Archive for June 13th, 2010


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.

June 2010