Archive for April, 2010


Flashing Organs

I have had a Damascene Moment. The blinding flash which has shown me the way came as I sat perched on a vertiginous circle seat in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre last Saturday and fought to keep awake during an organ recital. I’m far from being a fan of the Hong Kong Reiger and possibly the ennui I found during the recital was more the charmlessness of the organ than any latent dreariness in the programme; it was all pretty serviceable stuff. And, as a player, Alexander Ffinch wasn’t especially dull. But don’t take my opinion of organ recitals as being of any value. I have come to realise that I find just about every organ recital dull, my own being the dullest of them all. Possibly formative years as a critic “doing” the Wednesday evening organ recitals at the Royal Festival Hall in London has blunted my fervour, or maybe my daily exposure to new organ recordings has, rather like the resident manager of a brothel, dampened my ardour. Ffinch played manfully and took us through some fairly worthwhile repertoire, but I spent most of the time looking around the audience. There must have been upwards of 1000 there with more streaming in all the time, battling against the ushers who fought a losing battle to get them to sit on each others’ laps and caved in to the obvious demand to open up ever more areas of the circle seats.

And as yet another great horde burst in I had my Pauline Revelation.

They were nearly all children. They were there in their hundreds, sitting glued to the spectacle of Ffinch and his Reiger and only occasionally remembering to be a nuisance to others around them. There was even a party of Downs’ Syndrome children, loving every moment of it. Surrounded by such happiness and youthful enthusiasm, I realised that I was out of my depth. Organ recitals in Asia are not places for grown-ups, they are events for children.

We adults have never been able to fathom out what children like or why they like what they like – my two-year-old daughter’s passion for carefully tipping milk on to a teaspoon and then equally carefully tipping it on to the floor survives even the onslaught of stern parental opposition – and perhaps we shouldn’t try to understand. Just accept it and let them carry on.

The movers and shakers of the musical world wring their hands in despair as they seek to find new audiences and encourage the young to what the movers and shakers of the musical world (but nobody else) think of as “stuffy” Classical music. Alasdair Malloy and his ilk dress up in funny costumes, dance about, give odd titles to concerts, add clever lighting and non-musical sound effects, all with the avowed aim to attract children to the concert hall. Why bother? All you need do is to put on an organ recital; the duller the better.

No silly costumes, no flashing lights, no TV or movie-based themes. Just a middle-aged, lounge-suited white man (or woman)(or black or Asian man)(or woman) sitting with his back to you playing the kind of music most musicians wouldn’t be seen dead wiping their bottoms with, and the kids will clamber over each other to get in.
My Road to Damascus may have been in Hong Kong, but as I sat mesmerized (and there’s a word I don’t – unlike every artist agent and marketing executive in the business – overuse to exhaustion) by the hundreds of children lapping up dullish music, drearyish player and boringish organ with alacrity, I suddenly realised that’s what my audience is in Kuala Lumpur, and what it is in Singapore too. I seem to play always to large numbers of children (and, inexplicably, those with Downs’ Syndrome) and they LOVE it.

So, movers and shakers of the musical world, forget clever and expensive shows, throw out the gimmicks. Instead, dust off your organs, get any old Tom, Dick, Aalexander or Mmarc on to the console and you can get your young and new audience with minimum effort. I’m so inspired I’m starting up the KL organ recitals again, but this time making sure they are designed just with children in mind. Who’d have thought it?

A word of warning. Keep real musicians and music critics away. This is definitely one for the children.


Great Performances?

What makes a great performance? That’s a common enough question which every critic and most music-lovers have at some time or other asked themselves, and the answers are as numerous and vague as the number of people asking the question in the first place.

I can’t begin to give an answer, but the question raised its head again last night when I sat through the HKPO concert and thanked my lucky stars I wasn’t the person charged with reviewing it. Apart from the dire and dreary Black Gondola – John Adams’ bleak version of the even bleaker piano piece by Liszt (a work which long since should have sunk without trace below the waters of the Grand Canal) – which nobody liked, the rest of the concert revealed a total divergence of views between me and most of the audience. Sarah Chang made a hideous sound on her violin. Excruciating vibrato took us way off the note, odd and uneven tone destroyed any sense of lyricism and a disconcerting habit of sweeping the floor with her bow after every long down bow made this a performance of the Bruch of rare unpleasantness. Sat beside two English musicians stranded in Hong Kong because of the Volcanic Ash and making the best of their forced sojourn, one blamed the violin and the other blamed the hall; they may be right, but I’ve heard many violin concertos in the Cultural Centre auditorium and none has sounded anything like as grotesque as this, and if it was the violin, why hadn’t Sarah stamped on it years ago and claimed a new one off the insurance?

We were in a minority of three. The rest of the audience hollered and screamed, leapt to their feet and roared their disapproval when time and time again she refused (thankfully) an encore. Singapore audience rest assured, she was no better to the Hong Kong crowd than she was to you last week. The difference was, though, the audience reception. The Hong Kong crowd LOVED her. They swooned, they gasped, they did everything except rip off their clothes and rush the stage (although the massed and rapid exodus to get first in the queue for her autograph came pretty close to that). What did they see in this performance which I didn’t? Am I hyper-critical in my old age? Am I unable to distinguish the great from the dismal? I can’t find an answer and I’d love someone to tell me what there was about this performance which moved so many people so profoundly yet left me stone cold? A cynic might suggest that it was because she is Chinese, but that would be too cynical for even my jaundiced brain, wouldn’t it?

I have to say that the Brahms 1 which followed was a revelation. True, it was attended by half the previous audience, the rest having decided to wait outside in the hope of grabbing a view of the vision-in-pink which was La Chang. But while the conductor , a little-known maestro from Milwaukee called Andreas Delfs (whose biography is so littered with phrases like “Garnering accolades” and “electrifying podium presence” and proud boasts such as him being the first to “distribute live recordings online through iTunes”, that we would normally assume that he’s not up to much) adopted what I would describe as the “Gilbert Kaplan” approach to Brahms – weird and disconcerting tempo shifts and sudden moments of elevated inspiration which didn’t always communicate easily. Quirks and idiosyncrasies aside, he certainly inspired me and at the end I was breathless with excitement. This guy Delfs knows a thing or two about pulling something out of the hat when it matters, and an extraordinarily enthusiastic fellow behind me clearly reckoned this a “great” performance. For me it was memorable and exceptionally exciting (for Brahms 1), but certainly not great. The mass of the audience, however, seemed to be glad it was over, so desperate were they to get out of the auditorium in case a left-over echo of the music found its way back in and soured their fond memories of La Chang.

I can remember great occasions – Messiaen in Cardiff, Klemperer doing Mahler 2, Oistrakh doing Beethoven in London – and performances which I would have dubbed great – Bamert doing Korngold Sinfonietta with the MPO, Groves doing Belshazzar’s Feast at the Three Choirs, Soderstrom doing Strauss in Vienna – but not everybody would agree with me in any of those instances. I recall Alun Hoddinott tearing me off a strip for standing up at the Messiaen concert (“It was dreary”), Alyn Shipton suggesting I was “off my rocker” by getting so het up over Klemperer and Simon Cobcroft speechless with astonishment at my gushing admiration for Bamert’s Korngold. But, for me, these were truly great performances.

Perhaps the Hong Kong audience really did find Chang’s Bruch in that league. I’d love to know.


Light Pops and Lollipops

Over the coming May holiday weekend, the MPO are putting on a concert of British and American light music conducted by Anthony Inglis. He claims the distinction of having performed more often at London’s Royal Albert Hall than any other conductor. Not heard of him? Well, that’s because he has long been associated with the immensely popular concerts featuring so-called “crossover” artists and comprising chunks of operas and other works, short enough not to put the mass public’s brain under too much pressure, while still allowing them to think they are attending a “serious” concert. I don’t like that kind of patronizing approach at all, and when people tell me “but it’s hugely popular with the public”, I respond by saying that so is drug-taking amongst young people, but we still shouldn’t condone it. But the UK has gone into this kind of thing in a big way, and it’s difficult to escape the insidious clutches of Classic FM which churns out tiny and often glutinous fragments of great works along with inane chatter from mind-numbingly dreary presenters. At least it’s better than that ghastly apology for “radio” called “Opus” which Astro buys in from overseas as a sop to those who quite correctly charge them with being unutterably low-brow in their output.

But the May concert, starring Anthony Inglis is not like that at all. Light music is an altogether more wholesome and worthwhile thing, a highly-respectable musical genre in its own right and something which Malaysian audiences should be beating a path to hear. So what exactly is light music?

Well it has an interesting history inseparably associated with the BBC. They identified fairly early on in their existence that, alongside their serious talk and heavyweight musical programmes, they needed to offer their audience something light-hearted and entertaining, while maintaining the extremely high quality the BBC then demanded of all its output. This involved comedy programmes but more especially music which was good, short, cheerful and entertaining, requiring no great intellectual effort on behalf of the listeners to appreciate. Luckily, London-based music publishers had already identified that appetite in the British musical public, and most employed staff composers whose job it was to churn out light orchestral pieces (often for bandstands and summer resort orchestras). When, therefore, the BBC established its “Light” programme (which went on air for the first time in July 1945, just as British spirits were raising with the end of the Second World War) there was already a vast repertoire for its house orchestras to call on, and for the best part of 30 years it transmitted Light music to a wide and dedicated audience. It eventually fell victim to the growth of Pop music and today’s successor to the “Light” programme, Radio 2, gives only limited space to Light music, devoting most of its air time to middle-of-the-road Pop, which is not the same thing at all, but streets better than the feeble attempts at “culture” put out by commercial rivals.

And that brings me to some thoughts about the terminology. “Light” is simple; the word defines music which creates a light mood and requires no real concentration on the behalf of the listener. Sir Thomas Beecham, the charismatic English conductor, recognised the fondness for “Light” music and often one or two pieces as encores to send the audiences at his “serious” concerts home with a smile on their face and a whistle on their lips. He it was who coined the word “lollipops” for these pieces; a lollipop being something light and easily digested but, essentially, lasting only a few minutes. A lot of music lovers soon showed a greater interest in these “lollipops” than in the more heavyweight offerings and record companies were quick to capitalise by releasing them by the hundreds of thousands. With the playing side of a 78-rpm record lasting at most three minutes, this became the maximum length for a musical lollipop, and, especially in America, composers began to specialise in writing such pieces – one of the most notable and successful being Leroy Anderson. Thus, the record industry began to dictate musical tastes, rather than follow them, and deriving its name from lollipop, the “Pop” record was born. Orchestras also began to specialise in such “Pops” concerts. With the demise of the 78 rpm record and the development of more efficient recording techniques, Pop music played by large orchestras began to fall out of favour with record producers, who could, for a fraction of the cost and energy, hire smaller ensembles and yet make them sound just as good on the new recording surface of vinyl rather than shellac. The practice of a piece of Pop music just being 3 minutes long was continued as that remained the standard time of a single side of a 45 rpm (7 inch) record. Thus “Pop” music as we know it today came about.

The easy thing is to suggest that the term Pop derives from Popular, but I find no evidence to support this nor does it hold up to close scrutiny. It wasn’t popular when it was devised – although it did become so very quickly – but its defining feature was its “Lollipop” length and character. I stand to be corrected on this, but despite my most earnest researches, I can find no definitive point at which the word “Pop” was first used other than in Beecham’s “Lollipop” label. Even the most famous and long-standing “Pops” orchestra – the Boston Pops – can’t tell when its title changed from Boston Promenade to Boston Pops, and while their website rolls out the old chestnut about the word coming from popular, that seems based more on simplistic opinion than considered fact.

But I digress. The usual thing is to describe modern Pop music as ephemeral (in the manner of a lollipop, especially in the Malaysian climate) but is it? With Beatles, Rolling Stones and others – whose music has been around for half a century – still very much in vogue, I think we’ve passed the “ephemeral” threshold. Meanwhile Light music, also labelled ephemeral at the time, is staging a major comeback. The ever-enterprising Swiss-based Guild label has been running a dedicated series of “The Golden Age of Light Music”, which now numbers 65 CDs and continues to grow at an alarming rate. They are re-mastering the orchestras and bands of the day and, piloted by the dedicated light music specialist, David Ades, each disc represents a glorious glimpse into a musical treasure-trove which has already yielded countless great riches. Follow the link to Guild to purchase and sample their discs while, in the meantime, to entice you both to buy discs of light music, and more especially, to attend the MPO “From Britain to America” concert, I’ve uploaded several of the pieces to be performed at that concert. Enjoy them at home, but don’t forget that they are guaranteed to sound a million times better played by Asia’s finest orchestra and in one of the best concert halls the world knows.

Meanwhile I urge everyone who hasn’t yet bought a ticket, to get along to DFP on 30th April, 1st or 2nd May to experience this most delightful and effervescent of musical genres at first hand. (Follow the link on the right hand side of the page to get more details).For those who do attend; here is my list of suggested CDs of the specific pieces being played., those marked with an asterisk are tracks from the discs I’ve uploaded on to this blog. Happy listening!

Malcolm Arnold: Tam O’Shanter Overture
Philharmonia Orchestra/Malcolm Arnold – EMI 764044-2
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Sir Alexander Gibson – Chandos CHAN 8379
Minnesota Orchestra/Eiji Oue – Référence RR 82CD
Edward Elgar: Salut d’Amore
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra/Gil Shaham – DG 449 923-2
Ulster Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier – Chandos CHAN6608
London Festival Orchestra/Ross Pople – Hyperion CDH55001
Arthur Wood: My Native Heath
*Regent Concert Orchestra/William Hodgson – Guild GLCD5164
New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp – Hyperion CDA66968
BBC Concert Orchestra/Vernon Handley – Warner Classics 75605 57003-2
Vivian Ellis: Coronation Scot
*RTE Concert Orchestra/Ernest Tomlinson – Naxos 8.554710
New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp – Hyperion CDA66868
Queens Hall Orchestra/Charles Williams – Guild GLCD5120
Ronald Binge: Sailing By
*Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ernest Tomlinson – Naxos 8.554711
New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp – Hyperion CDA66968
BBC Concert Orchestra/Vernon Handley – Warner Classics 75605 57003-2
Eric Coates: Knightsbridge March
*BBC Dance Orchestra/ Henry Hall – Guild GLCD 5116
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Eric Coates – Conifer CDHD211/2
East of England Orchestra/Malcolm Nabarro – ASV CDWHL2053
Malcolm Arnold: English Dances
*Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Penny – Naxos 8.553526
Philharmonia Orchestra/Bryden Thomson – Chandos CHAN 8867
London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Malcolm Arnold – Lyrita SRCD 201
Don Gillis: Symphony No.5½
*New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp – Hyperion CDA67067
Sinfonia Varsovia/Ian Hobson – Albany TROY888
Symphony Orchestra/Don Gillis – Dutton DUT4163
Ferde Grofé Grand Canyon Suite
*Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/William T Stromberg – Naxos 8.559007
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerhard Schwarz – Delos DE3104
Paul Whiteman Orchestra/Paul Whiteman – Pearl GEM0022


Musical Fun

The last MPO Family Fun Day was, for me, a big disappointment. For several years now the MPO has resorted to buying in off-the-peg family shows. This makes life really easy for the management which only has to provide the orchestra and the publicity; the package they have bought provides professional presenter, script, a theme and the music. Unfortunately, this too often lands them with a show which is wholly irrelevant to their audience. That was very much the case with the “Time Travellers” show I attended. Bemused by the reference to space travel at the start (was this “Time Travellers” or “Space Travellers”?) it was quickly apparent that few Malaysian children know about Dr Who. It was a cult BBC TV series in its heyday – is still, perhaps – and old episodes do pop up in clusters on the BBC Entertainment channel here in Asia. But what percentage of the audience had ever seen an episode? The feedback I got from the audience registered complete bafflement about this unknown “Time Lord”. Did the MPO management discuss the full content of the show before they booked it? I suspect not. Alasdair Malloy (whose show it was) has done some fun things with the MPO over the past seasons, but there is only so much an individual percussion player cum presenter can do, and he has possibly reached his limit. Perhaps the time has come for the MPO to go back to those heady days when it devised its own Family Fun Days using local performers in shows relevant to local perceptions.

A bit of educational input wouldn’t be a bad thing either. When I was sent the programme for “Time Travellers”, it took a lot to coax out of a seemingly disparate range of musical extracts some kind of coherent theme. Yet it did seem superficially full of potential – a wonderful journey through the long history of music dropping in on the centuries and possibly with Alasdair re-costuiming himself with each period, giving us along the way, some historical perspective on the development of music; musical value, fun and education all rolled into one with a strong relevance to Malaysian audiences. Not a bit of it. He chose to be Dr Who and used not the “proper” concert music extracts of the programme but a little bit derived from the Dr Who theme music (ironically a theme best known for its electronic effects, which were largely omitted from the MPO performance) to ignite his time machine to get it into the 21st century. The idea was remarkably similar to the Disney Channel’s “Little Einsteins” where the viewers are invited to tap their knees to the music in order to fuel up the rocket; only here, the audience sat passively and merely were invited to clutch their shoulders while Alasdair stood stock still in a dreary trench-coat while coloured lights flashed about unconnected with the music. There was the trademark Malloy dance, but other than that, musically and educationally, it did nothing other than spin out the obligatory hour (mostly, it had to be said, with talk rather than music).

Compare this with the super event I attended last night with The Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore. They have embarked on a series (well, it hopes to be a series) called “Composers Tonight” in which they explain the background of a work in the first half and then play it all the way through in the second. This is certainly not a new concept – I attended a brilliant one on Mahler with the Chicago Symphony and Pierre Boulez some years ago and reckon it was about the best educational performance about music I have ever seen – and it’s one many MPO audience members (and orchestral players, for that matter) have been pressing me to arrange for years. I even did one a couple of seasons ago, but the powers-that-be allowed me just a string quartet and a bare rehearsal room, so the effect was greatly devalued. But the way The Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore did it was both fun and rewarding, no clever effects, no fussy videos, merely a presenter in the first part with the orchestra performing live extracts, and a straightforward concert performance in the second.

It worked so well because of the inspired choice of presenter – William Ledbetter, who was both natural in his delivery and clearly on top of his subject – and because the conductor (Lim Yau) had such a strong rapport with both presenter and orchestra. And, boy, what an impressive band The Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore is! Polished and alive, they produced a fantastic sound which at its best was rich and tight and, at worst, suffered only small lapses of string intonation mostly in the cellos and basses. What surprised me most was that the show was successful despite tackling a work which, with the best will in the world, can only be described as “heavyweight” – Brahms’s First Symphony. True, there were a few solecisms (“Sonata form is exclusively reserved for the first movements of symphonies”), but while it was delivered with humour and an accessible casualness, William Ledbetter made the script very much his own, which gave his delivery an undercurrent of authority despite the decorative playfulness. Whoever wrote the script (and I don’t suppose it was Ledbetter himself) deserves a special commendation; even I, who have known Brahms 1 inside out for the best part of half-a-century, felt that I’d learnt something new and, when it came to the complete performance, the audience clearly identified with those bits of the music they had had explained to them in the first half. I particularly liked the moment when the entire Espalande audience sat making the signs of the letters A, B and C to show the structure of the third movement – and I think I was not alone in being tempted to do it again when the piece was given its “serious” performance. Add to this Lim Yau’s breezy and beautifully focused direction, tightly controlled (as befits a non-professional orchestra) but with plenty of interpretative individuality to make the performance worth listening to in its own right.

Two small comments. It’s really not a good idea for the orchestra to play from photocopies. I’m sure it was all legal and above board and was only done to ease awkward page turns, but it not only looked bad – the front desk cellos’ copy, sellotaped together like a concertina, unravelled during the final movement and spent the rest of the concert on the floor like so much litter, while the back desk first violins spent much of the first movement chasing around an errant page which was attracted to the draught from the air-conditioning – it also gave a very bad impression; if an audience has paid good money to hear an orchestra, they really don’t like to think that the orchestra has penny-pinched by stealing the music rather than buying their own copies. Secondly, can we get rid of this horrible habit of making excuses to justify listening to classical music. William Ledbetter began his bit by rolling out the old clichés about “Why are we here when we could be at a hawker centre?”, “Why are we at a concert when we could be at home/at the movies/ etc. etc.?”. Why do we need an excuse to justify going to a concert? Put it the other way round. Why go to a hawker centre when you could be enjoying much greater nourishment at a concert? Why stay at home/go to the movies, when you could be enjoying the ultimate cultural and artistic experience in the concert hall? Make the people who DON’T go to concerts feel silly, don’t make us feel that we need to apologise for our attendance. Any concert-goer knows that strange other-worldy feeling you get when you leave a concert hall after a moving experience and see people who weren’t there; you feel sorry for them that they have missed such an uplifting experience and you wonder how shallow their lives must be because they weren’t there.

Concerts are fun and rewarding experiences. You don’t need wall-to-wall movie and TV themes to sugar the pill or a presenter pretending to be something wholly unmusical in the belief that this is the only way to “communicate” to non-specialist audiences. If the MPO were to hire William Ledbetter and Lim Yau (who hasn’t conducted the MPO – which is the orchestra’s loss) to do their Family Fun Days, I’m sure the results would be far more rewarding and enjoyable to the Malaysian audience than getting some bought-in European or North American show with minimal relevance either to the audience or to the business of the MPO itself – which is to play the great works of music in their entirety, unabridged and unmolested, and NOT to churn out pale imitations of movie and TV soundtracks.

And while, as I travel around Asia, I am wholly convinced that the MPO is by leaps and bounds the finest orchestra on the continent (and that includes Australia and New Zealand), when it comes to non-professional orchestras, you’d search long and hard before you met the equal of The Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore.

April 2010