Archive for June, 2010


Pulling in the kids

Pinned to the notice board in the Malaysian Philharmonic’s office are pages from a magazine featuring an interview with the CEO. I didn’t see which magazine it was, but since it seemed to be a simple transcript without comment or background, I assume it wasn’t a publication with any real knowledge of or interest in classical music. Such interviews strike me as pretty useless; they don’t ask any searching questions (this one, luckily, didn’t include the ultimate in facetious questions. “Do you like Malaysian food?” probably because Puan Karina is a Malaysian) and if any interesting points are raised, they don’t follow them up. But, unrecognised by the transcriber, Pn. Karina did raise a point which could and should be followed up. So, at risk to life and limb (notwithstanding all my other connections with the MPO, this blog is managed by them and questioning – even criticising – the CEO is possibly not a wise step) I’m following it up.

(There is always the rider – and a very probable one, too, given the puerile state of reporting in the Malaysian press – that the interviewer made up some of Pn. Karina’s responses and that the point I am pursuing was not hers at all.)

What was quoted was that Pn. Karina was determined to attract a younger audience to MPO concerts.

Harmless, you would have thought, and certainly the trendy mantra of concert promoters and orchestra managers the world over. I’ve been to whole conferences devoted to the issue of attracting younger audiences. I’ve sat through long speeches in which luminaries of the classical music world stress the need to attract younger audiences. I get requests from orchestra after orchestra to help them, through my notes and talks, to pull in a younger audience. IF she said it, Pn. Karina was simply rehearsing the world-wide wish of people in her position to people their concert halls with hirsute heads of black, brown and blonde rather than grey, blue-rinse or bare flesh.

So, if this harmless comment is so ubiquitous, why the need to question it?

Had the questioner picked up that point and asked “Why?”, I’m, sure Pn. Karina would have come up with the stock response about audiences getting older, need to look to the future, find new audiences before the current ones die away, blah, blah, blah.

And that, too, seems perfectly logical and sensible. But is it?

Forgetting the most obvious point, which is that, once you reach a certain age in life you have more leisure time and disposable income to devote to such luxury pleasures as concert-going, there is the undeniable fact that the vast majority of any potential audience is not young and audiences for classical music have never been young. (Statistics don’t exist, but my researches seem to point to audiences never ever having been comprised of predominantly younger people; and yet there are still audiences for classical music – they haven’t all died out years ago.) We were all young once, but not for very long and we spend the greater part of our lives in that state known as “late adulthood”. Why, then, the need to attract a minority over a growing majority? These may be silly points, but they are relevant and, I think, significant.

More significant still is the fact that young adults have other things on their plate. If they are students, there are studies, if they are newly married, they have the concerns of family building, and if they are single professionals, they have their careers to look after, none of which leaves quality time for quality pursuits. Attracting that audience is unlikely to net any lasting results.

And as for children, who may well be the focus of Pn. Karina’s alleged comment, it is utterly unrealistic to expect a hall full of 10-15 year-olds to keep on coming to concerts until they reach that age when, as “older” adults they are presumably, no longer welcome. (We don’t want old audiences, we want young ones!) You can certainly attract children by avoiding music requiring the intellectual and emotional maturity that only comes with age – churning out sanitised film scores, TV tunes and anaesthetised bits of pop by the dozen (as, regrettably, the MPO is only too anxious to do – they perform more John Williams than Mozart) – but what do you do when they grow up? You have alienated the old audience by avoiding the classics, yet your young audience has had no exposure to live classical music, and will be no more likely to people the concert hall than their peers who have avoided the attractions of children-themed concerts.

But why bother in the first place? As a child, my interest in music and my early concert-going experiences were at the hands of my parents and teachers. It was they who urged me to go to concert halls and hear great music live. Surely, we need to attract parents and teachers, and they can pass on their interest and love of music to the younger generation. That way we maintain our mature and discerning audience and guarantee that, when they are older, young people will feel that attending classical music concerts is an entirely normal, natural and comfortable thing to do.


Parental Misguidance

Talking with Joshua Bell about his early musical development, it struck me just how important a part parents play in encouraging their children to develop an interest in music. Notwithstanding their obvious role in providing the finance necessary for lessons, exams, instruments etc., as Joshua made it clear, it was parental encouragement which got him into music in the first place. He made no bones about it; had not his parents been so supportive of his infantile interest in music, he would never have become the star violinist he now is, and while an enlightened teacher (and he certainly had one of those) is a vital part of the process from keen beginner to polished professional, without that initial support from parents the path would not even have begun to open up.

Which, of course, begs the question; can you become a great musician without that initial parental support? There are famous examples where that has happened – Handel and Delius spring immediately to mind – but I suspect not many. Sadly, if parents do not identify and encourage that musical spark in their offspring, the chances of their musical talent being fully realised are slim. I don’t think many would argue that the role parents play in nurturing musical talent – even where, as in Joshua’s case, the parents are not themselves particularly musical – is absolutely vital.

There is, however, a flip side to the coin, and those of us who have dealings with musical education in south east Asia know it only too well. The parents who, having seen how Lang Lang, Yundi Li and the like have become great superstars (with correspondingly large financial rewards), feel that, given proper musical training, their offspring can follow suit. The parents who, vaguely aware of the social value of their children learning a musical instrument (almost invariably the piano), note just how expensive piano lessons are, do a quick mental computation – hourly fee times number of pupils seen going in through the door – and, realising that music teaching must be a lucrative business, look on it as a potential career choice for their child. And, most common of all, the parents who, anxious that their children should be seen to be better than their neighbour’s, press them into examination after examination in a frantic race to reach the ultimate goal – a diploma – at the earliest possible age.

I had a dramatic example of that last type of parent when I delivered a seminar on piano diploma performance in Hong Kong earlier this year. After my long talk a singularly pushy lady pressed me on a point I had mentioned about the use of the pedals: I believe I had said something along the lines that, if you attempted to play a Chopin Nocturne without using the pedal, you could not expect to produce an acceptable performance. She asked me if examiners took into consideration the problems candidates faced when they could not reach the pedals. Bearing in mind this was a seminar about professional-level diplomas, I assumed she was talking about a disabled candidate and explained, sadly, that unless some kind of mechanism had been constructed to overcome the disability, then the performance could not succeed; examiners at this level judge what they hear without making allowances for physical disabilities. But no, this was a mother talking about a perfectly able-bodied performer; but one who was just 10 years old. Putting aside the obvious question – why play a Chopin Nocturne at all when you can’t reach the pedals (Chopin, indeed any Romantic repertoire, is not obligatory when doing a diploma: at least, when doing a Trinity Guildhall one) – I stood horrified at the prospect that a 10-year-old child was even attempting a professional recital diploma. What was this mother thinking? Unless the child was an extraordinary genius (in which case why was she doing a diploma in the first place and not out and about stunning the world with her virtuoso prowess?) what possible value, musical, educational or social, was there in taking a professional-level diploma which, at 10 years of age, serves no practical purpose? She can’t enter the profession for another eight years or so, by which time she will have got bored of music, and all that time and money spent on her training would be wasted. The answer, given blandly and without so much as a touch of red in the cheeks to indicate embarrassment, was; “She must do her diploma before her friend, who did it when she was 12”.

That mother, determined to destroy her child’s love of music, innocence of childhood and fun of life in a single-minded pursuit of selfish self-aggrandisement, may seem like Monster-From-Hell to those sensible people who read this, but believe me, she is entirely typical of those innumerable parents in south east Asia (and beyond) who see music as just another competitive sport, a purely physical recreation in which winning is the sole goal. Such parents are the scourge of music educators and compound their stupidity with a belief that, as they are the ones footing the bills, they can, from their pinnacles of ignorance, instruct the teacher on what’s best for their offspring. I have lost count of the teachers who come up to me, when I complain about the standards of candidates put forward for examinations, explaining that what can they do when the parents demand it?

The problem lies in the fact that in south east Asia we now have a generation of parents who, brought up in relatively backward communities where music played no part in daily life, see music as a symbol of their own elevated social standing and think of it purely as a badge of civilization. When you can boast that your children are learning music, you are showing that you, as parents, have arrived. And, to a certain extent, what’s wrong with that? Music is, as we all know, a civilizing influence, and if parents are keen for their children to learn, we must encourage them, otherwise we’re closing the door on future Joshua Bells. But somewhere along the line, parents have to be told that music is an emotional and spiritual matter every bit as much as it is a physical one, and playing around with your child’s emotional development is a very dangerous thing to do indeed. Teachers will usually understand this; but perhaps not to the extent that they can argue with parents (who do, after all, pay their salaries) in a bid to dissuade this ridiculous circus we have at the moment where ignorant parents feel they can call the shots on capable teachers.

Compared with, say, training to be a medical doctor or a legal professional, the path to a career in music seems, from the outside, to be a relatively simple and short one. If you start early enough, the thinking goes, by the time you are of an age where you need to earn a living, you will have mastered the necessary physical skills. But music requires a breadth of emotional and psychological maturity which cannot be taught or achieved through hard daily practice. Music, to misquote Orwell, expresses thoughts and emotions which lie beyond words. A 10-year-old child doesn’t yet know the limits of vocabulary, so how can he or she know what lies beyond? How can you communicate those desperate inner feelings of love and desire, if you’ve never experienced them for yourself? How can you communicate sensations of ecstasy and profound grief unless you’ve had something of the sort in your personal experience? And on a more prosaic level, how can you communicate, say, a piece of Chopin to an audience, unless you yourself have some deep and long-standing relationship with the composer and understand his world in a way your audience does not? I despair how few diploma candidates know or understand anything about the music they play. “What else did Bach write?”, I once asked a diploma candidate who had played a Bach Prelude and Fugue. A long pause ensued, followed by the querulous response; “Some other preludes and fugues?”. If at that level the candidate hadn’t experienced the supreme examples of western art music such as the B minor Mass, the St Matthew Passion or even the Brandenburg Concertos, then what the devil were they doing trying to persuade me that they knew enough about music to warrant professional recognition?

Parents must support and encourage their children’s interest in music, but they must also realise that in doing so they are opening up a whole can of worms which they can neither fully understand nor control. Leave that side of it to the professionals.


Euphoria and Beyond

Any conference in which like-minded people spend days in each others’ company discussing the finer points of their profession usually results in an immediate bout of euphoria and a renewed vigour for one’s work. Those feelings usually last a day or two. Certainly I’ve come away from the inaugural Live! Singapore (follow the link to see what it was all about if you don’t already know) in a euphoric frame of mind; my euphoria quotient increased by the stunning Joshua Bell/ASMF concert which formed the spectacular postscript last night. But I have high hopes and expectations that it may last a little more than a week; not least in helping to establish Singapore as the region’s artistic hub (an aspiration voiced by the relevant government minister at the Opening Ceremony). Having moved here from Malaysia a little under a year ago, it filled me with pride in my new home country and helped alleviate the very real regret I feel at having sacrificed the daily access I had in KL to one of the world’s greatest concert halls (Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS) and Asia’s very finest orchestra (the Malaysian Philharmonic). This was undoubtedly one of the more successful and inspiring conferences I’ve attended for a very long time, and I have to say I think the organisers did a magnificent job in balancing the inevitable talking shops and back-room “networking” (I hate that word, but can’t think of a better) with wonderful showcase performances and inspiring set-piece discussions.

Three of the performances are worth mentioning again. There was a 15-year-old singer from India, Tara Venkatesan, who showed enough spirit and communicative skill in her relative immaturity to indicate a very promising future; a performer to watch out for, even if the future in store for her lies elsewhere than on the operatic or concert stage. Then there was the legendary Frankie Gavin and De Dannan; only three of the five made it from Ireland to Singapore, but to watch such dazzling fiddle playing and such breathtaking rhythm work from drummer and guitarist was undoubtedly the most unashamedly entertaining thing in the whole event. And, most significantly of all, was the brief glimpse we were permitted of a man who, I suspect, is destined to become one of the great classical guitar legends of our time – to be uttered in the same breath as Segovia and Bream – Miloš Karadglić. I’d already discovered from one of the discussion panels I was privileged to moderate, that he was about the nicest man with the nicest voice in Singapore last week, and his agents had warned me he was also an outstanding guitar virtuoso, but for once, even the commercially-driven enthusiasm of an artist’s agent understated the case; Karadglić is, on the evidence of his 15 minute performance, a performer who is not only intensely musical and technically breathtaking, but possesses that rare skill of being able to draw any listener into his world and, with a few strums from the right hand and some pretty deft fingering from the left, encase you in a warm cocoon from which you emerge when the music ends, both enriched and enlivened and, most importantly, immensely grateful for the experience.

Set-piece discussions about Classical Music (which is, of course, my main focus of interest, although the event was far more wide-ranging than that), tended to gravitate towards issues about presenting music to a wider audience and especially an Asian one, and here there were ideas thrown up which needed to be thought about rather more leisurely. Of course, discussions at such events often serve to firm up one’s own opinions rather than offer insights which make us change our views, and I was set thinking on the very first day when it seemed that the speakers saw Asian involvement in “Western Classical Music” (and how I HATE that term – I’ll abbreviate it to WCM to cause myself less personal offence) more in terms of bringing elements from traditional Asian music into WCM than accepting that Asian musicians might just be able to meet Western musicians in their own field and on their own terms. After all Lang Lang is a phenomenal success, and he doesn’t have to bring traditional Chinese music into his performances to prove his Chinese-ness. Zarin Mehta, for my money the event’s most entertaining and pithy speaker, spoke for many when he described his distaste of the word Fusion, suggesting that, in music as in food, it “takes the worst from both worlds” (“Sweet and sour chicken pizza with chips”, as one wag suggested). Let’s not go there. Let’s not cheapen WCM or Asian music by diluting it in forced miscegenation. Let’s respect them both but on their own terms and not in a kind of wishy washy compromise satisfying only the obscenely obsessive believers in idealistic equality.

My thoughts tend to veer more towards how we can preserve the integrity of WCM while making it “relevant” (another ghastly but unavoidable word) to audiences in Asia. And here, Live! Singapore did no more than get one’s thought processes churning. Amidst all the irrelevances of the horrifying concept of Joshua Bell and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra teaming up for a new recording of Vivaldi’s Seasons (possibly, given Singapore’s lack of seasons, prompting images of bland and colourless interpretations) or Taiko drummers adding their pounding to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, nobody seemed really to look at the problems most Asian orchestras make for themselves by aping European and North American concert programmes, rather than devising ones of their own.

As I’ve written before in this blog, my pet hate is the programming personnel in southeast Asian orchestras (mostly Europeans or North Americans or, at the very least, trained there) who, determined to show that they are doing their bit to add an educational dimension to their orchestra’s calendar, import ready-made “kids'” shows from the UK and North America. Alasdair Malloy, Kevin Hathaway, the Platypus Theatre, et al, do fantastic work in their native lands; but simply importing their shows lock, stock and barrel with minor tweaks to pay superficial lip-service to the countries they visit, simply will not do. I was aghast when Alasdair Malloy brought his Dr Who-themed show to Kuala Lumpur; he defended it stoutly on this blog, but I (and several others who responded) remain wholly unconvinced. This sort of thing is brilliant in the UK; but it doesn’t travel. Until those in charge of educational programming in the orchestras in southeast Asia realise that they have to do the work themselves if they are to offer anything even remotely worthwhile to their future audiences, audiences for WCM in Asia are set to shrink and/or grow older. You can post as many shows on YouTube, set them up as podcasts or offer them as digital downloads as you like, but if the product is irrelevant to children in Asia, it’s just a waste of money. We should look at what interests our young people and then give them themed concerts which marry their interests with performances of WCM which are uncompromising in their emphasis on performance quality and musical integrity. Only then will orchestras in Asia achieve real relevance to their local audiences and secure the future of WCM in this part of the world.

In Japan and Hong Kong, the Nodame Cantabile anime show has sparked some brilliant children’s concerts. Here in Singapore and Malaysia we can surely do better? Informal contacts made at Live! Singapore included a specialist in animation and a conductor with a proven gift for communicating WCM to children; I have high hopes that we’ll team up and be able to offer local concert promoters something rather special and designed specifically for local audiences, and if we do, then the euphoria is going to last a lot longer than a week.


Carping at Carpenter

Arriving home from a frantic two weeks in Japan, I find my post box stuffed full of CDs awaiting my considered critical judgement. Most of these require three or four complete listenings along with jotted down notes and a carefully crafted piece of writing which says what I think as objectively as possible and with as much checking of facts as I can manage in the time allotted to turn these reviews around to meet deadlines.

One review doesn’t, however, get this treatment. For this one, I listen to it, form an instant judgement, write down my thoughts and then listen to the disc again to see how they stand up a second time. The piece written, I then listen to individual tracks again to test that what I’ve said still stands up. Then, with minimal shaping of the text – giving it a more chatty, informal feel – and side-stepping as many comments which might require checking of facts, I send it off to my editor.

Why this different treatment for one particular disc? Well it’s because this disc is being reviewed for an online review page ( and speed of response and sense of instant reaction is what it’s all about. Call me old-fashioned, but I have in my mind the thought that if you are writing for the internet, your readership isn’t looking for the deeply-considered, carefully-judged and eloquently-stated informed opinions those who turn to print media expect. I see internet readership more as stumbling across pages as they trawl the web or chosing to seek out internet opinions because they are free. And for that reason, I feel considerably less restrained in writing internet reviews than I do print ones. After all, the web pages may be sitting out their in cyberspace for years, but who returns to them once they’ve been read? Printed pages, however, are more often stored away and lovingly cared for in the expectation of continued reference over the years ahead; I still turn to review pages in magazines 40 years old.

As it happened, this disc for was called Cameron Live! With the UK election still fresh in my mind, my immediate thought was that the UK had got another Conservative Prime Minister with a musical bent. Edward Heath’s musical bent – bent beyond recognition, some might have said – was well-known; was David Cameron more a closet musico? No. I’d got it wrong. The gay iconography – one photo of our star posing a la Noel Cowerd, another of him apparently trawling a seedy back-alley in the hope of a casual liaison – told me this was none other than Cameron Carpenter, the androgynous wunderkind of the organ world.

My revulsion at his disturbingly blatant sexuality and his camping up of organ performance has kept me away from his concerts in the past; he has a million and one adoring fans of all three sexes; he doesn’t need me. But many whose opinions I respect have urged me to hear him out, and so this review disc offered me not only the chance to do just that, but with an added DVD in the package, it gave me a chance to see him at close quarters and listen to his utterances. I liked what I saw. But, apparently, my review didn’t say that and prompted an immediate and angry response from one Carpenter fan. I’m all for immediate response, but this one hadn’t even read the whole review. But can I complain when I am the first to say that the internet deals with gut reactions and ill-considered thoughts as much as it deals with more considered views?

Unlike most internet postings, those on are edited with consummate skill by Michael Quinn, one of the masters of the art of stiffening up limp prose (I suspect Carpenter would like that kind of analogy), and I trust him to ensure that my ramblings read coherently when they get posted. I think he does a brilliant job, and you can read his work on my text if you follow the link. But here is my review in its original raw state, followed by the response.

“Sensitive souls should, as they say, look away now. This CD is definitely not for you. If you like your Bach played with a modicum of taste, restraint, stylistic integrity and at least a nod in the general direction of accepted ideas on authentic interpretation, treat this as an anathema. This Bach is verging on the grotesque; stops, swell pedals and general crescendos are added to the mix with an abandon which would embarrass even the most heavy-handed of black-pepper-mill yielding waiters, and improvisatory gestures are tossed off with the liberality of an inebriated GI chucking hand grenades at the Viet Cong. It’s part over-the-top cinema, part circus act and part terrorist assault on long-cherished musical values.

“But while this seems like playing bereft of a musical and a stylistic conscience, we cannot simply dismiss Cameron Carpenter as a showman, riding roughshod over centuries of musical refinement in a blatant attempt at self-gratification. For a start, he has built up a fanatical following of fervent fans, many of whom are entirely respectable members of the organ community. The disc’s booklet itself mentions the enthusiastic advocacy of John Weaver (former head of organ at both Juilliard and The Curtis Institute), and when Cameron Carpenter first burst on to the organ scene, I got calls from no less than three highly-respected British concert organists urging me to hear him at the earliest opportunity; words like “fantastic”, “dazzling”, “breathtaking” and “astonishing” were flung about like so much confetti at a wedding.

“And then there is the inescapable fact that anyone who has seen and heard Cameron Carpenter in action cannot but marvel at his incredible virtuosity, technical wizardry and, yes, genuine involvement in the music. There is no doubt that he redefines virtuosity in an organ context, and equally no question but that he communicates the music in a way that cuts right through the awful spectacle of the silver lamé vests, the costume jewellery, the dazzling white shoes and the whole androgynous image. We can’t complain at showmanship when it is served up alongside such hugely absorbing playing.

“That Carpenter is serious about his music is immediately obvious from the interviews on the DVD. He oozes a genuine passion for it, and while some things sound odd – why is it, for example, that in his desire that music should “tell stories”, the stories he finds it telling often involve young boys losing their innocence? – he speaks with a breadth of knowledge and depth of thought which gives real weight to his utterances. Littering the DVD with various transcriptions and original compositions played on a terrifically out-of-tune Wurlitzer and a ghastly-sounding house-organ only emphasises the seriousness of the spoken parts; Carpenter draws a clear line between showman and musician in a way, I suppose, that only an organist can.

“However, I’m not sure that the Bach performances on the CD stand up anything like so well as what’s on the DVD. The idea is interesting and not without its merits – six “great” Bach organ works, played in a succession that follows the circle of fifths (which means transposing BWV 540 up a semitone) and presented as a kind of suite concluding with a summarizing improvisation – but the execution strips the concept of any credibility. There are too many extravagant dynamic changes, eccentric registrations and outlandish tempo choices. Poor Bach is simply submerged beneath all the aural fripperies, and while there are some magic moments (I adore the elasticity Carpenter puts into BWV532, given here a wit and ebullience few organists ever dare with what is perhaps Bach’s most openly humorous creation), there are some disastrous misjudgements too. It almost works, as the fugue of BWV541 heads towards something exciting, but then Carpenter blows it with an improvisation of unconscionably hideous extravagance, not even pretending to explore ideas beyond sheer, cacophonous organ noise (he lets himself go on this Times Square Aeolian-Skinner like a kid in a candy store).

“As a sensitive soul myself, I’m perhaps not the best person to sing Cameron Carpenter’s praises in this context, but take it from me, you are unlikely to experience anything like this again in your lifetime, and I would urge anyone to try the experience, if only once; it’s a whole lot of fun a quite a bit more besides.”

And that prompted a response from one Suzanne B, hiding behind the anonymity of the internet, Suzanne could be Cameron C for all I know. She certainly stands by her man even to the extent of failing to recognise when someone’s actually praising him.

“…we cannot simply dismiss Cameron Carpenter as a showman, riding roughshod over centuries of musical refinement in a blatant attempt at self-gratification.”

“But isn’t that exactly what you’re trying to do? Otherwise why say such ridiculous things?

“The real story here is, I think, that Marc Rochester is an organist, and is looking for ways to bring down the greatest talent on his instrument in modern times. So goes the life of a critic. Even with the Internet to perpetuate it, this kind of criticism will be totally forgotten while Carpenter will be remembered for a long, long time, for things of great beauty, meaning and personal enjoyment that far outweigh anything a naysayer can come up with. Of course, that won’t take decades: for some, it will happen the very next time he plays”.

June 2010