT include all that (and a lot more besides).

But there is no doubt that the notorious riot did Stravinsky’s reputation no harm at all, so, naturally, others who wanted to be seen as the Bad Boys of Music tried to follow suit.  Most obvious was the case of Prokofiev who deliberately set out to emulate the Stravinsky episode in his ballet Ala and Lolli.  But it rather misfired.  For a start, while his respectable and wealthy parents may have been shocked by the story of primitive rituals on the shores of the Black Sea, nobody else was, and the ballet was never staged.  Not one to be deterred, Prokofiev released just the music as his Scythian Suite and hoped to stir a riot that way.  To a certain extent he succeeded, but the riot was only from the orchestra – and who cares about them, orchestras can’t behave properly anyway – and from the terminally dull academics in the audience – whose idea of a riot is to utter rude things over their mugs of coffee.

That Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite has it in it to stir up a full-scale riot was made plain when the Singapore Symphony Orchestra played it last night.  This was powerful, riveting and truly violent stuff.  I’ve never heard the orchestra play so loudly before and, more than that, I’ve never heard the SSO strings show such steely determination to rise above the pounding percussion and blazon brass.  To say that they gave a committed performance is understating the case; this was sheer grit and determination and the result was astounding.  It would, one felt, have been even more astounding had Kristjan Järvi had a firmer hand on the tiller, but his ultra-relaxed, laid-back style, going with the flow and enjoying the moment, rather than exerting any real sense of shape to the music, certainly gave the orchestra its head, and, boy, did they grab the opportunity with both hands.

The Prokofiev was the highlight of a concert in which the orchestra had to play an astonishing number of very difficult notes in remarkably quick succession.  The SSO rarely let us down; it was astonishing the power the brass had left in them when it came to the opening fanfare of the Janáček Sinfonietta, which closed the programme, and while that power had largely burnt itself out by the time the piece drew to its mighty conclusion, there was still enough there to pull off a remarkable coup.  Most remarkable in the Janáček was Jonathan Fox’s incredibly well-tuned timpani (has any critic ever commented positively on timpani tunings before? It’s not something one notices as a rule) which, hammered out by very hard sticks, rang with all the melodic clarity of a bell. 

The problem with the concert – apart, that is, from a programme which was probably a little too unrelentingly colourful for both audience and orchestra – was that Järvi never really did anything to shape the music.  They may have been shortish pieces, but they still needed a sense of architecture which Järvi failed to deliver.  Neither did he do anything to draw out the many subtleties hidden in these four scores.  When the violins marched into Nielsen’s Marketplace at Isfahan (Aladdin Suite) like so many secret policemen at a Cairo riot, Järvi all but let the woodwind get trampled underfoot, losing the magic of that wonderfully dramatic moment when the strings walk away and we find the woodwind still there, singing with the same tune.  Orchestral ensemble was good, as the SSO will always be left to its own devices, but Järvi didn’t make it tight; everything seemed a little unfocused.

Such lack of subtlety and overall sense of fuzziness around the edges, made for a very uncomfortable account of the Scriabin Piano Concerto, but here the real problem lay in the Russian wunderkind, Yevgeny Sudbin.  He seemed on very unfamiliar territory indeed, feeling his way around the score and not helped by Järvi’s loose support. For most of the Concerto, only the orchestra seemed to know where they were going, but Sudbin usually managed to get in their way, clearly unaware that, unlike the Chopin concertos where the orchestra is very much the junior partner, Scriabin expects his orchestra to do something worthwhile.  Uneasy with the music’s all-too-frequent calls for delicacy, Sudbin was clearly anxious to get somewhere else.  Where that was remained a mystery until the Concerto was over; it certainly wasn’t the work’s ending he was eager to reach, that fell desperately flat.

It turned out to be the encores.  Clearly a man with a mission – the mission being to fit in as many as he could irrespective of whether they were called for or not – every time Sudbin appeared on stage to accept the applause, he sat down at the piano and rattled his way through a series of pieces (there was Rachmaninov, Scarlatti and something which could have been Shostakovich, but I don’t really care, I’d like not to hear it again) in which dazzling virtuosity was very much to the fore (and truly breathtaking it was in the Scarlatti) and musicianship just about non-existent.  He achieved his goal, though.  From the very lacklustre response the audience gave him for the Concerto (which was, after all, why he was there), by the end of the third encore, they were on their feet, ready, it would seem, to leap on stage and rip the poor man’s ill-fitting jacket off him in a bid to get him to dazzle them with some more lightning fingerwork.  There was a riot at this concert; a riotous scrum as autograph hunters scrambled to get the piano man’s autograph in the 20 minutes the Esplanade allocated for such dubious activities.

Sudbin had appeared on stage in a jacket so tight that he had to undo it before he could sit down at the piano – I’ve seen more fleshy beanpoles than Sudbin’s gaunt frame, so to find a jacket THAT tight was quite some achievement – and as he played he looked for all the world like some tired clerk who was late for work and forgot to put on his tie.  Järvi decided to wear the tightest pair of trousers – so tight that he periodically had to pull them down when they rucked up above the knee – and a body-hugging frock coat.  His frequent lifting of the feet also revealed to us a pair of shoes so new we could almost read the price tag on the soles.  Both men looked uncomfortable and faintly ridiculous from behind, and I am tempted to ask, not for the first time, why is it that conductors and soloists are increasingly tempted to wear unconventional and often inappropriate dress on stage?  I know that, for Singaporeans, attending a classical music concert is a dress down occasion (we had the ultimate disgrace of two baseball caps in the front row last night) but the artists really shouldn’t go down that route unless, God forbid, their real goal is to draw attention to themselves rather than the music they play.  There’s a very good reason why certain dress has been accepted as the norm on a concert platform, and before you change it you would do well to take a long and hard look at what you are going to wear before you foist it on your public; unless you do, there’s every chance you’ll create, not a riot, but riotous laughter.


Bruckner and the Can of Worms

Way back in 1970 I went to hear Jascha Horenstein conducting an unforgettable performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony at the Proms. It was the first time I’d ever heard a Bruckner symphony and I was spellbound. My next visit to the record shops found me scanning the racks for a recording of the work – I didn’t care who was performing it, I just wanted to get to know it better. I unearthed an unusual recording on the Telefunken label (and that isn’t a label which often graced UK shops) with Joseph Keilberth conducing the Hamburg State Philharmonic, and a very compelling performance this one turned out to be too. Thus began something of a love-affair with Bruckner symphonies. Within a few months I had added LPs of the third, fourth and sixth symphonies as well. I took a special liking to the Third (unbeknown to me I’d found a real classic of the recorded legacy of Bruckner; Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic) but the Ninth always remained dear simply because it was the first Bruckner symphony I’d ever heard. So when the Malaysian Philharmonic programmed a performance of the Ninth as its third season finale – the first time the MPO was ever to perform any Bruckner symphony – I was considerably excited.

Fairly early on in the season I was drawing up my programme note having never written about a Bruckner symphony before (although in my days with the Musical Times I had been sent for consideration an Urtext version of Bruckner’s complete choral music – volumes and volumes of the stuff – and had built up quite a fund of background knowledge on the man) and was proud of the result.

How naïve I was. Since then, whenever a Bruckner symphony has come up, my stress levels have gone through the roof and I’ve had sleepless nights worrying about getting my facts right.

The problem came to light during that first MPO performance of the Ninth. Sitting in my usual seat at the back of the stalls on the evening of Friday 13th July 2001 (and some will nod their heads sagely at the ominous date), my attention was pulled away from the gorgeous sounds Donald Runnicles was drawing from the MPO by a group of people in the row in front of me who, in the dim light, were poring over scores and casting disparaging glances at one another as what they heard and what they saw clearly diverged. I had encountered my first Bruckner Butchers; people who cut up and analyse every performance of the man’s music to compare against some unattainable ideal. It wasn’t long before they made their views known through, of all things, a letter to a national newspaper (I’ve often wondered if anyone in The Star’s editorial office had the foggiest idea what the letter was all about). Apparently the MPO had broken a fundamental rule of Bruckner performances; they had made use of a discredited edition. A day spent in the company of the then MPO librarian – a brilliant woman of incredible knowledge and consummate patience, Anna Hawkins – going over catalogues and emailing other librarians around the world, opened my eyes to the can of worms that is released every time anyone dares to perform a Bruckner symphony. I’d vaguely known about Bruckner’s pupils all playing around with his music after his death to come up with suitable performing editions, but Anna and I found an incredible thing; there were then, in the words of one authority we consulted, no less than “18 distinct symphonies by Bruckner” doing the rounds. This figure he derived from the many published versions of each work which differed so substantially as to be separate works; although you need to read the score to divine this, for me, much as I like them, I can’t help but feel all Bruckner symphonies sound more-or-less the same with their interminably reiterated sequences of two or three chords and unending sequences of cadences forever turning back on themselves. “We keep our Bruckner fanatics at bay by always announcing in advance which version we are to perform”, one librarian told us. That seemed like a good idea, and would ensure that our Bruckner Butchers would have the correct scores on their laps during the performance; but when I put it to Kees Bakels the following July when we closed the next season with Bruckner Eight, I got a charming and polite reply which, to paraphrase, went something along these lines; “Don’t tell the bastards. Let them rot in hell. If all that’s all they’re interested in, we don’t want them. In any case, I produce my own compilation from several different versions”. Ever since then Bruckner has spelled sleepless nights and months of anxious worry not just to me but to Anna’s hugely competent and delightfully affable successor, Khor Chin Yang who confessed the other day that “Bruckner always gives me a tremendous amount of stress”. He went on to divulge a great orchestral librarian secret; “It’s comforting to know that it’s the same across the globe among my colleagues in other orchestras. Graham Chambers, big burly guy who was with LSO, hid in the loo for half an hour for getting the wrong version!”

So when Claus Peter Flor programmed the Ninth again this season, alarm bells rang. I make it a part of my job to keep abreast of current musicological research which might have some bearing on future concert programme notes or other things I might one day have to write, and my scrapbook has, over the past 10 years, accumulated a disproportionate amount of new stuff on Bruckner Nine. It all began when Nikolaus Harnoncourt released his outstanding recording of the work with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2003 (RCA 82876 54332-2). It contained two discs, the first given over to a lengthy discussion and demonstration of the fourth movement, which I had dismissed back in my 2001 notes as having been left by Bruckner merely as “several sketches” which, despite a few attempts, were not sufficient to provide a complete symphonic finale. So when I saw on the schedule that Maestro Flor had devoted several hours to rehearsing the Fourth Movement, I assumed he was going to perform a four-movement version and my immediate concern was to find out whose completion he was to use.

(For those who are interested, the latest research tells us that Bruckner had actually written the last movement and was merely polishing it up when he died. Unfortunately, when they laid him out in his coffin and called in the students and admirers to gawp at the corpse, they presented each visitor with a sheet of manuscript paper as a souvenir. Those manuscript sheets were actually the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, so it was immediately dispersed, and it is only in the past few years that people have actively sought to relocate them all and set them into some sort of order. As it happens, the very last page was found and from that it was clear that Bruckner had composed a movement of some 665 bars. So far, pages totalling 569 bars have been recovered, which just leaves 96 to be found (Harnoncourt puts out an appeal on his disc for collectors to rifle through their attics just to see if one of the missing pages is there). As a result some pretty authoritative completions have been made and while the Bruckner world awaits the recovery of those missing pages and the final assembly of the complete movement, it’s become fairly commonplace for performances to include the fourth movement in one completion or another.)

 When I contacted Chin Yang to find out which completion the MPO was to play, I inadvertently opened up the Bruckner Can of Worms again, for he had hired and prepared a version which included just the first three movements (for the Bruckner Butchers, it’s the Novak edition – which won’t help you at all since there are several!). He had no music for, nor knowledge of a fourth movement, and a certain amount of horror ensued. It ended up with Chin Yang releasing a detailed minute of a conversation he had with the Maestro in which he confirmed that just three movements were to be performed (what the MPO will do with the extra rehearsal time assigned for the fourth movement remains a mystery – perhaps they’ll choose to spend a few happy hours in conversation with the Petronas Board). That a single composer should cause this much trouble and anxiety is pretty remarkable, but that’s Bruckner for you.

 Three or four movements, Novak or Schalk, nine symphonies, 11 symphonies or 18 should be immaterial. The fact remains that a Bruckner symphony in performance is something not to be missed. Perhaps it’s the organist in me, but I just adore his use of sound; it’s like an organist improvising and pulling out fistfuls of stops as he explores various sonorities over a well-thumbed chord sequence. And, with his understanding and knowledge of the organ, not to mention his background steeped in the traditions of Bruckner, I would reckon that Claus Peter Flor is going to come up with a pretty devastating reading of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in Kuala Lumpur on 26th and 27th February. Irrespective of the number of movements he decides to perform, it promises to be a highlight of the season.


Singapore’s Operatic Bellwether

Much of this week has been spent discussing with various people Singapore’s position as a centre for the arts both regionally and internationally.  The consensus of opinion seems to be that while the infrastructure is in place for Singapore to be a major arts capital – outstanding venues for just about every conceivable artistic presentation, a world-class music conservatory and excellent college and university courses for budding artists in every discipline, superb arts education both private and school-based at every level, a keen and large potential audience for all branches of the arts, and generous and committed commercial and, above all, governmental support – those who support and promote the arts do not yet possess the critical maturity to differentiate between the second rate and the good.  Where the second-rate is accepted as the norm, there is no incentive for the arts scene to raise its game to become properly world-class.  On top of that, there is a wide-spread failure amongst audiences and local arts managers to appreciate that a nation’s artistic credentials are measured not in who it produces but who it attracts.  A great arts hub wants the very best from across the globe to shine from its territory; it doesn’t devote all its energies into encouraging local talent to shimmer.  You only need to look across the Causeway into Malaysia to see how that attitude is stifling the arts scene there.

Nowhere is that failure to cross the barrier between locally good and internationally acceptable more clearly felt than in the area of classical music.  Singapore boasts some of the most committed and enthusiastic choirs I have ever encountered; but local choral directors have to learn that the job of a choir is to make music, not to win competitions.  I know better than most – because I’m so often asked to adjudicate at choral competitions – that making great music is poles apart from winning a competition.  Similarly, local piano teachers spend all their time pushing their students to gain distinction in their exams at the lowest possible age, and have no idea that learning the piano is all about developing and enriching individual artistic sensitivities.  Local organists seem to huddle together in a tight circle, inspecting each other’s navels and doing their damndest to avoid the scrutiny of the general public (but there again, organists are like that the world over).  And perhaps most sad is the case of local orchestras who happily allow local audience appreciation to be their goal and never quite raise their game to truly international standards when playing at home.  You only need to hear the Singapore Symphony on tour or on record to know that, unconsciously, they offer the local audience a very different and inferior product to that which they provide to the overseas market. 

It all boils down to a local audience having low expectations, largely because they have no exposure to anything better.  It doesn’t help that local concert promoters have similarly narrow horizons.  Why, for example, did nobody tell the Berlin Philharmonic when they came to Singapore that audiences could take rather more than the elementary programmes that they foist on to us?  Despite the fuss and expense, many realistically compared them with the SSO; something which would be a joke if the boot was on the other foot and the SSO had played to the audience in the Berlin Philharmonie.

I maintain that a nation can never produce great artists until it can provide an environment in which great art becomes an accepted norm; and that involves having outstanding foreign talent dominating the scene for a while at least.  That’s not the case in Singapore at the moment, and it’s hardly surprising that, despite all those Singaporeans passing through the great music conservatoires of the world, very, very few hold their own in an international context, even if they are lauded and admired back home.  I moved to Singapore two years ago and my burning ambition now is never to live anywhere else, but if I have to go, I’d like to think that I leave behind a place to which I can proudly point to my new neighbours and say; “I was part of the classical music scene in one of the greatest arts centres of the world”.  Before coming to Singapore, I spent a quarter of a century living in Malaysia and it is a matter of the greatest regret to me that, despite the phenomenal MPO, classical musical activity generally in Malaysia is no better now than it was when I first arrived; indeed, when I did some music examining in Malaysia last year, I was horrified to find that the execrable standards that had shocked me so much during my first examining stint there in 1985 had not significantly changed.  I first examined in Singapore in 1987; I’ve never done so again, and I wonder what I’d find if I did.  I’m not too optimistic at the moment.

So, determined to do my bit to raise musical standards in Singapore, I decided to attend the Singapore Lyric Opera’s production of Carmen making no critical allowances for the fact that this was a locally-based group who had achieved fantastic things despite all sorts of trials and tribulations over the course of its 20 year history.  I’ve read the background, spoken to the movers and shakers, and know that, by anyone’s standards, SLO’s rise in standards has been pretty astonishing.  But let’s ignore that.  Let’s treat them as one would treat any opera company in Europe or north America.  I’ve given up my Friday evening, I’ve paid for a pair of tickets (admittedly disgustingly little – as a fairly frequent visitor to opera houses across Europe, any ticket which doesn’t require a bank-loan seems disgustingly cheap to me), and I want to be impressed.  I know Carmen inside out, I’ve heard some of the world’s greatest companies and singers perform it on stage, and I’m not going to be satisfied with anything even remotely mediocre, even if people want me to “make allowances” for the fact that it is a Singapore company.  Why?  Is DBS a worse bank than BNP because it’s based in Singapore?  Does SIA have lower standards of safety and service than BA?  Of course not – in fact in both cases the opposite is true – so why don’t we have expectations that Singapore-based arts companies are on a par-  if not better than – those in Paris, Vienna or London?

From the start the omens were good.  When we went to the box office (or rather more prosaically, and far less efficiently, the local SISTIC outlet) we were told that Friday and Saturday were sold out.  We didn’t ask about later performances, but a little bit of cajoling managed to get us two tickets in a hidden box to one side of the stage.  If a relatively small place like Singapore can fill its grand theatre for opera two, if not four, nights running, then there is certainly a very healthy audience for opera.  And I must commend the audience.  They were extraordinarily attentive, well behaved and alert to the nuances of the work.  They applauded generously when it was appropriate, kept silent when things were not to their liking, cheered the good and kept mum for the less good, watched in rapt silence when the drama was at its height and laughed at the right places (and here’s a great Singapore achievement; the surtitles – odd translations as they were – unfailingly kept absolutely in synch with the singing – and that doesn’t often happen even in the best opera houses in the world).  This audience wasn’t making allowances for any perceived Singaporean shortcomings.

And, to be fair, there were not many significant shortcomings.  The SLO Orchestra were pretty astonishing, the occasional wind intonation and collapsing instrumental solos nothing more than you might expect from any opera company orchestra playing in a pit for the first night of a production.  In fact, I have heard a lot worse in Carmen and would suggest that the orchestra playing would have stood up to fairly close scrutiny from the most astute audiences anywhere in the world.  Of course, much of that was down to the conductor, Joshua Kangming Tan, who was, by any standards, very good indeed.  He kept a very tight rein on everything, made it clear to his players what was needed (from our hidden box we had a bird’s eye view of the goings-on in the pit, and pretty controlled they were too) and must have been Manna from Heaven to the singers on stage who were provided with a clear, unequivocal and always genial beat.  I was amazed to read that it was his first full length opera, and I suspect he’ll find himself in opera house pits the world over; on Friday’s showing he is already far better than a great many opera conductors whose names are familiar to those outside Asia.

The Chorus, too, was very good.  There were an awful lot of them on stage an awful lot of the time.  So many, in fact, that their movements were largely confined to strictly choreographed shuffles from one side of the reduced stage to the other and back again.  But if you closed your eyes you not only heard some outstanding choral singing, you also heard impressive power and the collective strength to sing out into the theatre.  Chorus Master Khor Ai Ming had done wonders on these singers’ projection; there were no problems of balance between chorus and orchestra, even if within the band, the low brass sometimes were given too much head.  In the interval I did overhear one audience member suggesting that the quality of the chorus was due to the injection of numbers from China; this was, after all, billed as a collaboration between the National Centre for the Performing Arts in China and the SLO.  But what of it?  It called itself a Singapore production and if a Singapore production attracted excellent singers from overseas, so much the better for Singapore. 

Musically, the most impressive of all was the children’s choir.  Bizet could never have envisaged a children’s choir of such polish and self-assurance and, indeed, their very musical discipline and poise on stage rather undermined the character of urchins they were supposed to be playing.  Usually the children’s chorus in Carmen is coarse and ragged – I am certain this is what Bizet expected – but this was tightly disciplined and musically of the very highest order.

Of the soloists, Lee Jae Wook (Don José) would have stood his ground in the most august company.  He had presence, authority and had such vocal command that he was totally convincing in the role, even when the production turned his final act of desperation to secure Carmen’s love into a kind of demented religious zealot being persecuted by invisible demons.  The other hugely impressive voice on stage was Li Yang (Micaela) who exuded that curious blend of country-girl innocence and steely determination which surprisingly few manage to covey in this captivating but often elusive role.  Once or twice she had to fight to make herself heard, but for the most part hers was an easy and effective vocal delivery which, like, Lee’s, would have not disgraced the stage of the world’s most elevated opera houses. 

There were some pretty impressive voices in supporting roles too.  Zhu Feng Jia was an outstanding Morales, relaxed, soldierly and totally in command of himself.  Cerylene Liew and Satsuki Nagatome (Frasquita and Mercedes) gave a captivating Card Scene, their astonishing vocal blend making them sound more like twin sisters than voices drawn from two ends of Asia.  William Lim (Zuniga) certainly sung well, but his characterisation was too genial to make real sense; when he was finally shot in the head, one imagined that under the black hood he was still grinning from ear to ear.

The casting of Sophie Fournier as Carmen was inspired.  She had the sensuous voice, the voluptuous looks and the erotic movements to make any red-blooded soldier fall for her.  Unfortunately, she didn’t seem to have the stamina and too often what started well ended up, both musically and dramatically, very flat.  And in an act of almost grotesque miscasting, Huang Rong Hai turned out to be a wholly unconvincing Escamillo,  Too scrawny both vocally and physically to command the role – in a straight fight with a dead sheep he might have come out on top, but face to face with a living, snorting bull, he wouldn’t have stood a chance – he only really came into his own in his act three duet with Don José when he appeared on stage dressed for all the world like a bishop, and sounding much like one too.

Sadly, it all fell apart with David Edwards’s dire production, which had all the charisma of a school play.  The action was forced so far to a small part of the front of the stage by the static set that there simply wasn’t the space for anyone to do any serious acting.  I’ve already suggested the chorus was too big to be on stage in its entirety so much of the time.  But why was the entire chorus always put out there? This huge milling crowd might have escaped notice amongst the throngs along Orchard Road on a Saturday afternoon in the run-up to Chinese New Year, but they failed to convince me that they were a bunch of bandits hiding from the law.  The production had them strictly partitioned at every stage into their voice groups (do wild mountain gypsies practice such strict sexual segregation in private?), and as they marched and shuffled pointlessly around the stage like so many refugees, images of Jews being marched off to the gas chambers inadvertently sprang to mind. 

The simple set, which required no changes throughout the entire length of the opera, made sense and was used well, but what was the obsession with chairs? They crowded out the stage in the first half as if, once the opera was over, there was going to be a political rally (or a church one – is that why Huang had his bishop’s gear to hand?).  There were chairs everywhere, piled in clumps, assembled in rows and put into squares, at one point they were even assembled to look like the downstairs of an SBS Transit bus.  They provided a useful prop for those on stage, nervously wondering what to do with their hands, to clutch on to, but that’s what rank amateurs do; the SLO deserved better.  Thankfully all the chairs seemed to have been taken into the bullring for the final act, but the echo of their noisy feet on the stage remained. 

The lighting, too, didn’t quite know what it was all about. Pretty good for the best part of the performance, I didn’t like the quasi-laser display at the end of Act 2 and as for the disco ball which suddenly appeared, did a couple of listless revolutions, and then disappeared again, that was a moment of sheer farce.  Intensely irritating rather than merely farcical, and extremely distracting, was the continual back projection of grainy black-and-white photographs which served no purpose other than to provide some movement (when the slides changed) above the stasis on stage.  When the women poured out and stood in front of the screen, it looked more like a line-up of cinema usherettes than cigarette-factory employees, and to see a real toreador standing over a slain bull only reinforced Huang’s physical inadequacies in the role. 

The SLO’s Carmen perfectly reflected the view that Singapore arts stop short of the outstanding simply because nobody trusts the performers to raise their game.  We had great music-making and some world-class performances, but in the end it didn’t stand up because the production brought everything down to the most basic level.


A Determined Audience

The ability the powers-that-be at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, Kuala Lumpur, have to shoot themselves repeatedly in the foot yet still keep on walking as if nothing has happened never ceases to amaze. This week has seen two potentially catastrophic acts of unbelievable ineptitude, neither of which will create even the tiniest ripple in the consciousness of those who are responsible. Lessons will not be learnt and such potential disasters will be repeated in the future, but I have every faith that audiences will, with their characteristic and often incredible stoicism, take it all in their stride and continue to flock in, assuming that such incompetence is the norm in classical music circles.

It isn’t generally, but it is in the case of the Malaysian classical music scene, and the fact that so few people seem to be perturbed by it all makes me marvel at the determination of the Malaysian audience to support concerts and recitals despite the best endeavours of those who organise them to keep them away.

The stoicism seems, incredibly, to have affected me, too. In the past I might have been hopping mad at the all-out efforts the DFP management made to sabotage the organ recital on Sunday. Not a single notice or announcement was displayed in the building, those who tried to obtain tickets the day before were told that the recital was sold out but they should visit the box office on the day of the recital in case of returns, nobody opened the box office on the day until minutes before the recital was due to start, no staff were detailed to act as ushers and the hall remained firmly shut until a motley assortment of security guards, backstage crew and telephone sales people came to the rescue. Five minutes before the recital was due to start and I was running around trying to find people to open up the hall, queues snaked up and down both the staircases outside the hall, while dozens of people were still queuing at the box office. But no one was complaining. They all waited patiently and cheerfully, well aware of the problems but full of faith that things would, as always, sort themselves out…which they did with astonishing success. Even as the audience settled into their seats (something not easy since half the tickets were assigned to specific seats and the rest free seating), the house lights dimmed and the pre-concert announcement was broadcast, I went backstage, changing as I walked, and went out on stage only a few minutes behind schedule.

Sad to report to those dozens (maybe hundreds) who were turned away, we did have well over 50 empty seats, and I’m sorry you missed it. But when I spoke afterwards to the audience members who did gain entry, nearly all of them said they were used to such things, that it was all “part of the fun”. A German couple reported how they refused to take the “full house” response from the box office at face value and refused to budge until either a chart showing the seating plan was displayed or tickets issued. A family from Penang reported how Mum and one child stood in the queue on the steps while Dad and the other spent 30 minutes in the queue for the box office. A KL student reported how he had booked his ticket in advance only to be told, when he arrived to collect it, that no advance bookings had been accepted; yet he merely insisted on a ticket despite being told none was available. To the DFP audience, such shenanigans are part and parcel of attending a classical music concert, and I even get the impression that some positively relish the challenge of screwing tickets out of the box office and getting into concerts which seem, to all outward appearances, to be barred to the public.

 I did apologise publicly to the audience for the obvious failings of the DFP management, and do so again now. I won’t take these issues up with them – it’s really not worth it, for no matter what they tell me, the same will happen next time – but I would ask the audience to accept that these things happen in KL and they must be prepared. It is rather exciting, too, that our Sunday morning recitals are attracting such a huge and dedicated crowd, and rather than apologise for managerial inefficiencies, I am happier to issue my heartfelt thanks to the support and enthusiasm of the audience. The question-and-answer session after the recital turned out to be most interesting and, by popular request, will be repeated at future recitals.

The next scheduled recital will be on Sunday 3rd April at 11.30am, and will consist mostly of baroque music for organ and trumpets. It will also feature an all-too-rare appearance of the delightful six-stop chamber organ which spends most of its time gathering dust in the bowels of the Twin Towers. The full programme details will be posted up here in the next few weeks, but you would do well to get hold of your free tickets as soon as possible. Don’t order them by phone or wait until the day, the box office don’t work that well. Don’t rely on DFP publicity to remind you of the recital’s date, there won’t be any. And don’t despair when you turn up on the day to see huge crowds milling behind closed doors, you’ll be let in in time for the recital even if it’s left to an organist and two trumpeters to unlock the doors, tear the tickets, show you to your seats and make sure the toilets are clean!

But it’s not just the organ recitals that suffer from this endemic ineptitude. For reasons which this blog can not divulge, it has been seen fit to dispense with the services of MPO Conductor Emeritus Kees Bakels for this weekend’s concert. As a result, the glorious Elgar Symphony No.1 is out and, for the zillionth time, the MPO will hear Claus Peter Flor’s take on Dvořák 9. I have huge admiration for Flor, but he’s not the world’s most inspiring Dvořákian, and Symphony 9 needs something special to justify yet another performance. It may be there, but I somehow doubt it. Coming after the brilliant pair of concerts during which the MPO were on truly inspired form under the magnificent Costa Rican conductor Giancarlo Guerrero (concerts which many in the orchestra and audience considered among the finest the MPO has ever performed) this weekend’s offering will seem very tame. Flor, for his part, is a riveting conductor in a way that Bakels never could be, but Flor is also an inconsistent conductor, while Bakels’ great strength has always been his astonishing consistency. You know that a Bakels performance will be a good one; you gamble on whether a Flor one will be a great one. I admire both men hugely, but to lose one in favour of the other is an act of, as I say, catastrophic ineptitude which the Malaysian audience may take in its stride but will, ultimately, be the poorer.

We cannot afford to lose as respected, honoured and musically intense a man as Kees Bakels, and for once, I would hope the Malaysian audience might eschew stoicism and register their dismay at the sudden departure of a man without whom the MPO would not exist.


Wedding Planners

Attending the Trinity Examiners’ Conference held in a plastic hotel in the English midlands, I escaped last night for a quiet and real dinner in a country pub; and jolly nice it was.  A beer called Hobgoblin (of which I had never previously heard) washed down a lovely and warming beef stew – about as far removed from plastic hotel food as you could get.  A wonderful evening!

More than that, I was not surrounded by eager examiners all discussing the merits of the last grade 1 they gave 100 per cent to or the rival horror stories of diploma candidates crashing below the 20 barrier, and could indulge in one of my favourite  past-times; sitting alone by a log fire, sipping ale and eavesdropping on others’ conversations.  The two tables nearest me provided enough entertainment to keep even my prurience satisfied and put the icing on the cake of a wholly enjoyable evening.

In the Window Corner was a foursome dominated (aren’t they always?) by a serious-minded, humourless and loud-voiced lady of middle age who was fighting her husband in the courts over a divorce settlement.  (If everything she said was true, the husband’s antics and lies  would have made Osama bin Laden blanch with horror!  Unfortunately, it sounded as if the judge was not so sure that her claims held up and, as she saw it, the judge regarded her husband as a far finer figure in his goodness to his fellow men than Mother Theresa of Calcutta.)

In a juxtapositon which even a radio drama producer couldn’t have bettered, in the Alcove Corner sat a couple of women – dominated by a Honey-voiced lady (also in middle age) who oozed sincerity and love – planning the younger (quieter) one’s wedding.  And after a few minutes of relishing the irony of divorce and marriage in living stereo, it suddenly struck me what Honey-Voice was.  She was a Wedding Planner!

Now I’ve heard jokes about Wedding Planners, seen them on TV “reality shows” and heard horror stories concerning them, but until then I’d never realised they existed outside Los Angeles.  And, listening to this one, a long-standing mystery about a wedding at which I had played the organ was resolved.  I had been a victim of a Wedding Planner!

Among the catalogue of things being discussed was the music.  Here’s part of the Honey Voice monologue (for that’s what it really was):  “Coming in, you can have Purcell’s Trumpet Tune (she sang it in a more than pleasing contralto, and I was quite sorry when she reached, after several bars, a delightful cadence). “or The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” (another great – and highly animated – vocal delivery).  “The alternative is Here Comes The Bride ” (a third vocal recital, this involving Wagner), “but that’s a bit common these days.  Going out you can have Widor’s Toccata”  (the sung version was an object lesson in simplifying all those right hand semiquavers and turning them into coherent vocal music).  “Some people used to have Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, which is very nice if you like that sort of thing” (regrettably, only edited highlights were sung, this obviously being Too Common for Our Lady of the Wedding Plans) “and if you want to be adventurous you can have The Water Music” (no excerpt was sung, so we’re not sure which movement is recommended to the Brides of Northamptonshire).  

How I wanted to intervene and add a few choice morsels of my own; Coming in: Wills Fanfare, Mathias Processional, C S Lang Fanfare in D. Going out:Vierne Finale, Dupre Prelude in B, Lanquetuit Toccata), but the Golden Rule of eavesdropping is never to expose yourself to your prey, so I kept my own counsel.  But how I wanted to learn more.  Was the organ up to such pieces?  Most village organs and organists can muster enough for Wagner and Mendelssohn (which is why they are so ubiquitous), but few can manage the Queen of Sheba and even fewer the Widor; had Wedding Planner taken this into consideration?

When I was a church organist, I would sit down with brides (and, unfailingly, their mothers) and go over the music choices with them, knowing what I could play and what the organ could handle.  I remember a bride mum desperate for her daughter to walk into Karg-Elert’s Nun Danket; but on a one-manual organ with no pedals and with an aisle which a one legged man without a stick could traverse in 20 seconds, I was able to persuade her that it was an impracticable choice.  I also recall the 50-ton (or so it seemed) bride determined to walk in to the Bridal Chorus (which is customarily sung by English choirboys to the words “Here comes the bride, all fat and wide”).  Knowing the inevitable giggles if she did, I was able to put her on to a chubby Fanfare by C S Lang and the dignity of the occasion was salved.

Wedding music is important and needs to be thought out.  It sets the scene, it creates the atmosphere, it is remembered (not least on the inevitable video).  How dare an ignorant Wedding Planner with a nice voice but clearly no real musical knowledge make these important decisions without consulting the organist first.  It’s a recipe for disaster, and while it might take some of the burden off the bride’s preparations, in my experience brides quite like all the panic and chaos of planning their own weddings.  In my case, my bride planned it all in 24 hours; the vagaries of the Malaysian system resulting in us not knowing we were going to be allowed to get married until the day before it actually took place.  (Luckily a cathedral musician was staying with me and he was able to double as best man and organist in Kuching cathedral –  and nobody there will ever forget Gareth Cowell’s improvised  Wedding March, a curious but wholesome mixture of Aleatoric music, 12-note scales, Wagner and Procul Harum.)

Seething with anger at the presumtuousness of the Wedding Planner, I suddenly realised what was at the root of the last wedding for which I ever played.  It took place in a humble Buckinghamshire church with an ancient and decrepit organ on which seven stops worked on the most heavy and uneven tracker action you could have ever envisaged, and the pedals clattered so loudly that the drawing of the sole 16 foot bourdon was a waste of time.  I was never consulted on the music, and assumed it would be a normal village affair (I was doing it because I was a friend of the family).  A week before I flew to the UK for the wedding, an email arrived with the music details.  The bride was to come in to Bach’s mighty Chorale Prelude on Nun Danket and they were to go out to Henry Smart’s Prelude in D.  I’d never played either, and had to get the Smart from a US colleague who kindly faxed over the pages.  I was glad I had the DFP Klais to practice on, for the Smart is a true virtuoso piece with a huge and spectacular pedal line.  What with this concert piece as well as the lengthy Bach, I assumed a church of cathedral proportions, but when I turned up for a practice a couple of hours beforehand, I was appalled at what I found.  Too late do anything, I worked out how to condense the Smart on to seven stops and no pedals (just played the theme and then stopped – as it turned out the whole crew were out of the church by that time) but had no idea how to curtail the Bach, which is one of those pieces which, once begun, has to make its way in its own leisurely way uninterrupted to the end.  Come the bride (a little light flashed on the organ), I embarked on the Bach, but as nobody recognised it as the entry piece, I turned it into an improvisation, put in those famous fanfare Fs from the Wagner, got the audience to their feet, and then simply played the chorale theme.

Afterwards the happy couple congratulated me – “Loved the Music.  What was that lovely piece you played as I came in?” – while the parents oozed joy at the “Wonderful celebratory feel you gave with that last piece”.  Clearly, none of them had any idea of what the music they had chosen sounded like.  Yet, these were very rare and specific requests and until last night I had no idea how they had come about.  Now I do.  It was a Wedding Planner.

Memo to All Brides.  Don’t allow Wedding Planners to decide on music even if they are honey-voice contraltos, otherwise you’ll be at the divorce courts in no time at all.


Composer Centenaries 2011

In advance of each new year I customarily make a list of all the minor composer anniversaries and try to include as many as possible in my radio broadcasts and in concert programmes, both ones I give and ones I help compile for others. Some years ago, while working for a South African radio station, I devised a series of two-hour long radio programmes, “Anniversaries”, which went out once a month on various classical music radio stations around the world and included music with a special significance for the month. It’s an easy way of adding unusual repertoire to concerts and it highlights the work of composers who have been forgotten or whose music gets passed over by programme-planners with what we might call a Taste Agenda.

Of course, we don’t need to promote the work of the major composers, yet we do – look at the surfeit of Mahler going on at the moment what with death and birth anniversaries in consecutive years – and the trouble is, when a major composer has an anniversary, nobody else gets a look-in. What, I ask, happened to Samuel Barber’s centenary? Poor old fellow shared his anniversary with Chopin and Schumann, so he got pushed completely out of the picture. How nice it would have been to have one of the symphonies, the piano or cello concertos or, indeed, any of the songs to remind us that the Violin Concerto, School for Scandal and Adagio for Strings were not the only things he composed.

2011 marks Liszt’s bi-centenary, so we can expect wall-to-wall Liszt come October 22nd. But I HATE almost every note Liszt wrote, and, determined not to have to suffer any more of it than is absolutely necessary, I have been very active in promoting the others. (Mind you, lots of Liszt may reverse my view: I used to like Mahler, but a year of back-to-back GM has driven it out of me and now I shudder at the thought of yet another overblown piece of grotesquerie masquerading as a symphony!) On the whole, though, I suspect my championing of forgotten composers’ birthdays will be to no avail. But it’s fun to try and to help matters along at the Malaysian Philharmonic – where, almost deliberately it seems to me, they shun any anniversary in their programming – I’m giving a couple of pre-concert talks about composers whose anniversaries fall during 2011. It will be illustrated with lots of lovely musical extracts, so if you can make it on either Saturday 15th Jan and 6.30pm or Sunday 16th Jan at 3.00pm, do come along; I’d love to put the musical extracts up on to his blog, but I lack both the time and the knowledge!

But for those who can’t attend or those who want to know more, here is the list of composers born 500, 400, 300, 200 and 100 years ago. I’d love to cash in on the death anniversary scene – that way I could add both York Bowen and Percy Grainger (died 50 years ago) to the mix – but 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death too, so I don’t want to go there.

 500 Years;

Robert Morecock (English church music composer, 1511-1582)

Osbert Parsley (English church music composer, 1511-1585)

Nicola Vicentino (Italian madrigal composer, 1511-1576)

400 years:

Thomas Brewer (English composer who lived up to his name and turned to alcohol, 1611-1660)

Pablo Bruna (Spanish composer of organ music, 1611-1679)

Andreas Hammerschmidt (Bohemian composer of sacred music, 1611-1675)

 Domenico Obizzi (Italian vocal composer, 1611-1630)

Carlo Rainaldi (Italian composer of sacred music, 1611-1691)

Felician Schwab (German composer of sacred music, 1611-1661)

Valentin Strobel (German lute composer 1611-1669)

 300 years:

Maria Barbara (Portuguese composer and Queen of Spain who was famously a pupil of Scarlatti, 1711-1758)

Charles-Henri de Blainville (French composer and cellist, 1711-1769)

Giuseppe Bonno (Austrian composer of operas and sacred music, 1711-1788)

William Boyce (English composer and Master of the King’s Musick, 1711-1779)

Jean-Baptiste Cupis de Camargo (Belgian composer and horseman, 1711-1778)

Johann Gräfe (German postman who wrote songs, 1711-1787)

Ignaz Holzbauer (Viennese composer who settled in Mannheim, 1711-1783)

 John Keeble (English organist and composer, 1711-1786)

Gaetano Latilla (Neapolitan composer of more than 50 operas, 1711-1788)

Pierre-Joseph Le Blan (Belgian composer specialising in clock chimes, 1711-1765)

 Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville (French composer and violinist, 1711-1772)

Johann Baptist Neruda (Czech composer who wrote 97 works, 1711-1776)

James Oswald (Scottish composer of instrumental music, 1711-1769)

David Perez (Neapolitan composer of operas and sacred music, 1711-1778)

Peregrinus Pögl (German monk who wrote incredibly dull music, 1711- 1788)

Juan Moreno Polo (Spanish composer of organ music, 1711-1786)

Johann Gabriel Sayffarth (German composer of songs and symphonies, 1711-1796)

 Domingo Terradellas (Spanish composer of Italian operas, 1711-1751)

Joseph Umstatt (Austrian composer of symphonies, 1711-1762)

Giuseppe Venturelli (Italian composer of instrumental music, 1711-1775).

200 years;

James Cox Becket (American composer of unusually colourful music, 1811-1905)

Gaetano Capocci (Italian composer of sacred music, 1811-1898)

Angelo Catelani (Italian composerwho gave up writing operas after he heard one by Verdi, 1811-1866)

Félix Le Couppey (French composer of educational pieces for piano, 1811-1887)

Ferdinand Hiller (German composer of symphonies and concertos, 1811-1885)

Christian Hohmann (German composer of light music, 1811-1861)

 Benedict Jucker (Swiss composer, great-grand-pupil of Bach, 1811-1876)

Samuel de Lange (Dutch composer for the organ, 1811-1884)

Ann Mounsey (English song composer, 1811-1891)

August Gottfried Ritter (German organist and composer, 1811-1885)

 Louis Sehindelmeisser (German opera composer, 1811-1864)

 Jan Nepomuk Škroup (Czech composer of sacred music, 1811-1892)

Giovanni Speranza (Italian opera composer, 1811-1850)

Wilhelm Taubert (German composer and friend of Mendelssohn, 1811-1891)

Ambroise Thomas (French opera composer whose Mignon had over 1000 performances in less than 30 years, 1811-1896)

Arthur Henry Dyke Troyte (English song-writer, 1811-1857)


100 years:

Jehan Alain (French composer killed on military service, 1911-1940)

 René Amengual (Chilean composer of piano music, 1911-1954)

Mario Ruiz Armengol (Mexican composer of folk songs and dances, 1911-2002)

Raffaele d’Alessandro (Swiss composer of concertos, 1911-1959)

José Ardévol (Cuban composer of 130 works, 1911-1981)

Bruno Bartolozzi (Italian avant-garde composer, 1911-1980)

Stanley Richard Bate (English composer of 5 piano concertos, 1911-1959)

Paul Burkhard (Swiss composer of stage works, 1911-1977)

Erik Bergman (Finnish composer, 1911-2006)

Ján Cikker (Slovakian opera composer, 1911-1989)

Bernadino Custodio (Filipino composer of orchestral music, 1911-2001)

Gábor Darvas (Hungarian composer of Electronic music, 1911-1985)

 Charles Faulkner Bryan (American composer of educational music, 1911-1955)

Arkady Filipenko (Ukrainian ship-builder turned composer, 1911-1983)

Roberto Garcia Morillo (Argentinean composer, 1911-2003)

Philip Green (English composer who wrote under several pseudonyms, 1911-1982)

 Jean-Jacques Grunewald (French organist composer, 1911-1982)

Nikola Hercigonja (Croatian composer of vocal music, 1911-2000)

Bernard Herrmann (American composer of thriller film scores, 1911-1975)

Alan Hovhaness (Astonishingly prolific American composer, 1911-2000)

 Kikuku Kanai (The first important Japanese female composer, 1911-1986)

 Boris Kremenliev (Bulgarian composer who emigrated to America, 1911-1988)

 Stefan Kisielewski (Polish composer a human rights campaigner, 1911-1991)

 Jan Koetsier (Dutch composer with a penchant for wind music, 1911-2006)

Philip Lang (American composer for the Broadway stage, 1911-1986)

George Liberace (American composer, brother to the famous be-sequined entertainerLiberace, 1911-1983)

Vilho Luolajan-Mikkola (Finish composer of national songs, 1911-2005)

Frederick May (Irish composer 1911-1985)

 Robert McBride (American composer of jazz and film scores, 1911-2007)

Gian Carlo Menotti (Italian-born American opera composer – 1911-2007)

 René Mertzig (Luxemburg native who gave up composing in 1968, 1911-1986)

 Jacopo Napoli (Italian opera composer, 1911-1994)

 Lionel Nowak (American composer of piano music for the right hand, 1911-1995)

Andrej Očenáš (Slovakian composer of gargantuan works, 1911-1995)

Anne-Marie Ørbeck (Norwegian composer of one symphony, 1911-1996)

Histada Otaka (Japanese composer who studied in Vienna, 1911-1951)

Dangatar Ovezov (Soviet composer of operas and symphonies, 1911-1966)

Gustaf Allan Pettersson (Swedish composer of 17 symphonies, 1911-1980)

Franz Reizenstein (English composer famed for his Hoffnung scores, 1911-1968)

 Roger Roger (English light music composer, 1911-1975)

Arsenio Rodríquez (Cuban band composer, 1911-1971)

Nino Rota (Italian composer for films and much, much more – 1911-1979)

Nino Sanzogno (Italian composer of orchestral music, 1911-1983)

Angel Sauce (Venezuelan composer, 1911-1995)

Norbert Schultze (German composer for the stage, b.1911)

Ding Shande (Chinese composer of the Long March Symphony, 1911-1995)

Osama Shimizu (Japanese composer of operas, 1911-1986)

Julia Smith (American opera composer, 1911-1989)

Endre Szervánsky (Hungarian composer of very serious music, 1911-1977)

 Tan Xiaolin (Chinese composer who studied in the USA with Hindemith, 1911-1948)

Phyllis Tate (English composer of operas and vocal music, 1911-1987)

George Tremblay (Canadian composer of three symphonies, 1911-1982)

Vladimir Ussachevsky (American electronic and choral composer, 1911-1990)

 Hans Vogt (German composer primarily of chamber music, 1911-1992) N

azib Gayanovich Zhiganov (Russian composer of Tartar heritage, 1911-1988)


An Award-Winning Writer

Always at this time of year there is a plethora of awards being handed out left, right and centre. I, myself, have had to vote for awards here, there and everywhere – for best CD of the year, for best performance of the year, for best up-and-coming young musician of the year, and so on – and so it comes as a pleasant surprise actually to receive one from an unexpected quarter. In its Year End round-up of the Arts Scene in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post named me as “the most consistent aspect of this year’s classical concert scene”. True, it did rather temper the honour by suggesting that, handing it to the writer of programme notes rather than a performer, was “a touch outrageous”, but I accepted it with a good grace and feel honoured that my work in Hong Kong – I’ve been writing the notes for the HKPO since 2004 – has been recognised. It has, however, prompted me to cogitate a little on the work of the writer in the music world. I’ve always had a problem explaining to others exactly what my profession is.

If I tell them that I am a musician, they immediately assume I’m a performer and ask me what instrument I play. I could tell them that I play the organ, but as almost every organist I know is terminally dreary, I don’t like to tar myself with the same brush – even if I am myself terminally dreary. (And, as if to prove a point, I’ve just been interrupted in the writing of this post by a 35 minute call from an organist in London who wanted my views on how to play a couple of bars of one of Mendelssohn’s most dreary organ pieces – one which even he had the good sense to discard – and wouldn’t take seriously my earnest urgings not to play it at all.)

If I tell them that I am a musician who writes, they immediately assume I compose. And, to be perfectly frank, there’s nothing in the world I’d want to do less. Composers are, in my experience, either chronic alcoholics or utter weirdoes, or both, and the world is awash with ghastly new music which gets played (if at all) once and is then passed over by all except the composer who feels that it’s worth sending round to anyone unfortunate enough to have their names listed in some list of music critics. To feel that I might be one of that barmy army of congenital third and fourth raters who not only foist their horrible attempts at composition on others, but have the nerve to think that it might be worth hearing, is too much to bear.

So I tell them I am a professional listener. That really gets them. After all, like driving, just about everyone thinks they do it, so they don’t appreciate that anyone might do it for a living. More than that, as with driving, as everyone can do it badly, they assume that bad is the norm and have no perception that there are advanced skills to be learned before you can do it professionally. (Just go on to the roads and you will see what I mean; whether it’s the spotty youth in his Dad’s Lamborghini in Singapore, the nerdy student in his souped-up Proton in Malaysia or the blatantly halitosis-laden taxi-driver in Hong Kong.) Yet the one thing driving all my professional life is listening. As a critic I have to listen intently to pick up the salient points in a single sitting (if it’s a concert review) or in a concentrated period of time (if it’s a CD review). As an examiner I have to listen with extreme concentration in order to produce a fair assessment of what may be the deciding test in someone’s career. And as a commentator on music (which is what a programme note writer is) I have to listen in order to guide the readers through the maze of what they are to hear, be it a dreary organ performance or a ghastly new composition. I have tastes – likes and dislikes – but they have to be set aside when it comes to guiding others through the music; my job is to encourage others to listen and enjoy, not to get them to pre-judge according to my own tainted taste-buds.

Listening to music for a living is no easy task, and it has taken years of hard work to develop a good pair of ears. Nobody teaches you how to listen (perhaps they should – it would certainly help built up a solid audience for music in the future) and nobody appreciates the sacrifices that have to be made before you can really listen to classical music. I cannot, for example, sustain any sort of conversation when there is music going on in the background – it acts as a magnet to my ears and holds them close, obscuring all non-musical sounds – so attending parties is an activity long lost to me. Similarly, I cannot concentrate on financial transactions when there is music playing, which rules out most shopping centres or malls. I can’t go to gyms, since physical exercise has now become irremediably associated with pulsating rock music. Travelling on long-distance coaches – once the highlight of my life – went the day they introduced in-coach hi-fi. When I drive, the radio has to be tuned to talk radio only, which means no radio when driving in Malaysia. When I am put on hold by a telephone operator, I drop the call, for invariably some music is thrown down the line at me. And as for visiting bars or dining in almost any restaurant, that’s a pleasure long gone. Indeed, it was my hideous experience in a KL Delifrance which finally brought home to me just how different my approach to listening was from that of the vast majority of my fellow man. Obliged to ask the manager to turn off the loud rap music playing at lunch time, I suggested that the lyrics – “You f****** c********* have f***** your mother******* mothers” – were possibly inappropriate to the families gathered there, only to be told, not only that nobody else had complained, but that he had never noticed the words before, and doubted whether anyone else had. Looking at happy Muslim, Chinese and Indian families all chewing their imitation meat in boiled bread-type sandwiches, limp lettuce leaves and cocky cockroaches peeking out from under the soggy crusts, I realised that he was right; people simply don’t listen.

 So, as the possessor of a rare and thankless skill, I find it all the more welcome to be honoured and awarded. Thanks, SCMP, I’m approaching my nest programmes with renewed vigour. (And if you want to read those Awards in full, you can find them in the South China Morning Post arts pages for 17th December 2010.)


Choosing a Music School

At the behest of my sister-in-law whose friend was connected with the place, I attended an end-of-year concert given by students at a private music school. Seated amongst the throng of Mums, Dads and siblings, I realised I was the only person there without any vested interest in the performers so could enjoy the concert from a totally dispassionate stand, unclouded by familial loyalties to a son or daughter having their moment in the limelight. And a very enjoyable event it was, the standard of performances being really very impressive and the obvious enjoyment the children had from being on stage more than compensating for the technical and memory shortcomings. It was nice, too, that all those Mums and Dads stayed on to appreciate the whole event. Usually at these sort of things there is a continually moving procession of audience members who, having heard their relation do his or her bit, make for the door in haste, demonstratively disinterested in how other people’s children fare. (This was Sarawak, after all, where people tend to appreciate the performing arts rather more than their peers on the mainland.) But as I watched all these students having a lot of fun on stage, a certain unease crept over me. What was the purpose of it all?

I’m often accused (usually by my wife) for not having fun, a charge I hotly deny; my idea of fun may not be the same as others, but I have it all the same (I love nothing more than to jump on to a bus at random just to see where it takes me, and I am dying for a free day at home just to spend it discovering exactly where the No.48 goes). So I am always reticent about complaining when others are clearly having their own kind of fun. But with this concert it struck me that, while all the performers were having a lot of fun pretending to be other people (we had a male Vanessa-Mae complete with skin-tight white trousers and so much walking about the stage one wanted to direct him to the nearest toilet, as well as a born-again Kenny G, a Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford impersonating pair and even an ersatz Simon Cowell), they were not really benefitting from it musically. Now, I’m the first to say that music should be fun and that too many people take it too seriously. But is it the function of a concert organized as a showcase to parents by a music school just to be an excuse for the children to have fun? Surely there needs to be a little bit of substance to it to make all the preparation worthwhile?

Those parents will have (hopefully) been greatly impressed – as was I – by the very high standard of instrumental techniques shown by the students, but did any of them question the value of those techniques? Do you spend good money getting your children to be taught to play a musical instrument for no other reason than the sterile ability to make a sound and, possibly, offer up an imitation of a second rate performer (the first rate performers being way out of the league of student impersonators)? Don’t you hope that the school will teach those techniques as part of a holistic approach to enrich and expand your child’s aesthetic and emotional outlook? I would expect a music school to consider it part of its duty to present their students with intellectual challenges as well as physical ones, and surely we would expect to see this aspect of their work showcased at a public concert. There was nothing at this concert which stretched anything more than nerves, fingers, lungs and fabric; the Vanessa-Mae wannabe not the only person on stage wearing a couple of sizes smaller than was comfortable. Musically its content was wholly superficial. Students played covers of pop songs, pieces Vanessa-Mae put on her albums – all mixed up bits from “real” works but so arranged for maximum virtuosity and minimum intellectual effort – and what I call instrumental karaoke; playing against a backing track (which immediately negates the essential musical skill of maintaining a pulse within one’s own head). There were a few famous pieces of classical music, but arranged with an incessant rock beat backing, and one where the piece was so curtailed that it lacked any coherent structure.

And that’s the problem. These sorts of pieces have mass appeal precisely because they don’t require any effort to listen to and put no strain on either the performer’s or the listener’s intellect or artistic sensitivities. But if music is to be anything other than glib and facile entertainment it has to have some intellectual substance; instrumental facility needs to be enriched with aesthetic and emotional content, which is why music is one of the hallmarks of a fully civilized people (and why countries such as Malaysia have been so enthusiastic in showing that they can attract the highest level of musicians – it gives them civilization kudos).

On top of the superficial music in the concert programme there were the inevitable non-musical enhancements. There is, for some reason, a great embarrassment amongst music schools (in Asia, certainly) when it comes to presenting performances “au naturel”. Everything has to be clothed in a wash of amplified sound, with microphones trailing out of every orifice on stage and presenting such a major distraction that often the amplification disasters are more memorable than the performances. Pianos, saxophones, singers, violinists, all seem to need their sound stolen from the audience, re-processed by electronics and then churned out in a suppressed, colourless wash of noise which negates any attempt by the player to show sensitivity or dynamic awareness. And then there is the pre-recorded support which everybody is given. Pianists can’t play without some kind of background beat, the concept of a violin or clarinet accompanied by a piano is out of the question – there must be a professional backing track (as if the parents at the concert don’t have the intelligence to realise that the backing has been bought in and is not indicative of the standard of music-making taught at the school) – and even a simple thing like a piano duet has to have a drum-beat to make it sound like piped music in a hotel lobby rather than real music in a concert hall.

If a music school feels its purpose is to encourage its students to ape the second rate in the name of easy popularity, that’s fine; just don’t expect your child to benefit in any way from your investment in their musical training. If, on the other hand, you feel that learning music has emotional, intellectual and physical value alongside the self-confidence and extrovert skills it inculcates, then you need to look very carefully at what music schools have on offer. Just because the children have fun doesn’t mean they are learning anything of value.

(And one last point. Everything was introduced by a most personable young compère as a “song”. Now, I know that many of the languages in south east Asia have no word which differentiates the vocal from the instrumental, but that’s their problem. In English there is a very specific difference between a “song” (which is sung by a human voice) and a “piece” (which is played by an instrument). Anyone who thinks differently might do well to boil their head in oil and cut out their tongue; if they don’t do it voluntarily I will the very next time some damnable child tells me he is going to play a “song called Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata”.)


An Organist’s Woes

Psychiatrists might have a bit of fun explaining why, with a whole host of opportunities open to me in the world of music, I ended up following three very different paths, all of which are among the most vilified and despised in the whole of music.  Had, at any stage, I stopped to think about it, I might have realised what I was letting myself in for but, there again, I probably would have done the same again and, to be fair to myself, I rarely complain about the paths I chose to take all those years ago. 

My first, and most beloved, path was as a music critic.  I wrote my first bit of criticism in 1976 and haven’t stopped since.  True, since moving to Asia, I have rarely had the opportunity to do the thing I love doing more than anything else, reviewing live concerts for daily newspapers or live radio – there’s something about the immediacy and irrevocability of one’s published instant reactions which gets the blood circulating as rapidly as running a marathon (I imagine) – but my almost daily CD reviews for the professional press and the periodic CD round-ups for radio stations in all continents (except, surprisingly, Asia) certainly keeps me on my toes.  What a career choice for a nice, harmless fellow like myself!  Music critics are universally reviled by performers and music-lovers alike. The former claim never to read or take notice of what we say while the latter usually accuse us of not knowing what we are talking about. 

My second musical path, and one to which I find I have become wholly addicted, is music examining.  On a Sunday night as I arrive in some remote town and check into yet another solitary hotel room, I never fail to feel the wave of fear and loathing wafting up from the assembled populace.  Students, teachers and parents wish I wasn’t there, hope I fall ill or call down all manner of tribulations on me (in India, someone even tried to assassinate me – but that’s another story) simply because I’m going to sit down and hear them, their students or their children play their graded exams.  We are hated before we do anything, reviled when we do it (“the examiner never smiled”…”the examiner was too friendly”…”the examiner had bad breath”…”the examiner was so fat I felt sick”) and dismissed as “incompetent” or “ignorant” when we do it and don’t hand out the result the student, teacher or parent wanted.  If every person who claims to have sat outside the door and heard something much more remarkable coming out of it than the examiner heard inside it were laid end to end, they would form a chain which would pass twice round the equator at least.  I’m the first to admit that the graded music exam system is deeply flawed, but it’s the best way anyone has yet devised of assessing instrumental skill when taught by private and unregulated teachers, so rather than knock it, I feel it best to work on the inside and try in my small way to make it better and, at the very least, a worthwhile if not actually enjoyable experience for all concerned.  For that the world hates me!

As for my third path, I knew from a very early age I wanted to be an organist and nothing has deterred me.  From my first humble organist’s job in a church in Hampshire in 1968 to my current elevated position as Resident Organist at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, I have rarely wavered from my determination to play.  And yet, as musicians go, an organist is is utterly at the bottom of the heap.  “Organists aren’t musicians”, they all say, “An organists’ world revolves around wind pressures and 32 foot opheclides; they’re not interested in art”.  I have always tried to break free of that stereotype (a stereotype which, I’m the first to accept, is very true to life indeed) but what has it done for me?  I am still treated like dirt and forgotten about unless and until I make a hash of things. 

The trouble is, of all musical instruments, the organ is the most like a machine, and the organist, for all his high-blown artistic endeavours, is simply a mechanic who is totally at the mercy of what his machine can or can’t do.  After years of writing about organists, reviewing their concerts and their CDs, I still cannot tell the difference between a good organist and an indifferent one.  I can tell you which organs I like to hear, and I can tell you what organ music I like to hear, but, to be honest, while some organists usually manage to play nice music on nice instruments and some always seem to play crap on crappy ones, I really can’t make the distinction divorced from instrument or repertoire.  Of course, some organists play more right notes than wrong ones, but so do pianists. I recall Rubinstein and Horowitz, both of whom made you wonder if there had been any right notes in their performances at all, but nevertheless left you breathless with excitement and overawed with admiration; that doesn’t happen with organists, only with organ music and organs.  I gave up playing in church years ago and took to working as an orchestral organist.  I thought it might make me some friends, make me feel less solitary, less of an outsider.  Not a bit of it, if conductors and orchestral musicians deign to notice me, it’s because I’ve made a mistake, missed a vital cue or come in fortissimo when it should have been pianissimo.  And the sad thing is, in most cases, it’s nothing to do with me but the fault of that infernal machine.    

Typical of the orchestral organist’s miserable lot was the engagement I had the other week with the Singapore Lyric Opera, celebrating their 20th anniversary at The Esplanade with a programme of two dozen or so operatic extracts including two from Cavalleria Rusticana which involved the organ.  Two pieces out of 24 – barely 40 bars of music, and less than five minutes in a two-and-a-bit hour programme.  The orchestra are against me straight away because I’m being paid what they’re being paid, yet doing none of the work. (Still, it beats Miraculous Mandarin or Fountains of Rome, where you have just four or five pedal notes, so not only do you have virtually nothing to do, but nobody sees you move when you do!)

Misery No.1.  We are booked for three rehearsals on consecutive evenings.  I should be there in case the conductor decides to rehearse one of my pieces, but with 24 to get through, there’s every chance he will only do them at one of the rehearsals and I will have to sit idly by for three hours just on the off-chance my few bars will come up.  Then I learn that the first two rehearsals will not be at the Esplanade but elsewhere.  There is no organ at the rehearsal venue but they will bring in a “Claviona”.  Now I have no idea how to play a claviona (why is it thought that because you play the pipe organ you can handle any of these hideous domestic electronic gadgets?) and have never got over a miserable rehearsal with a German orchestra where I spent the whole time trying to work out how to switch the damn thing on.  So I suggested to the SLO management that, as I had so little to play and that as the rehearsal would need to address balance issues rather than anything else, I could save them money by not attending the two outside rehearsals.  The management kindly agreed.

Misery No.2.  A violinist or trombonist can turn up at rehearsal, take out their instrument, tune up and play, having practised beforehand.  An organist is at the mercy of the organ and, unless the orchestral management has booked specific times for the organist to practice, there’s no choice but to go in cold.  Luckily I know the Esplanade organ well and didn’t ask for special rehearsal time, trusting that I could get in a little early and set the thing up.  I arrived at 6 for the 7.30 rehearsal.  No organ on stage, no key, no arrangements for me to get to the loft.  A super stage manager ran around and got me up there by 7.  Luckily the harpist was on stage tuning, but nobody else was around (how come harpists can tune oblivious to all going on around them while trombonists seem to need total silence to blare out a few notes warming up for a rehearsal?) so I had a few moments to set the thing up. (None of this pulling out stops or changing things once the rehearsal is underway, nowadays you have to plan everything out on the sequencer and if changes are to be made, the whole thing has to be re-programmed after the hall has emptied.)

Misery No.3.  Conductor unaware that I am at the console high above his line of vision (a lighting board was in the way) decides to miss one of my pieces and go straight into other works.  I can’t hear him calling for me and frantic backstage calls (I learn about later) don’t get answered; they assume I’m AWOL.  More abuse heaped on the organist (“He’s only got two pieces to play and can’t even turn up for those”.)

Misery No.4.  Two plus hours into the rehearsal, it’s my big moment.  I play, nobody comments, and we pass on to the next piece.  I can’t hear the orchestra, I can’t hear the singers, I rely totally on what I see of the conductor on the monitor, but as the camera is on the floor and if he wants to attract my attention he looks up, I am never sure whether or not he is actually pointing to or addressing me.  One has to assume all is well.

Misery No.5.  Come the concert.  I have no idea whether the Singapore Lyric Opera and its guest singers are any good – I can’t hear a thing upstairs – but the monitor shows the audience gleefully applauding, so I assume they’re going down a treat; I certainly hope so, they deserve it.  Then my pieces come.  The first one (Intermezzo) seems OK, but I’m just doubling the orchestra and expect I could stop playing and nobody would notice.  Second one (Easter Hymn) has a short solo in it, at which crucial point the air con, working against a full house, suddenly puts on an extra spurt, spills air over the lighting board and blows the music off the stand.  One hand has to chase after it before it flies over the edge into the orchestra below.  So a missed cue and, I assume, a few curses at the organist.  It’s no good saying it’s not my fault.  I chose to play the damn instrument, and such things are part and parcel of the job.  But tell me again, why did I ever choose this particular musical path?


A Great Musical Moment

As a student in the music department at Cardiff University (or University College Cardiff as it was then styled) I was obliged to attend a chamber concert at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre every Monday during term time.  While we objected to it at the time, it was an inspired decision by the authorities to inculcate into every single music student – be they budding composer, performer, theoretician, ethnomusicologist, electro-acoustic engineer, researcher or teacher – the core chamber repertoire.  The performances were unfailingly worthwhile, too, given by the university’s resident string quartet (headed, unforgettably, by the one-eyed Austrian marvel, Alfredo Wang) and the resident pianist (the miraculous Martin Jones).  The concerts instilled in me a deep-seated love of chamber music and a passion for the calm and refined atmosphere of an early evening chamber concert which has lasted to this day.

Many orchestras run their own early evening chamber series, and I try to attend as many of these as I can.  Of course, orchestral players rarely make the best chamber musicians, and such concerts are often rather bitty and unstructured.  MPO chamber concerts are certainly no exception, the programmes changing by the minute as personnel find they can’t get hold of the music they have selected or have other commitments which weren’t in their diary when they put themselves forward for the chamber concerts (and often that is no fault of their own, I hasten to add).  All the same, I love attending the MPO chamber concerts not least because the Petronas Philharmonic Hall (or DFP as we call it) makes such a wonderful setting for an early evening chamber concert.  And yesterday’s was a typical example.

During the course of the last five months the programme for the concert had been changed so often that I forget what it was originally and wonder why I decided to call it in the concert calendar “In a Moscow Chamber”.  Indeed, the last changes occurred even as the musicians went on stage.  I had re-written the programme notes the week before, but even then a notice had to be placed at the door of the hall to tell patrons that the order of works had been changed, while one of the musicians had to stand up and announce that the order of movements had also been changed (although she herself rather alarmingly forgot what they were).  As a result, while I knew the musicians would do well (the MPO always does come up trumps), but I wasn’t expecting great miracles with such last-minute shenanigans.  How wrong I was.  The concert included what was, for me, one of the great performances in the history of DFP.  Ironically, I saw no one from management there – no CEO, no GM, no Orchestral Manager, no Business Development staff – but the 300 or so loyal supporters, good honest KL and Klang Valley folk and a smattering of Expats, who did attend can feel the warm glow of satisfaction that comes when you attend a once-in-a-lifetime event.  (Well, perhaps not once-in-a-lifetime, but something very rare.)

We saw –even more than heard – a dazzling piece of contemporary music brilliantly executed by master-clarinettist Marcel Luxon and wonder-pianist Nicholas Ong.  I had studied Marcel’s recording of Matthew Hindson’s “Nintendo Music”, and while admiring his virtuosity, had regarded it as rather a silly piece.  Heard live, I realised it was not only very clever, but a fantastically challenging piece which Luxon and Ong delivered with such superb aplomb that its difficulties seemed almost irrelevant.  We also heard a collection of Piazzolla tangos which, great Piazzolla fan as I am, proved a little too much of a good thing to take in a single setting; but fair play to the musicians – they only put them in the programme a few days ago.

But the real wonder of the evening was Simon Emes and Nicholas Ong giving what was, for me, the best performance of Poulenc’s magical Oboe Sonata I have ever been privileged to hear; and I write as one who heard it performed in the Reardon Smith all those years ago by no less an oboist than Evelyn Barbirolli, and have sat through great performances by Holliger, Camden and most of the other great oboists of our age.  I am proud to regard Simon as a personal friend, but my personal friends are only too well aware that friendship means nothing when it comes to music criticism and if they balls it up, I’m the first to jump on their graves!  So when I say he was outstanding, I really mean it, and I have not met Nicholas Ong at all socially, but I remain in deep awe at the sensitivity, innate understanding and total authority he brought to the piano part.  We could have lived without the garish twin towers batik shirt (did Emes buy it from the souvenir stall at the last minute because he’d forgotten to bring a shirt that fitted from home?), but we couldn’t have lived without the incredible poise, intensity and breathtaking musicianship which transformed this performance into a great musical moment.  At the end, with its almost unbearable tragedy (it was the last note that Poulenc was ever to write), Emes held the entire hall in the palm of his hand and, for once, nobody coughed, nobody applauded and nobody’s clogs rattled on the floor.  The spell broken the subdued applause spoke volumes about the emotions Emes had released in us, and I think we all left the hall, deeper and wiser than we had entered it.  And isn’t that what chamber music is all about?

As a music examiner, I hear Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata more often, I suspect, than anyone else (with the exception of oboe teachers).  I hear it abused, pummelled and attacked.  More than that, for some peculiar reason, whilst writing my note for the concert, I actually sat down and watched a few dozen of the performances which tone deaf, reed-busting no-hoper oboists have stuck up on YouTube.  What gives in these imbeciles that they think their ghastly and hideous efforts to make a noise are of any interest at all to the online public?  The net result of all this exposure to bad performances of Poulenc’s swansong has been to kill off my natural instincts for listening holistically to the music.  I listen to the technique, I follow the score, and I judge a performance by its technical and literal accuracy.  Emes destroyed that disinterested approach in one simple breath and, as the haunting four notes which herald this unquestionable masterpiece sounded out into the hall as if poised in eternity, it seemed as if I was really hearing the work for the first time.  It was a performance which only a true musician could have delivered.  Simon Emes is one of the best oboists around at the moment, and technically he is a player you cannot fail to admire.  But he is also a profoundly gifted musician, and this was a performance which transcended the mere technical brilliance we might expect from him to achieve what every performance sets out to do but few really achieve; it profoundly affected those who heard it by enriching their emotional and intellectual responses.

Thank you MPO, thank you DFP, thank you Monsieur Poulenc but, most of all thank you Simon Emes for one of the great moments in my chamber concert attending career.

August 2021